It’s one of the great moments in a new soccer career: getting the first pair of cleats. Then you send them out onto the pitch and the little running feet in the scrum of kids are a veritable rainbow of color. It doesn’t take long until somebody’s laces come untied. Then someone else. Before you know it, the referee whistles a stoppage so everyone can check their laces.
That’s when I invested in some sweet spots. Those rubber straps that fit over laces, supposedly to smooth the surface for striking but for my kids it was to keep their laces tied. I purchased them in bulk and awarded them to the kids on my teams who were notorious for letting the laces fly. The kids seemed rarely to notice, long flapping laces needn’t hinder your running stride. Usually, it wasn’t until they sent a boot flying further than the ball that they noticed anything awry. And then, it was the quickest of tie jobs in order to get right back into action.
Yep. When they were small, that was my major concern: would they trip and fall and skin their knee? Injury prevention: double-tie those laces.
If they stuck with the game to the next season – which in the old days was the following year – we purchased a new pair of cleats because they had grown out of last year’s version. Pretty soon, we found the brand and model that fit the best, and we stuck with those. Sometimes a bit too long.
When kids play a lot of soccer, their feet deserve better. You can’t neglect the parts that are doing all the work and taking all the pounding and expect them to spring back. Sooner or later they’ll complain, and the more they play…the more sports, the more surfaces, the more demanding … the more of a beating the feet take.
The nature of soccer requires movement in all directions, plus jumping and landing, bending and flexing, give and take. The feet may hit the ground thousands of times during a match, requiring the plantar fascia (the connective tissue in the bottom of the foot) and the achilles tendon to act as shock absorbers in the effort. Because the cleats are not designed to provide this service. Good ones have flexibility and a comfortable fit but no cushioning, no arch support and no lateral support.
While running shoes cushion the landing at the heel and basketball shoes offer lateral stability against rolling an ankle and tennis shoes cushion the ball of the foot, soccer cleats have, well, cleats. They’re designed for traction on grass or turf. Indoor shoes, give a bit of a rubber grip but that’s all.
Those feet are pretty much on their own.
So, it shouldn’t surprise me that as our kids are playing more minutes at younger ages they are experiencing foot and heel pain. It ranges from minor irritation and rubbing due to improperly fitting shoes and poor socks to severe pain at the site of attachment of the achilles with the actively growing heel bones which means time on crutches or in a protective orthotic boot.
To help keep our kids on their feet, here are the rules. Some are no-brainers; some are words of wisdom. I include the no-brainers because I see them transgressed regularly in my soccer community.
1. Get shoes that fit well. Check regularly to see that they haven’t grown out of them. Go to a store with knowledgeable personnel to provide good recommendations for fit. It’s NOT a good idea to wear hand-me-downs unless the kids are quite small and the boots have little wear. I know shoes are expensive but kids’ feet are different. Once broken in, they do shape themselves to the feet of their owner. That means that the next owner will have their feet broken in by the shoes instead of the other way around.
2. Be sure shoes are tied snugly and securely. Take time to lace them up properly, starting at the toe. Don’t let kids slip them on and off without re-tying them. Get them in the habit of taking them off after games and switching to sandals or sneakers. Do not have them running errands with you or going to get lunch between tournament games still in their cleats and shin guards.
3. Be sure they have their cleats. Borrowing someone else’s ill-fitting shoes is both embarrassing and unsafe. I have loaned a few pair in my time as coach, but the better practice is probably to have the player sit for the game they came unprepared to play. Next time, they will remember their cleats.
4. Invest in good, comfortable, well-fitting, synthetic socks. When they get stretched out or start bunching or showing signs of wear, toss ’em. Blisters are a completely avoidable menace. If there is rubbing or friction anywhere, try different socks or different inserts (below) or, if need be, different shoes.
Inserts, insoles and lastly orthotics
5. First, replace the insoles that come in the shoes – which are basically a piece of cardboard – with an insole that has some cushion. These are liners that pull away easily from the sole of the shoe by prying up the edge with your thumb under the medial arch. You can purchase basic insoles at your local discount retail stores or at many drugstores and medical supply stores. They come in different thicknesses. Some are sized. Some are cut-to-fit. Take out the shoe’s original liner and use it as a template to trace around.
Quite a few products have come on the market in the last few years.
Here are some options:
Do not jump immediately to orthotics, which require a prescription and are very expensive, until you have exhausted the options above and addressed the movement practices listed below. Orthotics are custom made to your foot and require a casting to be made, sent off to an orthotics maker and returned to you. They are hard-fitting and designed to compensate for foot shape or improper foot mechanics. They are corrective and thus meant to be worn in all your shoes. (I have not yet found them to work for women’s dress shoes or heels.)
6. Watch the way your kids move. Many, especially as they are young and nimble and growing into lengthening bodies, compensate for their reduced balance by “cheating” in their stance. They roll inward on their ankle with toes pointed slightly outward. This widens their base of support at the expense of their achilles tendon which now pushes at a mechanical disadvantage. It is oriented straight up from the heel.
Re-orient their push off, not with words or instructions but with repetitions of good form. Give them cues about keeping their toes and heels in line when they stretch or jump and land or perform lunges. Have them rock forward and back to remind their limbs how to support good form.
Be gentle. Don’t push. Just rock and and hold. Up on toes and hold. Sink down on the step and hold. Insist on perfect alignment. Because they are growing, these tissues are fragile and the places of attachment may complain a bit. Back off, if there is any soreness. Stick to good form, gentle movement and many repetitions.
Once they can execute the movement without discomfort and with reproducible good form, then they are ready then they are ready to add running, jumping, strength and power. Here’s how.
It’s a simple formula: safety, gear, move. Kind of like ready, set, go, all grown up.