issue Winter 2022

Feet First

By Margaret Smith
Photo by Michael R. Schmidt

To the untrained eye, something as simple as an error in a magazine advertisement might go unnoticed. However, for Howard Liebeskind, DPM ’78, FFPM RCPS(Glasg), DABMSP, FAAPSM, spotting a design flaw in a misleading ad for running shoes catapulted the start of a 42-year career in podiatric sports medicine.

“I was always passionate about sports medicine, even though I was just starting out,” Dr. Liebeskind said. “And this is how it all started.”

Upon mentioning the mistake to his father-in-law, he was persuaded to call the magazine, which he admitted “wasn’t my style back then.” But Dr. Liebeskind — who has an in-depth understanding of biomechanical design concepts in regard to footwear — listed his concerns to the editor: “There was a picture, there was a description, and it was polar opposites.”

That one phone call landed him in conversation with the president and design team of the running shoe company, which he prefers not to name. This led him to another career opportunity, and another, “and then it just went on and on and on. My father-in-law gave me a magazine, and it all happened.”

Dr. Liebeskind (center) on court at the Staples Center in May 2021 with fellow Los Angeles Lakers team doctors (from left) Ray Padilla, DDS; Kristofer J. Jones, MD; Amanda Honsvall-Hoefler, MD; and Daniel Vigil, MD.

Today, Dr. Liebeskind’s serendipitous career path has led him to hold positions as the team and consulting podiatrist for the Los Angeles Lakers, U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, Los Angeles Galaxy, Los Angeles Football Club and Pepperdine University Athletic Department. His numerous other job titles and accomplishments include, most recently, Fellow of the Faculty of Podiatric Medicine, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow.

The role of sports podiatrist, as Dr. Liebeskind puts it, “is to manage the podiatric needs of the beginning, intermediate, advanced and professional athlete through prevention and performance optimization, as well as treatment of injury and illness.” But his nuanced role as part of a professional team’s entourage — or the “team’s team” — requires a perpetual readiness.

Whether he is bouncing from one training room to the next, seeing players before they fly out for their next game or providing custom care for each athlete, Dr. Liebeskind and the 120 pounds of equipment he travels with — including various necessary instruments for palliative services, an EMS Swiss DolorClast Classic with a compressor and required handpieces to provide radial extracorporeal shock wave therapy (rESWT), athletic shoes and orthotics he dispenses to players, and a duffel bag of extra supplies as a backup to what is stocked in a training room — are on deck.

And while the top priority is tending to elite athletes’ injuries — plantar fasciitis being an increasingly common one — Dr. Liebeskind notes that his work is largely preventive and precautionary. This mindset compelled him to compile the mantra of “The Team Podiatrist and the Eight Ps: proper, prior planning and preparation prevents partial and poor performance.”

Without question, LeBron James stands out to me as one of the most prolific and proactive professional athletes I’ve come across.

“My purpose is to assess players,” he said. “To do appropriate physical examinations preseason, and do very proactive assessments (and) 3D scans in preparation for the possible need for a functional orthotic appliance, very specifically geared and tailored to the player’s need — and especially to work well with the selected footwear that they use during athletic play. I’m in a position where my goals and objectives are clearly to avoid the common pathologies that a podiatrist sees.”

An athlete’s health doesn’t start and stop with preventive care and assessment. The athletes, too, have to be invested in their overall wellness. Over Dr. Liebeskind’s extensive career, he said, “Without question, LeBron James stands out to me as one of the most prolific and proactive professional athletes I’ve come across. Especially when it comes to recognition and acknowledgment of podiatric issues that can affect an athlete’s performance.” 

According to Dr. Liebeskind, James’ appreciation of administered palliative care and the use of well-fitting, well-designed basketball shoes that offer control, comfort and support have helped the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player achieve peak performance levels over the course of his career. He summed this approach succinctly: “LeBron just gets it right.”

In his role with the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team, Dr. Liebeskind was on site for an International Friendly match in Carson, California, against Costa Rica in February 2020.

Regardless of a player’s commitment to general health, one of the obstacles to the care Dr. Liebeskind provides is sport-specific footwear. While the majority of athletic wear is designed to aid athletes in their pursuits, not every shoe is created equal. Dr. Liebeskind feels proper, sport-specific footwear selection is a necessary ingredient in achieving optimal performance levels in sport — given that improper shoe selections can lead to a variety of clinical issues and concerns.

Dr. Liebeskind is adamant that a lack of proper palliative care to counteract conditions that might seem minor “can become a very significant concern for both player and franchise. It can make the difference between winning and losing.” Wellness for any athlete, regardless of status, is paramount. For those who do not have access to a full team of sports medicine specialists, Dr. Liebeskind encourages sound, evidence-based searches for a better understanding of the body and its ailments.

“When it comes to athletic medicine, when it comes to products, when it comes to footwear, when it comes to modalities, self-treatments and self-assessment — you really have good information out there most of the time,” he said. “I think the population as a whole is being marketed to in a very professional and accurate manner, but you always need to look very carefully to be certain that the information you’re receiving is accurate and appropriate for you.”

Though his career was ignited by coincidence, Dr. Liebeskind plans to continue with the same fervor he has shown in the past four decades.

“I live by the mantra ‘you rest, you rust,’” he said. “I’ll start to slow down only when I’m no longer affiliated with the teams I serve, but there’s nothing in sight that suggests I’m going to even think about slowing down, because of my love for what I do.” 

What's in the Bag?

Dr. Liebeskind travels with over 120 pounds of equipment:

  • Palliative instrument trays with podiatry instruments
  • Sterilization solutions
  • Nail burr with vacuum system
  • Sterile and nonsterile gloves, latex-free gloves
  • Sterile gauze supplies, 1"–3"
  • Wound healing agents/supplies
  • Cryotherapy instrumentation and supplies
  • KevinRoot Foot ID 3D digital scanning system
  • New and refurbished orthoses with associated footwear
  • EMS Swiss DolorClast rESWT console and compressor with handpieces
  • PowerStep ProTech insoles
  • Laptop with medical record platform

Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based freelance editor and writer whose work largely focuses on current sociopolitical happenings.