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Advising Patients And Parents On Cleats For Youth Sports

Finding the right athletic footwear can be challenging. Cleated sports are popular this time of year but poor cleat fit can contribute to foot and ankle pathology. With this in mind, I’d like to share some tips on cleats for youth sports that you may find helpful for patient education as well.

Consider versatility. While cleats are made to be sports specific, many children participate in multiple sports before settling on one. If it isn’t clear that the child will stick with baseball, or if the child plays soccer, baseball and football, one can advise the patient to consider soccer cleats. These are the most versatile of cleats and children can use them for multiple types of sports such as football, baseball and lacrosse. The same cannot be said for football, baseball and lacrosse cleats that one cannot wear for soccer. While wearing soccer cleats for the aforementioned non-soccer sports is not recommended for ultimate performance, the soccer cleats are usually allowed by officials in these sports.

Measure twice, buy once. Explain to patients that proper cleat selection begins by having the child’s foot measured by a professional. If you prefer, this can be you! Parents should know that optimal shoe measurement occurs when the child is standing up and fully weightbearing. Many are surprised to learn that it is important to measure both feet in case they vary in size. When there is a small discrepancy, choose the shoe size that fits the larger foot.

However, caution the parent that one should not buy cleats with a toe box space any larger than an adult thumb width beyond the child’s big toe. This will ensure that the child’s feet will have room to grow without the cleat being too large as this can affect the child’s ability to run or play. If possible, advise patients and parents to shop at the end of the day when the child’s feet are at his or her biggest. It is also convenient to make sure the child or parent has the necessary sport socks on hand to account for any extra thickness when evaluating fit.

Comfort is key. Besides advising on proper fit, it is equally important to consider the comfort level of each cleat option. Encourage parents to avoid buying cleats that need to be “broken in.” The athlete should take his or her time trying on the cleats, spending a few minutes walking around the store. If the cleats are too tight, they will cause unnecessary foot pain. If they are too loose, the feet will pull up (or piston) during the on-field activity, causing blisters. 

The material of the upper, the shape and depth of the toe box, and the lacing construct all play a role in the comfort level for each athlete. Each sport has specific demands, as can each position that the child may be playing. Taking some time to get to know the ins and outs of the demands on the lower extremity unique to his or her case can make a world of difference.

Accordingly, consider the demands of the sport. Cleats essentially vary from sport to sport due to the nature of the terrain and the individual demands of the game. It is worth knowing that while both soccer and baseball cleats provide extra stability on the field, non-cleated soccer shoes, for example, are designed with a slightly narrower upper to help control the ball. Also, for older players in the nine- to 14-year-old age range, it is important that there are multiple cleats on the heel of the shoe in order to avoid unnecessary pressure distribution that could contribute to issues such as calcaneal apophysitis.

If the child is playing soccer or flag football, advise his or her parents to choose a cleat with a synthetic material on the upper of the shoe. Man-made materials tend to absorb less water and will keep the child’s foot dry. Also, football cleats may extend above the ankle, lending additional support.

Know the requirements. Encourage the parent to check the equipment requirements for the program in which the child is participating. Depending on the sport and the child's age, the specifications may vary. For instance, in my town’s recreation club, rubber cleats are encouraged for flag football, soccer and t-ball programs, but are not required. Yet, if a program is played indoors on artificial turf, cleats may not be allowed. 

Cleats are for game time only! My family probably spends more than 70 percent of our weekends at the baseball field. My 12-year-old son knows that as soon as he exits the dugout after a game, he removes his cleats and puts on sneakers or slides to walk around. The post-game ice cream or soft pretzel is a must, but so is foot health! No walking on gravel and asphalt in cleats! This brings us back to the “right shoe, right activity” thought process.

Wearing the appropriate athletic shoes, especially cleats, can go a long way in preventing inury or overuse in a youth athlete. I recommend taking this shoe gear conversation with parents as an opportunity to evaluate gait and biomechanics as well. Some cleats will accommodate an orthotic but modifications may be necessary to work within the traditionally shallower depth of a cleated athletic shoe.

Giving patients and parents sound advice on appropriate cleat wear will go a long way toward making sure they will return to your practice for other issues in the future.

Dr. Bonnin is in private practice with Family Foot and Ankle Specialists in Piscataway and Hillsborough, NJ. This blog was adapted with permission from the author and originally appeared at

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