Rules for Buying Sneakers: A guide for Basketball, Volleyball, Netball and Tennis

Whether you play basketball, futsal, netball or even tennis the requirements from your shoes are pretty much the same. Given that I play basketball I will be referring to my basketball shoes as an example but the same rules apply no matter what sport you play.

First, some evolutionary context. I’m only guessing here but am going to say back when we were evolving we were probably doing a little bit of hunting, some fishing,  gathering, building fires, moving camps, climbing trees, you know basic caveman stuff. But am pretty certain we did not spent any time doing the movements and the patterns that we see in modern day sport.

Shoes give us grip and traction, essential for change of diection type sport

How do I know this? Well, take off your athletic shoe and try to do the same sharp cuts, moves, twist and turns in bare feet and see how it works out, our barefoot simply cannot create the same level of traction that our shoes give us.

As humans, we evolved in bare feet on uneven surfaces, navigating creek beds and jumping and running over rocks and climbing trees and cool staff like that. And sure, our ancestors would have loved the sweet pair of Nikes or Asics to help them do that but that just wasn’t an option until now…

These hard cuts weren't possible until the invention of structured athletic shoes
These hard cuts weren't possible until the invention of structured athletic shoes

And now we are playing this court sports with high friction coefficient surfaces and these super grippy shoes that allow us to generate intense, sharp cutting movements that just weren’t an option before.

So now the reason you’re here; What shoe is actually the best? Let’s start with the basic rules and the fundamentals and then expand from there.

The first thing you want in a shoe is to be light. A lighter shoe won't weigh your leg down or drain your endurance. Next, you want a solid controlling upper, this keeps the foot on top of the sole so when you cut it doesn't slide off the side. And then third, you want a good sole with high surface area and lots of friction so when it grabs on the ground it will grip and not slide and slip.

Now those are the shoe fundamentals. Most shoes these days already tick those boxes when it comes to court sports. Once you’re shoe has cleared those fundamentals we have three tests that a shoe has to pass.

Rule for shoes #1: A solid heel lock.

The heel should sit low through the shoe so that foot sits snug down in the shoe. If the heel is raised up it can easily slip and come loose, taking away control and feel.

Rule for shoes #2: A flexible toe break.

That means the shoe should bend through the toe. When we move through the gait cycle we roll off and the last thing as we push into the ground that's when the big toe is flexed and working against the ground. Now my shoe (Nike Kobe 5's) – it’s actually not that good. The toe break is more to the middle of the foot near the mets (metatarsals) I would like that shoe to flex more through the toe joint instead.

Rule for shoes #3: Good torsion resistance.

You don't want the shoes to be overly flexible through the middle, it should be pretty rigid through the center of the shoe that provides good stiffness and supports the entire foot when you cut and move sideways in shoe.

Fancy Carbon Fibre
Fancy Carbon Fibre through the midfoot of the sneakers

My shoes have some fancy carbon fibre or something here in it which makes them awesome for this. Most shoes these days have some form of stiff plastic to provide torsion resistance.

And to finish, a couple of extra ideas.

Avoid visible air bubbles in the sneaker sole

The thing is that if you land straight down on top of the air bubble that's great, that’s how it’s supposed to work. It cushions the force and it spreads evenly through the air bubble. What happens is if you land a little bit wrong (or a lot wrong) what you get is this situation here. Where if you land just a little bit to the side, the air bubbles squish down unevenly, the air shoots to one side of the shoe and you get this exaggeration where the air bubble actually becomes like an ankle roll enhancer. It pushes you further into the ankle roll and can turn what might have been a little roll into a big problem.

On the left how air cushioning is supposed to work with a perfect landing. On the right if you land a little wrong the air cushioning will exaggerate the error pushing you closer to catastrophe.
On the left how air cushioning is supposed to work with a perfect landing. On the right if you land a little wrong the air cushioning will exaggerate the error pushing you closer to catastrophe.

Do your sneakers need a high top

The theory is that a high top shoe provides added ankle support much like an ankle brace but the research doesn't back that up. If you are going to roll your ankle good and proper a high top shoe isn't going to be enough to stabilise or prevent it. It might provide the feeling and the placebo of stability but it’s not actually providing any real structural integrity to the ankle. What it is doing though, is it’s creating what is called a dopey ankle syndrome. It’s like blinkers on a horse which inhibiting those peroneals and the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle switching them off and making it harder for them to do their job.

Okay, so which actual shoe should you wear? I think the Kobe series by Nike is really good for basketball. Mine is one of the older models and is not perfect with its average toe break but the current Kobe’s are better still. The Kyrie’s are also pretty good, Under Armour do a good low cut shoe these days. I personally find the Lebron series and Jordan’s to be a bit on the heavy side for playing in while the KD’s have a visible air bubble in the heel.

I also think Asics Netburner is a great all round court sport shoe (yes even for basketball!).

For netball you really can’t go past the Netburner, in futsal any of the futsal boots seems great (they are basically just a football boot with a flat sole). Tennis it depends on the surface as to what type of sole you will want to get and Volleyball anything from a Netburner to a custom volleyball shoe will be great, just as long as its light and grippy.

At the end of the day the exact shoe doesn't matter all that much, just as long as it feels comfortable and fits into those rules i mentioned before it should be fine.

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