Has style compromised the performance of basketball shoes?

Has style compromised the performance of basketball shoes?

Back in 2007 Nike had a big problem. They saw sales of basketball shoes drop by 70% and needed a solution. So they did what Nike does best, make cool shoes that challenge conventional standards. The release of the Kobe IV in 2009, one of the first low top basketball shoes, took the market by storm.

Since then, basketball shoes have been a platform for brands to showcase their wildest designs, patterns, and styling innovations. Customers have reacted and a whole new buzz has been created within this category.

Has all this focus on styling ultimately been a distraction from enhancing performance? The debate about high tops vs. low tops has produced a mixed bag of opinions and been relatively inconclusive.  Originally, lows were thought to expose players to ankle injuries, but Kobe claimed the shoes were lighter and made him quicker and more agile on the court. There are more lows being made now than ever, and players continue to ask for them

Since we design and build shoes for some of the top NBA athletes through Anta, we figured that we better understand this conundrum. Below you will find a summary of our research:

Image Source: Nike Inc. Image Source: Nike Inc.

Top Arguments for High Tops:

  1. Additional support is always a positive – the more players have, the safer the game will be.
  2. High tops support ankles with high laces that protect against sudden shifts and directional changes.
  3. High tops provide what’s called “proprioceptive feedback” around the ankle. This is an awareness of the where your ankle is positioned at all times.
  4. High tops prevent injury and stress by absorbing more shock and providing better traction and lateral support.

Top Arguments against High Tops:

  1. On Average, high tops are about 20% heavier than low tops, impeding speed and expediting  fatigue.
  2. Multiple studies have concluded that high tops don’t prevent ankle injuries more effectively than low tops. Even with the help of tape and straps, athlete’s feet can still move inside the shoe and the lateral roll movement that is the cause of the common ankle sprain can still occur.

Image Source: Nike Inc. Image Source: Nike Inc.

Top Arguments for Low Tops:

  1. Player’s claim that low tops are generally lighter, faster and more flexible than high tops. “I just feel like if I can have a lighter shoe, my ankle can move the way it was intended to move,” Kobe said in 2008. http://ballnroll.com/exclusiveaccess?post=793
  2. Players almost always pair low tops with tape or braces for extra support and proprioceptive feedback.
  3. Players are faster than they’ve ever been. Less fatigue means more time on the court because they don’t have to work so hard to pick up their feet.
  4. After players transition to low tops, the muscles surrounding the ankle can become stronger due to less dependence on the extra support of high tops. http://breakingmuscle.com/family-kids/high-tops-are-ruining-your-kids-feet-and-knees

Top Arguments against Low Tops:

  1. Low tops do not provide the support players need to buffer their feet from constant pounding. As we know, competitive basketball players are extremely fast WHILE being enormously tall and heavy – compounded by an 82 game season, plus playoffs their feet see lots of use.
  2. Lighter and less supportive shoes are said to contribute to the three most common foot injuries in basketball – plantar fasciitis, stress fractures and tendinitis – due to their lack of cushioning.

As with everything in life, there are compromises. The trick is to balance these compromises accordingly. It is clear that highs don’t prevent ankle injuries but what they do provide is a subliminal feedback chain to your brain about the position of your foot, which helps the athlete build more awareness and reduce that chances of landing wrong and rolling an ankle, an all too common injury. Yet is a lighter shoe going to enhance the player’s speed? The evidence is not there yet so we are addressing this debate on a player by player basis.

Looking beyond the high vs low argument, there is something else that is quite disturbing: The amount of slipping that is happening on the court. The rage these days is to have a clear sole which is made with TPU, a material that is inferior with regards to traction when compared with rubber.

We believe that form and function are essential. Yes, product needs to look cool and appeal to customers – but when creating a product that athletes, especially elite athletes, rely upon, performance has to be the top consideration.

Perhaps the lack of focus on performance is indicative of the consumer. For whatever reason, basketball players don’t seem to be as critical about the performance of their footwear, especially when compared to runners. Perhaps this is because the player focuses more on hand eye coordination than their feet.

Terms like heel rise, cushioning, pronation and supination aren’t top of mind for most basketball players and therefore are not considered. But shouldn’t footwear performance be more highly regarded?

In the NBA, foot issues have long been prevalent, causing many amazing athletes to end their careers early or making them ineffective for an entire seasons. Famous athletes like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Yao Ming, Jordan, and many others have suffered from foot problems.

With athletes worth $20 Million, shouldn’t there be more focus on protecting their feet rather than making their shoes stylish? Why hasn’t there be any significant improvement in basketball shoes over the last few decades?

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– Brent James, Founder at Concept 21

Cover Illistration Credit: J’field Yeo