Monthly Archives: August 2017

A new ball game; high tech and color are taking over

For decades, the staples of summer sporting equipment stayed basically the same. All baseball bats were made of wood, and so were tennis rackets. Tennis rackets were all the same size, too. So were tennis balls, and they came in one color–white. All golf balls were white, too, and each carried 336 dimples.

All this has changed and the old ball games, it seems, will never be the same. Sporting-goods makers are trying to outdistance and outdazzle one another in exotic space-age materials, colors, and sizes–all to make sports easier and more enjoyable for the average recreational player.

Two of the most recent developments are in baseball and youth fastpitch softball bats. Worth Bat Co., Tullahoma, Tenn., introduced the first graphite-reinforced thermoplastic bat which, it says, combines the durability and light weight of aluminum with the sound of wood.

“Graphite bats duplicate the traditional ‘crack of the bat,'” says President Jess Heald. That “crack” will be welcomed by all those batters who never could get used to the “ping” of aluminum.

Molded of graphite-reinforced resin from General Electric Plastics, these bats might even win the approval of pro baseball, Mr. Heald believes. Because of their “sound distraction” and greater force and impact, aluminum bats haven’t been permitted in professional baseball. The chief advantage of metal bats, of course, is that they last much longer than wood and are less expensive in the long run. The new Worth bats will retail for about $90 each, slightly less than equivalent high-end aluminum models.

Five years ago, wood represented 75% of the U. S. bat market, but last year some 2.3 million aluminum bats were sold compared with 1 million wood in a $30 million retail market.

‘WATER BAT.’ The other new bat is a revolutionary aluminum “Tidal Wave” softball bat from Spalding & Evenflo Co. Inc., Chicopee, Mass. It weighs 32 oz empty (average bat weight) but features a hollow core at the barrel end in which a player can add up to 6 oz of water.

“Adding water shifts weight from the bat’s handle to its barrel, creating a greater momentum transfer at the point of impact. The ‘Tidal Wave’ therefore combines the speed of a lighter bat with the impact of a heavier one,” says Dr. Richard A. Brandt, professor of physics at New York University and an authority on sports physics.

Dr. Brandt calculates that this new Spalding bat ($48 retail) can increase hit distance by as much as 10% over standard aluminum softball bats. Worth says its new bat’s thin hollow shell permits greater flexibility in placing the polyurethane foam filler inside; thus the manufacturer can shift and enlarge the bat’s “sweet spot,” the area where a ball can be hit with peak force.

Stiff, lighweight graphite already has revolutionized tennis rackets. From all-wood in the mid-’60s, they have progressed first to steel, then aluminum, plastics, fiberglass, and now graphite.

“Tennis equipment has undergone monumental changes in the last 15 years or so,” says George Vaughn, chairman of AMF Head Inc.’s Head Racquet Sports Div., Plainsboro, N. J. “Technology changed the equipment, the sport became more popular, and higher-tech companies looked at it and saw they could make a dollar.” He estimates that graphite’s share of the tennis-racket market in the last three years has graduated from 20% to 50%.

In their eternal quest for materials that combine stiffness with light weight, racketmakers have all but abandoned wood, as well as conventional-sized models. These represent, at most, 10% of today’s sales.

BIGGER’S BETTER. Since Prince Mfg. Co., Lawrenceville, N. J., introduced its “Classic” aluminum racket in the mid-’70s, these “oversized” (largest) and “mid-sized” rackets have dominated. Exotic sizes and materials have boosted prices so that most rackets now retail at around $75, and the market has grown to perhaps $250 million.

Tennis balls have changed, too. Most are now a brilliant yellow, easier to see than the former standard white balls which are now used almost entirely on grass courts, most notably Wimbledon.

Some tennis balls are larger, too. In March, Wilson Sporting Goods Co., Chicago–which claims 55% of the $80 million tennis-ball market–introduced its “rally” ball, 7% larger than a regular ball. Easier to hit and to keep in play longer, it’s targeted not at the serious player but at the “recreational players” who constitute 85% of America’s participants, Wilson says.

“People have been leaving tennis because it’s harder to play than they expected, and we’re trying to get the intermediate player to stay with it. We’re also trying to get the beginner,” a Wilson official says. “This ball slows down play and makes the game more enjoyable. A player can play with more confidence.”

AMF Head’s Mr. Vaughn has the same objective with larger and lighter rackets: “We’re trying to get kids and young adults to play tennis. We’re trying to make tennis easier and more enjoyable.”

‘DIMPLE DEBATE.’ That’s the idea in golf equipment, too. Color also has come to the golf ball, but the major news in this $300 million industry has been the manufacturers’ ongoing “dimple debate.” The number, size, depth, and pattern of dimples affect how far a golf ball will fly.

Until the early ’70s, all golf balls carried 336 dimples. Since then the number has risen steadily and now Spalding’s “Top-Flite Plus” and Ram Golf Corp.’s “Golden Ram 492” balls each boast the most dimples–492. Their competitors aren’t giving in, however. Wilson claims its 432 dimples are the “optimum number” as determined by CAD/CAM technology.

What’s the next advance in sporting equipment? In tennis, racket strings will be the next improvement, Mr.

Vaughn believes. “People buy a $150 racket and then have it strung with nylon [as opposed to the better but more costly gut], which doesn’t make much sense,” he observes. “The strings are what you hit the ball with.”

However, he warns, there may be a limit to all these changes: “Probably the consumer is getting ‘over-teched.’ After all, this is still a game. We’re not exactly going to the moon.”

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What medical doctors want every shoe retailer to know

Children’s footwear execs have pebbles and even hairs to thank for getting kids into shoes at a young age. Otherwise small children would be better off wearing no shoes at all, according to most medical experts. Barefoot is better, they say, because shoes often prevent children from walking in a way that’s natural for them.

Since most pre-walking and beginning walking children don’t necessarily need extra foot support, shoes for them are looked upon mostly as a method of protection. “You do have to be careful about the environment in the house,” says Glenn Gaftswirth, doctor of pediatric medicine and director of scientific affairs at the American Pediatric Medical Association in Bethesda, Maryland. “Even short hairs from a dog can irritate feet,” he says. And toes can easily be entwined with hair and thread.”

While most parents learned to walk in a tight, white demi-boot that came in one width and had a sole about as flexible as a sheet of plyboard, this type of shoe has been almost totally replaced by a broad selection of styles, offered in several widths and in flexible, yet supportive, uppers and soles. In fact, there are so many types of shoes for plantar fasciitis pain available for kids now that many parents are clueless about what they should look for when making a purchase.

Helping parents find the proper shoe for their child’s foot should be priority number one for every footwear retailer. There is definitely no place for an Al Bundy-type shoe salesman in the kids’ bootery. Retailers who know this best often require salesman to complete comprehensive courses on fitting before they are allowed to work on the floor. It’s considered a wise investment, because when a knowledgeable salesman can help a parent make a wise selection, that parent usually becomes a loyal customer, one who will come back frequently since a child’s foot can change sizes up to 34 times before the age of 10.

Medical experts contend that price and look aren’t the best selection methods; checking for quality and proper fit is. But signs of a quality children’s shoe aren’t always obvious to the eye. “The shoes need to be made of quality material, such as natural fibers or leather, so that the foot can breathe,” Gaftswirth says. “Vinyl tends to keep air from circulating and keep the feet from stying dry.”

Gaftswirth says that even patent leather–a very popular material for girls’ dress shoes–is not the ideal choice, because it also does not breathe. “Kids tend to sweat a lot, and perspiration can cause skin rashes and athletes feet,” he says. “Materials on shoes need to allow a good exchange of air.” Of course there are exceptions to acceptable materials for children’s shoes. “A lot of plastic and rubber shoes are designed to protect against the elements,” Gaftswirth says. “Boots should be water repellent, but it’s not the kind of shoe that’s worn on the foot all day in doors (so breatheability doesn’t become a problem).”

Additionally, vinyl and hard leather every-day shoes can cause pressure points on the foot, which can cause blisters or scratches, he says. That’s not to say that children don’t need tennis shoes for bunions that are sturdy enough to give them ample support. “One of the first things retailers should advise is a shoe with a proper arch support,” suggests Vincent Giacalone, doctor of pediatric medicine in Westwood, New Jersey. “Even though it’s highly unlikely that lack of a shoe arch will cause a child to have flat feet, it can definitely help support an arch, which is among the first stages of foot development.” A stable heel and a rigid shank on the shoe is also necessary, he says. The stable heel allows for easy walking, and a rigid back keeps the foot from slipping inside the footwear.

Retailers shopping for children’s shoes also should look inside the shoe to make sure there are no loose threads or bumps, which can irritate children’s feet, say the medical experts. “Parents and retailers should slip their hands into the shoes and feel the lining,” Gaftswirth says. “Even some stitching can cause irritation, because young skin is more sensitive than that of an adult’s.”

The pressure on the foot when a child walks is also greater than what an adult experiences. Gait studies of children’s walking patterns at Ohio State University reveal that the force is much greater. It appears that infants walk in a “land-and-lift” action–they pound the foot on the ground and then lift it up again as opposed to adults who hit the heel and fall forward to the ball and toe, which is more gentle on the feet.

Flexible soles that follow the natural walking pattern of the foot combined with proper cushioning can reduce the impact to a child’s foot, according to Jeff Pisciotta who has spent the last 12 years studying clinical gait patterns and who is now manager of advanced product technology and biomechanics at Stride-Rite.

Most of his studies are based on the patterns of the bare foot. And while he says that the debate over the importance of arch supports has not been settled, some studies show that children probably don’t need special orthopedic features in a shoe unless they have an existing medical problem. Pisciotta explains that as a child develops, fatty areas where the arch is start to disappear, thereby starting natural arch formation by the time the child reaches the age of four. He adds that a small amount of support in that area might be helpful to maintain proper balance. However, he says that many experts still disagree on whether a support can help the arch to develop.

Even so, most studies show that too rigid a support can be harmful. In independent studies done by the French shoe maker Babybotte, which is known for its proper shoe fit for children, it is suggested that the shoe should not inhibit the development of the longitudinal arch, since foot bones in young children are extremely fragile and can be easily damaged. And in a Pedriatrics magazine article written by Lynn Staheli, a doctor from the department of orthopedics of Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle, rigid support of children’s shoes is questioned. He points out that in 1989, two controlled studies–Wenger et. al. and Gould et. al.–showed that arch development occurred regardless of footwear. What’s more, in the same article, he cites studies that say flat-footedness in adults is a benign condition.

After flexible footwear, size and width selection is the next point retailers should address when it comes to satisfying the shoe shopper, say the doctors. Since many manufacturers now offer shoes in several widths, fragile feet don’t have to be crammed in a too-tight shoe. “A wide range of running shoes for overpronators is the most important thing to have in a store,” Gaftswirth says. “The main problem that parents have is fitting the foot, so it’s important to have a variety of sizes; that’s the mere academics of fitting the shoe.”

Shoes that are too tight either in width or length can cause flexible young bones to become twisted or distorted when the child is an adult. As the American Pediatric Medical Association notes in its literature on children’s feet, the lack of a complaint in a youngster doesn’t necessarily mean a foot problem doesn’t exist, since the feet grow so fast that pain usually doesn’t occur until after the damage is done. That’s why experts say salespeople should take extra care in fitting children.

Babybotte’s independent studies say that the goal of die salesperson should be to “provide the best physiological comfort for as long a time as possible, in the conditions of use that were determined.” It adds that if a shoe is too short, it prohibits the foot from being elastic during walking and can cause balance problems as well as deformities in the foot.

Likewise, there are problems if the shoe is too long. One of the most common mistakes parents make is that they think they should buy shoes that are too big, thinking that the child will grow into them much like they do clothes that are purchased too big. But oversized shoes can cause a child’s foot to slip and roll over. In addition, a shoe that is too long can lose its shape quickly.

As a general rule, to determine the correct fit of a shoe, the foot should have a thumbnail’s width between the longest toe and the end of the toebox on the longer foot; the foot should fit into the widest part of the shoe without hanging over the side of the shoe; and there should be no heel slippage.

In most cases, according to the Babybotte study, a shoe that is correct in width but slightly too long will accommodate most feet. Additionally, it points out that leather shoes will “give” slightly in width, but not in length. If the toes spread, the wide, yet long shoe would be the correct choice, according to Babybotte. However, if the child’s instep is very high, a shoe that is correct in length but more than ample in width is the correct choice. In no case should a salesperson recommend a pair of shoes that is too long and too wide at the same time, or a pair that is too short, the study says.

Giacalone cautions that special considerations also have to be made when checking the length of the shoe. Many times the salesperson fitting the shoe only checks to see that the big toe is situated comfortably, but sometimes the second toe can be a half an inch longer than the big one, he says. According to Babybotte studies, 22.3 percent of all people have a second toe that’s longer than the first.

On the issue of fitting, Gaftswirth points out that it’s especially important that both feet be measured in both a sitting and a standing position during the fitting. Many times children’s feet are two different sizes–a condition that is accentuated even more once pressure is applied. In addition, the time of day can make a difference in the fit. “A slip-on shoe that fits easily in the morning might be too tight in the evening,” Gaftswirth says. And when fitting, it also helps to make a conscious effort to have the child try on the shoes with the weight of socks they’ll be wearing. That’s something the person fitting the shoe can easily control.

As for the style of shoes, slip-on styles don’t always provide a perfect fit, but this may be insignificant if the child is only wearing the shoe for a short period of time, says Gaftswirth. But shoes that will be worn for extended periods of time, such as during the school day, or for physical activities need to be comfortable and offer good support. Lace-ups might be a better option, since they allow more flexibility and support. He says Velcro fasteners are another option, but they are not as ideal for vigorous activities. And they can also keep preschool-aged children from learning to tie their shoes.

Along with the selection of styles and sizes and carefully trained sales help, a broad grouping of price points should be available, because expensive shoes aren’t always synonymous with quality shoes, say the medical experts. “There are shoes out there that are not that expensive but are still well made. A lot of consumers go in stores and complain that their kids want $150 shoes. But parents don’t have to spend that kind of money on shoes to get quality,” Giacalone says. “A lot of kids like the social status in the high-price-tag shoes, but a lot of those shoes really cost so much because of the money it costs to advertise them, not necessarily because of the way they’re made.”

Gaftswirth agrees: “You don’t have to look at prices to find good products. That’s not necessarily an indicator it’s the best there is. It’s the basic features–flexibility, proper support and fit–that’s the most important.”

FITTING TIPS

* Gather as much information as possible from the parent: Age of baby?; is baby crawling, walking, etc.?; How long has current size been worn?; What environment will the shoes be worn in?

* If the child is wearing a pair of old shoes, check them to see the child’s wear pattern. Are the shoes outworn or are they outgrown? If the vamp is wrinkled, the shoes were too long. If the lining and the sock lining are abnormally dark and brittal, the child probably perspires more than average. With this kind of information, suggest an appropriate shoe.

* Measure both feet in standing and sitting positions. Many times children’s feet are two different sizes.

* The time of day can make a difference in the fit of a shoe.

* Watch the child walk in the shoe, and check for durability, cushioning and stability.

* In addition to checking if the big toe is situated comfortably, check the second toe also. In almost a quarter of the population, it is longer.

* Have the child try on shoes while wearing socks in the weight he plans to generally wear.

* As a rule, the foot should have a thumbnails width between the longest toe and the end of the toebox on the longer foot; the foot should fit into the widest part of the shoe without hanging over the side of the shoe; and there should be no heel slippage.

* Leather shoes will “give” slightly in width but not in.

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