Laura Youngson’s eureka moment came on a volcanic ash pitch, 5,714 metres above sea level, on Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro in June 2017.
Youngson, the co-founder of non-profit Equal Playing Field, had joined 31 other women from 20 countries on an expedition up the mountain to set the Guinness World Record for the highest altitude game of soccer ever played, and in doing so, raise awareness for women’s soccer. Most of the women, whose ages ranged from 15 to 55, were amateurs, but a few former pros came too, including the USWNT’s Lori Lindsey, France’s Sandrine Dusang and England’s Rachel Unitt.
Youngson undertook the expedition wearing a pair of kid’s football boots, the only kind she could find in shops and online in the U.K. that would fit her size-four foot. She presumed the pros would have more suitable equipment. To her surprise, she found they were wearing boots just like hers.
“I got a chance to play with all these players who had been to the World Cup and the Olympics and they’re all wearing men’s and kid’s boots as well,” she tells ESPN. “I was like: ‘Oh, that’s weird.'”
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Youngson had never found her boots particularly comfortable, and the other women on the mountain told similar stories. When she returned home, she started researching the differences between men and women’s feet. What she found shocked her.
Since the late 1990s, researchers have studied the differences between men and women’s feet and the implications for shoe design. The science shows that it isn’t a case of women’s feet simply being smaller. Women tend to have narrower feet, and require more space around their toes, which curve inward more than men’s. In addition, women’s arches are often higher and the sides of their feet tend to be shorter. Their hips are also slightly further apart than men’s, which means the weight is distributed differently throughout their body and affects the way they bend. The fact they’re often lighter also means that they are hitting the ground with a different force to that of a man.
Put bluntly, wearing shoes designed for men could put women at risk for lower limb and feet injuries.
Former cricketer Lydia Greenway played for years wearing men’s boots and says she suffered multiple lower limb injuries.
“Players will just get on and play with what they know is out there but you know that can have a direct impact on injuries as well,” she says. “When I played I rolled my ankles quite a lot and actually ruptured my ligaments, and that’s probably because my foot is quite narrow. You don’t always get that type of support that you need.”
According to Dr. Andrew Greene, a senior lecturer in sports and exercise biomechanics at the University of Roehampton who also works with Crystal Palace’s women’s side, women are two to 10 times more likely to sustain ACL injuries than men, depending on the sport. Researchers are not sure what exactly causes the higher rates, but are exploring factors from equipment to training drills. “Obviously it isn’t happening by chance,” he says.
Global brands have started to customize sportswear for women among a growing body of research in recent years. In August 2020, Asics released cricket spikes designed for women, while Under Armour debuted a basketball shoe for women last fall. Nike spent three years developing kits for the 2019 Women’s World Cup using four-dimensional body mapping sessions of athletes to better understand their bodies and the fit they required. They found that women preferred kits with longer sleeves and a neckline that would easily pull over a ponytail.
“The more I’m messing with [my uniform], the less focused I am, so if I put something on and don’t have to mess with it, I’m just locked in and ready to play,” USWNT star Megan Rapinoe said at the time of the launch. “It’s a good feeling.”
Yet when Youngson started researching women’s boots in 2017, she found few people in the sports world talking about it.
“That was the first time my mind was blown,” she says. “I was looking and realised we are putting ourselves at risk of injury if we’re wearing the wrong stuff and then looked at the bigger brands and was like, ‘OK, so why are they not doing it?'”
Together with Ben Sandhu, a teammate from Youngson’s London futsal team who worked at a company investing in start-ups, Youngson decided to set up Ida Sports, a company that would design boots for women.
“Boots [are] a starting point for a conversation around the change that needs to happen in the way we treat our girls and women, not just in sport but in life,” Sandhu tells ESPN.
The first version of Ida’s boots was born in early 2020. While Sandhu and Youngson couldn’t have foreseen the production complications the pandemic would bring, they were undeterred.
“We had a coffee in the second week of January in 2018,” Sandhu says. “Exactly two years later to the day, I was on the factory floor overseas looking at our first production line and boot that was going to go into the world.”
“Part of what drives us is that they [women athletes] really deserve it. There’s a whole bunch of factors in the industry that result in sexist outcomes, I think, which is what we’re trying to address.”
Their boots are now worn by players in both Australia’s top women’s league, the W-League, and the Australian rules football league (AFLW). Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Olivia Price has worn them for six to seven months and says she has noticed a notable difference in her comfort levels while on the pitch and in recovery.
“I was shocked at how comfy they were,” Price tells ESPN. “I found I wasn’t getting blisters. They haven’t fallen apart and my feet don’t hurt like they would before.”
Both Youngson and Sandhu wanted to challenge the industry to think more about design for women.
“If we’re able to set the standard for the industry, that’s really your goal — how you should be engaging with women in the design process,” Youngson says. ” It’s interesting, a lot of stuff around inclusive designs have come out even more since we started.”
Ida Sports are now designing the next version of their boots and working with podiatrists, physical therapists and researchers to better understand the injuries women face.
It’s not just footwear where women’s sports kits fall down. The University of Portsmouth found in 2020 that wearing an incorrectly designed or a wrongly sized sports bra can cause excessive chest movement, which can leads to a shorter stride when running. Depending on the cup size, women could run an extra mile over the course of a marathon with the proper breast support.
In a survey of British high-performing athletes from various sports, the English Institute of Sport and the University of Portsmouth found that 75 percent of women asked had never been fitted for a proper sports bra, and 25% said breast pain negatively affected their performance. At least 32 percent of female runners reported discomfort when running as a result of a sports bra, according to the British Medical Journal.
Greenway says that access to appropriate gear isn’t just important from a physical standpoint, but also a psychological one. When she was growing up in the 1980s and ’90s, she bought equipment marketed for boys because there was nothing available for her. When she became a coach in 2017, she saw girls experiencing the same issues finding the correct gear. So, in 2020, she founded The Female Cricket Store to give girls a place of their own.
“Women and girls can see that they’ve got something specifically for them and hopefully that knocks down one of the barriers. There’s a place they can go [where] whatever they buy will be suitable for a female player,” she says.
“It starts with little things,” she adds. “Things like the labelling of products. Traditionally, they’ve been small men’s and boys’ and that’s a barrier sometimes in even getting started because straightaway [girls] think it’s not for them.”
West Indies cricketer Stacy-Ann King says she first encountered issues with her equipment when playing soccer for Trinidad and Tobago’s senior side.
“Everything is just in men’s sizes. Jerseys and t-shirts, they’re too big and shorts. You’d have to roll them two or three times just to fit,” she tells ESPN. “You’d do it then because you just want to be part of the thing but it was challenging. It was most definitely challenging.”
That wasn’t the last time she faced difficulties.
“I remember in 2010 when we made it to the semifinal of the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean and we had to alter the uniforms ourselves,” she says. “I had to unhem or add another piece.”
Better equipment isn’t just a question of comfort, King says, but will lead to better performances, which will in turn attract more money and support for the women’s game. In her book, it is a win-win situation.
“Once they play better there’s an audience, and with an audience the board makes money,” she says. “So, come on, why not invest in it? Why not invest in us and in how it looks and then we feel comfortable? It’s important.”
Valkerie Baynes and Alexis Nunes contributed reporting to this piece.