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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How years have research have evolved IDA’s soccer cleats made specifically for women

When IDA Boots co-founder Laura Youngson spoke to The Athletic in 2020, she said that their next step was to go really deep on research into cleats made for women’s feet. There are business reasons for this, like making money, of course, but Youngson and IDA are also interested in making it easier and better for women to play soccer. So that means making shoes for women while recognizing that, on average, women’s feet are different from men’s, and that female players have different performance needs over the course of a game. 

That leads to creating a better experience for female players and may even contribute to reducing the risk of injuries, including the dreaded ACL issues that are more predominant in the women’s game. IDA is part of a growing push to research the women’s game, instead of just taking principles of the men’s game and trying to apply them to women. As pointed out in an earlier article on sports science and performance in the women’s game, there’s not nearly as much normative physiological data on women as there is on men, and this affects how players are able to take care of their bodies. 

Equipment is part of that dearth; Washington Spirit VP of performance Dawn Scott said in her interview, “I think the other piece of the ACL (issue) is just the technology,” and pointed directly to IDA currently being the only cleat specifically made for women. 

Four years on from their initial interview, it sounds like IDA’s research has been proceeding apace as Youngson and IDA’s sports scientist research lead Emelia Funnell described the updates they’ve made to their latest boot based on biomechanical testing and player feedback.

“Made it slimmer, sleeker, changed the stitching patterns, the padding, reengineered the heel,” said Youngson. “And,” she added with a grin, “Colorway updates.”

This is IDA’s third range of cleats since launching. It includes lightweight, multi-surface, and indoor options, and has expanded price points with a less expensive shoe. Economies of scale being what they are, IDA’s current shoes can run you anywhere from $95 to $170 — definitely comparable to big brands like Nike and Adidas, but still a little daunting if you’re a parent just trying to find a shoe for your kid’s community league, or a weekender in an adult rec league. Youngson wants to reach as many people as possible with the message that your cleats don’t have to — and, in fact, shouldn’t — hurt.

So what do most mass-market cleats from big brands get wrong about women’s soccer players? A lot, apparently. On average, women tend to have narrower heels, higher arches, and broader toe boxes. Funnell said that in their ongoing comfort surveys of players, who range from amateurs to pros, it’s often the fifth metatarsal — that pinky toe — that gets pinched. “A lot of the time players have to size up in length to achieve width,” she said. 

The ability to feel things with the foot is crucial for players of any gender, and so even male players may also get cleats that are too small to reduce things like slipping inside the boot and being able to feel the ball, an effect that gets compounded when the shoe is also not designed for female feet.

But an uncomfortable shoe can have a cascading effect beyond just pinky toes. Biomechanically speaking, what happens to your feet will impact your legs, which will impact your hips, which will impact your back, and so on, in a kinetic chain up through your body. 

“If your foot is kind of cramped up in a shoe, you’re going to move differently to your ankle and knee than you would if your foot could splay completely,” said Funnell. “If your foot’s totally bound, then you’re not going to be able to have the reflexes to activate muscles that are going to shoot up your leg or get you out of maybe a compromising position…. If you’re more comfortable, you’re likely to fatigue less with your muscles.”

Another aspect of pain reduction or elimination is a correlation with improved mental status, which may have its own impact on reduction of injury rates or ameliorating the severity of an injury. 

“We hear a lot about confidence,” said Funnell. “You just feel more relaxed when you’re playing because it fits you better, and that then has an impact on, for example, if you’re falling. Like you tend to be more relaxed when you fall.”

“We have a lot from the consumer reviews: ‘You’ve removed my foot pain, you’ve removed my ankle pain,’” said Youngson. “And that’s due to our reconfiguration of the outsole.”

The outsole is the key to a lot of comfort issues, according to Funnell, whose plantar pressure analysis went into creating sole plates. 

“Seeing these running shoes and they’re huge, right? And they’ve got all these layers of stuff going on in the midsole, cushioning. They’ve got stuff to help with torsion,” said Funnell. “Football boots, they’re quite simple because of that need to feel the ball, as well. So it’s all in that sole plate and how that interacts with the ground, because there’s not a whole layer of midsole of foam where you can add all these different gimmicks into it to kind of change things for pronation and stuff like that.”

The other side of the cleat also matters in several areas, like optimal weight and understanding how and where women’s feet find the ball.

“It’s about finding that optimal balance of lightweight enough to perform and do the thing, but then also it has enough padding and all the additional strike zones that you need to ace your kicking game,” said Funnell. “We’ve added padding on the knit that’s changing the pattern, particularly where most of the kicking is going to happen.”

A 2012 study by graduate students at the Institute of Health and Sport Science at the University of Tsukuba that looked at ball impact and swing motion of female and male soccer players kicking a dead ball in front of goal suggested that technique mattered much more for women because factors such as lower average mass behind the ball and hip joint angles tended to result in lower average velocity. Members of that research group found similar results in an additional 2016 study of kicking mechanics done in partnership with the School of Sports and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University. 

So women, whom Youngson pointed out on average have a smaller foot relative to the size of the ball, tend to kick the ball with slightly different parts of their feet. They have to emphasize where they kick because there’s less of a brute force or speed component. 

IDA is building on research that included a pilot study with Lewes FC’s development squad to look at sources of discomfort and fatigue — and they have more research on deck, such as Ph.D. studies in the United States to simulate conditions over 90-minute matches and lab testing with the University of Exeter to collect athlete foot scans. 

There’s so much going on with a player’s body over the course of a game that it’s hard to target just one area for improvement. Everything is interlinked, and different players will have different needs over the course of a game. Some players will have more high-speed sprints, others will need to cut or twist more, others will have different patterns of kicking and passing, and on and on. It’s not as simple as going to a running store and having your gait analyzed; even that can change rapidly over the course of 90 minutes. 

So in some sense IDA has had to be a generalist, optimizing where they can for what they can, because their manufacturing still has to work to scale. If economies of scale and cost were no factor, Youngson would be happy to produce cleats tailored down to the smallest detail for every individual. 

IDA is also trying to be thoughtful about externalities, like sustainability. They offer a real leather shoe alongside synthetic as they’ve had internal discussions about not using animal products versus their environmental impact. A professional soccer player may go through several pairs of cleats every season, so using materials that last longer and can take more wear and tear decreases the amount of waste that goes into landfills and oceans, or reduces the energy costs of making petroleum-based synthetic materials. 

“Can you recycle the bases, and how easy is it to split the componentry up to do recycling and things like that?” Youngson said, describing some of the sustainability factors they’re trying to integrate into their process. “It’s something that a lot of people across the industry are thinking about, and we follow those discussions really closely because there are some kind of prototypes, but then it’s about scaling it commercially and making it viable to put it in as the standard.”

And they want buyers to know that IDA is welcoming of all athletes, including trans and nonbinary players. 

“We’ve had a lot of trans players reach out to us,” said Funnell. “And so we often do kind of individualized fittings because the situations are often quite unique, and what works for some people, it doesn’t always work for others.”

There’s still a lot of research left to be done. Funnell said that she’d like to be able to adapt shoes based on ethnicity — “There’s not enough that’s been done with players of African descent all over the world really,” she said —  or be able to chart the progress of what a person’s foot looks like during transition or the aging process. They want more data on more players all the time. 

If soccer is the world’s game, then the women who live in that world have to be part of the conversation; perhaps IDA can inch things along, one comfortable metatarsal at a time.



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