By Mark Berton
Having the proper shoes for pickleball doesn’t rate very high with most players. Ben Simons, Senior Business Manager Pickleball, Racquetball & Squash for HEAD, has worked trade booths at hundreds of events around the country, fitting players with shoes, and he can sum up his observations in one sentence: “Players change a paddle out every six months, but don’t think about their shoes until they’re totally worn out.”
Why footwear is an afterthought for most people isn’t hard to figure out. Shoes are something we wear every day and there’s a frog in the kettle aspect to shoes—as they breakdown, we tend not to notice until they fall apart.
But there’s a lot of science that goes into making shoes for a specific application, and shoes that are good for hiking or biking aren’t going to give you an advantage on the pickleball court.
“What you need is a court shoe with good lateral support,” Simons says. “Stay away from running shoes, walking shoes or cross trainers. None of these shoes are really built to go side to side and, unless you have really strong ankles, you’re taking a chance that you might roll your ankle due to an unforeseen lateral movement.”
Another part of that support includes having a solid upper. Uppers are everything on the shoe that’s not sole or mid-sole and they should be stiff for pickleball players. Again, the stiffer the upper, the less chance your foot has of slipping around inside the shoe and the greater your stability.
“People may like mesh or soft uppers because they’re more comfortable, but your foot can get out and roll over the sole and flip you,” Simons explains.
Players should look for a flat sole or good herringbone type tread. While deep grooves or knobby soles may look impressive, Simons says the goal is to not stick to the court. “You don’t want anything that can catch on this hard, outdoor surface and put you on the ground,” he says. “You want flat traction. When you plant, you want to make sure the shoe doesn’t grab and flip you. This is why you’ll see pros glide and slide on hard courts.”
Other considerations when it comes to footwear include lacing and cushioning.
Lacing is a personal preference, Simons says, and lots of people have different ways of lacing up their shoes that suits them best.
“There are many techniques for lacing up your shoes and that’s mostly about fit and what feels good to you. Your foot will swell as you play and you can loosen them up. There’s also an extra eyelet on top that you can use if you feel a little bit of heel slippage,” he says. “Those eyelets will hold the shoe a little tighter, but it’s a preference.”
Cushioning, on the other hand, is where a lot players don’t know when to throw in the towel. By design, cushioning compresses to lessen the shock of movement. That shock absorption lessens over time as the cushioning loses its resiliency.
Simons explains that if people pay attention, they will feel the difference. “When your cushioning breaks all the way down, you’ll feel it. You’ll come down hard and it feels like there’s more shock going through the shoe,” he says. “When you feel that, it’s definitely time to replace the shoe.”
Simons suggests there are more visible indicators as to when you need to visit the shoe store. “Most people use their shoes way too long. They’ll have ripped out sides or the soles are completely smooth,” he says. “This is when it’s important to replace them. When you’re playing 5 or 6 times a week, you’re going to wear them out faster and when the tread gets smooth at all, as soon as it starts to slide, one slip can result in a major injury. And if your foot gets injured, you’re out of the game until it heals. When we put customers in a good court shoe, they come back and thank us. They don’t realize how bad their footwear is until they have a new pair that’s well-fitted and supporting them properly.”