Groundwork For The Pole Vault

By Brian Risk, National Pole Vault Chair, Canada

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    It would appear to the casual observer that pole vaulting is based on acrobatics. There is some merit to this observation but, like most endeavours, the success is based on the groundwork. The skill execution while on the ground is a critical prerequisite to the acrobatics.


The groundwork begins with an approach run. The approach run comes in a variety of lengths and techniques but all athletes must reach a common goal. They must provide precision in execution, consistency in delivery, and maximum controllable speed.
     The precision relates to an ability to hit an exact takeoff mark. This must occur with a stride pattern which supports maximum controllable speed and an ability to jump off the ground. For example, as one runs down a hallway and prepares to bound up a flight of stairs, it is not difficult to adjust your stride pattern to take off with the preferred leg. On the vault runway, to hit a takeoff mark precisely and without adjustments in stride length is a challenging task.
     Consistency ensures that the precise movement patterns can be repeated with minimal deviation from the norm. Vaulters must be able to step onto the runway and deliver. A consistent stride pattern allows the athlete to run the full runup with minimal steering over the final six steps and hit the takeoff point exactly.
     Simply hitting the takeoff mark is not difficult. Hitting it without reaching or crowding in the final six steps is the challenge.
     These adjustments or steering mechanisms which alter the stride length over the final six steps have a tremendous impact on runway velocity. A mid-mark placed six steps out helps considerably with consistency and precision.
     The third important variable of the approach run is the achievement of maximum controllable speed. This is influenced by fitness, run mechanics and approach length. A short approach will not allow a comfort- able acceleration while too long a run may result in deceleration. A too long runup may also generate undue fatigue limiting the total number of jumps available in practice or competition.
Gymboss Timers


     The groundwork is intended to allow the vaulter to transfer runup energy to the pole. A critical part of this process is the plant. The plant occurs over the final two or three steps and should be a graceful transition of energy and position. Various terms and processes lead to the common objective of having the top arm fully extended up just prior to the final foot strike. Anything else leads to an inefficient takeoff. The goal is a high speed and high plant.


     Once the runup and plant are in place, the vaulter must have the correct pole in hand. The pole used should reflect the performance of the vaulter on that particular attempt. The pole selection is based on a prediction of how the vaulter will perform. Precision and consistency developed through hundreds of rehearsals will aid this process.
     The exact pole is influenced by the basic factors of runway speed. takeoff technique, angle of takeoff and angular velocity. The coach/athlete must learn or confirm something with every trip down the runway to aid in pole selection.
     In addition. fatigue, psychological readiness. and previous success levels should influence the prediction. It is important that once the pole has been selected. the athlete should step onto the runway with confidence and perform at 100%. Use of the wrong pole may lead to failure and/ or personal injury.



    The groundwork also has a significant impact on penetration and, subsequently, selection of depth. Numerous factors can influence the level of penetration. The exact positioning of the standards is another prediction of how the vaulter will perform.
     Depth selection is a decision based on a series of factors including previous attempts, fatigue, pole se- lection, consistency of technique, environmental conditions and mental preparation. All of these components have a major impact on penetration.

     It is best to take a positive approach to depth selection. For example, if an athlete fails to penetrate on a first attempt due to an error in technique, the temptation might be to jump the same way on a smaller pole.
     Changing poles, however, plays an interesting mind game. A small pole may result in less mental tension and the vaulter can focus well on skill execution. A big pole brings new anxiety, especially if there is any self-doubt. This extra tension distracts from the ability to coordinate the superior effort required.
     Athletes who rehearse with "tail wind spotting," do drills on large poles, and mentally prepare for changing poles will have the advantage.

    In the above scenario, if the vaulter chooses a smaller pole and then jumps properly, he/she will over penetrate and failure will result. It is generally best to base pole and depth selection on the historical pat- terns of the vaulter. This is the art of coaching and vaulting. Knowing what went wrong, what is fixable and then basing pole and depth selection on these factors is the best way to go.
     And it all happens on the ground.


     Runway Speed
-Grip height is determined by pole speed. This is the speed at which the pole moves from the takeoff angle to vertical. A greater runway speed will foster higher grips. Runway speed is often lost due to over striding in the final six steps to hit a takeoff mark, head wind, fatigue and injury .

     Takeoff Technique-If the takeoff technique reflects an efficient transfer of energy, a longer and stiffer pole may be used. The common factors found in good technique (assuming a right-handed athlete) include a tall plant hit- ting its final position just prior to the final foot strike, a driving and blocking right knee, and a body posture allowing the long sweeping swing of the left leg.

"A driving and blocking right knee"

Pat Manson demonstrates

     Angle of Takeoff-The angle of takeoff influences the initial loading or transfer of energy to the pole. Too low or too high a takeoff angle impairs this energy transfer. Vaulters have a takeoff angle slightly lower than long jumpers and slightly higher than triple jumpers. A commonly accepted angle is approximately 22 degrees.

     Angular Velocity-The vaulter can influence angular velocity with an aggressive swinging of the free leg and by using his/her upper body to put pressure down through the pole. This technique, employed by advanced vaulters, allows pole speed to be increased significantly.





Brian Risk is the National Pole Vault Development Chair for Canada and author of the pole vault book, Heat It Up!


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