Equipment 101 (Part 1) – Cleats

article5_clip_image002In order to get off on the right foot, let’s start with a bit of history before stepping into the topic of proper footwear for soccer players. Why are soccer cleats so often referred to as “boots?” The reason is actually quite simple. In the early days of football (soccer, here in the United States), the shoes were ankle high cut boots. Modern day shoes are lower cut, below the ankle, but the traditional name persists in most of the world.

Now that we have that issue cleared up expect to see “shoes,” “cleats” and “boots” used interchangeably in this article.

This article is nothing new or revolutionary. I just have finally decided to address the topic because I have seen too many players develop poor technique or even put themselves at risk because of poorly chosen or prepared cleats! This semi-rant/instructional guide is a result of years of watching students wear cleats that look “cool,” and then complain that they can’t kick properly. It is directed at players who don’t tie their shoes properly, so consequently are unable to run or cut hard because if they did they would roll an ankle or spill right out of their shoe! And it is directed at the parents of young players, to help them make more informed choices when buying cleats for their growing child.

Poor cleat choice and improper fit are two of my biggest pet peeves as a coach. Both are so essential to performance, but sadly so often overlooked. Players are swayed by media pressure and go for the cool colors and design instead of choosing the right shoe for their feet and surface. As a soccer player your cleats are your MOST important piece of equipment, so you really need to focus on proper fit. Take the time to investigate your options, even if it means ordering several pairs in the mail and returning some. Not only will your feet thank you, but you will play better too!

What should the goals and expectations be for the footwear of a soccer player? The ultimate goal in my opinion is the shoe should be a subtle extension of the foot, offering protection, enhancing the player’s touch on the ball and quality of control, and allowing the athlete to run faster and cut harder. In order to achieve that end, feet need to be stable and supported. So here are some guidelines to help get you on your way to happy feet!

Proper Size

article5_clip_image004Parents, I know you are on a budget and want your kids’ cleats to last more than a few months as they go through their growth spurt. However, you are doing them a HUGE disservice when you buy their shoes ½ size, or even worse a whole size, too big! Young developing players will not be able to learn how to correctly strike a ball in an oversized shoe. The toe will drag the ground before they can make contact with the correct part of their foot. Imagine a shoe that is an inch longer than your actual foot. In order to avoid kicking the ground you would have to pull your foot/leg up slightly higher than it should be, striking the ball lower on your foot nearer the toes instead of at the proper location, mid-foot on the first metatarsal (the hard bone directly above your arch). So poor fitting shoes will create poor kicking technique at the most critical stages of a youth player’s development. If you want to be accurate and get the most power behind the ball, making contact on the proper part of the foot is the first critical element of your kicking technique. If you can’t do that, none of the rest matters.
Rather than going for a high-end but poorly-fitted shoe when your child is going through a massive growth spurt, I would suggest that you can stay on budget by buying a mid-range shoe in the correct size. Every brand offers lesser versions of their top model. And despite what young players think, they don’t need the $250+ version of a cleat that Ronaldo, Messi, or Abby Wambach wear! If your aspiring young soccer star really wants to wear what the pros wear, have them come up with the price difference! Otherwise I suggest holding off on the high end cleats until they are done growing! You can find a solid, supportive, durable shoe in the $75-100 price range, which maybe takes some of the sting out of having to replace them more frequently as your child’s feet grow. And if you are a savvy shopper you can find higher-end models on closeout sales, online specials, or deals on last year’s models.

TIP – If you can press down at the end of the shoe and not feel the toes, the shoe is too big.

TIP – If the eyelets of the shoes are nearly touching and the material/leather is bunching and puckering, the shoes are too wide.

Cleats should NOT fit like running shoes! There should not be extra room in the toe box for the foot to slide around. Boots should fit snug like a glove without creating any pressure points, especially from stud pressure on the sole of your foot, toe box jamming your toes, or heel pain/blisters. This leads our discussion to….

Proper Fit

As you wade through the ever-growing array of shoes on the market, not only do you need to decide on the correct brand, but more importantly you need to find the correct last for your foot. The “last” is the form around which shoes are constructed, and varies according to the purpose of the shoe and whether the shoe is designed for a man or woman, with the woman’s last generally being narrower.

Take the time to try on different models of shoe within the same brand. Nike, for instance, has four different lines — the Mercurial Vapor, Tiempo Legend, T90 Laser and CTR 360 Maestri — all built on different lasts and offering different features, thus creating a uniquely different fit and feel. This website breaks down the various lines and their differences best:

It is the same situation in other brands such as adidas, Puma, Lotto, etc. You will find multiple lines that are built on different lasts with different qualities. In adidas you will find adiPure, adiZero, Predator and CopaMundial.

The goal is to find the last that fits your foot best. Personally I love Nike’s Tiempo Legend. They fit my foot perfectly right out of the box, with virtually no break-in time. They feel great on my foot, perform well and are durable. On the other hand, the Mercurial Vapor always blisters my heels even after countless hours of break-in. The lesson being that just because one shoe in the line doesn’t work for your foot, it doesn’t mean the whole brand sucks.

The photo above is my foot in a Nike women’s Tiempo

My foot in a Nike women’s Tiempo

FEMALES – stop avoiding women’s shoes! If we want to have top quality women’s products to purchase we have to buy them. Case in point, women’s goalkeeper gloves no longer exist in the marketplace, because not enough women bought them (to be discussed in my next article “Equipment 101 (Part 2) – GK Gloves”). Products exist in the marketplace due to demand, which leads us back to the subject at hand. Many of you think that women’s shoes are of lesser quality. While that might have been the case decades ago, when women’s boots first came on the market, it is no longer the case, and the myth needs to be debunked. Top brands seek out input from top female players and spend big bucks on research to develop woman-specific boots. The truth is, most women have narrower feet, than men, so a woman’s cut cleat might be the best choice for you. Women’s shoes also offer smaller sizes, so you can avoid having to drop into youth sizes with a boy’s cleat that might be of lesser quality. You really can get a high end shoe that fits you! Men’s shoes typically start at size 6.5 and go up, so if you have a small foot, be happy that consumer demand has brought women’s cleats into the marketplace! If you are a female and have never worn a woman’s cleat you should try one, I think you will be pleasantly surprised. That being said, if you have a medium width foot you might be able to wear either a man’s or woman’s cut shoe, and if you have a wide foot a man’s shoe may still be your best choice.

Ultimately, the key is to find the brand that has the correct last and fit for your foot. Once you do that, buying your next pair is simple – stay with the same brand and same style!

Proper Type

Leather versus synthetic? Which is best? Neither! Both are valid options. It just depends on your foot and conditions.

Positives of synthetic shoes: Lightweight (less of a factor for a gk, who is not running as much as a central midfielder) and more water resistant. Synthetic material doesn’t tend to stretch as much as leather, so if you can find a good fit for your foot it can have good longevity. And, for all the vegans out there, no animal had to die for your cleats!

Positives of leather shoes: Better overall fit. The leather will conform to the contours of your foot, and leather can be stitched to shape the foot more precisely, hence a better feel/touch on the ball, overall better comfort and less foot fatigue. Kangaroo leather is generally agreed to be the best of the leathers as far as fit and feel. It retains its shape better and doesn’t over-stretch. A good leather shoe will break in quickly (1-2 uses) and not over-stretch too fast.

Proper Function

Before deciding on a shoe, consider how you will be using them. What will your primary use be (outdoors or indoors)? Primary surface (hard ground, firm ground, soft ground or turf)? In an ideal world, you would have shoes for every surface, but sometimes budget doesn’t allow for this. In that case a good firm ground shoe would be your best starting point as typically it is the most versatile choice. They can be used on wet or dry surfaces, grass or artificial field turf (not as ideal on the old school astro-turf). You will probably slip a bit more on wet days, but you will survive. Soft ground shoes will have longer studs (within FIFA regulations), fewer studs (so grass and mud are less likely to get packed in between studs rendering your cleats useless), and possibly round stud/blade stud pattern combinations for better traction. Turf- specific shoes are made of lots of tightly packed rubber nubbies for better traction and support on hard surfaces. These are great on super dry surfaces that have little to no grass (when the ground is so hard it feels like concrete – so hard that the cleats don’t dig into the grass/dirt and you are virtually ‘skating’ on top of the surface) or turf fields, to give the foot more support.

Proper Use

I cringe when I see players slip on cleats that are pre-tied. There is NO WAY that shoe is going to be tied tight enough to let the player cut effectively. Take the time to untie and tie your shoes! Lace boots tight from bottom up and secure with a double knot. Not sure how tight to lace your boot? Here is a simple test. You should not be able to insert several fingers or a whole hand down the side of the boot. If you can, your cleats are too loose, meaning you will not be able to plant and cut properly and have an increased risk of an ankle sprain or knee injury (think ACL!) when you attempt to plant on soft ground. When your shoe/foot are not working in sync, the joints above (ankle and knee) have to manage the increased instability. You want the foot and shoe to act as one unit as much as possible, so the tighter the fit the more responsive — and less injury-prone — you will be.

TIP – If your shoe’s laces are ridiculously long then use this trick. Properly tie the shoe with a double knot. Then tie a knot at the end of each free lace about 2-3” inches from your bow. Next cut off the excess lace and do a quick burn to seal the new ends and prevent the laces from fraying.

Personalized Fit

So you have done your research and found the perfect cleat for your feet. Time to hit the field and start breaking them in, right? Not quite. You are not done yet! Soccer cleats are notorious for having very little arch support. This is a very real concern that must be addressed to avoid long term foot problems. Players spend a lot of time in their cleats and are applying a lot of force when they run, cut, and jump, so it makes good sense to invest in proper support. The key is finding an insert that is slim enough that your foot does not rise up too high out of the cleat. I have two solutions based on experience:

Superfeet Insoles ( – I have used the green and blue insoles. They are durable and can easily fit into a low profile soccer cleat once the manufacturer’s insole is removed. The company recommends their blue and black insoles for soccer players.

Orthotics – If you already wear orthotics in your everyday shoes it makes sense to invest in a pair for your athletic shoes. A good podiatrist can make a thinner version of your orthotics that are full length, flexible, and have a thin layer of cushioning on them. Avoid the super rigid plastic orthotics with little to no flex.

Now you are ready to break in your cleats! Most cleats, although not all, will require a few training sessions to fully break in. In my experience Nike’s Tiempo and adidas’ Copa require very little if any. Here are few suggestions to reduce blistering and foot fatigue from a new pair of cleats:

  • Wear them around the house.
  • If they are leather, wear them in the shower (or just wet them and wear them around wet) to get them to conform to the shape of your foot.
  • Wear them during warm-ups only, and then switch into your old cleats. Gradually increase the duration you spend in the cleats until they feel comfortable (hopefully in 1-2 practices).

Proper Care

I like to break this down into three categories based on what I see. Which are you?

  • Rec Level – Wears boots, throws in bag, takes out at next practice, repeats pattern. The result? Stiff, smelly shoes that will break down faster and potentially lead to foot problems.
  • Amateur Status – Wears boots & occasionally cleans them after a wet muddy game when they are needed again the next day, or when it’s time to travel and the boots would make the rest of the gear/luggage dirty. May occasionally stuff with newspaper to properly dry them out from time to time.
  • Professional – Wears boots and cleans them often (likely weekly, and certainly before every match). Not only washes them to remove mud and dirt, but works in mink oil if they are leather and polish if they are black. Takes pride in their appearance and appreciates the value of their equipment. The cleaner and more maintained your boots, the better they will feel on your feet, the fewer foot issues you will have, and the longer your boots will last!

Remember: You don’t have to BE a pro to ACT like a pro! Small steps every day on and off the field help bring you closer to your goals. Your equipment, specifically your cleats, is one very critical piece of your performance.

When you look good, you feel better, you play your BEST!