January 2012

Out on a limb: Next top model

 Jordana Bieze Foster, Editor

I grew up in Portland, OR. I live in New England. That means I root against all of the Los Angeles Lakers. But I do find Kobe Bryant’s footwear fascinating.

The guy went directly from high school to the National Basketball Association, so I’m pretty sure he doesn’t have a degree in sports science. But more than any other star athlete, Bryant’s shoe endorsements make as emphatic a statement about biomechanics as they do about fashion.

Bryant, you might remember, in 2008 was the first professional basketball star to put his name on a low-top shoe. This was a very big deal. High-top kicks had been the standard since time began, based on the belief that the additional ankle support would be protective against sprains.

In reality, however, studies had demonstrated that high-top shoes couldn’t come close to providing the kind of mechanical support necessary to prevent an ankle sprain. Maybe Bryant knew about these studies, or maybe he just knew instinctively that the extra stuff around his ankles was only slowing him down. Either way, he wanted a low-top shoe that would give him maximum range of ankle motion with minimal weight, and lobbied for it until the folks at Nike finally gave in.

Since then, a growing body of research seems to suggest that mechanically preventing sprains—even with an ankle brace—is more difficult than previously thought. And if you’ve lasted as a professional basketball player as long as Bryant has, you’re probably a “coper” who isn’t highly susceptible to chronic ankle instability anyway. So sure, why not see how low your shoes can go?

But Bryant’s new shoe, actually a shoe “system,” takes that thinking a step further. The Kobe VII is a low-top shoe that comes with two form-fitting, high-tech inserts: a low-profile “Attack Fast” insert for when speed is a priority, and a mid-top “Attack Strong” insert for when stability is a priority.

I’m not sure about the practicality of the dual-insert concept. It seems to me that an athlete would be most likely to just pick one insert and stick with it rather than switching back and forth.

But revisiting the high-top concept in a lightweight, flexible package makes all kinds of sense biomechanically. Research does support the use of ankle braces to help prevent sprains, and suggests their most important benefit may well be proprioceptive. And almost anything that wraps around the ankle can enhance proprioception—a researcher once told me that strapping a hot dog to your ankle could do the trick.

Maybe Kobe Bryant knows about this research. Maybe he instinctively knows that his joint position sense in low-tops isn’t what it could be. Or maybe he just wants to recapture some of his old-school fans who can’t give up their high-tops.

We may never know. And early reviews give the new shoe system low marks for comfort, so we also may never know if the Attack Strong option really is the perfect compromise between the low-top and high-top philosophies.

But lower extremity practitioners have to appreciate a superstar whose endorsements are about science as much as style. Even if you’re not a Laker fan.

One Response to Out on a limb: Next top model

  1. Hey Jordana- Another great article! NOW – if that “shoe system was “Celtic green! (kidding). Having “moldable inserts”( molded in what position we might ask), & expecting it to do much is guesswork at best. The discussion of high vs. Low tops has been around forever & the “proprioception” factor in high tops is still an important factor. HOWEVER- “the gold program” remains re. PREVENTION of ankle sprains 1. proper custom orthotics. 2. aggressive individual foot, ankle strengthening. 3. Indiv. Decision re. Ankle tape vs. Brace vs. Neither. Hard to argue with Kobe’s greatness but this is mostly “good marketing”, not good biomechanics…. Dr. Bob Weil

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