Footwear: Stepping in the Right Direction
While size still matters, putting your customers into the right shoes involves a balancing act that includes weight, stability, durability and comfort.
By Kent Oswald
Not surprisingly, shopping for shoes was simpler in ancient times. The Roman poet Horace explained that, “A shoe that is too large is apt to trip one, and when too small, to pinch the feet. So it is with those whose fortune does not suit them.”
As it relates to matters on a tennis court, Horace’s wisdom that fortune begins ground up holds true today. However, to help today’s consumers as they confront the tennis shoe wall, we need to download some updates to Horace’s thinking.
Ignoring matters of style that seduce the eye, the most important choices are no longer between what is too big or too small, but involve considerations of where on the spectrum of available high-performance technologies lies the best place for each individual’s kicks.
“Every player’s needs are different, so it’s important to align the key features of a shoe to one’s game,” advises Babolat USA Senior Marketing Manager Daniel Becker.
For obvious reasons, creating a shoe demo program is impractical. Getting a player into the best shoes requires a combination of work from sales personnel, manufacturers and the player him- or herself. While everything a player wants may be available, there is little chance it will all be present in one shoe. So, compromise will be necessary, with the most important taking place in balancing weight (and, related to that, comfort) with durability (and, relatedly, stability).
Know Their Feet!
The first task is to know the feet. Becker points out that while his company made sure to pay attention to players’ needs for in-shoe support, they are very high on the new, ultra-light performance Babolat JET because, “Today’s athletes need to be faster than ever, making lightweight gear key to their success.”
For some players, particularly juniors, the need to think about their feet is an idea that needs to be reinforced. Weston (Conn.) Racquet Club Director of Tennis Angelo Rossetti says players need to know the width and not just length of their feet and, “purchase tennis shoes rather than fitness or running shoes. Since tennis shoes are made of a stronger, more durable upper, they provide lateral support. The width of the midsole and sole is larger for greater balance and support, particularly for ankles.”
Having once worked at a big-box retailer, Rossetti knows that some people will choose price over performance. But he does all he can to discourage that thinking. He also advises doing research online as well as in-store, and he is a proponent of orthotic inserts, adding one more layer, albeit an important one, to the balancing act between weight and support.
The second key regarding shoe choice is awareness of playing style and upon which surface the majority of play will take place. Erika Offerdahl, Head Penn Racquet Sports assistant product manager, encourages in-store personnel to ask customers what kind of court they usually play on. Specific to her company’s products, she recommends the Revolt Pro with a durable outsole and reinforced toe and medial side for an aggressive slider who also drags his or her toe when serving on a hard court, while an attacker playing on clay might find a better fit for their game and needs with the lightweight Head Nitro Pro.
“Comfort should be a given,” Offerdahl says. “Every shoe, whether it’s a durability or a lightweight product, should provide cushioning, flex, ventilation, etc.” And each player will have only moments in the store to make their best determination on whether the particular shoe’s construction accommodates their foot, whether it is narrow or wide, and has a low or high instep. Unfortunately, the comfort a shoe provides while sitting in a store cannot equate with actual play.
Push Two Pairs
Westen McNely, a sales associate at Tennis Ace in Albuquerque, N.M., often sees juniors in particular who pick a shoe for its softer sole because, in the store, it feels ready to strap on and play with immediately. However, in McNely’s part of the country, where most courts are hard, “They quickly find that their shoes are wearing out, and their feet and calves and lower legs hurt, because there is no support for their arch or the balls of their feet.” More durable shoes would have made a better choice.
Actually, the better choice is for players to buy more than one pair of shoes, whether they do so to break them in properly, or to be prepared with shoes that are on different places of the weight/durability spectrum for different playing circumstances.
“If you rotate your shoes every week or every other day they will last much longer than if you just buy and use one pair of tennis shoes,” says Rossetti. “The mistake most players make, since they can’t wait to play with and show off their new shoes, is using them all the time cold turkey. I’ve seen ankle sprains, lower-back problems and blisters.
“Break them in slowly, using them for a few games to one set at a time and a half day at a time, until they feel comfortable like your old ones. Put tennis balls in your shoes when you aren’t wearing them to stretch out the leather uppers.”
With all of that background, when a player is in your store, he or she must still try on the shoes and try to determine how they’ll do under match situations.
If you can accommodate it, Wilson Footwear Developer Antoine Oui recommends short sprints to test speed and comfort, and then possibly more specific tests to see about support, such as, “breaks/cuts and jumps to test how the shoes hold your feet. In the meantime you can test dynamic cushioning, check the heel impact by hitting the floor and the forefoot response while jumping around. Check the lateral rolling of the shoe, look for a shoe that provides support to your ankle.”
“Each person comes in with a different priority,” says Pam Ponwith, owner of All About Tennis in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But because people don’t always know their own feet,” the most important act she can perform is to watch how players try on a few pairs to see what they need but don’t know to ask for. Ponwith says she wishes tennis shoe manufacturers could get together on some sort of categorizing of shoes in the way running shoe manufacturers have.
Currently, adds Ponwith, “The most important thing is that people lace up their shoes.” All other issues of weight versus stability aside, perhaps the biggest problem today is that shoes — particularly those worn by younger players affecting a certain style — are not laced up properly. In actual play with incorrectly laced shoes, toes get jammed, heels don’t stay in place, and the foot slides around. The failure in-store to do a proper lacing not only gives a false sense of the shoe, but leads to on-court defeat of even the best technology and all the thought that has gone into the shoes prior to sale.
Today, the issue of which shoe is best is a complicated one. But for tennis players and retailers, being thoughtful and paying attention to basics (such as proper lacing), means it is not unsolvable.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.
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