Sneaker Glossary


Over and over in my life as a sneakerhead, I have had to defend why I spend so much on shoes.

When I was young and in high school, I didn’t have the knowledge to explain why $150 or more on a pair of basketball shoes was justifiable. When I went to design school for college, I gained a little more knowledge, but not enough to sound completely intelligent. It was when I started my first footwear job that it all came together.

I’ve put together a short glossary of terms that all sneakerheads should know. This way, when you are getting grief, you can be like, “No my shank plate completely keeps me from bottoming out and over-extending my foot and loosing energy. Therefore, it makes me more efficient and faster.”


The word lateral is the technical term for the “outside” of the shoe. Not many people know this, now you do.


The word medial is the technical term for the “inside” of the “outside” of the shoe. Another one you have on most people.


The sole represents the most bottom part of the shoe. The best way of looking at the sole is knowing it’s the area that contacts the ground. Most times, the sole is rubber and is in multiple pieces, especially on performance basketball shoes. Ground contact EVA can also be part of the midsole–think of the Nike Free. Oftentimes, the sole wraps up onto the midsole, especially in the forefoot. It’s generally quite thin, usually between 3 to 5 millimeters.


Herringbone is a technical term for the tread pattern on your sole unit. This provides you with your traction. Herringbone in its truest form are a series of columns of parallel lines that angle at 45-degrees and meet in the middle. They create a visual weave. In recent years, as sole unit designs have become more in-depth, herringbone has began to be modified to fit the design aesthetic–almost to the point where I personally don’t think it is recognizable as herringbone, but that doesn’t take away from the function. When herringbone aesthetic changes, oftentimes the product description will read as modified herringbone.


The outrigger is the area of the sole that lies on the lateral side (the outside) in the forefoot. If you look at it from the sole view (the bottom), you will notice it protruding out gracefully and giving the shoe a wider platform to help brace the athlete as they cut in different directions. The outrigger has become a focal point of basketball product. The first time I remember it being a prominent part of the design was in 2004 on the Air Jordan XIX. Now, it is on nearly every serious performance basketball shoe.

Shank Plate:

Michael Jordan credits the addition of the shank plate to his shoes helped extend his playing days. To say it is an important feature it is an understatement. Without getting too technical, the best way of describing what a shank plate does is that it keeps the shoe from folding over on itself. Try bending your shoe in half at the midfoot. If you can, you don’t have a good basketball shoe. Oftentimes, shank plates are molded from TPU (thermo plastic urethane), graphite, titanium (as with the Air Jordan XX2) or the top material choice, which is carbon fiber. It generally becomes a focal point of the design, especially for the sole unit, because it is such an expensive piece and drives a lot of the cost of the shoe. When a shoe is built with a more stable and durable materials, it results in a higher price. The shank plate is also a piece that is molded, so that provides a unique opportunity to create really in-depth forms and use material effects to draw attention to the piece.


The midsole is often confused as the sole. However, it is it’s own independent piece of the design. It is often the most critiqued part of the shoe for the consumer because it is directly working with their foot, as it is sitting right below it. Most midsoles are made out of foam and are molded in varying forms. They also vary in thickness and material form, depending on the area of the shoe and its intended function. The main function of the midsole is to absorb the impact of your actions. Whether that is landing after you jump or cradling you as you turn directions, the midsole is there to stabilize and protect you.


EVA stands for Ethylene-Vinyl Acetate, better known as foam. This is what is used to create your midsole. There are many, many types of EVA out there. All of them provide varying durometers of cushioning, from hard to soft and springy to dampening. Most companies have their own blend of EVA that they have branded as their own. Nike has Phylon and most recently Lunar. adidas has Adiprene and most recently Boost.


The upper is pretty self-explanatory; it is the upper side of the shoe. It consists of many pieces and many materials making it the most complex area of the shoe. It has to provide great feel, fit and function and still look aesthetically pleasing. The upper of the shoe starts at the midsole that it is generally sewn and glued to.

Heel Counter:

The heel counter is one of my personal favorite areas of the shoe. I think it provides the shoe with its overall aesthetic tone. It has the opportunity to make a shoe conform to the foot and give the overall shape a lot of speed and performance–or do the exact opposite and make it slow and doughy. The heel counter started, and still is in many cases, as an internal piece in the heel of the upper to provide better fit and stability around the heel and Achilles. It also would help keep the collar of the shoe from dropping down, reinforcing it to aid in better fitment around the ankle. Over the years, the heel counter has become an area of heavy design focus as it has become an external piece. In particular, the Kobe line does this and the Hyperdunk line. They are generally molded out of TPU or directly injected onto the upper with EVA.


The area of the shoe that wraps around the ankle and the heel is the collar. It is generally lined with foam for comfort. In more expensive shoes, it features memory foam to help conform to the shape of the user’s foot.


The tongue is the area of the shoe that starts at the toe-box and extends up to the collar. The tongue comes in many different forms. More and more, we are seeing full inner booties that are basically another upper of the shoe inside the upper of the shoe. Think of them as an internal sock that provides a conforming fit. The tongue has also become an area that is increasing in cost because of molded forms and advanced material use. The Lebron X and now the XI are great examples of this.

Other posts by Brett Golliff:

Brett Golliff, footwear extraordinaire, is founder of BrettGolliff.com, contributor for Complex, and has previously designed for New Balance. Check him out on Twitter and Instagram.