Coaching the Pole Vault is a bespoke online educational program dedicated to the Pole Vault, representing the first course in the ALTIS Track & Field Education Series.
Featuring 12 modules written by renowned Coach and Educator – Dan Pfaff – this digital course is packed with coaching insights, tips, tools, and progressions, crafted to build topic-specific understanding, develop targeted coaching skillsets, and accelerate your development. In addition, it features a range of elite coach and athlete interviews bringing a fresh and wide-ranging perspective to your learning.
Foreword by Coach Pfaff
With a rich history and significant evolution over the past century, the Pole Vault has a colorful past. Add to this the many schools of thought that have shaped the technical evolution of the event, and coaches are faced with a confusing array of opinions, methods and style from which to sift through when striving to learn about the vault. This is where this course aims to help: Our aim is not to disseminate opinion and conjecture, but to provide a balanced, experience–based and evidence–supported overview of the event. This view will be founded on biomechanical truths, as well as lessons learned from over 40 years coaching of a number of world-class vaulters, interaction with coaches from around the globe, and observation of trends – both past and present.
From this grounding, we will provide you with explanations for the reasons behind technique nuances, and separate ‘style’ from non-negotiable technical truths. Coaching Pole Vault effectively isn’t borne from imitation of the latest and greatest, it comes from a deep understanding of cause and effect, and the application of biomechanical principles. It is our hope that on completion you will have gained this understanding, and be confident with the application of concepts learned within your own environment.
Course Author: Coach Dan Pfaff
Course Editor: Ellie Spain
Contributors: Coaches David Butler, Jeff Hartwig, Jan Johnson & Ellie Spain.
Guests: Holly Bradshaw, Greg Hull, Stacy Dragila, Scott Simpson, Alan Richardson, Laurie Needham.
Acknowledgements: We extend our thanks to Jan Johnson, Steve Chappell, Ole Kvist, and Hebert Czigon for their permissions of use of selected materials, graphics, and film.
This course aims to:
Provide a comprehensive exploration of the factors that influence success in the pole vault.
Outline key safety considerations for training and competition.
Provide teaching progressions and coaching strategies to safely and successfully develop beginner athletes into successful pole vaulters.
Share insights from world class vaulters and their coaches to provide a unique insight to what people need to succeed.
This course has been designed for Coaches working with Pole Vaulters. This includes Vertical Jumps Coaches, Multi-Event Coaches, and specialist Pole Vault Coaches at the following stages of their professional development:
Beginner Coaches seeking to gain an understanding of the event from one of the world’s best coaches.
Developing Coaches looking to expand their knowledge base and challenge their understanding.
Emerging-elite Coaches seeking to grow their perspectives, continue their development, and challenge their philosophies.
This course is made up of 12 modules, and is fully digital – designed to be taken online only.
This course has a learning guide time of 24 hours.
On completion of this course coaches should be able to:
Understand the equipment and safety requirements of the Pole Vault
Understand and apply the biomechanics of the Pole Vault to their coaching practice
Understand the technical model for the Pole Vault, and Key Performance Indicators associated with working towards this model
Safely and effectively use teaching progressions to coach beginners to progress to development level
Understand the basics of effective programming for the Pole Vault
Understand how to best prepare an athlete for competition, and effectively coach in a competition scenario
Error detect and correct
Build athlete competency using appropriate cues and teaching activities
Understand the perspective of elite vaulters and coaches, and how this may differ from developing athletes
This course can be purchased for an affordable one off payment of $149.
Can I download the course content?
No – the content is only available online. However, some of the further learning resources can be downloaded. You also have lifelong access to this course, so can refer back to it at any time.
Is there a set start and finish date?
No – you can start and finish at your leisure, and course access has no time limit.
Who is this course for?
This course has been written for Coaches working with Pole Vaulters. This includes Vertical Jumps Coaches, Multi-Event Coaches, and specialist Pole Vault Coaches. The content is appropriate for:
Beginner Coaches seeking to gain an understanding of the event from one of the world’s best coaches.
Developing Coaches looking to expand their knowledge base and challenge their understanding.
Emerging-elite coaches seeking to grow their perspectives, continue their development, and challenge their philosophies.
What do I get for my money?
12 modules of bespoke content, written by one of the most experienced Coaches in Track & Field – Coach Dan Pfaff.
156 ALTIS educational videos including interviews, video reviews, teaching progressions and development exercises.
Further learning materials and resources.
Access to the ALTIS Agora Council on Facebook – our online portal for interacting with ALTIS coaches and networking with our course members globally.
Note: For the purposes of this course, we will discuss the vault from the perspective of a right handed vaulter who’s ‘top hand’ is the right, and ‘bottom hand’ the left. If you coach left handed vaulters, you will simply need to reverse this when coaching or considering a given concept or description.
Pole Vault is accepted to be one of the most complex events in Track & Field. However as Coaches, we have the task of teaching the event in a way which makes it as simple as possible for the athlete to grasp. To do this, we must develop a comprehensive understanding of the key factors which influence performance outcomes, as well as their interrelationships. Developing this knowledge allows us to distill the event down to its constituent parts, and make the complex as simple as possible – in accordance with biomechanical truths.
In many languages, Pole Vault is referred to as ‘jump with a pole’ or ‘pole jump’ – this terminology reflects the fact that we are dealing with a dynamic, running and jumping event. These ‘on the ground’ phases of the vault in turn create the platform from which the athlete can successfully execute the ‘off the ground’ work. It is crucial we understand how these phases connect together to form a whole, as well as the demands each element of the vault places on the athlete. As such, we must develop an understanding of the range of biomotor abilities called upon by the Pole Vault, including speed, strength, power, flexibility, and coordination.
Unique to Pole Vault is also the considerable number of extrinsic variables which influence the performance outcome of this event, including but not limited to: external environment, grip height, push off height, pole selection, stand placement, and track surface. It’s not as simple as just being ‘in form’ on the day of the meet.
Coaches who achieve long term success in the vault are those who have developed a sound understanding of these and other performance variables, how they impact the vault, and how they relate to each other. Realize also that Pole Vault is highly sequential in nature, and each part of the vault has a knock-on effect on the next: For teaching purposes we may break the vault down into separate phases or stages, but ultimately we must understand that no one part of the vault operates in isolation. From the first step the athlete takes on the approach run, each movement can – and will – have a subsequent impact on the next down the chain.
Pole Vaulters – a unique breed of athlete
Pole vaulters have the speed and elastic qualities of a horizontal jumper, the body control and awareness of a gymnast and the risk taking behavior of an extreme sport athlete. They are truly a hybrid athlete mentally and physically. The unique physical and character traits many of the most successful Pole Vaulters exhibit provide a great indication of the event’s demands, and the qualities necessary to meet these with success. Then, notwithstanding the fierce rivalry seen in the heat of competition, Pole Vaulters rather uniquely often form bonds of friendship and comradery rarely seen in other events. Why is this? As Emma George – former WR holder explained: “The pole vault is special, because competitors need to help each other at times. Also since you’re out there two to three hours at a time, why not be friendly!” (Best of the Best). British Vaulter Steve Lewis, moved to Australia to work with 2008 Olympic Champion Steve Hooker. This partnership was a huge boost for Steve’s understanding of the event. Together they worked on new ideas and developing each others strengths and weaknesses and at the Commonwealth Games 2010 finished first and second! They remain close friends. (Aurum Sports). Then in 2012, a story of comradery explained how Steve Hooker saved energy to reach the Olympic final with a mark of 5.50m “Me and Steve (Britain’s Steve Lewis) were sitting next to each other and the two Germans were on our pit. We just had a chat and said, `Why waste our energy today, it’s all about Friday night.’ We’re all good mates out there and we all want to have as many guys in the final as possible, so it worked out well.” (Herald Sun).
Many coaches are also known to share great respect and become good friends. Being around each other for competitions that have been known to last 3 hours plus forges communication. The level of difficulty the sport commands also breeds a special kind of respect between athletes and coaches, as alluded to by Sam Kendricks in the video clip below.
Coaches often ask what physical frame the ‘ideal’ Pole Vaulter should have. From a scientific standpoint, we can refer to Dr Peter McGinnis – who explains that “elite vaulters are generally tall. Taller athletes have an advantage in the Pole Vault, especially at the pole strike. A taller athlete usually has a higher reach, and an athlete with a higher reach can strike the pole at a higher angle than a shorter athlete with a lower reach. Most elite male Pole Vaulters stand more than 6’0″ tall. American record holder Jeff Hartwig is 6′ 3″. Olympic champion Tim Mack is 6′ 2″. American record holder Jenn Suhri is 6′ 0″. World Record holder Yelena Isinbayeva is 5′ 8½”. There are exceptions, of course – Scott Huffman, Greg Duplantis, Yarisley Silva, and Svetlana Feofanova for example.” (McGinnis, 2007).
While being tall clearly has its advantages in terms of the ability to maximize grip height, it’s not as simple as the taller you are, the higher you will jump. So many variables, including run up speed, energy lost at take off, energy gained during the vault, biomotor abilities, grip height, pole flex, push off height, as well as psychological characteristics impact competitive results. There is more than one way to jump high! If we compare the current and previous men’s World Record Holders, we see there are two very different sized athletes: The current world record holder 6.16m Renaud Lavillenie is 1.76m tall, weighing in at 71kg. His predecessor, Sergey Bubka who vaulted 6.15m indoors in 1993 is 1.76m tall, and weighed in at 80kg as a vaulter (Source – IAAF). Then if we compare two of America’s best female vaulters, we see that Jenn Suhr – with a PR of 5.02m – is 1.83m tall. Closely matched is Sandi Morris – with a PR of 5m – but a smaller frame standing 1.73m tall.
Digging deeper, we can observe that the top 20 globally ranked women in 2006 (vaulting between 4.41m and 5.01m) had an average height of 171cm and an average weight of 59.25kg. The tallest was 180cm, the shortest 165cm; the heaviest 67 kg, and the lightest 51 kg. In the same year, the top 20 globally ranked men vaulted between 5.75m and 6.00m. These men had an average height of 186.3cm, and an average weight of 78.9kg. The tallest vaulter was 193cm and the shortest 178cm. The heaviest was 86kg, and the lightest 68kg. (Source: Tilastopaja Oy).
So what does this tell us? Clearly there are many shapes and sizes of athlete who are able to achieve elite results. This can be explained by the massive range in variables that conspire to drive performance. While the taller athletes are have a higher center of mass and are able to achieve a higher pole to ground angle at take off, factors such as run up speed, strength, effectiveness of take off and their efficiency on the pole are all contributing factors. At the elite level, risk taking and surfing ‘on the edge’ in terms of poles and grips is also necessary – not all vaulters have the ability to overcome the fear factor of the event.
The graphic below provides a great example of the fact there is more than one way to jump high!
Video stop: Further thoughts on body prototype factors
Patience & Passion
For the successful vaulters it is obvious the Pole Vault goes beyond just a thing they’re good at. It’s a passion, an ‘irrational obsession’, and one that they just love. Elite Pole Vaulters are often heard chatting enthusiastically about the event with each other. So, as a Coach, whatever you do, keep it fun and keep that passion alive!
While Pole Vaulters are rightly often characterized as high energy thrill seekers, there is also another side to most successful vaulters. Those who enjoy the greatest results are often known to be the most avid students of the event, with the deepest understanding of the dynamics of the vault. With so much complexity and challenge to overcome, this is no surprise! My experience shows that deep study is evident in podium finishers for sure: Pole Vaulters must learn to feel what they are doing, and be able to communicate that with the coach. Understanding cause and effect within the event is therefore critical. As Steve Hooker is quoted as saying: “Pole vaulting is like a jigsaw puzzle. You have to work out what piece is missing, why it is missing and how you replace it.”
To really succeed in this event, the athlete must not only thrive on the thrills and highs of the event, but must be able to pick themselves up after failure. Ultimately, every competition ends in failure – unless the athlete chooses to retire after a clearance. Those who are permanently debilitated by temporary setbacks or failure will struggle.
The uncomfortable truth in Pole Vault is that the athlete will inevitably fail the bar far more often that they clear it. The athlete has to come to terms with the reality of ‘transitory failure’ – pick themselves up, and keep moving forward. The question they must ask is ‘how can I do this better?’ Those who get hung up on failure will struggle. We must encourage a realistic but forward looking mindset early on for athletes to build resilience factors.
The fear factor is something most athletes feel at one stage or another, and as such should not be ignored as a performance influencer. Many a talented athlete has failed due to being gripped by fear, or ‘the yips’. However, the successful ones push through the fear and take action. “To be fair, what’s not to fear? The event is ridiculous” reporter Alan Burdick asserts: “You sprint down a paved runway carrying a fiberglass pole, plant the far end of the pole in a half-buried box, leap, and, with the pole now bent … invert yourself and pirouette … over the bar. That’s if things go well. Poles break, winds nudge you off course … a fraction’s hesitation in the approach can send you vaulting in the wrong direction or leave you dangling in midair with the mat nowhere below. Jenn Suhr, who won the women’s gold [in 2012], didn’t start vaulting until she was twenty-two: “I was afraid of it,” she has said. “I thought those people were crazy.”
Not only this, vaulters face a physical barrier to overcome – the bar itself. Pole Vaulters must therefore develop a resiliency which surpasses other events. This must be taught through the development of confidence, courage, and an adventurous, but sensible approach to risk taking. As coaches we simply cannot ignore this critical performance indicator.
Video stop: What makes Pole Vaulters unique?
Video stop: Guest opinion featuring Coach Greg Hull’s thoughts on the characteristics of successful vaulters
Athlete perspective: Stacy Dragila – Olympic Gold medalist on what makes a successful Pole Vaulter
Pole Vault: A brief history
Keeping in theme with the concept of athletes becoming a student of their event, the same is true for coaches: Understanding the origins and progress the event has undergone is key for a coach, for it aids in explaining some of the stylistic and technical changes any student of the event will notice upon study of today’s trends. We will therefore start this journey of understanding with a brief history of the Pole Vault, including contributions by Coach and Author David Butler.
The journey’s start
The Pole Vault enjoys a colorful history, the evolution of which defines the competitive event we see held in stadiums across the globe today. Called Stabhochsprung in Germany, Saut a la Perche in France, Salto con l’asta in Italy, Salto con Pértiga in Spain, Polsstokhoogspringen in Dutch, and Skok o Tyczce in Poland, the Pole Vault has a rich background. Although there is no firm evidence to suggest that Pole Vault was conducted as competitive event before the early 1800s, various archaeological evidence, predominantly based on remains of artistry, pottery and the like, suggest that as far back as 2500 BC various poles were used for a range of purposes as a method to overcome obstacles. 6th Century Greek Mythology reveals the example found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, describing how: “Nestor might perhaps have perished too before the time of Troy, had he not leapt Vaulting on his long spear, into a tree that stood at hand, and there in safety gazed down on the enemy that he’d escaped.” In the same classic text, another obstacle surpassing incident is described when “Minerva … with the spear as lever, spurning the loathsome ground, took off for Heaven.”
Fast forward to 1500, and we learn that during the Battle of Hemmingstedt, Dithmarschen’s peasants used their “two pronged pikes” and halberds to vault into battle with the Danish army, when trapped on a narrow road between flooded fields. In the same century, the 1515 Medieval Flemish Painting called “Harvesting Acorns for Pigs and Hunting” shows a hunter vaulting over a stream. Then in 1520 during the Battle of Tenochtitlan, Pedro De Alvarado while in retreat from 1000s of Aztecs “planted his lance and leapt into the air like the pole vault”. Also in the early 1500s, King Henry the 8th, while following a hawk on a hunt, tried to Pole Vault over a ditch. The pole snapped and the King landed head-first into the muddy water. He is reported to have nearly drowned, but was saved by his footman.
In the 18th Century the Ainu people of Hokkaido, Japan vaulted for height with bamboo. Then during the Battle of Cowpens in 1781, an American officer Captain Anderson charged a British cannon called “Grasshoppers” and vaulted over the cannon with a spontoon, capturing the piece for use by the Continentals.
Vaulting into history
In the Canary Islands, Pole Vaulting was known as “The Shepherd’s Leap”, whereby Shepherds vaulted down the cliff-sides and mountain rock formations, using a wood pole with a metal spike.
In the 1800s the great Physical Educators GutsMuths and Jahn had pole jumping in their physical education curriculum in Germany. In the same century in France, vaulting was part of Military Training. In Spain, generation after generation witnessed Salto de la Garrocha where bullfighters vaulted over the charging bulls! This “vaulting” is documented by the artists Goya and Picasso.
The first recorded use of bamboo poles was in 1857. Later in the 19th century vaulting on bamboo was first documented in the early photographic motion studies by Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey and Thomas Eakins.
Competitive Pole Vault
The genesis of ‘competitive’ Pole Vault occurred in the 19th Century, with the first known Pole Vault competitions held during the Irish Tailteann Games 1829. In 1887, Tom Ray, of Cumbria found a way to add several feet by climbing the pole when it was upright! This style has since been banned.
Pole Vaulting became an original modern Olympic event later that century in 1896, followed by the first World Record in the Pole Vault being recorded by the IAAF in 1912 in Stockholm. While women did not begin officially competing until the later 1990s, at Indiana University, Pauline Siebenthal vaulted to an unofficial World Record of 6 ft. 6 in in 1915. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Emma George became the first woman to clear 14 feet, on 17 December 1995. The video below shows her a competing a year later.
As a championship event, Pole Vault was first included for women at the 1999 World Championships, followed a year later by its addition to the Olympic Program, at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Pole Vault Poles – Evolution of materials
Much of the evolution of the event can be attributed to the shift in materials used for the pole itself.
Hardwood (Ash or Hickory)
In the mid-19th century, poles were made of heavy, rigid hardwood such as ash or hickory. The athlete would climb the pole after they planted and jumped, and throughout the vault, the pole remained rigid. The video below shows similar technique in a Dutch version of vaulting – ‘Canal Jumping’.
By 1942, the men’s World Record, set on a bamboo pole, was recorded at 4.77 meters. However, the bamboo pole still presented limitations to achieving higher heights. The pole still did not bend enough to significantly increase the efficiency of the vault, and a large portion of energy was lost during the impact of the plant. Additionally, bamboo’s relative weakness meant it could take less stress/bending before breaking in comparison to both the hardwood poles used before it, and the fiber-glass poles used after. The ramifications of this were that vaulters could not put as much force into the poles, thus limiting the heights that they could achieve.
Steel & Aluminum
Steel and aluminum poles made a brief appearance in the world of pole vaulting in the 1950s and 60s. While stronger than bamboo, their weight made their popularity wane relatively quickly upon the introduction of fiberglass poles.
Fiberglass and Carbon Fiber
The introduction of fiberglass poles to the U.S. in 1956 was revolutionary, and impacted heights cleared within a matter of a decade. This is evidenced by a new World Record set in 1961 at 4.83m meters. Carbon fiber, and hybrid pole designs have since been developed, and continue to evolve.
Video Stop: The evolution of Pole materials – featuring Bamboo and Steel
With the change in material and pole construction, we are all aware that poles are now capable of bending significantly. But what does this mean for technique?
Most world-class male pole vaulters use fiberglass or carbon fiber poles that are 5.00±5.20 m long. These poles may be bent by over 120 degrees without breaking, and are able to store an amount of elastic strain energy that is equivalent to about one half of the vaulter’s run-up kinetic energy(Linthorne, 2000). However, despite these changes, we must remember that Pole Vaulting is still a jumping event: A pole moving event, not a pole bending event! As per the days of bamboo and aluminum vaulting, we should still see both arms reaching as high as possible at plant, and an elastic action of the chest and shoulder girdle. Today’s best vaulters understand this, and mirror the movement of the best rigid pole vaulters through this elastic action of the arms and chest at take off:
The benefits of the flexible pole
One of the most noticeable benefits of the flexible pole is the increased grip height the athlete can take. Two models have been proposed as to why this is: One being that a flexible pole bends to a shorter effective length once compressed, reducing the moment of inertia of the vaulter on the pole, and so enabling the pole to rotate to vertical more easily. According to Linthorne (2000) however, this argument violates the principle of conservation of energy: “A vaulter’s grip height is actually determined primarily by the kinetic energy at take-off. The higher the kinetic energy at take-off, the longer the pole the vaulter is able to rotate to vertical.” He goes on to suggest that “the most credible explanation for the higher grips when using a flexible pole is that the pole reduces the shock experienced by the vaulter, and so less energy is dissipated in the vaulter’s body during the take-off. The vaulter therefore has a higher take-off velocity, and is able to rotate a longer pole to vertical.” Furthermore, there is “a lesser known difference between vaulting with a flexible pole, and vaulting with a rigid pole – which may also be important” he notes: “The take-off angles for vaulters using fiberglass poles are lower than for vaulters using bamboo or steel poles.” This suggests that some of the advantage of a flexible pole maybe found in the lower optimum take-off angle required. This means the vaulter does not lose as much kinetic energy in an attempt to jump ‘up’ at take-off – an action which dissipates some of the vaulter’s kinetic energy gained in the run. In fact, since using modern fiberglass poles, vaulters have found by trial-and-error that the height of the vault is maximized when they execute a take-off angle of 15±20 degrees, rather than the higher take off angles seen with athletes using inflexible poles (McGinnis,1987).
The table below provides an overall summary of the differences in measurable parameters between flexible and inflexible poles:
Video stop: Further thoughts on the benefits of a flexible pole.
Do the benefits of a fiberglass pole stem from the fact that the effective pole length is reduced during the bending action – allowing faster rotation and higher grips? Or is it down to the ability of the athlete to maintain greater energy through take off?
Video stop: Guest insights from Coach Greg Hull.
How has technique has evolved with the evolution of materials? What mistakes do bending poles hide?
World Record evolution
The past century and beyond has been witness to significant developments to the World Records. As such, the current World Record holders for U18 through to senior are listed below. Recognizing what ‘gold standard’ looks like is always useful to provide perspective on performances.
The people behind the records
As a final stop in this module, I’ve included some video footage of some of the above mentioned World Record holders. Before moving onto the next module, I’d suggest to take some time to watch the videos below, and consider the following questions:
What are the commonalities you see in the jumps?
How is the pole moving during the run?
What is happening over the last few strides into take off?
How is the pole moving to the vertical after take off – fast or slow?
Where is the athlete landing?
Sergey Bubka – Outdoor Record Evolution
Renaud Lavillenie – Current Men’s World Record Holder (note the stands on +80 for this World Record!)
Yelena Isinbayeva – Current Women’s World Record Holder
Jenn Suhr – 5.02m – Current Indoor Women’s World Record Holder
Armand Duplantis – 5.90m – Current World Junior Record Holder – Men
Wilma Murto – 4.71m – Current World Junior Record Holder – Women
Pole Vault is a jumping event and should be taught as such.
Certain physical and character traits have been noted in many world class Pole Vaulters.
Pole Vault has been around for centuries, but only in the 20th century did it start to be contested as a competitive event.
The evolution of materials has been accompanied in evolution of technique, but the principle of rotating the pole to vertical remains the same.
Women were first included in the World Championships in 1999, and the Olympic Games in 2000.
The evolution of World Records continues, with the men’s record being the most recent to be broken, in 2014.
Push off height
Video: A look at historical Pole Vault instruction
Video: The Tech Race – a look at the evolution of materials used to make vaulting poles
Video: Technique evolution in the Pole Vault
Video: The evolution of the World Record from John Pennell to Bob Seagreen (1963 – 1972)
While not dripping in glamor factor, the content of this module explores topics critical to all vault coaches: Critical because it is our requirement and duty as coaches to ensure we have a thorough understanding of the safety considerations, equipment considerations, and rules of competition which govern our event. It is also our responsibility to relay this information to athletes to ensure they can operate safely and effectively while taking part in this great sport. Gaining a better understanding of the topics discussed within will also help you to make informed and appropriate decisions on pole selection, pole progression, equipment set up, and tactics within competition. These factors all form part of the performance puzzle, and can contribute as performance enhancers when properly understood – they should therefore be considered with as much due care and attention as the more ‘exciting’ aspects of the vault.
Note: In discussions surrounding rules and equipment for competition, we will be referring to regulations as outlined by the IAAF Competition rules 2018-2019. However, please be aware for US Coaches that three basic sets of rules exist for pole vaulting in the U.S.A:
Coaches interested in specific country rules should check the further learning section of this module for links to selected National Federations. Each season, it is strongly advised that you consult your specific rule book regarding regulations surrounding vaulting facilities and equipment.
Unlike many Track & Field events, Pole Vault is heavily reliant on equipment. However, this shouldn’t become a road block to starting a Pole Vault program, nor a hindrance to success. With creative thinking and an understanding of key requirements, we can do a solid job as coaches with even the most basic equipment provision. This module will explore equipment requirements and options, poles and pole selection, and what is necessary to have to teach the event at various stages of instruction, versus the nice to have.
Pole Vault Poles
With a number of brands, lengths, weights and flexes available, it can be confusing for coaches, parents and athletes to traverse through the minefield that is pole selection. We will start this journey with outlining the competition rules – as defined by the IAAF – which dictate the constraints we must operate within:
Athletes may use their own poles.
No athlete shall use any other athlete’s pole except with the consent of the owner.
The pole may be of any material or combination of materials and of any length or diameter, but the basic surface must be smooth.
The pole may have layers of tape at the grip end (to protect the hand) and of tape and/or any other suitable material at the bottom end (to protect the pole).
Any tape at the grip end must be uniform except for incidental overlapping and must not result in any sudden change in diameter, such as the creation of any “ring” on the pole.
Only “regular” taping in accordance with the Rule is allowed at the grip end of the pole – rings, loops and the like are not permitted.
There is no restriction on how far up or down the pole such taping extends but it should be for the purpose for which it is intended – to protect the hand.
There is however no restriction at the bottom end of the pole and in general any form of taping or protection is permitted there – provided it does not give the athlete any advantage.
Once these basic premises are understood, we next need to consider key questions surround pole inventory and pole selection considerations. In my experience, these include, but are not limited to the following questions and considerations:
Demystifying Pole Vault Terminology
Next, it’s crucial that both the coach and athlete understand the terminology used to describe the pole itself, and the way it interacts with the vaulter. This common language provides a baseline for communication and aids in the avoidance of confusion.
Getting to grips with Vaulting Poles
Understanding the basics of how poles are designed, and what the ‘right’ pole and grip looks like is a critical coaching skill. Using the wrong pole or grip can cause failure at a bar even if the athlete is doing everything right. As such we will now take a more in-depth look at some of the key points surrounding this area:
Pole design & grip height
Fiberglass poles are constructed from woven fiberglass cloth that is impregnated with epoxy resin. The pole is heated during construction so that the resin bonds the layers of glass together to form a composite material. The stiffness, weight, and recoil speed of the pole are determined by the resin properties, the fiber properties, the orientation of the fibers, and the distribution of the fibres along the length of the pole. Most fiberglass poles are constructed from three separate layers of woven fiberglass cloth. A pole will have a specified number of complete wraps of cloth around the pole’s circumference, and the number of wraps will determine the stiffness of the pole.
The third layer of fiberglass cloth is called the ‘sail piece’. The purpose of this layer is to set the distribution of glass fibers along the length of pole, and hence its strength profile. A pole that has a uniform distribution of fiberglass along its length will experience greatest stress and lateral deformation at a point midway along its length. However, such a pole is heavier than is necessary. A better design that minimizes the weight of the pole is to taper the distribution of fiberglass along the length of the pole so that there is more towards the center and less towards the ends. This will give a more uniform distribution of lateral bending strength along the length of the pole.
The sail piece is usually in the shape of a trapezoid, which is then wrapped around the pole several times. The geometry of the sail piece and its position on the pole determine where the pole has the greatest bend. Some elite vaulters specify to the manufacturer the desired location of the pole bend so as to give a better match to their vaulting technique. (Linthorne, 2007). The pole performs best if held above the sailpiece.
When the athlete lowers their grip on a pole, it makes the pole stiffer but it also makes the pole easier to rotate into the pit. We call this pole speed. The two factors of stiffness and pole speed are independent of each other. For this reason vaulters work to achieve an adequate amount of bend and at the same time preserve enough pole speed to land safely in the pit. Many elite level vaulters will work toward holding as high as possible on the pole. This gives them leverage over the sailpiece and usually works more favorably for catching the energy off the top of the jump. However, with developing athletes the key is safety and consistency, in terms of landing depth and the athlete’s technical execution.
Where to hold a pole?
As a general rule vaulters should always use poles that they can hold within the top 18” (45cm) of the pole. Each manufacturer outlines a recommended safer grip range on a certain poles, and poles are designed to be gripped within this range. For USA based coaches, a NSAF requirement is that the vaulter must be holding in the grip area, no higher than 6″ from the top of any pole or no lower than 18″ from the top of the pole.
When is a vaulter ready to switch poles?
This is always are hard question to answer but the simple answer is switch when the vaulter is ready, not just because you decide it’s a good idea to use a bigger pole. There are two pieces of information that a vaulter needs when deciding these adjustments – how much the pole bends, and where they land. Approximate guidelines are listed below.
Lower their grip if they are not penetrating deep enough onto the landing pad to produce a safe vault.
Lower their grip if they are landing near the side edges of the pad.
Lower their grip if they are over-bending their pole (more than 90 degrees).
Raise their grip if they are not over-bending the pole, but are landing too deep in the pit.
Go to a slightly stiffer pole if they are over-bending their pole and landing well into the pit.
Go to a softer or shorter pole (but never under their body weight) if they have mastered the progression outlined above and they can’t bend the pole.
Never adjust the grip upwards in increments larger than 2″ or 3″ per jump.
Coaches should also the athlete’s take-off step on a regular basis, and make necessary adjustments to the starting point of their run where required, so that the athlete’s take-off foot is directly under their top hand at the moment of leaving the ground.
Switching between length of poles
When switching between poles of different lengths you can not compare the flex numbers like for like, as different parameters for measurement are used for different length poles. As a general rule however, 6 inches of length will equal about 10lbs or stiffness given the same relative hand grip. For example, if a vaulter is jumping on a 13’ 160 and needs to go to a longer and stiffer pole, they would normally move to a 13’6 155. This would give them the additional length to move their grip higher and also be approximately 5lbs stiffer.
As a general guide, pole size used is the product of several factors including, but not limited to:
The length of approach
Grip height in relation to total length of the pole
Amount of vertical and horizontal velocity produced by the vaulter (speed)
The height of the vaulter
The weight of vaulter
The transfer of via run, plant and takeoff efficiency
Depth of the box
Degree of interference from box collars or overlapping pits
Relative speed of runway surface
… And a host of environmental conditions.
The key point is the vaulter should always be landing safely, and should be rotating the pole to vertical safely. In competition the stands should not be brought closer in to mask poor technique or pole selection. Remember – Renaud Lavillenie broke the World Record with the stands on +80.
Building a range of poles
The resistance chart originally created by Jan Johnson is a great start point for coaches considering a pole series, or appropriate transitions between poles.
This chart assumes that for every six inch length increase in pole length the vaulters maximum allowable body weight is reduced by ten pounds. It also suggests:
Vaulters who are incapable of vaulting on a pole equal to or greater than their body weight should move to a shorter pole.
Vaulters should not advance to the next pole until they can vault on a pole ten pounds greater than their body weight.
Remember: Grip height and pole selection should always be matched to the ability of the vaulter, and they should be landing safely in the middle of the mat.
With thanks to Jeff Hartwig for his contributions to this section.
Video Stop: Choosing a pole – further thoughts
Note: See the appendix at the bottom of this module for further information from the pole manufacturer’s perspective.
Storing and looking after poles
Poles come with a bung on the end, with a specific diameter. If the bung gets worn it should be replaced to protect the integrity of the pole. Some coaches get their athletes to place an old cut open tennis ball on the end of the bung to save the bung from excessive wear and tear during drills / pole runs and the like.
Looking after poles is critical:
They should never be left on the ground.
To protect them from impact on the winders, wrap something protective around the winders, or remove them so the poles don’t hit as they fall after the jump.
Place padding round the standards where possible.
Don’t allow them to hit concrete surfaces when falling. This is especially important for carbon poles.
The bottom of the pole, where it makes contact with the edge of the box, should be inspected for wear and tear. The bottom of the pole can also be protected, using ‘pole protectors’ or similar devices. Sam Kendricks explains a ‘home made’ solution to this in the video below:
Pole breaks are unfortunately a risk of the event. However, we must do everything we can in terms of pole care and storage to minimize risks. Following the steps outlined above is key, as is regularly checking poles for wear and tear. Do not use damaged poles, the risks are too great.
Poles breaks can usually be traced back to one of the following reasons:
1. The Pole was damaged, through:
Hitting the standards or winder handles repeatedly
Improper storage or transport
Thrown (do not allow vaulters to throw poles in anger!)
2. The Pole was overloaded as a result of:
The vaulter’s bodyweight rating being above the recommended limit
The vaulter puling or performing another technical flaw causing the pole to overbend
3. The Pole had a manufacturing defect:
Very occasionally there is an issue with the pole which makes it more susceptible to breakage. Whenever you take delivery of a new pole, always check it thoroughly for damage or abnormalities.
Training Equipment Considerations
To introduce the event, coaches simply need a pole (which shouldn’t bend for beginners), and a flat surface. A sand pit is also very useful in the beginner phases.
Once an athlete has mastered the basics of holding a pole, jumping and moving a stiff pole, they can progress to bending pole exercises in the Pole Vault pit. It is at this point that the coach will need to consider the range of poles appropriate to the athlete at their disposal. Progressions for this will be discussed later in this course.
Useful additions include:
Slide / Sliding box
Gymnastics equipment such as a high bar, parallel bars, wall bars, rings, and a rope
Access to a sand pit for take off development exercises
Elite training equipment
Some elite centers have a range of facilities, including multiple pits, downhill run ups, raised run ups, and even boxes which can be made deeper. However, this is not necessary for success. The video below features Scott Simpson – Performance Director at Welsh Athletics, as he shares thoughts on training equipment for Pole Vault.
Competition Equipment Specifications
Before allowing athletes to compete it is good practice for coaches to perform basic visual checks where possible, to ensure the equipment provided is set up correctly, safe, and fit for purpose. The section below outlines competition specifications which provides basic information on minimum standards from an IAAF Competition rule perspective. For specific High School, Collegiate, or Country-specific rules, please see the links in the further learning section.
The minimum length of the runway, measured from the “zero” line, shall be 40m and where conditions permit, 45m. It shall have a width of 1.22m ± 0.01m and shall be marked by white lines 50mm in width. (Note: For all tracks constructed before 1 January 2004 the runway may have a width of maximum 1.25m. However, when such a runway is fully resurfaced, the lane width shall comply with this Rule).
The maximum lateral inclination of the runway should be 1:100 (1%) unless special circumstances exist which justify the IAAF providing an exemption and, in the last 40m of the runway, the overall downward inclination in the direction of running shall not exceed 1:1000 (0.1%).”
Runways often get worn through long-term use, so always check the runway is suitable for purpose. If there is sitting water, leaves and the like, on the surface this should be cleared. This may need to be done both before, and during the competition.
The take-off for the Pole Vault shall be from a box. It shall be constructed of suitable material, with rounded or soft upper edges and shall be sunk level with the runway. It shall be 1.00m in length, measured along the inside of the bottom of the box, 0.60m in width at the front end and tapering to 0.15m in width at the bottom of the stop board. The length of the box at runway level and the depth of the stop board are determined by the angle of 105° formed between the base and the stop board. (Tolerances on dimensions and angles: ± 0.01m and − 0°/ + 1°)
The base of the box shall slope from runway level at the front end to a vertical distance below ground level of 0.20m at the point where it meets the stop board. The box should be constructed in such a manner that the sides slope outwards and end next to the stop board at an angle of approximately 120° to the base.
Note: An athlete may place padding around the box for additional protection during any of his trials. The placement of such equipment shall be done within the time allowed for the athlete’ s trial and shall be removed by the athlete immediately after his trial is completed.
The implications of how a box is set are outlined in the video below.
The Box Collar
While not within the IAAF rule book, the box collar will be a factor for some USA based coaches working with High School and Collegiate Athletes. Thoughts on the box collar are shared in the video below:
Uprights / Stands
Any style of uprights or posts may be used, provided they are rigid. The metallic structure of the base and the lower part of the uprights above the landing area must be covered with padding of appropriate material in order to provide protection to the athletes and the poles.
Coaches should ensure the stands are firmly bolted down and in sound operating condition. Some stand designs also use a fixed base, with the uppermost point moving (more commonly seen in Europe or in major championships). Others use a system where the whole stand moves. This can have implications as to how an athlete steers into the take off, and perceives the depth of the jump. This is explained further in the video below.
The crossbar shall rest on horizontal pegs so that if it is touched by an athlete or his pole, it will fall easily to the ground in the direction of the landing area. The pegs shall be without notches or indentations of any kind, of uniform thickness throughout and not more than 13mm in diameter.
They shall not extend more than 55mm from the supporting members, which shall be smooth. The vertical peg backings, which shall also be smooth and be constructed in a way that the crossbar cannot rest on the top of them, shall extend 35mm-40mm above the pegs.
The distance between the pegs shall be 4.28m-4.37m. The pegs shall not be of, or covered with, rubber or with any other material which has the effect of increasing the friction between them and the surface of the bar, nor may they have any kind of springs. The pegs should support the bar in the middle of the end pieces.
Ensure you use the right length pegs for your competition! In 2003, the IAAF changed the standard length of the pegs that the pole-vaulting crossbar rests on from 75mm to 55mm. The entire world adopted this change except the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSH), which oversees high school track and field in the United States. Unfortunately a mistake in the length of pegs used at the 2018 Pole Vault summit meant some marks were invalidated.
For competitions under Rules 1.1(a), (b), (c), (e) and (f), the landing area shall be not smaller than 6m long (behind the zero line and excluding the front pieces) x 6m wide x 0.8m high. The front pieces must be at least 2m long.
The sides of the landing area nearest to the box shall be placed 0.10m to 0.15m from the box and shall slope away from the box at an angle of approximately 45°.
The vast majority of catastrophic injuries in pole vaulting in the past 15 years have involved unpadded hard surfaces surrounding landing pads. Thus, the padding of any and all hard surfaces around the perimeter of minimum-sized landing systems is very important.
If the landing area is too close to the back of the box this can also cause danger. IAAF rules state that: “The sides of the landing area nearest to the box shall be placed 0.10m to 0.15m from the box and shall slope away from the box at an angle of approximately 45°” When placed closer, there is a risk of the pole hitting the back of the pit and recoiling early, throwing the athlete vertically without their jump penetrating onto the mat. Vaulters and coaches alike should check this both before practice and competition. If the pit shifts to cover the run up or box during competition, it should be pushed back. The case study below explores a scenario relating to pit placement and the ramifications of this from one Coach’s perspective:
Case study: Coach Jim Alexander (Northern Ireland) – Pit Set-Up
This case study shares a Coach Alexander’s review following a 2014 competition held in difficult conditions, which saw a number of experienced female athletes land in the box. Take a look at the video below which shows the competition in question:
Following this competition, Coach Jim Alexander – personal Coach to Zoe Brown – one of the competitors in this particular meet, decided to take action. As such, he produced a document which reviewed the Pole Vault Landing Area set-up for this competition. Before you move on, take a moment to look through this.
“You will see that my main contention [from the review] is that it was not the rain that caused only 4 out of a field of 12 athletes to clear a bar that night, rather it was the non-compliant set up of the landing mats. The non-compliant landing area coupled with the heavy rain, plus the determination of the organizers to finish this event on the Saturday evening come what may produced a ‘triple whammy’ effect – that resulted in the carnage we saw that night.”
“As a ‘lesson learned’ I had hoped that going forward a check list would be created for the set-up of a pole vault competition area (and indeed any field event competition area) that was required to be signed off by the lead official responsible for doing the set-up. This check list would then be handed over to the chief judge of the event prior to commencement of the event. That way the Chief Judge could have confidence that the equipment had been installed in a safe and compliant manner before the commencement of an event. Inturn this could be used to show physical evidence that the duty of care to the competing athletes was being enacted.” – Coach Jim Alexander
Safety & Risk Management
As a coach it is our duty to manage the inevitable risks that Pole Vaulting presents. Part of this process is educating ourselves, the other part is educating athletes, staff members, and track maintenance staff on the importance of safety. All parties involved should understand what ‘safe’ looks like – not in terms of vaulting itself, but in terms of supervision requirements, equipment maintenance, and the surrounding environment.
The section below has been adapted from content written by Jan Johnson – used with his permission. Coach Jan Johnson is the Chair for the Pole Vault Safety Committee of USA Track & Field, the 1972 Olympic Bronze Medalist in the Pole Vault, founder of Skyjumpers Vault Camps and Vault School, and a prominent Coach.
Part of the process of learning to Pole Vault is learning to manage risk. Below is a suggested safety checklist which provides pointers for some of the key environmental points which should be considered in any vault set up – whether that be a training or competition scenario. I would suggest you produce a similar list for your environment, which is then shared with coaches and athletes to ensure all parties play their part in ensuring the safety of all involved.
Head protection is certainly another element of controlling risk. Currently, no specific helmet for pole vaulting exists. However, helmets may be worn as an added safety measure. Several brands of hockey and skating helmets offer excellent protection to the sides and back of the head. These helmets are lightweight, and they offer foam inner-liners and a hard plastic outer-shell with an adjustable chin strap.
The helmet should be considered a personal piece of equipment supplied by the vaulter. It is important to note that even with large landing pads and additional padding of hard surfaces, the planting box area still remains a hazardous area for potential injury. Perhaps most important of all, a helmet should never be a substitute for proper equipment, or technique.
Besides the environment, another important area to consider in managing pole-vaulting safety is the teaching of basic skills and concepts. In addition, coaches should teach athletes the relationships between technique, grip height, approach run and pole stiffness. By also understanding key concepts such as rotating the pole to vertical, pushing rather than pulling, moving the pole rather than trying to bend the pole, and the importance of accelerating, jumping, and a strong take off, athletes are maximizing their chances of avoiding injury.
Both athletes and coaches should therefore mindful of the following…
What does a safe jump look like?
Where is first aid located?
In the event of an emergency, what is your action plan?
What does a safe jump look like?
What is the impact of attitude and risk taking on safety.
How to land safely.
How to safely abort a jump, and use the pole as an aid (never let go!).
Weather and Pole Vault Safety
Pole vaulters are heavily susceptible to environmental influences. Due consideration should therefore be given by coaches on whether risks are worth taking in poor conditions. Athletes should also be educated to make sound decisions on their environment.
Excessive winds in any direction, whether that be head, tail, cross, or gusting can cause problems for vaulters. When it is clear athletes are struggling to safely execute the plant and take off, consideration should be given as to whether it is appropriate to continue.
Rain creates risks both in terms of grip, traction on the run way, and in terms of soft tissue injury due to the athlete becoming cold and wet. The pit is also likely to get soaked and damaged. It is not advised to vault in heavy rain.
In a lightning storm, any metal objects (including the Pole Vault uprights/stands) can conduct or attract lightning. Carbon poles are also conductive. It is not safe to vault during a thunderstorm.
It is our requirement and duty as coaches to ensure we have a thorough understanding of the safety considerations, equipment considerations, and rules of competition which govern our event.
It is also our responsibility to relay this information to athletes to ensure they can operate safely and effectively while taking part in this great sport.
Coaches should ensure they are aware of the rules under which any given competition is being held, as well as what these rules entail.
Using safety checklists and educating athletes on the importance of adhering to checklist items prior to vaulting can be a useful adjunct to promoting safety.
Taking care of poles is critical. Both Coaches and athletes should regularly check poles for signs of wear and tear.
Both Coaches and athletes should be aware of the safety implications of vaulting in adverse weather conditions.
Jeff Hartwig of Gill Athletics for his contributions.
Dennis Osterberg of Nordic for his contributions.
Appendix: Pole Brands – the manufacturer’s opinion
Where brand manufacturers responded to our offer of including additional comment on their products, you will find their inputs below (with manufacturers listed in alphabetical order). Otherwise, you can click on the image to be directed to website of the manufacturer.
Manufacturer’s comments: Written by Jeff Hartwig of Gill Athletics
Gill Athletics vaulting poles are the closest thing any vaulter can have to a custom series of poles. All poles in the Gill series are made from the highest quality materials. Each of the brands within the Gill lineup possess unique attributes both in materials and design that make each brand stand out for its individual merits. At the same time, scientifically engineered formulas ensure consistency not only within each brand lineup but also when switching between brands. Gill uses the same flexing system for all brands and this ensures reliable comparability when switching or advancing throughout the line-up. Gill offers poles from 9’ 60lb poles up to 17’ 220lbs. With this series, why would anyone want to jump on a one size fits all brand?
Gill has many in house vaulting pole experts as well as a knowledgeable dealer network to help answer any questions when transitioning through poles. Generally speaking Gill Athletics has a pole to meet every vaulters needs. The unique merits of each design provide a natural progression from beginner or entry level poles up to the most advanced design and materials that have been incorporated into a pole vault pole. The biggest advantage to Gill brand poles is the use of scientifically engineered formulas that ensure smooth transition not only between poles of the same length but when transitioning to poles of different lengths. In the Pacer line of poles it is referred to as FX technology.
Gill’s Flagship vaulting pole made of lightweight s-glass fiberglass material. Utilizes FXV technology to eliminate randomness from the vaulting pole design. PacerFXV consistent bend characteristics and smooth transitions for pole to pole. An all new look in 2017, same great pole. Pacer is one of the greatest names in pole vaulting and our continued refinement of this tried and tested pole gives you the latest technology to ensure smoothness and consistency in the transition from pole to pole while preserving the same great performance this pole has had for years. Check out the new look and see why many vaulters choose Pacer FXV
First and only pole in the world to fully integrate lightweight carbon material. Characterized by a slightly faster re-coil over traditional fiberglass models. Designed for the more technically sound vaulter. Lighter carry weight and advanced technical vaulting will create faster runway speeds. Carbon FX is state of the art technology for the advanced vaulter. We incorporate the same general design as Pacer FXV but with the addition of Carbon a vaulter will experience the ultimate in performance. Carbon also make the poles lighter so vaulters will have more runway speed and easier control of the pole drop into the takeoff.
Unique design that allows for a small diameter pole. Ideal for female and young male vaulters. Vaulting pole is designed for smooth transitions. This pole accommodates majority of vaulters per its average lift velocity. The Mystic is a scaled down version of the Pacer FXV. This pole is ideal for younger vaulters and yet still incorporates the consistency of the whole Pacer line. The pole helps vaulters advance at a faster rate as their skills improve due to the smooth transitions from pole to pole.
Combines advantages of Mystic design with advantages of carbon fiber. Carry weight reduction and faster re-coil creates ideal pole for above average technical vaulters. Considered a slightly less aggressive CarbonFX with advantage of Mystic design. As a vaulter advances, sometimes a great design is just too good to move away from. Mystic Carbon takes the Pacer Mystic to a new level of performance. For the advanced vaulter still using poles under 15’ in length, the Mystic Carbon meets the need. Lighter carry weight, smaller mandrels and great consistency are all characteristics of this line of poles.
Originally designed by former world record holder Earl Bell. Unique design to ‘slow down’ the vaulting motion. Engineered to ‘roll’ into the pit easier allowing vaulters to rotate into a more vertical position. Easy roll characteristics makes this the preferred pole for high school vaulters. Skypole is actually Gill Athletics oldest brand of poles. Tested over time the Skypole incorporates a design which is more forgiving for less proficient vaulters. The unique asymmetrical sailpiece design allows the pole to bend a little easier in the top of the pole and role into the pit a little better. This allows a vaulter a little more time to work through the middle of the jump and catch more of the energy that is released by the pole.
Versatile pole perfect for beginning to intermediate athletes. Crafted from the industry’s strongest fiberglass material. Pacer ONE is the newest addition to the Gil Athletics vaulting pole line-up. We designed this pole specifically to cut cost for those programs that are particularly budget conscious. By limiting the sizes and lengths available we were able to cut costs and yet programs can still build a great series of poles. We still use high quality materials as well as our advanced technologies to ensure that this pole performs at the highest level.
Manufacturer’s comments: Written by Dennis Österberg of Nordic Sport
Nordic Sport poles are made on order within a week or two, and always produced to athlete’s requirements. We never mass produce and re-use old poles.
Our Carbon Evo poles have big bend, similar to fiber poles, but you get Carbon power at the end.
We have reliable poles, they always behave similarly every jump. We are aware of only three breakages of our Carbon Evo poles in the last 10 years.
We produce two kind of poles, pure fiberglass and a mix between fiberglass and carbon, we call this EVO2.
All poles are made from high quality fiberglass and carbon. Fiberpoles from 3m up to 4.60m are made by e-glass. The fiberpoles 4.75m and longer are made from s-glass.
The EVO Carbon poles are made of s-glass and carbon, for less weight and better bend.
Our poles are suited to everyone, from beginner to pros of any age.
Together with the athlete, our production manager can help to find the perfect range for the jumper, depending on what brand they used previously.
Our Flex differs from other brands, but we are usually placed between UCS Spirit and Pacer Flex scales.
Most people are familiar with mechanics as the field of science which studies the motion of objects. Biomechanics is a related field of science, but is purely concerned with human motion. It is a science which is interested in the forces that act upon a human body, and the effects these forces produce.
Understanding essential biomechanical concepts is imperative for coaches and performance staff, as it allows us to comprehend how people move, balance, stabilize and apply force. If we are to teach correct movements, understanding the biomechanical principles underpinning what ‘correct’ looks like is also critical. Think about technique versus style – correct technical practice in sport is governed by inarguable biomechanical principles, whereas stylistic differences are often an adaptation of techniques, based upon individual variation, nuance, or faults. People often confuse the two. Coaches and athletes without a grasp of biomechanics can easily fall into the trap of mimicking incorrect style based upon the latest and greatest athlete’s performance. This is a dangerous trap, as the forces an athlete is able to apply can heavily influence the expression of movement patterns, and these two parameters are inextricably intertwined. Attempting to get a young or developing athlete to emulate the movement expression of an elite performer violates biomechanical possibilities in most cases, and will end in frustration. Recognizing what correct looks like with respect to mechanics allows us to recognize the presence and cause of these stylistic nuances. These nuances may occur due to injury, or an inability to eliminate a bad motor behavior, but being able to spot them, and understand their source is a key coaching skill to develop.
I firmly believe that biomechanical efficiency therefore should drive training, and choices surrounding technical models. Mastery of mechanics should also be of paramount importance in any program. A knowledge of this platform helps us to provide meaningful instruction, based upon the appropriate and accurate evaluation of physical movement skills.
We must also realize that due to the elastic nature of the human body, the laws of rigid body physics studied in traditional mechanics do not always necessarily apply to human performance – this is why the study of biomechanics is so interesting. The elastic nature of the human body encompasses a complex system of couples, springs and three dimensional freedoms – creating multiple movement possibilities. These systems work in harmony to allow us to move asymmetrically, distort our bodies, and make incredible compensations not possible in rigid mechanical movement. By developing an understanding of these drivers behind motion and force, we learn to distinguish between the important and unimportant, correct and incorrect, and cause / effect with respect to movement. Additionally, it helps us to better understand the rationale behind equipment design, and the unique surfaces athletes compete on.
The Biomechanics of Pole Vault
In Pole Vault we must consider not only biomechanics – i.e. the mechanics of the athlete – but the mechanics of the pole, and the interaction between the athlete and pole. During the vault we are therefore faced with a number of concepts which impact the completion of the jump. It is of course beyond the scope of this module to launch a critical evaluation of all claims made by biomechanists, so we will instead focus on those areas which through experience and application I feel most relevant for coaches to embrace and understand. We will therefore focus our discussions on the following three points, namely:
Concepts surrounding energy conservation and transfer.
The impact of Newton’s Laws.
The sequential nature of events which influence ultimate height cleared in the Pole Vault.
Principle 1: Energy production, transfer and conservation
The Pole Vault is centered around the production and transformation of energy. The best vaulters do the most effective job of creating, converting and conserving energy. In the vault, kinetic energy from the run up (athlete velocity) is transferred via the plant, take off, and ‘on the pole’ phases into potential energy stored in the bending pole: The efficiency of this energy transfer is evident in the athlete’s ultimate jump height. Unlike the other jumps, the Pole Vault involves a series of sequential interactions between the athlete’s whole body and our implement – the flexible pole. Moreover, after the athlete has left the ground, energy can still be added into the vaulter-pole system.
To explore this energy transfer process in more detail, we will reference the work of Peter McGinnis (2000).
Ultimately, the potential energy at the apex of the vault is a product of: TEto + Uto-rel – Elost – Keexcess
So, (PEapex) or the potential energy of the vaulter at the apex of the vault is determined by:
How high their center of gravity is and how fast they are moving at takeoff (TEto)
The amount of mechanical work done on the pole during the vault (Uto-rel)
The amount of lost energy, or energy that is not converted to potential energy during the vault (Elost and KEexcess).
The maximum height which can be achieved in a given vault is a product of potential energy at the apex of the vault, i.e. (work done – energy lost).
While energy losses are to some degree inevitable due to friction and the way the vaulter manipulates their movement on the pole, we can conclude that the most effective vaulter will be the one who transfers the maximum amount of energy generated on the run up into the pole – as strain (potential) energy. As well as the athlete who keeps energy loss to a minimum.
Before moving onto an exploration into the inter-related impact of Newtons’ Laws on the transfer of energy, we will now explore further concepts which relate to this transfer:
The Hinge Moment
A moment is the turning effect of a force around a fixed point called a pivot. A hinge moment describes what happens when motion is suddenly interrupted, and one end of a body is stopped or decelerated: In most cases the end away from the stoppage point continues to move and is actually accelerated. A vaulter is experiencing a hinge moment when they plant the pole and the pole hits the back of the box. This moment creates a conversion of the linear / horizontal motion of the run into angular motion at take off. When executed correctly, we see a fluid transfer of momentum. When done incorrectly, we see the athlete stop or get pulled under, and an inadequate transfer of energy, meaning the pole is not rotated to vertical quickly enough to allow the vaulter to successfully complete a vault.
If effectively executed however, the athlete has generated enough energy during the run, and converted this energy at take off to manipulate the two interdependent pendulums which come into play once the athlete leaves the ground.
The two pendulums in the Pole Vault
The Pole Vault is known as a double pendular event – meaning that there are two pendulums interacting with each other to produce the outcome. The first pendulum – the vaulter, swings about their hands, the second pendulum – the pole (and connected athlete) rotates around the base of support in the box. The best vaulters co-ordinate the timing of this double pendular activity to move the pole to an upright position while moving their mass above their hands, allowing them to clear well above their grip height. The synchronization of these two pendulums is key. The angular velocity of each pendulum is influenced by the distance of the vaulter’s center of mass to the axis of rotation around the hand and shoulders. If the vaulter swings prematurely and raises their mass above the weight of the pole, we see the pole slow down. If the vaulter is late on the swing, there will be a great speed of the second pendulum (pole/box) however, the pole/athlete pendulum will not be able to maximally exploit the energy to raise their mass above their grip height.
The behavior of the two pendulums can be further explained by the metronome effect – whereby the athlete attempts to manipulate the moment of inertia so that the distribution of the athlete’s mass around the pole maintains pole speed. Why does an athlete stall out when they swing prematurely? The metronome effect explains why:
The Metronome effect
A mechanical metronome uses a movable weight on the end of an inverted pendulum rod to alter the tempo of the beat. A second, fixed weight is on the base of the pendulum pivot, hidden within the metronome case. That is why a mechanical metronome is also known as a double-weighted pendulum. Picture the metronome below: As the weight is moved closer to the fulcrum, it oscillates faster. Then, as the weight is moved further above the fulcrum, the oscillation slows down. The behavior of the pole’s speed of rotation (angular rotation) in response to movement of the athlete’s mass about the rotating pole is no different.
To successfully rotate the pole around the base of support (fulcrum) that is the box, the athlete must time the swing so that their mass maintains a low position near the base of support as long as possible to generate angular momentum, before then rapidly swinging to move their mass higher up the pole during the later stages of the vault.
Raising the athlete’s center of mass prematurely will slow the rotation of the pole (think of how a metronome slows down as the weight is raised higher). Understanding the rhythm and timing of these events is key to best conserving and transferring energy.
There is also a compromise between grip height and pole speed in addition to the athlete’s movements on the pole. The higher the athlete grips, the greater the energy that is required to rotate the pole to vertical. However, as discussed, the bending fiberglass pole can be held higher than stiff inflexible poles. This is in part a result of the shortening of the chord of the pole meaning the Center of Mass of the athlete and pole is kept lower during the initial phases, maintaining horizontal velocities.
Video stop: Further thoughts on Pole Vault, pole speed and the metronome effect
Further commentary on the effect of raising the grip on pole speed and the two pendular systems
Overall coaching implications of Principle 1: Energy production, transfer and conservation
In theory – the greater the speed the athlete is able to generate during the run, the higher the ultimate potential to clear higher bars. However, this speed must be controlled: Running faster or further, then executing a late or under plant and take off with poor postures only serves to lose energy gained, and create injury potential. Maximum controlled speed, allowing correct postures and timings at take off should therefore be sought.
In theory – the higher the grip the higher the athlete’s potential for jump height. However, in order to effectively and safely execute the vault there is a unique timing between the double pendular systems, and how quickly the pole rotates to vertical. A lower grip means a shorter lever, allowing the pole and athlete to rotate quickly. Raising the grip however, increases the energy demands to rotate the pole to vertical. If the athlete is unable to safely rotate a pole to vertical at a given grip, the gain is lost, as the pendulums will rotate more slowly, and the athlete will not be able to safely execute a dynamic swing to inversion. Coaches should pay particular attention to the cost-benefit of raising the grip, to ensure the athlete can safely control the jump, and land safely. This is especially so for less experienced vaulters. Both technique and athletic ability should be developed in order to maximize an athlete’s potential to grip as high as possible, and be as efficient as possible. The efficiency of the run and take off impacts all of the above – and this efficiency also crucially supports the maintenance of athlete health.
Principle 2: Newton’s Laws govern all movements in the vault
Newton’s laws of motion are three laws which lay the foundations for mechanics. They describe relationships between a body (which could be an object or person), the forces acting upon it, and the body’s motion in response to those forces.
Newton’s 1st Law – Inertia:
An object that is at rest will stay at rest unless a force acts upon it. An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless a force acts upon it.
The pole has no energy of its own! The vaulter must transfer and conserve energy through effective postures, timings and techniques to maximize height potential. There are no ‘waiting phases’ in the vault, and the athlete must always be attempting to add energy.
Newton’s 2nd Law – Acceleration:
The rate of change of momentum of a body is directly proportional to the force applied to it. This change in momentum takes place in the direction of the applied force.
Maximum controlled velocity into take off is key. However, the higher the velocity approaching take off, the greater the potential for energy loss. The athlete must always be able to control linear velocity and momentum generated during the run, to be able to translate it into vertical impulse at take off in an appropriate vector. If an athlete is running so fast into take off they cannot set up a penultimate and take off step, they will not be able to jump efficiently, they will lose energy, and they will likely be hitting blocking postures which create injury chains.
Newton’s 3rd Law – Action/Reaction:
For every force that is exerted on by one body on another, there is an equal and opposite force exerted by the second body onto the first – and their angular equivalents.
Newton’s cradle provides a fantastic example of the action/reaction concept, as well as the above two Laws of Motion.
In the video below, we see the swinging ball moving with a specific amount of momentum (we can compare this to the athlete during the approach run).
When the swinging ball is stopped by the collision with the stationary balls, the momentum is transferred to the neighboring ball, which can’t move – as it is surrounded: It therefore has to transfer its momentum to the next neighboring ball, and so on. We can compare this to the athlete first executing an effective take off. If the take off is effective, momentum will be transferred to the next ball, and so on.
However, if the take off is ineffective and the athlete swings prematurely, we will see a loss of energy and an inefficient transfer of momentum – the end ball will not swing away with the same amount of force that was applied to it at the start of the action.
Similarly, if the take off is ineffective, we can liken this to inserting a sponge between the first two balls on the moment of collision – energy is dissipated and lost, and the transfer of energy down the chain is dampened. The reaction to the action of a faulty take off would therefore be a loss of energy transferred through the chain, and a reduction in the ultimate height and energy at the apex of the vault.
For every action the vaulter makes, there is a reaction in the jump. Pole Vault is a jumping and pushing/compressing event. Vaulters who sink into take off, block the take off, swing prematurely, or pull on the pole will find the pole reacts in a manner of undesirable ways. When error detecting and correcting, coaches should be particularly mindful of this principle. Remember the pole has no energy of it’s own – it will react to the forces applied to it. The athlete should avoid any passive phases, and instead add energy in the system using the elastic interaction between the athlete and pole. Remember human body is a spring, not a rigid mechanical objects. We should therefore also allow for spring theory and elastic interactions from a three dimensional perspective.
Principle 3: Ultimate height achieved is influenced by a sequence of events
The Pole Vault is a continuous chain, sequential event. From the moment the vaulter takes their first step on the approach run, they are setting up a chain of events which ultimately impact the overall height cleared.
Many coaches get lost trying to fix flaws during the latter parts of the vault, not understanding that the cause is rooted earlier on in the chain. (This is explained in the above example of Newton’s Cradle).
Instead, the global height potential can be examined through the lens for four different interconnected phases, as explained by Hay (1993). These phases should be considered in conjunction with the above discussed concepts, and the efficient transfer of energy.
First – H1 – The vaulter’s Center of Mass (CoM) height at take off (Take-off height)
Second H2 – The height that the CoM is raised while in contact with the pole (Swing height)
Third H3 – The height that the CoM is raised after pole release (Flight height)
Fourth H4 – The difference between the bar height and the peak height of the athlete’s CoM (Clearance height)
First – H1 The vaulter’s Center of Mass (CoM) height at take off (Take-off height)
This tells us that the ‘taller’ the athlete – i.e. the higher their center of mass at take off, the higher the pole ground angle at take off, meaning the less distance the pole has to rotate to reach vertical. However, irrespective of the height and reach height of the athlete, at take off the vaulter should be aiming to maximize pole ground angle, with fully extended arms, and maximization of hip height. This is achieved by setting up correct postures in the plant, a correct take off position relative to the pole, and correct penultimate step and take off step mechanics.
Second – H2 The height that the CoM is raised while in contact with the pole (Swing height)
The swing height is dependent on the effectiveness of the plant and take off. Once the vaulter has completed the take off, and swung through the chord of the pole, they will be in a position to add force without reducing pole speed. A vaulter who takes off under, blocks, or swings prematurely will find themselves fighting the pole, and losing energy during this phase. Often this is manifested in a stalling pole and a vaulter flagging out at the bar. An effective swing will allow the vaulter to raise their CoM above the bend of the pole, with timing and position that allows them to exploit the kinetic energy transferred during the recoiling of the pole.
If the take off and swing phases have been executed effectively, the vaulter should have their CoM in line with the pole, and will be turning around the long axis of the pole. Any deviation from this position will be the result of mistakes in earlier phases. The coach should therefore consider the work done in the earlier parts of the vault. If the vaulter turns tight around the pole, they will maximize their flight height by fully exploiting the energy in the recoiling pole. In the example below, we can see the vaulter is flagging and as a result loses some of the energy gained in earlier phases of the vault.
H4 – Contorting body over bar, maximize angular momentum (Clearance height)
H4 is the product of all H’s before it. The ultimate height cleared is therefore the product of the grip height, and how effectively all the ‘H’s’ have been executed. Remember ultimate grip height is impacted by the depth of the box, so wherever the athlete grips should be considered by a reduction in 20cm to account for the box depth. To maximize clearance height vaulters should adopt a piked position in order to raise their CoM above the bar in the final stages of the vault during bar clearance.
Coaching implications of Principle 3: Ultimate height achieved is influenced by a sequence of events
The vault should be viewed as a continuous chain of sequential events, each impacting the resultant movements seen in the next. It also tells us that there is more than one way to vault high. A vaulter with an above average grip height, but poor flight and clearance height may well jump lower than someone with a lower grip height and better flight and clearance height!
Video Stop: Biomechanics of the Pole Vault with German Biomechanist – Falke Schade
As a final stop in our exploration of the mechanics of Pole Vault, I have included a presentation by Falke Schade taken at the European Pole Vault Summit. Falke is a prominent German biomechanist and student of the Pole Vault. Clear some time to watch this video before moving on.
Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – What are they?
So what do we need to prioritize in order to best exploit the biomechanical truths which govern the transfer of energy in our event?
We need to start by defining our Key Performance Indicators.
These track and analyze factors deemed crucial to the success of the vault, and provide a framework from which to base our analysis. Further details on KPIs are shared in the video below:
Pole Vault: Defining your KPIs
The aim of the Pole Vault is to jump high as high as possible, then to land safely. Now we have explored the overarching concepts influencing this, we can distill our focus down to the real KPIs (or Key Performance Indicators) for achieving success in the vault.
Ultimately, vault performance comes down to:
Grip Height and Pole flex (stiffness)
Height cleared above the grip (push off)
Both these factors are impacted by the principles discussed in the previous section, and can be summarized below by the primary KPIs and their influencing KPIs.
Pole Vault – Using KPIs to define your technical model
When developing a technical model it is critical to first identify the Key Performance Indicators which define the model and event: What are the absolutes that one has to do to jump high, jump efficiently, and stay healthy? These premises should be based on a careful evaluation of the primary KPIs – and their causal factors – the secondary and tertiary KPIs. As a result of the range of differences between vaulters, we often see a gradation in terms of style. However, the most successful vaulters share commonalities in execution of primary and secondary KPIs, and commonalities in biomechanical nuances. However, they adapt the jump based on their unique skillsets and anthropometry.
I’ve been fortunate and blessed to work with some really good people – Steve Lewis, Brad Walker, Holly Bleasdale, Yoo Kim, Jacob Davis, and Becky Holliday, for example. Through the years of study and coaching, being frustrated, having injuries, failures and meltdowns, the above are the KPIs I keep coming back to. They are the KPIs the really successful vaulters demonstrate. If we’re being truly ethical with our athletes we need to work towards these KPIs of grip and pole flex, and getting used to spacing and timing changes. However, we must also remember that KPIs are fluid. They are different for a 14 year old than they are for an Olympic finalist, so we can’t use same training plan or motifs with a broad brush for all. With more mature athletes for example, we may use less volume, more intensity, and dial in density. It may only be two heavy sessions a week – and that doesn’t mean you fill up other days with window dressing. If they have issues – psychological, or emotional – the last thing you want them to do is come to those key workouts tired.
The technical model you follow should be based on sound biomechanical and pedagogical principles, not style or nuance, nor just what we see others do: It should have a sound and rational underpinning, and be appropriate for the athlete’s skill sets and stage of development. We often see a tendency to emulate whoever is hot at the moment. However, sometimes understand that some stylistic nuances occur because of injury, or inability to eliminate a bad behavior. In that sense it’s critical that when you study film that you understand what biomechanically correct movements look like. Also realize models are fluid and that they change. A vaulter using a 5.20m pole is a different model to a 4m pole. Lastly, realize that biomechanics branches into kinetics and kinematics, it’s a snapshot that day that jump. Look for trends, models and evolving models before leaping to conclusions.
Further thoughts on how KPIs differ according to the stage of the athlete
Video Stop: In this extended video Coach Pfaff further explores concepts surrounding defining KPIs in Speed Power Events
Pole Vault: A technical model
The Pole Vault should always be viewed as a sequential, continuous chain event. However, for the purpose of teaching and analysis and defining our technical model in the upcoming modules, we will be dividing the vault in to specific phases to allow for more specific analysis and targeted discussion. The table below outlines the phases we will be referring to in the forthcoming mosulwa as we conduct a technical analysis as the next stop in our journey.
The Pole Vault is subject to the laws of biomechanics.
Technique should be based on biomechanical truths, while allowing flexibility for individual style.
KPIs should determine your technical model.
A technical model should be appropriate for the level of athlete you are working with.
A technical exploration of the Approach Run and Pole Drop.
The Approach Run & Pole drop
The approach run and pole drop, for the purposes of this module will be defined as movements taken from the first step of the run, to the penultimate left step prior to take off. Before we start our exploratory journey, take a moment to watch the video below and familiarize yourself with the run. As you watch, look for commonalities – what are all the athletes doing? Are there any athletes doing things differently?
The Approach Run – the first step to success
The approach run should be at the top or near the top of your KPI list, as the effectiveness of this phase of the vault determines how successful the following phases of the vault will be. Further, there is a significant correlation between speed over the last 5 meters of the approach run and crossbar height cleared. This is one of the most important determinants of success in pole vaulting, and it is universally agreed that highly developed acceleration and maximum velocity abilities are necessary for high level success in the Pole Vault. During the last steps of their approach runs elite male vaulters, for example, reach speeds in excess of 9.5 m/s (29.5 ft/s), while elite female vaulters reach speeds in excess of 8.2 m/s (26.9 ft/s). Not all fast vaulters are elite vaulters, but all elite vaulters are fast (McGinnis, 2007).
As a Coach, understanding and teaching acceleration and upright sprinting is therefore critical, for if an athlete is unable to effectively execute the correct mechanics of these movements without a pole, it’s doubtful they’ll do it with a pole. Realize therefore, that if you don’t teach or understand the approach run, you’re already behind. As such, Wwe teach runway approach dynamics at all times, using acceleration, speed, and alactic sessions as classroom time to implement the shapes and components of the approach. We start actual runway construction by late November, and work on it once to twice weekly all season long. We also demand steering and targeting accuracy from Day 1, and hold athletes very accountable for this and the concomitant biomechanical landmark executions.
Realize also that an effective approach run is very dependent on the effectiveness of the pole drop. When executed correctly, combining the movement of the pole with the dynamics of the run should allow athlete to generate kinetic energy in the form of maximum controllable velocity, while also delivering the vaulter into the optimal position for take-off to maximize the potential to transfer energy. At the same time, we should work on minimizing energy losses by reducing inefficiencies such as a poorly structured run, or late/early pole drop.
When executed correctly, an effective approach run and pole drop should achieve the following:
Allow the athlete to maximize pole-ground angle at take off (see diagram below)
Maximize their Center of Mass height at take off
Support the consistency of their take off position. (While it is suggested that an accuracy of ± 8cm approximately will not influence the jump and plant action, regardless of the chosen jump and plant technique, the more consistent an athlete is in reaching their take off point effectively, the more confident they will be to ‘attack’ the take off). (Schade et al., 2006).
Allow for the development of maximal controlled velocity, and transfer of kinetic energy through take off. This should be executed with correct postures and kinematics tosupport athlete health.
The Approach run – phases and structure
For teaching purposes we will talk about the approach run in the context of phases, however, understand in reality that from the first step taken, acceleration through to top speed – is – like the vault – one continuous action. When watching the athlete, we should see all actions seamlessly blend through each step. Also like the vault, the structure of the run is sequential, meaning a mistake at the the start will impact efficiencies further down the chain. The also run sets up the penultimate stride, plant and preparation for take off which we will explore in the next module.
The elements of the approach run and pole drop – the energy generation phase of the vault – as well as the overall KPIs for this phase are summarized below for reference. These elements will form a framework for our explorations in this module.
Determining run up length
The length of run and number of steps used is determined by manageable final velocities and skill sets. Most senior athletes use 16-20 steps, younger athletes 10-14. However, run length does not change the set up and structure of the approach; merely how long each phase lasts. The phases will always remain the same: Start, Drive, transition, up right running, plant, and preparation for take off. Runs are nearly always made up of even number steps, very rarely will a vaulter use an ‘odd’ number of steps.
The length of run should be determined by the athlete’s ability to maintain posture, control velocity, and transfer energy through take off. If an athlete is unable to hit correct postures, set up correct mechanics into take off, and safely plant with a given run length and the speed it generates, the run length should be reduced until the appropriate length is found.
When determining their run measurements, athletes should not skip or run back on the approach run to establish a mark. Instead, this should be accurately measured and determined using a tape measure for the given run and grip height to ensure consistency.
An approximate guideline for appropriate run lengths can be found below. Note that while many USA-based coaches and athletes use the term ‘lefts’ to describe the number of steps used during the approach run, most other countries count the total number of steps rather than the left step contacts only. For example, ‘7 lefts’ would be a 14 step approach, 6 lefts a 12 step approach, and so on. For the purposes of this course we will refer to the ‘international’ terminology of total number of steps used in a run, rather than lefts.
Teaching the Approach Run
1. The Set Up
Every jump begins with the set up – which refers to how the athlete prepares before they take the first step of the approach run. While often overlooked, the set up is crucial, as poor positioning or preparation at the beginning of the run – both in terms of start position, and pole position – can cause a number of problems or compensations later in the run.
Picking up the pole with the correct grip width
The set up begins by picking up the pole with an appropriate grip width. This should be established by comparing to where the athlete would grip if they were to jump up and grasp a high bar to swing up. This is normally around shoulder width apart, however it will vary between athletes, and is in part dependent on the athlete’s height, strength, and upper body mobility. For a right handed vaulter, taking off from their left foot – they would have their right hand as the top hand, which should grip the pole with an undergrasp grip (palm up). The bottom hand should grip the pole with an overgrasp grip (palm down).
A narrower grip may make it easier to swing, but the athlete may struggle with the initial pole strike, and pole compression due to the higher initial angle this creates on the left arm. Then, for some athletes, a wider grip may feel ‘stronger’ as it allows the athlete to strike the pole and initiate the movement of the bend from a stronger position. However, a wider grip can also cause more of a blocking action and a difficulty in terms of shoulder release following take off – depending on the athlete’s shoulder mobility. This in turn can compromise their ability to compress the pole, and effectively swing. Grip widths should therefore be considered individually based upon the skillsets of the vaulter, their abilities, and their mobility – within a sensible range as outlined above.
Holding the pole’s ‘soft side’ the right way
Once a grip width has been established, the next hurdle which can trip up many an inexperienced athlete is which way round to hold the pole. Each pole has a pre-bent soft side. It is crucial the athlete picks up the pole with the soft side facing them, so that as they rotate the pole during the plant the soft side is facing the correct way. If an athlete holds the pole the wrong way round, they will find the bend swings erratically, and the jump stalls, or the pole feels a lot stiffer than its weight rating. Most pole manufacturers have a label on the pole indicating which way the pole should be picked up, so that when planted the pre-bent side is facing the correct way. Coaches of beginner athletes also often place an extended tape or mark on the pole to ensure beginners are confident in understanding how to pick up the pole.
Balance & body-pole alignment at the start
Hand positioning and balance on the pole determines carriage efficiency. The wrist, hands and forearms are key landmarks for carriage analysis. The bottom hand should be palm up in a strong position under the pole, roughly in line with the sternum. The weight of the pole should be supported by the skeletal system of the hand and forearm, allowing the hand to form a platform or fulcrum. The elbow of the bottom arm should be close to the body, and the top arm should be relaxed and behind the hip. If held correctly, the athlete should not feel a lot of tension through their muscular system.
Once in position, the pole should be balanced across the body. A vertical and slightly diagonal pole carry at the start allows people to run faster and cleaner. People that start with the pole on the side or a little bit lower, find themselves already twisted – the fascial system is twisted, and this creates asymmetry to the running mechanics.
A more vertical slightly diagonal pole carry at the start also means there is less inertia to fight in the first few steps. However, the start angle of the pole is ultimately determined by the number of steps in the athlete’s approach run. Obviously a more vertical pole will take longer to lower, so the longer the run, the higher the start angle of the pole. The recommended start positions for pole carry angles for reach run length are outlined in the table below.
Video Stop: Should athletes adjust the angle of pole carry in difficult wind conditions?
A final talking point on the set up phase of the run is mental preparation. The athlete should have a set routine, which sets them up for the jump ahead, and this should be discussed and developed as the athlete matures and evolves. Creating consistency in both thought processes, and set up processes is a key factor to competitive success. In the video below I share my thoughts on this point.
Athlete Perspective: A case study with Holly Bradshaw – British Record Holder
We asked Holly what she thinks about during the set up before she starts her approach run.
Lock in the Pole & Start
Once the athlete has picked up the pole the correct way, and found the appropriate pole angle for their run length, they should lock that position in preparation for the start. When an athlete stands at the end of the runway with the pole raised and locked in, they’re at rest. Their first task is then to overcome inertia through applying force against the ground with appropriate start mechanics.
In the Pole Vault, we all kinds of starts: We see people with dribbling hitting a mark and going, skipping in, walking in, or rocking in. Which is the best way? We have plotted scattergrams of accuracy of programming for jumps. From this, we know that a fixed foot stationary start is more accurate than any of the other starts, and provides the most balanced start position. A walk in would be next, followed by a jog in, the skip in start last. Most world class athletes push off from a standing start. Athletes with poor starting strength, or fighting injury factors may walk in or jog in to get things going. However, we’ve filmed world class people that do moving starts, and sometimes the plus or minus of where they actually push off the ground is over 40cm, meaning they’re starting the approach centimeters away from what they’ve determined to be their accurate run. That’s a train wreck!
Always teach a standing start, unless there is a very clear rationale indicating otherwise (as outlined in the Case Study by Coach Scott Simpson below).
We know from sprint studies a clean push off angle off the start is 45 degrees. It is slightly higher for Pole Vaulters in a standing position. However, the ability of a pole vaulter to keep the pole locked in the correct position at the start, and keep the pole in unison with their body is dependent upon how hard they push out, and at what angle they push out. If an athlete has poor power indices or poor concepts of how to lock the pole into the frame, they may push off at a less steep angle – say 55 degrees or 65 degrees. Regardless of what angle you push off though, each step and it’s commensurate angle should change uniformly, consistently, and smoothly. Say for example, the athlete pushes off on the first step and they’re at 60 degrees, each successive step should change a unique amount until the athlete is upright. Really powerful vaulters like Steve Hooker and Brad Walker are changing 6 to 8 degrees with that ground to body angle each step, until they reach upright sprint mechanics postures. Less powerful athletes may see less change with each step.
The first step should see the athlete strike behind their Center of Mass, with the foot in an active, dorsiflexed position. In order to overcome inertia and generate momentum, we will see a longer ground contact on this first step. Then from the first step onwards we will see stride length and stride frequency (rate of ‘turnover’) increase with each step as the athlete performs their approach. With each step, ground contact times also lessen, and flight times increase until a certain point in the run.
Pumping of the arms backwards and forwards should be avoided, as this disturbs rhythm, balance and ground mechanics. Instead, the shoulders should be free to oscillate and undulate if the pole is being carried correctly. If this is the case, we shouldn’t see pumping of the arms, as the movement of the shoulders balances the rotations caused by the athlete’s lower body movement.
Ultimately, we can judge the start of the run by the positions, velocities, and energy with which it places the vaulter at the end of the run. As a sequential event, action-reaction, and cause-effect are always in play.
Video Stop: A Case study – Coach Scott Simpson on the use of a walk in start
Drive and transition phase
Once the athlete has overcome the inertia at the start of the run, they push themselves upright into the ‘drive’ or ‘transition’ phase, representing the subtle step by step change from acceleration mechanics into upright sprinting mechanics. The length of the run will define how long this phase lasts, but irrespective of this, uniform controlled acceleration is key. As such the athlete must have an understanding of what both good acceleration and upright sprint mechanics looks like. If an athlete is not taught to accelerate without a pole away from the run, how are they going to do so with a pole? We spend a lot of time teaching acceleration mechanics, whereby with each step we should see:
Stride length increasing
Flight time increasing
Ground contact time decreasing
Stride frequency increasing
Clean, smooth upbeat tempo rhythm which follows each step taken
Momentum is also critical, the more uniform you are with acceleration the more momentum you will generate. The more momentum we have when we plant the pole, the more likely we are to produce big compression forces in the pole. Faulty pole drops or positioning or steering issues reduce acceleration velocities and therefore momentum. Rushing this phase, and chasing a frequency driven motif will cost the athlete later in the run, where they will pay the price in the ability to continue to gain velocity in the final stages. Remember, speed is a product of both stride length and stride frequency. If an athlete is all frequency but not applying forces, they are not covering ground, and they are not truly generating speed – merely limb speed. In the video below, I share further thoughts on momentum and it’s impact in pole vaulting:
Upright sprinting phase
Once an athlete has transitioned to upright sprint mechanics, their posture should look similar to an sprinter at top speed, with tall, balanced, neutral positions – not leaning forward or back.
In upright sprinting without a pole, we note specific lower limb kinematics, or movement pathways. We should see the same with a pole: So as the thigh blocks, that blockage allows for transference of momentum, the lower leg swings out, this puts stretch on the posterior chain muscles, and this is what puts the foot down. At mid-stance there’s an amortization, and then we push off. So the mechanics you teach are the same as on the runway – same landmarks, models and teaching as you use for upright sprinting. I’m a big believer of dorsiflexion of the ankles and feet, so that the foot can act in a more spring-like manner and create fascial stiffness of the joints in the system – namely, the ankle, knee and hip, and the gliding of the bones in the foot. Key landmarks which should be noted in upright sprint mechanics are summarized in the video below.
The Impact of carrying the Pole
While lower limb mechanics should look the same as a sprinter, the shoulder, arms and hand movement are unique to pole vaulting as the arms are tied up. With the shoulder and hip axis function we know from sprinting that as a person sprints, at the high point of free leg block the free leg hip is higher than the ground support hip, and the free leg axis is front of ground support axis. Then that switches. The shoulder axis counterbalances, and the contralateral shoulder will be higher and in front in sync with the hip axis – the ground support leg will be back and the contralateral shoulder will be back. So as we run the hip and shoulder axis undulate. If you’ve taught running correctly off the track, both the hip and shoulder axis should undulate and oscillate.
What we do with the shoulder axis determines how fast we can run with the pole. That’s how you close the gap between free-running and pole running. The movement of the shoulder axis has to include undulatory movement. If you study the great vaulters head on, or rear on you will see noticeable undulation of the shoulder axis. This counterbalances the movement of the hip axis, and that’s why they are running 9.6-7 m/s instead of 9ms/ – there should be freedom of movement to counterbalance the movement of the hip. Athletes who lock the shoulders will end up pumping the arms backwards and forwards.
Video stop: Further thoughts on how carrying the pole influences running mechanics
Linked to all the actions discussed so far is the pole drop, and the efficiency with which the athlete can time the movement of the pole with the dynamics of the run. The pole drop refers to the movement of the pole from it’s start position to the planting of the pole prior to take off.
The overarching rule to this is that we should see a gradual, uniform lowering, in timing with the length of the run, with the tip of the pole never going below sternum level. So, once the athlete gets moving, they must be aware of what the pole is doing.
You’ll see most world class athletes with a relatively vertical pole carry at the start. However, there are then different philosophies as to how drop and align the pole, and when this should happen. The key thing over-riding any philosophy is that it has to be harmonic and in rhythm with the run, and it should be active. If the pole gets static for a couple of strides in the approach, the athlete’s fascial systems and musculature are going to lock up trying to counterbalance that force. Then if the athlete drops the pole too early, they’ll lean back trying to counterbalance the pole. If they drop too late, we notice late plants, and the athlete being pulled out of position at take off.
One of the sources of chronic ‘under-ness’ is also in pole drop. Often, when we see athletes under, we move them back, and they still come up under. One of the first stops in this situation should be to see if they’re lowering the pole correctly. If they’re not doing so they will be leaning back into take off and will always reach a certain amount to find that safety point for takeoff.
Counterbalancing and hand kinematics
Key factors that contribute to the success of the pole drop are the way the athlete counterbalances the pole using the hands.
A lot of people coach the top hand (right arm in a right handed vaulter) being locked to the front of the hip. The problem with this however, is that it forces the athlete to run with the pole locked in a certain position meaning they’ve frozen the undulation and oscillation of the shoulders by locking into that position. The outcome is that they’re going to run slower. Then, as a result of the hand being locked on the hip, as they try to lower the pole the only space they have is out front. If they push the pole forward, they’re going to start leaning back, then they’ll get twisted sideways because of the back hand locked to the hip. Bubka and Isinbayeva – are two Petrov disciples. They may start with the back hand on the hip, but as they’re running down the runway that hand is moving back if you study the film – they don’t keep it in front of the hip.
So what we should instead see is the hands working via a counterbalancing system: The back hand acts as the ballast to counterbalance through the fulcrum in front of you – the front hand. If I keep the back hand on the hip, I have to move the fulcrums. Then the further away I get from my center of mass, the more it interrupts neutral posture, and the more forward or backward rotations I’m going to encounter.
Video stop: How should coaches teach the rate of lowering of the pole, and when to start lowering?
Counterbalancing carbon poles – what is different?
Steering & Approach Run Accuracy
The term ‘steering’ refers stems from work by Dr James Hay – a great biomechanist I did a lot of work with for years. In looking at Long Jumpers and Triple Jumpers he produced scattergrams of approaches and noticed from about 4 strides out from take off the scattergram of athletes tended to condense, and with each successive step it condensed more. This phenomena is loosely referred to as ‘steering’.
Steering explains the adjustments in stride length athletes make to allow them to take off from a specific location. Steering abilities range between individuals, but it is also an ability which can be trained. The ability of the athlete’s steering success relies predominantly on visual sensory inputs whereby the athlete sights the box as early as possible in the run, and this visual landmark is maintained. Peripheral vision also provides feedback on factors such as the pit, lengths of wings, and uprights. Sighting the box early in the run assists the athlete in sensing the velocity with which they are approaching the take off, and helps then to execute an accurate take off.
Any adjustments made to ensure accuracy to the take off position should be made gradually and subtly. Large or abrupt changes to stride length or frequency are undesirable and compromise postures and velocities. Changes in body angles, touchdown position and the like should therefore be rhythmic and gradual. Late attempts to manipulate these often result in us seeing drastic over strides or sudden changes in frequency – all of which should be avoided.
I spent the better part of two decades working with Dr. Jim Hay (internationally renowned sports biomechanist, who has worked extensively with US horizontal jumpers) on this problem. We identified many interesting variables from this work and concluded that it is a very complex area. Dr. Hay studied thousands of athletes and approaches at all levels of the sport, including master’s, youth, NCAA, high school, and world-class. The pool of subjects was global and gender inclusive. Dr. Hay proposed that there were “two main components” to improving accuracy and consistency. He termed the first “programming,” and I teach this as the various sections, postures, rhythms, and kinematics for each step of the run. We call these the “shapes” of the approach. Accountability to these factors is critical. Emotional control, type of start utilized, uniform acceleration efficiencies, and postures at each specific step of the approach are KPI factors for run replication.
The second part of Hay’s proposal came from his graphing of step locations for each step of the approach. An intra-athlete scattergram pattern was noted and, from reams of analysis, Dr. Hay proposed that athletes exhibit increased variance in step location during the first half of the approach and then “steer” to the take off over the last six steps of the approach. The variance of step location increases with each successive step of the approach up to this six-step location, at which point the variance reduces uniformly over these last strides. Skilled performers however, exhibit less variance in each step than novices. This steering phenomenon is influenced by step consistency and kinematics of the preceding run up to this six-step landmark.
We have done additional studies and noted that visual acuity and skill sets of acuity are key indicators of success. It seems that athletes use not only the box but the landing pit itself, the end of the pole, the uprights, etc. I think this implies that the athlete uses multiple environmental landmarks to dial in precision. Lighting, speed of run, and color of surface also show statistical significance on accuracy. The beauty of coaching pole vaulters is that they generally steer well, because there is a pretty considerable repercussions if they don’t steer somewhat and reach accurate take off positions. However, we do also sometimes find ourselves in situations whereby we move athletes back and they still hit the same spot. There is sometimes another source for that error, and it isn’t moving the run – it’s a steering or pole drop issue.
I often question new athletes to our group about their previous strategy to address inconsistencies in the run. For most of them, it involved moving the start mark of the approach for the next jump. My follow-up question is then, “How did that work for you?” How many times do we see athletes move their mark and were under or out by the exact same amount? That shows a steering issue, in my opinion. Once an athlete has grasped steering and demonstrates replicable accuracy, I purposely use methods on approach work whereby I move the starting mark up and back throughout various workouts. The range for these maneuver is between 30-60cm. The athletes practice into wind and also with the wind. We make accuracy a big deal even in the early season short run jump sessions.
Video stop: Further thoughts on steering
Structuring the run up
In normal sprinting without a pole it usually takes athletes between 10 and 12 steps to get upright. In Pole Vault that doesn’t work, as we have to see the box a lot sooner to steer, and we have less distance to generate maximum speed. Most world class jumpers drive for 4 steps, then a 2-4 step transition phase where get into upright sprinting, then they sprint from there. As a rough guide for coaches, the breakdown of the run structure can be found below. However, as before please understand we should see a smooth and seamless acceleration from the start – and to the naked eye no difference in ‘phases’ should occur.
The Approach Run and Coach’s Check Marks
Vaulters should have a start mark which is accurately measured from the back of the box, and used as a start point for each workout or competition. Many coaches also use a take off mark and a mid mark. Mid marks refer to a coaching check mark placed 6 strides from take off, which allows the coach to monitor the consistency and accuracy of the first part of the approach run. I use a coach’s check mark for guys 6 steps from take off. Coaches working with women may use 4 or 2 step check marks. Some coaches prefer a check mark 4 strides from take off. Whichever you use, this mark delineates errors during the approach verses errors the last few steps of the run, providing information on run segments to tell me whether there was a programming problem during the first half of the run, or was there a steering problem in the last half of the run.
What adjustments should be made in relation to information gained from check marks?
If the athlete is consistently behind their mid mark, but hits their take off mark, particular focus should be on the last 6 steps. Are they reaching and over-striding? If so, the run should be brought in to improve postures and rhythms into take off.
If the athlete is hitting their mid mark accurately, but is coming up consistently close, despite executing good mechanics and rhythms, the run should be moved back.
If the athlete is on their mid mark, but coming in far away, due attention should be placed on the athlete’s postures, pole drop, and positions on the last 6 steps.
However, remember, any check mark is just a guide – never get locked into myopic check mark coaching. Check marks are a tool, we should also be looking at global postures, rhythms, and positions, as well as the environmental conditions.
Video stop: Further thoughts on developing the Approach Run
Case Study: Sergey Bubka and the Approach Run
As a final stop in this module, the video below takes a detailed look at Bubka’s approach run, and associated kinetics and kinematics.
Every position is the result of the movement prior to it.
Each stride gets longer and quicker during the approach.
Ground to body angles lessen each step on the approach.
Sound approaches exhibit a uniform but up tempo rhythm dynamic.
Coach the components of run construction – don’t leave them to chance, they are the foundation of the vault!
The skill levels and power abilities must be factored in when determining stride count numbers.
It is imperative to know sprint mechanics landmarks.
For more on acceleration mechanics, sprint mechanics and the fascial system, check out the ALTIS Foundation Course which features dedicated modules on these topics.
The plant, pole strike, and take off represent the bridge between ground and air. This phase of the vault is absolutely critical to the overall success of the jump, as the actions of the vaulter in this stage have an impact on all subsequent actions. While some vaulters with poor plant and take off actions may still ‘get away’ with executing a reasonable jump due to above average speed or strength levels, don’t be deceived – the athlete is paying a price in the energy lost at take off. Further, the detrimental impact on the body from poor postures, positions, and collision forces experienced during a sub-optimal plant and take off will at some point surface as chronic injury chains. It is out duty as coaches to therefore ensure we teach the plant, pole strike, and take off correctly from the outset to avoid problems later on in an athlete’s career.
Aims of this phase
The plant pole strike and take represent the energy transformation phase of vault, where the energy generated during the run is transferred to the pole. The aims of this phase are outlined below:
Video stop: Further thoughts on energy transfer and maintenance at take off.
Elements of The Plant
The plant describes the movement of the pole into a position to prepare for take off.
The video below then zooms in on the plant actions, providing further context before we explore this element of the vault further:
Plant Pathways – The Arms
The plant describes the phase whereby the pole is raised from the hip to over the head in preparation for take off. The plant is initiated over the last three contacts – where we see a Left Right Left phenomena, with the ground contacts timing up with the movement of the arms. The pole should be accelerating through these motions continuously, with the hands guiding its movement. If executed correctly, arm actions during the last three strides should promote greater force application of the take off contact, and should not disturb velocity.
Plant initiation occurs as the penultimate left foot is about to hit the ground. At this point, the pole tip should be at head height, with the athlete in an upright posture. The left arm should be acting as a fulcrum, with the wrist above the forearm, underneath the pole. The right arm should be guiding the rate of lowering of the pole. If the athlete arrives in a position with the pole tip too high or low at this point, they will pay a price. If the tip is too high, they will overstride and lean back causing deceleration in an attempt to buy time to get the pole tip into the right position. If the pole tip is too low, the left hand will have moved away from the body, and the athlete will have to compensate with faulty postures to counterbalance the weight of the pole shifting forward. Both mistakes cause the athlete to take off too close and lose energy into take off.
My experiences suggest the most effective way to plant is through a curl-extension action. The touchdown of the left foot should see the a curl as the left arm extends. Then when you’re on mid stance on the penultimate, and there’s amortization, the top hand should be near the temple – this is a landmark for curl completion.
Crucially, shoulders should also be square to the direction of take off.
We then want the top arm fully extended before a full foot grounding of the take off step. This is super-important: People who have the plant fully extended before the foot hits buy more space, have better pole speed, less shoulder injuries and less back injuries. There is tons of data to support that. Sometimes you have to look at film to catch the subtle differences, but with a lot of athletes the arms are less than fully extended as the foot plants, then they extend as the body passes the base of support. If you do this you’ll pay a price. The photo below exemplifies an incomplete extension of the top arm.
The bottom line is that when the alarm goes off the hand has to be on or above the temple. We set up tempo alarms in events: so we have an alarm when we initiate the plant, we have an alarm when the curl is finished, we have an alarm when it’s fully extended just before the take off foot plants. So athletes need to attempt to stay on the alarm system, and find ways to initiate timings and movements to keep them on track.
Video stop: Further explanations on alarm systems
Video stop: Plant controversy discussion
Other schools of thought teach a plant that moves inside the. People often say ‘if I plant inside I’ll have a faster plant’. My response: Start the plant earlier. For more on the debate between a curl press movement, and a more inside plant action, check out the video below.
Plant Pathways – Ground dynamics
As we discussed in the previous module on the approach run, each stride gets longer and faster in the run, until we see maximum velocity sprinting, whereby normal sprint mechanics apply. However, realize to plant the pole and take off the athlete has to pay a price with horizontal velocity. Coming into take off, we therefore see aberrations of normal sprint mechanics over the last two steps, which allow the vaulter to set up the mechanics and positions to impart good vertical forces at take off. The phenomena of modified sprint mechanics over the last two steps is termed a ‘cut step’ which is set up by the penultimate stride mechanics. Before we explore this further, take a look at the video below which highlights this phenomena. As you watch it, focus your attention on the action of the legs.
The penultimate and take off step
In order to have a shortened last step and allow the athlete to create better vertical forces from the ground, we see specific penultimate mechanics. The penultimate stride is the second to last step. Setting this up correctly is a critical facet of executing an effective take off with the take off step under the top hand.
While running actions should not be greatly compromised by the take off mechanism, we do however see the cyclic pathway of the take off foot being modified from preceding sprint positions on the approach – as you will have noticed from the video above.
The penultimate step should be a full footed contact slightly in front of the CoM. So as we initiate the plant and come off the penultimate left foot, the penultimate step (right foot) plants flat and we see a rolling foot contact. The heel recovery of the left leg onto the take off step is then different – the heel blocks knee high and the lower leg swings through lower – planting flat.
Most vaulters take a longer penultimate step and a shorter, quicker last step. This sets the vaulter up for a jumping takeoff. The ratio between the last step length and the second to last step length is between 0.90 and 0.95 for most elite vaulters. Step rate is also increased during the last step so that speed does not slow as a result of the shorter step. Elite vaulters overcompensate for the shorter step length by increasing step rate such that speed actually increases during the last step (McGinnis, 2007). In elite males the penultimate stride is approximately 2.20m in length for men and 2m for women. The final step is then shortened to around 1.95m for men and 1.80m for women.
However, too many vaulters continue regular sprinting into those last two steps and then block – so they plant in front of their CoM and apply the breaks – meaning a longer last stride. Instead, the lower leg, shank and foot should be moving backwards: Action reaction – if the lower leg is moving back, you’re moving forwards. We will this ‘negative foot speed’. A blocking action would be termed ‘positive foot speed’.
Remember that the penultimate and take off foot contacts are full footed or flat.
Active or passive?
Is this cut step action active or passive? Our data shows that the athlete is rolling through the penultimate step – there’s not a ton of work going on. Two of the major flaws I see are people still trying to work off this step, creating a negative shin angle (meaning when they strike the ground the shin angle is acute to the ground). A vaulter exhibiting this kind of angle is going to have to apply force to get off that, so will create forward lean, and athletes are smart – they’re not going to take off learning forward into the box. What happens? They’re going to stay on that penultimate longer until they get back to an upright position, in order to do this, they have to step under and block the take off.
I also think too many athletes are taught to ‘work’ the last three steps or apply force, or pound the take off. That doesn’t happen at a world class level – those stride patterns, force platform readings, and things you can measure, show the best athletes are pretty much in neutral. They may continue to accelerate or maintain acceleration, but it’s just through momentum. They’re not actively changing the kinetics or kinematics of the run.
Is it coachable?
Do you coach a shorter last stride? It’s something you want to see but no direct way to coach it at top speed. People with shorter last strides have lower heel recovery into take off – we see an acyclic movement – a cut step, they don’t cycle into take off, they do a cut step to catch hips on the rise. Through trends, higher heal to butt movements suggest greater chances of longer last stride. Look back to strides 5,4,3, then you get a better indication of what last 2 strides mean. Come up with ways to measure things with the resources you have, e.g. grids on ground, and counting.
Video stop: Further thoughts on the penultimate step
Video stop: Further discussion on take off foot placement
While we want to coach towards the above model and take off step placement, there are instances where we may see athletes take off from a closer take off position. This comes down to a time efficacy and cost-benefit analysis. I’ve been at this 50 years – you see trends come and go. Bob Seagren, Isaksson – wide grips. John Pernel jumped under his bottom hand and was a WR holder! The videos below show this.
Video stop: Further thoughts on location of take off step, and its position in relation to the center of mass.
The Pole Strike & Take off
The video below then zooms in on these elements. Take a moment to watch it before you continue.
As the athlete rolls off the take off foot and departs the floor, we note the simultaneous moment whereby the pole impacts the back of the box and starts to flex. This moment is termed ‘pole strike’. Importantly, if the plant and cut step mechanics are executed correctly, the bung of the pole should strike the box approx 10cm from the back of the box, then slide and connect with the back off the box. The vaulter should not stab the pole onto the back wall of the box: it should be smooth transition whereby the connection happens in harmony with the take off step and jumping action off the floor, with a final slide to connect. At this point the arms should be fully extended in preparation of the ‘hit’. The pole strike signals the start of the transfer of energy from the vaulter to the vaulting pole. The athlete should maintain body tension and be prepared for a hit. If they are loose they will get moved by the pole, rather than moving the pole.
“The lower hand initiates pole bend, and this begins at the pole strike and continues only briefly into the follow through phase, until about 0.20 s after takeoff. The force exerted against the pole by the lower hand greatly reduces the compressive force necessary to bend the pole. Although the pushing action of the lower hand is instrumental in initiating the pole bend, it also slows down the rotation of the vaulter. So, the pushing action only occurs for a brief period of time. Shorter vaulters may have to push more than taller vaulters.” (McGinnis, 2007).
Simultaneous to this movement should be the take off action. The take off explains the point at which the athlete leaves the ground. The location of the take off foot should be located directly under the top hand, although novice vaulters may take off slightly in front of the top hand. An effective take off vector is a result of vertical impulse at take-off and horizontal momentum generated from the approach run. This is influenced by the approach run, and ground dynamics of the penultimate and take off step, as outlined above.
The long axis of the body should vertical at the moment of ground departure and the shoulder axis MUST be perpendicular. This proper alignment allows the body to move forward without compromising posture or losing body tension.
Finally, the focal landmark is broad and directed in a horizontal direction, and the head position remains neutral to slightly elevated position in terms of alignment with the spine. Realize the position of the pelvis closely mirrors that of the head. A neutral, balanced head and pelvic position will aid in the achievement of correct postures, and allow the athlete to transfer energy effectively into the pole.
Case Study: Dropping the lead leg
Sometimes we see people drop the lead leg immediately, why is that? They do this to try and keep the metronome speed going and weight ‘down’ on the pole. Sometimes it is because they have done something wrong and feel the swing action happening too fast, so they drop the lead leg to stay long and keep pole speed.
Others do this more intuitively. As an example, with Renaud’s height, speed, et al. to raise his grip on the 5.20m pole they had to find a way to gain pole speed. By dropping the lead leg and then exaggerating the hang phase with this right hand pressure, they keep the Center of Gravity lower on the metronome. He is now able to grip above 5.10m-5.15m often.
Video stop: Further discussion on leg actions after take off
Shoulder release following take off
The key difference between the inflexible pole, and the flexible pole is that we can store energy in a bending pole. So whether you’re on carbons, or normal fiberglass, one of the key actions following the moment of ground departure at take off is to store energy in the pole, and to keep the bodyweight low on the pole. Some coaches refer to this as staying down on the pole. If we compare this to a metronome, we observe that if you move the weight down, it ticks fast, if you move it up it ticks low. So for a vaulter if they take off and keep the center of mass more horizontal, lower, then you increase pole speed. If the minute you take off you rock back or block, you don’t store energy, you don’t compress the pole, you reduce pole speed.
By understanding the metronome effect, effective vaulters are able to maximize pole speed, and energy storage in the pole. By completing an aggressive pole strike and take off, then releasing the shoulders, and maintaining and ‘inverted c’ shape – the vaulter is compressing the pole, and moving the jump forward in the horizontal plane. This also provides potential for a greater contraction of the shoulder extensors due to the stretch reflex response of these muscles.
What often happens when people are trying big heights, a new grip, a stiffer pole? They block the shoulders, or get anxious and they swing faster or sooner, and by doing so get weight real high real early in the process. They then stall out because they failed to recognize the metronome effect, and the movement of the two pendulums – the pole moving around the box, and the vaulter hanging from the pole.
Video stop: Further discussion on shoulder release versus blocking
Completion of take off
We can consider the take off to be completed when end range of shoulder release has occurred, and the athlete’s trail leg action is reversed. This means the shoulders and trail leg have reached end range of their stretch and the elastic reaction and realignment commences to start the swing. A landmark for those with the necessary range of motion in the shoulders is left arm in line with left hip and left shoulder – this is shown in the last two photos of the sequence below. Not even Bubka achieves a stretch beyond this point – any many do not have the range of motion in the shoulders to achieve even close to this.
Additional Plant & Take Off Discussion Points
Some Coaches suggest the pole assists in lifting the athlete up through the flexing of the pole following take off. The video below discusses this point further:
Do different athletes need different take off angles?
“A fast takeoff velocity is necessary for vaulting high. Elite male vaulters have resultant takeoff velocities faster than 8.0 m/s (26.2 ft/s) while elite female vaulters have resultant takeoff velocities faster than 7.0 m/s (23.0 ft/s). The resultant takeoff velocity is composed of a horizontal (forward) velocity and a upward (vertical) velocity. A fast horizontal takeoff velocity is produced by a fast approach run, and a fast vertical velocity is produced by an upward jump at takeoff.
Elite male vaulters have horizontal takeoff velocities faster than 7.7 m/s (24.9 ft/s) and vertical takeoff velocities faster than 2.2 m/s (6.6 ft/s). Elite vaulters have takeoff angles between 17 and 19 degrees for men and between 18 and 20 degrees for women. Takeoff angles which are too low may lead to pole breakage.” (McGinnis, 2007)
The video below shares further thoughts on these points:
Additional discussion: The ‘free take off’ concept
“The free take off is a very short period of time, we can say no more than hundreds of a second, going from the end of the take off and the moment in which the tip of the pole reaches the end of the box. But this very short time makes a big difference that allows the competitor to greatly improve the results … It is a crucial factor, but at the same time, it is not easy to achieve. During my career, I was able to do it some times.” – Sergey Bubka
“Soviet Pole Vault coach, Vitaly Petrov, has used his version of vaulting technique with great success (particularly with Sergey Bubka). One key concept in Petrov’s technique model is the idea of a ‘pre-jump’, where the vaulter is supposed to be airborne before the pole is planted into the take-off box. Although the technique described by Petrov has been widely accepted, slow motion video analysis (not available to Petrov when he first proposed the concept) has shown that a more accurate description of Bubka’s take-off is that it is a ‘simultaneous take-off’. That is, the vaulter leaves the ground at the instant the pole strikes the back of the take-off box. A simple test for determining the instant when the pole strikes the back of the box is to look at the position of the upper hand relative the vaulter’s head. During the final stride of the pole plant almost all elite vaulters extend their upper hand directly above their head. When the pole strikes the back of the box, the vaulter is unable to completely counteract the force exerted on his arms by the pole, and so the vaulter’s arm is forced back behind his head. The instant the pole strikes the box is therefore the time when the upper hand first begins to move backward relative to the vaulter’s head.” – Nick Linthorne.
My opinion? Very few people take off out – ‘the free take off’ – I also have some physics problems with free take offs. I think you have to be pretty talented and aware to get back in the swing rhythm with free take offs. But my biggest concern is how much time do are going to spend on that when you have all these other KPIs to worry about. Is there is indisputable evidence that ‘free’ take-offs produce higher vaults?
Video Stop: The free take off debate with Coach Greg Hull
In this video Coach Hull shares his thoughts on the free take off, as well as the impact of take off angle on pole movement and energy transfer.
Video Stop: Holly Bradshaw shares her experiences on what a great take off feels like
Case study: Sergey Bubka – The Plant, Pole Strike, and Take Off
As a final stop in this module, the video below shares a detailed review of the plant and take off phases of the vault.
The plant pole strike and take off are critical, and represent the energy transformation phases of the vault.
Coaches should spend time to ensure these elements are correctly taught, for athletes unable to execute these phases correctly will always pay the price later in the jump.
Executing the plant and take off correctly are also key for the maintenance of athlete health, and minimizing stress and impact to the body.
An efficient and aggressive approach run, plant, and take-off form the foundation for the successful execution of the swing and extension phases of the vault. If performed effectively, the vaulter will have generated then converted energy during the run and take off. They will also have minimized energy losses at the moment of take off, by setting up efficient postures and positions to avoid buckling thereby transferring maximum energy into the pole.
We can consider the take off to be completed when the athlete’s trail legs action is reversed, and end range of shoulder release has occurred – resulting in what looks like and ‘C’ position (see graphic below). At this point, the vaulter will then reverse the extension action, signaling the start of the swing, this is often termed ‘realignment’ – going from a reverse ‘C’ to a ‘C’ position. This is achieved by applying an aggressive compressive force down the line of the pole, realigning the arms, and aggressively swinging their trail leg towards the center of mass of the pole. This should be completed seamlessly with no waiting or passive phases. The swing then ends at the L position – seen in the graphic below, where the vaulter starts the extension and turn phase.
As discussed previously, once the athlete leaves the ground we have a double pendulum situation – so the pole is pivoting about the base of support in the box, and the athlete is swinging about the pole. The rhythm and harmony of those two pendular actions have to be in sync, and the athlete has to use their body parts – limbs – to control this, so the timing and position of these things during the swing is critical. Too many coaches are diverted to a flaw point or bias: The big picture is that the athlete and pole should both pivot and turn in harmony, and we should see this in the harmonic rotation of these two pendulums!
Actions of the swing
To realign the arms and body following the completion of take off, and exploit the stretch reflex set up by completion of take off through the hip and shoulder complex, a compressive force on the right arm is applied down the line of the pole, combined with a vigorous swing of the trail leg. The video below focuses in on this action:
Arm actions of the swing
The vaulter should swing from their top hand to ensure that this force is exerted on the pole as high as possible. Keeping the body swinging in an elongated position will also increase the compressive force which bends the pole (McGinnis, 2007). It is crucial that the vaulter applies constant top arm pressure keeping active force down the line of the pole as the swing action takes place.
What about the bottom arm? Some people teach big punch, some punch up, some leave it alone. The bottom line is, when we look at TMG studies of musculation in the arms and the hands, great vaulters have top hand pressure throughout the vault, and most of the pressure is on the top hand. The second thing we know from high speed film study is that as the swing develops, the bottom hand actually has a hanging grip – they’re not working the bottom hand. Otherwise you wouldn’t see the hanging grip position (see image below). I think the bottom arm is probably over-coached, and over emphasized. Using a big bottom arm will get the pole to bend more, but our hands – because they’re opposite grips on the pole – create a coupling situation during the swing. So if I push up on the left I’m going to pull down on the right, even if you keep the arms straight – and that’s going to retard pole speed.
Leg actions of the swing
In unison with the arms, we should see a sweeping and whipping extended trail leg, whereby the centripetal force generated by the sweeping, whipping action of a long and extended trail leg loads the pole and maintains the vaulter’s swinging momentum. (McGinnis, 2007). The utilization of those limbs time and assist movements through the shoulder axis to aid rotation to inversion. At a certain point in the vault – once they have gone through the chord of the pole (see below), the athlete has to speed up that rotation. Some people break that trail leg, other people straddle, there’s all kinds of ways to manipulate that. We’re pretty sure in saying a flexed lead leg and a long trail leg seems to produce better velocities and forces, so as they swing through, athletes use the trail leg as a lever system to turn the corner and get inverted to a negative angle and projection. Essentially, the swinging leg should continue its path towards the top of the pole as the shoulders and hips rotate in harmony.
Swinging long to the chord of the pole
The vaulter should swing long through the chord of the pole in this elongated position – whereby they will feel pressure through the hands. Once they have done this, and the pole has reached maximum bend, the point of rotation/pressure should rapidly switch from the hands to the shoulders, the effect of which will be a connected swing of the left leg whereby we see the hip angle rapidly close, resulting in shortening levers as the L position is obtained. The purpose of this action is to reduce inertia and speed up rotation, so the vaulter is able to get on top of the bend of the pole, allowing them to exploit the energy of the recoil.
Video stop: Further discussion on the chord of the pole
The L position
This is where we see the best vaulters do things differently. As the pole vaulter swings past the chord of the vault, and close the should and hip angles, they move into to the ‘L’ position.
The goal is to get the hips higher than the shoulders once they move to the L position, so the action of the trail leg should have got the feet to or past the top of the pole, whereby the feet should be directed to a position directly over the head or past the head by the L position arrival. The feet should be actively held above head or over the top of the pole at this stage.
During this action, if the hips can turn the corner in parallel to the path of the aperture or curve of the pole, the athlete has more space behind the pole, which will result in better casting forces during the later stages of the vault. If the vaulter is past the pole in the L position, they will experience greater eccentric forces as the pole recoils – throwing them towards the crossbar rather than in a more vertical projection pathway. Throughout this process, the right arm should remain extended, and the vaulter should be hanging off of it. The vaulter should also strive to “beat the pole” – get into position on top of the bend of the pole to take advantage of the energy return from the pole as they extend. Pole selection and grip height affect the ability of the vaulter to “beat the pole” – a stiffer pole will recoil faster. Once proper L position landmarks are met the vaulter proceeds into the extension phase of the jump.
The Extension, Turn and Push Off
Once proper L position landmarks are met the vaulter proceeds into the extension phase of the jump, whereby the hips and legs extend simultaneously in a vertical direction into an ‘I’ position.
We call this ‘turning the corner’ whereby the hips and shoulders continue to rotate together. However, a lot of athletes fail in this portion of the vault, by swinging to the L position and then just staying in this position as the pole moves. Others will invert late after the cast angle has already and end up chasing a fast moving pole.
What we should see as the athlete swings long is the use of the trail leg as a long lever to increase angular momentum and velocities. The athlete turns the corner from the L position, then the world’s best when start their extension without any waiting. The best actually have their legs shooting negatively – away from the bar. In contrast many athletes, especially beginners – aim at the bar like a magnet – they go for the bar. They’re looking at it and going for it. For the world’s best it isn’t even in their thought process, it’s just an indicator of how the jump went.
As the athlete inverts, and starts to extend the body we should see extension in the negative plane. So that they are trying to stay behind the pole with as much mass as possible so they get maximum casting. To do that, certain things have to happen: The lower arm flexes at the elbow and wrist, and the athlete brings the wrist into the region of the sternum. The top arm stays straight into the crotch. If the athlete gets the top hand outside of the body, there will be inefficient rotations over the bar. Take a look at the video below which zooms in on this movement:
Allowing the center of gravity to pass in front of the pole while the vaulter extends upward produces a moment about the handgrips which causes the vaulter’s backward and downward rotation to stop, meaning the legs and trunk then begin to drop and rotate towards the bar. To avoid this, the vaulter should try to stay as close to the pole or behind it as they invert, extend and turn.
Video stop: Further discussion on getting in tight to the pole
The Impact of head and shoulder rotation on extension
Head and shoulder rotation and positions influences the ability of the athlete to extend vertically.
‘Turning the corner’ from the L position into extension coincides with the dropping of the head and shoulders. A lot of athletes watch the crossbar – so if the head is focused on the cross bar it’s an inhibitor for the shoulders to rotate and drop, and it’s going to promote this waiting L position you see so much in developing athletes.
To straddle or not?
When athletes rock back into the L position, they have to negotiate the top hand, so some athletes keep their trail leg long, split their legs, the free leg flexes, and they have a straddle effect as they move from the L to the I position and extend. Others time the movement so they don’t have to straddle the pole.
Video stop: Further comments on the straddle and athlete/pole alignment
Extension & Turn landmarks
The turn should be a continuation of the final stages of the extension. The initiation of the turn is determined by how the athlete arrives in the L position and extends. Shoulders, hips and feet should simultaneously turn around the pole. Tight lines of all body parts must be maintained during this movement.
Video stop: Further thoughts on the initiation of the turn
The push off, fly away and bar clearance
Once the athlete has turned around the pole, the push off is timed with the full recoil of the pole and the full extension of the body.
The timing and execution of this determines the athlete’s alignment, and the projectile path that they’ll be casted off the pole with. If an athlete flags rather than riding a nice parabola, the fault is sourced in the swing, extension and turn. If the earlier phases of the vault have been executed correctly, then this phase is simply a matter of directing the energy stored in the pole in the vertical direction for as long as possible. The athlete should not be aiming for the bar: Instead, they should be jumping around the top of the pole. Body tension should be maintained during this phase. If body tension is lost then the flight would resemble a fired elastic band falling limply with the energy dissipating much earlier during the flight.
Bar clearance shape is largely the result of good positions throughout the vault. Generally feet down to create a pike in the air and thumbs turned down to keep the elbows out of the way are good KPIs. Athletes should also avoid throwing the hands up which tends to open the chest. Instead, the chest should remain hollow.
How you push down the pole and pike over the bar is then important. On bending poles, the extension movement times up with the recoil of the pole. People that get casted early, or eccentrically, or flag can’t get shape over the bar, and are flying so fast or forcefully that it’s impossible to get shape normally experience a flatter flight path.
A force where the line of action does not pass through the center of mass of the body on which it acts is called an eccentric force. Eccentric force creates rotary momentum to a system, and normally reduces effective force. A pole vaulter being cast off a recoiling pole towards the cross bar is an example of an athlete experiencing off-center eccentric forces, and is shown in the video below:
Video stop: Further discussion on hand release timing and the push off
Know your equipment: Is it a soft pit, or hard pit? How big is the pit? How long are the wings? Are there any gaps or any other obvious hazards?
Soft pit landings should be with open legs and arms to spread the force. Hard pit landings should be made with attention to the neck and head not whipping. The preferred landing position is to land upon the back with the chin tucked in. If the vaulter lands feet first, breaking at the knee into a backward roll absorbs the landing forces.
Case study – Sergey Bubka: The swing, inversion, bar clearance and landing.
As a final stop in this module, take the time to review the video below which analyses Bubka’s vault from the swing onwards.
We can consider the take off to be completed when the athlete’s trail legs action is reversed, and end range of shoulder release has occurred – resulting in what looks like and ‘C’ position. At this point, the vaulter will then reverse the extension action, signaling the start of the swing. The swing then ends at the L position
This swing should be completed seamlessly with no waiting or passive phases.
The goal is to get the hips higher than the shoulders once the athlete moves into the L position. The action of the swinging trail leg should therefore have got the feet to or past the top of the pole, whereby the feet should be directed to a position directly over the head or past the head by the L position arrival.
The world’s best when start their extension from the L position without any waiting.
The extension and turn should occur together to ensure the athlete is in an appropriate position for bar clearance.
Contorting the body over the bar can maximize the athlete’s center of gravity around the bar.
The athlete should be taught how to land safely, on their back. Athletes should avoid landing on their feet.
Teaching – a primer on methods and the use of drills
Introducing the event to beginners
Beginner teaching progressions
Pole Vault – Teaching
Pole Vault is complex – our job is teach it simply, and provide information in the most economical fashion. However, in doing so we must also remember that when it comes to skills, we either teach movements, or allow them, so we must teach them right from the outset. Technical shortcuts are never acceptable in the vault, and as such we should teach sequentially to build a foundation that lasts. Further, while the run plant and take off should be the focus for beginners, it’s also important we avoid sacrificing long term development potential for short terms gains by neglecting other elements of the jump. Instead, the jump should be looked at as a whole.
When introducing any activity to a novice we should start with the premise of slow to fast, and introduce simple skills before more complex skills. Progression timelines should be based on competency and automation, rather than set chronological timelines. To avoid tedium as athletes learn, subtle variations on the same themes can be introduced with imagination by the coach. Challenges such as vaulting for depth, which add a competitive edge to a teaching progression can also serve as a great motivator.
As athletes develop, we should also ensure they learn to take ownership and make decisions. This is totally achievable if athletes are educated on key concepts impacting pole movement, and the impact of factors such as raising or lowering the grip.
Finally, when analyzing the outcome of an exercise or movement, we must always remember that in the vault, each and every action is caused by an earlier concept or action. This cause and effect relationship should always be remembered!
Video stop: Teaching tenets for skill development in developing vaulters
A primer on drills
The most efficient way to train technically for the event is to do the event. Drills should therefore make the body find solutions & overcome limits of conscious control, not be used as a cure-all. The transference of drills and part-whole teaching components vary with training age and the ability of the coach/athlete dyad to expand relevance: Drills do not teach the event, they are a teaching tool.
I am not against breaking large movement schemes down into parts. I think the younger or more experienced one is, the more part-whole learning must be used, at key times. My bark is with coaches creating large drill schemes that once mastered should be moved on from, or united into more complex series of schemes/drill sequencing. I address this in daily work by emphasizing a certain phase or section of the run or jump. For example some sessions are all about top hand pressure, others its work around the pole at the top. The first few sessions may be on putting shapes together on the run – so instead of spending weeks or months doing sub-related drills we work on the task in the context of the whole.
Many skill development books refer to Brazilian Futsal – an adapted game of football where they use smaller spaces, heavier ball, etc. They still play the game but in new movement context. So in the vault, for example, at times I use sliding pole plants on a stiff pole to teach the cut step, pressing movements, top hand pressure, etc., without the complexity of pole drop and plant. I simplify the task to focus on a part while maintaining a link to whole part whole teaching.
Beginner teaching progressions
Where possible, beginners should be introduced to the event in the sand pit. Below we will outline a step by step sequence for teaching complete beginners to build the competencies necessary to safely vault in the Pole Vault pit. Overall tenets which underpin all of the below should always be respected:
Always hold on
Always keep the pole moving – the pole will not move by itself
The athlete should always aim to move the top hand as high as possible
The athlete should always understand the importance of accelerating through take off
The athlete should be taught to keep the pole in front of them as long as possible. Swinging past the pole retards pole speed and causes the athlete to pull on the pole.
Note: All teaching progressions assume a right hand vaulter taking off from their left leg, meaning the athlete will swing down the right side of the pole.
Phase 1: Introducing the Vault using a sand pit
The aim of this is to familiarize the athlete with how to hold the pole, take off, and safely rotate the pole to and through vertical. Note that an emphasis on safe double footed landings should be place on all sand pit exercises. All the drills in the sand pit should be performed on a stiff pole – i.e one that does not flex or bend. Athletes can learn this series of progressions within a one hour session in our experience.
1.1 Holding the pole and establishing top hand
Grip width should be approximately shoulder width apart. For a right handed vaulter, the right hand is the top hand. Also note the alternate grips – the top hand should be an undergrasp grip (palm up), while the bottom hand should be an overrgrasp grip (palm down).
1.2 Measuring grip height
The athlete should understand how to measure grip height. Using ‘base grip’ they can understand a start point. Then, they can add hands on top of this grip to establish a reference point in the beginner phases. Base grip is measured by the athlete standing flat foot on the floor and reaching as high as possible with their top arm up the pole, with the pole as close to them as possible. (This is shown in the video below).
Throughout our teaching progressions we will indicate a rough guide for hand grip based on this. However, both coach and athlete should both understand that it is only safe to increase the grip when the pole is rotating safely to and through the vertical.
1.3 Moving the pole – 1 step pole rollovers
1.3 a) On the track
Once the athlete has established a grip, they will perform a one step take off, whereby the athlete takes a step onto their left foot with the pole on track and hang on the pole with a long top arm, rotating it to and through vertical.
The athlete should use this step to learn how to land safely with full footed landing and flexion of the knees upon landing to dampen landing forces. Base grip or base grip + 1 hand should be used for this drill.
1.3 b) Into the sand pit
Starting with base grip plus 1-3 hands the athlete places the pole in the sand. They repeat the drill above looking for good pole speed and postures.
They can start with the pole above the head then progress to by the temple and having the arm up before the take off foot comes down.
1.3 Understanding take off dynamics – 2 Step Long Jump
Once the athlete has been introduced to the pole, and how to hold the pole our first job is to introduce take off mechanics. 2 step LJ take offs provide three key elements as a drill which will carry into every drill: 1. Fixed start foot position 2. Over cue of flat footed or heel first contacts 3. Acceleration through take off.
1.4 2 Step straight pole take off drill
Once the athlete has mastered the above ground dynamics, a 2 step straight pole take off is the starting point for every pole vaulter. The top hand should start on the temple, while the left arm is kept loose. The top arm moves vertically to produce the correct timing of the plant. Legs will repeat the same movement as the 2 step Long Jump take off.
Most athletes use a base grip plus 2-4 hands for this drill. The key to this drill is the pole rotating swiftly to and through the vertical, while the vaulter hangs long on the top arm keeping the pole in front of them.
The athlete can first do this walking to familiarize themselves with the co-ordination of the hands and feet, before progressing to a running take off.
1.5 No pole 4-6 step Long Jump
The 4-6 step LJ take off drill is the next step. The same flat footed contacts apply but the increased velocity now needs to be accounted for without loss of posture or technical form.
As a progression, a target can be introduced, and the athlete can be encouraged to tap this with their top hand.
1.6 Four to Six step straight pole in sand
Gripping at base grip plus 4-6 hands, the athlete will then repeat the 2 step take off drill, but off 4, then 6 steps. The vaulter should start with their top hand in front of the temple. Running mechanics will remain the same as the above drill.
On the penultimate stride the top hand will vertically press and the athlete will hang from the top arm during the drill. Teaching points include a big jump at take off, seeing the right knee driven to parallel and full extension of the take off leg, a long hanging action with right arm extended, and the athlete landing deep into the sandpit.
1.7 Turn around the pole
Once the above progressions are mastered, athlete will repeat the drill, but can now be introduced to the half turn. Coaches can also use a bungee placed across the sand pit attached to two hurdles as a low target to turn over.
During this drill the coach should emphasize achieving the same take-off position and adding energy into the take-off. The coach should see an extended take off leg, driving right knee, high arms, and the athlete maintaining pressure on the pole.
To initiate the turn, the athlete should turn the right foot over the left foot, and the body should follow in a corkscrew type action. The athlete will end up facing back down the long jump run up. The athlete should be encourage to land deep in the sand pit during this drill.
If you note too little pole speed, lower the grip, if you note too much pole speed, raise the grip.
Recording run and grip marks
It is good practice to encourage the athlete to record run and grip marks for future sessions, and to monitor progressions.
Phase 2 – Transfer to the Pole Vault pit
Once the athlete can safely and consistently perform the above steps, they can progress onto phase 2 – the Pole Vault pit.
Assuming this is done in a separate session to phase 1 above, it’s wise to recap in the sand pit before moving the athlete to the next set of progressions.
A note on grips and runs
Due to the depth of the box, the athlete will need to use a higher grip. In our experience this may be 1-2 hands more than that used for the commensurate run on the Long Jump pit. For the beginner athlete the height of the pit can sometimes be a challenge, so for beginners gripping low 2 step approach runs are usually not used. Instead, we start the progression from 4 steps.
2.1 Four-Six step take off
To start with the athlete can either slide the tip or run with the pole in the penultimate step position with the tip roughly 20cm from the floor. The example below shows a one handed take off, but when first starting, a two handed grip on the pole is recommended.
Once the athlete has mastered this, you can then either introduce the plant action (which will be outlined in the next section) or set a low bungee deep in the pit (+80-100) and challenge the athlete to swing over the bungee. This can also be done from 6 steps.
The athlete should be encourage to record run marks using a tape measure, and to measure their grip either using base grip plus the number of hands, or measuring the grip by laying the pole on the ground and measuring grip height from the top of the top hand. The athlete should also be aware which pole they are using.
Phase 3 – Introducing the plant action
Once athe athlete is competent and confident on the basic actions of the run plant and take off, and understands how to move the pole to vertical, they should be taught how to plant.
3.1 Standing plant
3.2 Walking plant
3.3 Plant into sand from hip
If the athlete struggles running, simply regress the drill to a walking exercise. Ensure the sand is raked regularly to maintain a safe landing surface.
4-6 Steps plant from hip into sand
3.4 Running plant into pole vault pit 4 / 6 step take off
Once the athlete has mastered the above progressions, they can then transfer to the Pole Vault pit.
3.5 Running plant into pit 6 step straight pole rockback/inversion
Phase 4 – Progression to bent pole vaulting
The progression to a bent pole should be very simple. Pole selection and grip is crucial. The correct movement on the run will naturally put the body into the correct position.
4.1 Bent pole take off 6-10 steps
4.2 Bent pole long swing / rolly 4-10 steps
The video below provides an example of a 4 step rolly:
4.3 Bent pole short approach full jumps from 6-10 steps
The video below provides an example of 6 step vaulting.
Phase 5 – Full approach vaulting
Progression to full approach vaulting is competency driven, and run up length should be determined by the earlier recommendations for the number of steps in the approach run. Prior to moving an athlete to this stage the athlete must be comfortable, competent, and confident in short approach vaulting.
When moving an athlete further away, they will be approaching the take off with more speed. As such, time must be spent teaching the change of the focal landmarks and timing mechanisms necessary to deal with this increased velocity.
Concurrent Teaching activities:
If you have access to the athlete to be able to work on additional components of the vault, time for developmental athletes is best spent on the areas which will be outlined below. Videos and further exercises will be provided in the next module.
Activity 1: Development of Acceleration and maximum velocity mechanics and abilities
Teaching the mechanics of acceleration and upright sprinting are critical to jump performances in the future. The number one culprit to failed jumps is a botched approach!
Activity 2: Development of the approach run and pole drop
Rehearsal of the approach run both with and without a pole away from the run up is a critical learning tool. Using Long Jump activities or rhythm based activities on the track are great start points. When the athlete has developed an understanding of the requisite run structure and rhythm, adding approach run practices with the pole is your next progression. Wickets can also be used as a constraint to help the athlete learn the correct run structure.
Activity 3: Development of the swing and inversion actions using basic vault specific gymnastics
To develop the requisite strength for these activities, any body weight resisted movement can be integrated into specific circuits. Push ups, chin ups, dips and their derivatives are key start points. Athletes should then be able to perform hanging rock backs on a bar, or between bars to provide context for the movement on the pole.
Activity 4: Development of General Strength abilities
Developing overall strength abilities is a key facet not only of performance, but of maintenance of health. General strength circuits incorporating a range of movements can be included as an element of any session to develop the requisite strength levels to progress in the pole vault. Of particular note for athlete health is the shoulder girdle and lower back. The development of strength in these areas is key for young athletes.
Competency should always be the guide for the rate of progression in terms of teaching progressions.
The plant and take off action are critical for the success of the vault, and the athlete must understand this.
Teach the concepts as simply as possible.
Build athlete ownership and accountability from the outset – vaulters must know what they are doing, and understand their equipment.
Principles which should guide programming decisions
Programming considerations for developmental vaulters
Programming considerations for elite vaulters
The Training Process
The training process for developing young Pole Vault athletes is a rather complex bending of logical, biological, physiological, biomechanical and educational principles, and as scientific knowledge continues to grow, so must the coach’s systematic and methodical approach towards training.
There is no concrete blueprint for the evolution of young Pole Vaulters but there are some fundamental principles that surface under close scrutiny of consistently successful programs. It is the goal of this module to spurn some thought into the research and design of training systems for athletes at this level, and how this changes as they progress into the elite realms. Ideas presented and shared should not be applied indiscriminately but implemented only after careful analysis of the athlete’s needs and abilities. Further, the aim is not to provide cut and paste programs, but to provide you with the knowledge and understanding to build your own, relevant to your environment and the athletes you coach.
Overarching points for coaching developing young athletes
Coaching young and developing athletes is a role that comes with great responsibility – for it is the role of the development coach to create interest and a love for the event, correctly build a base of the appropriate skills and physical qualities, and set the athlete up for the possibility of success as a senior. This is challenging as the development coach must juggle the many changes and competing draws for time associated with the developmental years including school, other sports, parents, athlete growth, and athlete physical and emotional development and shift. Building a philosophy or framework to direct your coaching during this time can greatly assist in maintaining a steady course amidst other changes. From experience, I have noticed the more successful coaches working with development athletes tend to visit and revisit the following points, and keep their coaching aligned to them:
1) Is the training fun and do athletes see positive change?
Coaches who maintain the fun and excitement factor are usually rewarded with better buy in, athlete application, and therefore improvement. Keep it fun and provide opportunities for success in training.
2) Does the training have relevance and transference?
While we are Coaching Pole Vault, we must remember the the individual in front of us must develop a range of athletic abilities to be a successful Pole Vault athlete. Training should be broad in scope and target multiple abilities and general athleticism in the younger years.
3) Is the training environment flexible to needs, and does it evolve as skill levels and physical and psychological maturation occurs?
While many coaches use a general template for large groups of athletes, this template must be flexible enough to a) meet the needs of the athlete for where they are today, and b) grow with them into the future. Programming in ranges, and using bandwidths, as well as building progressions and regressions from your core program is therefore crucial, especially for coaches working with a wide and ability age range.
4) Is the training preparing the athlete for a future in the sport?
Most developmental coaches will be passing the athlete onto one or more coaches in the duration of that athlete’s career. However long we work with an individual, it is our job to equip them with the skills necessary to succeed in the future, the physical development to withstand the training, and a health status and training history that does not create problems in the future. Taking short cuts for the sake of short term success at youth level is a mistake. We should always be looking at the bigger picture – are we setting this athlete up to be able to succeed at Collegiate and Senior level?
4) Are positive sport/life values at the core?
Coaching developmental athletes also comes with a responsibility to instill character based values that will aid them not just as a competitor, but as a person. Teaching the principles of grit, ownership, accountability, communication, perseverance and patience are key. Athletes who reach senior elite level without these mental and life skills often struggle to fulfill their potential.
5) Are the parents on board?
When coaching youth athletes, we must strive to build a positive relationship with the parents, educate them, and encourage them to support the athlete in a healthy, positive manner. Setting firm parental boundaries and expectations from the outset of any coach-athlete relationship is critical, not only for your sanity, but for the success and happiness of the athlete.
Gauging the success of a program at development level
While we of course want to see improvement across the KPIs targeted by any program, and see the athlete progress their PR year on year, another often overlooked but critical metric of success should be in the evaluation of how coachable, and prepared to enter into High Performance training the athlete is. By considering the points below, we get a more holistic picture of what success at development level really means:
A) The program produces results consistently.
B) The athletes that come out of their program are coachable – i.e. they have not been successful only as the result of maximal exploitation of specialized loads: They instead have a strong and balanced base of the appropriate biomotor qualities.
C) The health history of the program is good, and athletes graduate bulletproofed: Robust, healthy and ready for a high performance coach to load with the appropriate level of training. Results are meaningless if there is a trail left of injured athletes left in the program’s wake. Likewise, a high performance coach should not have to spend 2 years dealing with health issues before they can initiate high performance training with athletes coming into their system.
D) There is a fourth criterion worthy of mention – and that is the legacy left by the coach for the sport. By this I mean the quality of people that graduate from their program that go on to make a difference in the sport – and become future coaches, supporters, leaders, etc.
Developmental Athlete Progressions
Now we have discussed the overarching principles which should guide development programs, we will zoom into the specifics of Pole Vault. While we can get a mass of information on results online, and get a gauge for how athletes are performing in relation to their peers, it doesn’t necessarily provide a concrete insight into a long term progression pathway. For this reason, we have included the tables below which outline example developmental pathways providing a rational and logical progression for youth athletes.
If we are being ethical as coaches we should be building the physical and technical qualities that support the development of athletes to work within or near these bandwidth ranges. Of course we may see differences due to development status, biological ages, training years and the like, but irrespective of how old the athlete is when they start, we can note a progression which provides sensible guidance for grip heights, run lengths and what we should be seeing in push height for year on year progression.
Crucially, these progressions suggest metrics that keep the vault in balance. We shouldn’t, for example, see a 16 year old boy jumping 4.60m by gripping at 4.90m and clearing way below their grip, as this would suggest the vault is out of balance.
While some athletes may not fit in these bandwidths, what these tables should spurn is thought into the rate of progression, sensible progressions for run length, and how the athlete achieves a PR: Is the vault balanced between grip and push height? Is the approach run appropriate for their age and developmental status? Remember, we must provide room for progression for youngsters – taking shortcuts by placing a biologically mature 14 year old boy on a 4.60m pole, and getting them to run from 16 steps may create above average results, but is it creating a blueprint for the future and building towards health and technical excellence?
Program Components at Developmental Level
So what should be included in a Pole Vaulter’s training program if we are working towards such parameters? Many coaches talk about ‘building a base’: My response is always ‘a base of what?’
For developing vaulters, the training base that we provide should be made up of a foundation of that of activities which transfer to positively affecting our identified KPIs, and which contribute to long term development, health, and progression. Then as discussed, for high school age athletes, developing the skills to move into any collegiate program – injury free – is an overarching factor.
The first step is to define the biomotor and technical skills which will have most impact on our overall KPIs for success in the vault. When looking at these items, realize they do not operate in isolation. As one category changes, the others are affected.
1. Technical Skill Development
For beginner vaulters, technical development should initially focus on the approach run, pole carriage, plant and take off. During the beginner phases we set up movement patterns for these actions, so taking the time to teach them correctly is critical. Once the athlete is competent in these areas, and understands how to safely move the pole to vertical, we should then have a secondary focus on the swing and inversion phases. In the beginning phases we must be patient, and work towards developing technique that will hold up under pressure.
However, it is important to keep the jump in sync as a whole: Once past the beginner phase, and the vaulter is training regularly, we should try to follow a long-term-strategy which keeps the technical development of all three main phases (run, plant/take off, and air phases) in sync. This means, for example that we should avoid forcing a high grip to the detriment of an acceptable technique in the swing and inversion phases. An athlete should be developing the ability to swing, turn and push off in tandem with the primary emphasis of developing a sound ability to run, plant and take off. This also builds long term confidence in their abilities, and a better movement vocabulary in the vault.
As part of this development, the athlete should also understand key positions and movements, with an agreed, defined, and shared technical model forming the basis of discussion.
2. Strength Development
Strength development for youth athletes should focus on building strength qualities, initially using bodyweight, and including variety in multiple planes. Once the athlete has learned basic movement patterns, and can push, pull, brace, hinge, lunge and rotate using their own bodyweight as resistance, external load can be added. However, the focus should not be on maximal strength development for youths, rather developing the correct patterns associated with key global movements such as the squat, to develop work capacity, structural tolerance and structural integrity.
Coaches should pay particular focus to building strength in the trunk (in all directions), hamstrings, and shoulder girdle. In tandem with general strength development, building the specific strength for movement patterns associated with the vault can be incorporated, but this should be a secondary focus behind general strength qualities.
Acceleration refers to the individual’s change of velocity over time, and is something we are concerned with from the moment the athlete takes their first step on the run. When we accelerate our overarching aim is to overcome inertia and generate momentum. This requires the appropriate application of force to raise the athlete’s center of mass from the given start position. As a vaulter accelerates, with each step we should see:
Attack angles lessening with each step taken, with the long axis body angle becoming more upright by 4-6 degrees with each ground contact.
Stride rate/frequency and stride length increasing in a uniform manner, in relationship to one another.
Ground contact time decreasing and flight time increasing.
Limb angles changing in a uniform manner in coordination with the aforementioned variables.
Teaching both the mechanics of acceleration, and developing the physical abilities to generate and withstand forces is crucial. There are schools of thought who avoid acceleration work in preparation phases of the training year, and only practice this closer to competition time. In my view however, this is a mistake. Acceleration is a skill, and should be taught as such from day 1 of the training year. Intensity is self regulating at the start of the training year, so arguments that the intensity is too high and risky are not valid in our opinion. It is safe, and necessary to rehearse acceleration as it is the first building block of any running activity. This can be done as part of the warm up, it doesn’t need to take the place of vaulting if you’re only seeing the athlete twice a week.
However, a specific acceleration development session would involve 3-5 sets of 3 reps of runs ranging from 5-30m in many instances. The work to rest ratios generally find rest of 1-3 minutes within a set and 3-5 minutes between sets. As with other menu items, skill ability, training age, injury history, time of season, etc are all controlling metrics that influence ultimate number of runs. With Pole Vaulters, one must also note the number and type of approach runs, and vaults completed in sessions to avoid duplication of load, for these too involve acceleration elements.
Video stop: Acceleration
4. Speed Development
“The single most important factor that contributes to pole vault success is the speed at takeoff” (Bergemen, 1979) but “the speed generated must be controllable” (Ganslen, 1979).The development of maximum speed is one of the most important indicators for success in the vault, but many vaulters haven’t been taught how to run. Athletes should be taught correct postures, rhythms, ground contact positions and the like from the outset. If athletes have been taught correct sprint mechanics, they will find it far easier to run with a pole.
5. Power Development
Developing power, reactivity, and amortization skills through the use of rudimentary multiple jump and multiple throw series form a key part of a young athlete’s development. This can be done post vaulting as an ancillary activity.
6. RelevantWork Capacity and Endurance
What is relevant work capacity and endurance for the Pole Vault? How do we develop it?
7. Mobility / Flexibility
Developing appropriate range of motion for vaulters is critical. Athletes lacking range of motion in the shoulders, hips and hamstrings in particular are put at greater risk of lumbar spine issues.
8. Mental Resilience
This is a key factor to success for any competitor, more so in the vault. Building coping strategies, self talk strategies, and reset strategies are key.
Transfer of training and exercise selection
So we know that training should be based on those elements which best transfer to the event, but how do we know what best transfers from these headline menu items? In the Foundation Course we explained in detail the transfer of training concepts by Anatoliy Bondarchuk. Bondarchuk’s methods of exercise classification are based upon a hierarchy of specificity, and provide a comprehensive, yet simple method of classifying training exercises. His system breaks down all possible physical exercises and methods into four classifications. (Exercise in this vernacular means anything that you may do in training. As a Pole Vaulter, for example, Pole Vaulting can be classed as an exercise in this hierarchy.)
Bondarchuk’s four classifications include:
Specific Development Exercises
Specific Preparatory Exercises
General Preparatory Exercises
They sit together in a hierarchy as outlined below, with their position in the hierarchy being based upon two forms of specificity:
1 – Their movement pattern
2 – Their physiological stimulus
Specific examples of different types of exercises that could be placed into these classifications can be found below:
The physiological impact of these classifications
At the top of the pyramid, CE and SDE have a complex impact on the body’s systems, so these categories include more complex sub-categorization to recognize this: For example, a Pole Vaulter may do competition length approach runs, but also medium and short length approach runs – each have quite different impacts in terms of the load being placed on an athlete’s physiology. At the bottom of the pyramid, less sub-classifications are needed, as the impact on the athlete’s system tend to be less severe in terms of load.
CE include anything that is exactly the event that you do – so for a Pole Vaulter – short, medium and long run lengths. The lines between SDE and CE are not black and white – you’ll have some exercises that could go into either category. When you’re planning just ensure you have these categories sorted in your own mind, and you stick with those classifications.
SPE covers global strength abilities, and weight room exercises that are global in nature. They may not follow the competitive exercise in movement, but stimulate the same systems in terms of strength and power. Any weight room exercises that use the same muscle groups could be classed as a SPE. The line between SPE and SDE however, is also not black and white; in some events, an exercise may fall into SPE or SDE according to the needs of the event. Just make sure you understand where the exercise fits based upon your classification.
CE and SDE replicate the competitive movement pattern. However, SDE only replicates it in its component parts.
CE, SDE, SPE train the physiological systems found in the event.
GPE neither replicate the competition movement pattern, nor train the physiological systems found in the event.
All four classifications can be used for preparation, development and perfection despite them being labeled as such within these categories – it very much depends on your methodology.
Exercise classification: Considerations for developing athletes
When you are specifically working with prepubescent, or developing athletes, there are certain points to be mindful of when considering how best to introduce exercises on your hierarchy:
Competitive Exercises (CE)
For developing athletes modification of competitive exercises may be required to allow them to safely introduce and perform the competitive activity – e.g. shorter poles, shorter runs, or vaulting into sand to start.
Specific Developmental Exercises (SDE) and Specific Preparatory Exercises (SPE)
SDE activities can involve specific overload, for example running with a weighted vest. SPE activities aim to overload the specific body systems used in the competitive event and create specialized adaptations. So when the CE is broken down into its component parts and overloaded it becomes a SDE (e.g. a standing throw with a heavier than usual shot). For developing athletes, coaches should be cautious when prescribing exercises in this category that could compress the spine (such as loaded squat jumps).
General Preparatory Exercises (GPE)
For children up to the age of 12, GPE may include global movement skills before moving onto general strength exercises. Using GPE to strengthen these fundamental movements could include bodyweight circuits developing the requisite strength for a newly introduced squat pattern, for example.
Creating your own exercise classification menu
Using these classifications, the next step would be to create your own exercise classification menu. A simple list of questions can help you to decide where any given exercise may sit within this framework:
Does it replicate the competitive movement in its entirety?
If yes, then it’s a CE.
Does it replicate part of the competitive movement and same physiological system?
If yes, then its a SDE.
Does it simulate the same major muscle groups and physiological systems used in the competitive event?
If yes, then its a SPE, if no, it’s classed as a GPE.
It is useful to organize your training menu items into these headings so you have a structure to work from. While this is not the only way of doing it, I’d strongly recommend using this method as it is effective, but simple to organize and execute.
Pole Vault specific exercise classification hierarchy examples can be found here.
Putting it all together – example microcycles
Once you have identified the where your training menu items/exercises sit within the exercise classification hierarchy; the stage of the athlete; their needs; and the time you have with them, the next step is to develop a rational training scheme. In addition to considerations surrounding exercise classification, considerations on ultimate design should include:
Training, biological and chronological age
Loading from other sports and activities
Technical abilities and areas for development
Physical abilities and areas for development
Number of sessions per week
We then need to consider the order with which we place exercises within a session. Normally, we would conduct a session as follows for developing athletes:
Skill – Pole Vault
Speed Training – running / hurdling
Strength Training – circuits, medicine ball, weights
Work Capacity – team games, tempo running, extended general strength circuits
Cool down and mobility
So what will this all look like? The below provide some examples of program outlines for developing vaulters. Please note, the examples are general and should not be blindly applied.
Example 1 – A 5 Day Training Week
For a National Level Senior High School Athlete, we may schedule the week as per the below:
Example 2 – A 4 Day Training Week
Example 3 – A 3 day Training Week
Example 4 – A 2 Day Training Week
Competition Time Planning
In the video below, I share my thoughts on additional considerations for competition time planning for developing athletes.
Video Stop: Developmental Pathways for the Vertical Jumps
To close off our discussion on programming principles for developing athletes, this extended video looks at developmental pathways for athletes in the vertical jumps.
The Elite Pole Vaulter: A Generalized Overview of In Season Training Sessions
Principles for constructing the training plan as presented here center around loading, and compatible, and complementary concepts currently being utilized in today’s better systems. The cornerstone of this approach is the principle of increasing demands. Stimulation and adaptation for higher levels only occurs when new, different, and higher demands are placed upon the organism.
We must also be aware of the fact that a change to a particular variable will correspondingly change the demands of all the other qualities, even if they are left unchanged. Volume, intensity and density variance account for the bulk of demand stimulus. Various cycles and waves for the interaction of these characteristics can be found in the literature. The essence of these works is that change is systematic and never random.
A closely related principle is that of continuous load demand. Interruptions, discontinuations, and less than optimal transition periods can create havoc with peaking and injury prevention. Injuries, restoration periods, off seasons, etc, must be dealt with in as detailed manner as the competition phase of the training year.
When establishing the training year, a coach must identify key competitions and peak requirements before the construction of the schedule commences. Working backward a systematic arrangement of periods, phases, mesocycles, microcycles, and sessions can then be formulated using peak requirements as the target goal. This process is referred to as the principle of cyclic arrangement of load demands.
A recent surge of material has surfaced during the past few years dealing with this approach to program design. It has its foundation in demographic research of numerous training systems and simply implies that one can not train indiscriminately in a hope for peak results. Each wave or cycle has unique requirements and logical progressions onward during the training year. As stated earlier, there are no cookbook answers for solving the problems of when to do what and where but this approach does give the coach-athlete system a scheme or blueprint.
Building a base of what?
What do elite athletes need? What are their KPIs? What is our priority?
Weekly micro examples for elite vaulters
The training series outlining the details of the elements used below can be found here.
General session structure
A Warm-up Scheme
A Technical or High Neural Demand Activity
Appropriate Power or Elastic Strength Routines
General Strength, Special Strength, Gymnastics and Regeneration Activities
A Designed Cool Down Series
Static Flexibility Homework Series, Integrated Physiotherapy Schemes and Hydrotherapy
Acceleration Development (10-40m, with sets of 3 or 4 x 3-5 efforts in each set) use 1’ and 4’ recoveries; use blocks, group starts, rollovers or fly-ins. Emphasize mechanics, rhythm and relaxation. These can be done with pole carriage or alternate with free runs. You can also add one to two special speed endurance runs with 5’ recoveries
Multiple Jump Series: 5 x 5 hurdles at 80-90cm heights and 2m spacing; dynamic or static to needs, or multiple throw series Grenade x 5 reps (Overhead Backwards throws (OHB), Between Leg Forwards throws (BLF), repeat with one jump before launch)
Weights Training: Olympic lifts, Presses, and Leg Series; Ancillary lifts: Russian Twists and Negative Toe Risers
Cool Down with 5’ of jog/skip routines
Jump Specific Technical Training or Technical Runs on Grass or in Flats; 6-8 runs x 50m with dribble, scissor or elastic over-cues for 25m and runoffs for 25m; if a jump session is scheduled, then pole runs x 4-6 and then 10-12 long run jumps in place of tech runs
Specific Strength Series, General Strength Series or Gymnastic Schematics
Medicine Ball Series
Hurdle Mobility Series
Cool down with multi-directional series for 5 minutes
Speed or Special Speed Endurance Runs; 2-3sets x 3 runs x 40-50m with 3’ and 7’ recoveries
Alternative Workout Options: Alactic Runs of 3 X 150,or 3 x120 or 3 x 90m with 5’-7’; can be done with Sprint Float Sprint motif
Elastic Endurance Series: Skips for height and distance, scissor bounds, alternate leg bounds, etc. total 500m workloads
Weights Training. As on Monday with variations
Mixed Cool Down Rhythms
Relaxed Grass Runs with jump technique needs emphasis; if jump work is needed, limited short run jumps series or approach work
Special Strength Series, General Strength Series or Rehab Series
Med Ball Series
Hurdle Mobility Series
Cool Down with 5 minutes skipping
If a rest day is needed, this is the preferred day
Acceleration Development; if meet on Saturday limit to 4-8 runs of 20-30m
Multiple Throw or Jumps Series as prescribed to needs
Weight Training, Optional
Cool Down as Prescribed
Special Therapy Prescriptions
Saturday non-meet day
Speed Endurance Series as needed; see Wednesday’s options
Special Walks Series
Hurdle Mobility Series
Cool Down with 5 minutes Jog/Skip/Side Shuffle
Saturday – meet day
A competition is also a training load: It trains many systems and is real stress. We should therefore design events entered to fit time of year, athlete’s needs, and health of athlete. General warm-ups must be timed for the event site opening, be shorter in duration and cover all bases, then vault specific warm up must be planned. We must allow for chaos and ensure athlete readiness before the opening height within this planning!
With long events and passing bars, the re-warm up must be considered and discussed.
Note – these were used for Steve Lewis, an elite male vaulter the year before he came 4th in the London Olympics. They should not be used for developing athletes!
October 2011 cycle
November 2011 Cycle
Annual Plan example – 2011
Video stop: Elite Competition Phase Micro-Cycles for the Jumping Events
To close out our journey into programming, this video takes an in depth look into some of the themes discussed surrounding programming for the elite vaulter.
Know your KPIs and work towards improving them.
Always build towards long term success – taking shortcuts for the benefit of short term glory is not wise.
There are no cookbook answers for solving the mystery of training design. The art of coaching is to use the tools of science in order to ascertain the “when to do what, and where”.
The training plan should be a blueprint for the athlete and coach to follow, however, as situations or needs arise, plans must and will change. Don’t become a slave to your plan!
In the lead up to any meet, particularly major competitions, well meaning coaches often get it wrong by trying to reinvent the wheel, leaving athletes feeling confused and challenged at the wrong time. However, that is never necessary. Simply by adhering to the ‘3 C’s’ in the lead up to a competition, you will avoid many of the major pitfalls.
These 3 C’s are: Comfort, Continuity, and Confidence; each one feeding the other.
In the lead up to competition, we must do our upmost to keep the athlete within their ‘comfort zone’. As such, near competition time we should be well clear of any appreciable amount of time spent on improving an athletes’ weaknesses. Instead, we should be focusing on what makes them good in the first place: What they are most comfortable with – their strengths. Continuity in the types of training that the athletes are confident in then feeds the unique psyche that is needed at this critical stage. Day-to-day management of their overall psychological profile is also crucial if we are to expect an optimal performance.
To me, being effective as a competition coach is both a skill and and art form. In my experience, there are some coaches who are great in training, and during the fundamental meets who may lose the plot in the big ones. I think conversely there are some coaches who may not be really great with programming, or other aspects, but at championships they just know how to push the right buttons. I think a lot of people don’t reflect back to behaviors and body language, or tone of voice that they’re using in fundamental meets where everything is successful, and then continue that modus operandi in the bigger competitions.
Video stop: Further discussion on strategies for effective competition coaching
Preparing the Vaulter for a competition
Once we have our personal coaching strategies in place, and understand our role as a competition coach, we must then carefully consider the needs of the athlete. Be aware from competition to competition this may change, and we must apply judgement as to what the needs are for a given place or time in their development.
Establish agreed KPIs
A first point of call should be to establish and agree with the athlete what the purpose of the meet is, and which processes the athlete should execute in order to maximize their performance. If you have been working on approach run rhythm for example, make that your KPI. If you have been working on turning earlier, make that your KPI. Essentially you want to distill your focus to one or two key points that will get the athlete the biggest bang for your buck in the meet. Whatever the agreed KPIs are, these should be the agreed focus unless something unexpected arises.
Agree your competition strategy
Once the KPIs for the meet have been established, competition strategy should be the next discussion point. Questions which should be addressed include:
What is the planned start height?
What is the planned start pole and grip?
Where do the stands need to be for this combination of start height, pole, and grip?
What is the contingency for poor conditions or a failure at an opening bar?
What are the bar progressions? Which heights will you be taking?
What will you do in the event of specific situations such as a third attempt when you’re in 2nd place? Will you skip to the next height and try one attempt at that for the win, or continue at the same bar for your third attempt?
Agreeing the plan of action for these points aids in building comfort and confidence through a sense of preparedness. It is often the unknown which creates fear or anxiety, so establishing plans of action and routines can greatly assist anxious or nervous athletes in the lead up to a meet. Also realize that while it’s good practice to have a pre-agreed strategy, as the competition unfolds, or you note athlete readiness during warm up your strategies may need to change. As with all pre-planning it’s a projection – a best guess. Ensure you adapt to the athlete and circumstances on the day if necessary. Don’t be a slave to a plan, make it work for you!
Ensure both you and athlete understand the rules
This point may seem obvious, but keeping up to date with the current rules and which rules the competition is being held under is critical. Having a copy of the rulebook in your coaching bag to use as reference in the event of appeal or disagreement with officials is good practice, and can help in mitigating any disputes.
Prior to the meet, you should also ensure the athlete is aware of the priority rules, such as time allowed for attempts . These should be discussed in your pre-brief strategy meeting. In the text below, we will outline some of the most essential rules as per the IAAF regulations. Once again, ensure you refer to your local rules to establish procedures for your particular competition.
IAAF Rule 180 – Time allowed for trials
Many an inexperienced athletes has been caught out by not being aware of the time allowed for trials, or become anxious on the raising of a yellow time flat. It is our duty as coaches to prepare athletes for the time pressure of competition, and ensure they develop the skills and awareness to be ready for their attempt. For outdoor competitions, they should also be briefed on how to read the wind within the time for their attempt.
IAAF Rule 181 – Placings & the Jump-off
In the event of a tie or jump off, the athlete should be aware of what procedures will be followed. Understanding how fouls impact final placings can also serve as a motivational tool to ensure athletes give their best effort on every vault.
IAAF Rule 183 – What constitutes a failure?
Understanding what a failure looks like is not as simple as whether or not the bar stays on. This rule is therefore critical for both athletes and coaches to be aware of, as it has ramifications regarding both bar clearance discipline, and in the event of an aborted run – the significance of ensuring the pole does not cross the vertical line.
The video below shows a scenario from the European Indoor Championships 2013 where Renaud Lavillenie failed the height even though the bar stayed up. This was due to the bar bouncing off the peg on the right side onto the top of the support. This constitutes a failure.
Understand the interplay between grip height, pole stiffness & standard manipulation
The physics of the Pole Vault demand unique positions to establish rhythms that complement and add synergy to the jump. When we discuss great swingers and push distance guys, they exhibit certain relationships in this realm. I think we all could do a better job of teaching kids to use the right grip, right flex for a given day. Using swing rhythms correlated to pole speed is the perceptual grid to measure against in my book. When we talk about fiberglass versus carbon jumpers, at the end of the day, this is the variable. Carbon folks must swing, turn and extend faster than glass vaulters in order to time up the jump. There are a few coaches who understand this and discuss this. If this in fact is a factor, then why wouldn’t hang positions, shoulder/spine release, swing paths, swing timing, takeoff angles, and the like be features to experiment with to chase this elusive feature?
People who crave grip often find themselves out of balance with the pole, so we therefore see inconsistency at higher bars. Say, for example we have a vaulter with a 5m grip and 60cm push – that is a big imbalance for me. Most 5.40m guys are gripping 4.80m and pushing 80cm – in my experience. When faced with such situations, my feeling is that coaches should restrict grip and improve timing with the pole.
I am also amazed that athletes clear a bar by 20cm or more and think they need to change poles for the next one. Likewise I see athletes who think that since they cleared bar X with a certain pole in the past, they need to use that pole or a bigger one to do so currently. Staying in the present, and using the right pole and grip for the conditions and athlete readiness on the day is a critical success factor to me.
Use practice competition opportunities to stabilize key factors
If you have opportunity for a low key meet, use these to stabilize pole, grip, and standard factors. Athletes often panic when asked to change poles, so attempt to stabilize technique and efficiency rather than changing poles where possible, especially with young athletes who need to develop a feel for the vault, and how to manipulate their movements for a better outcome.
Setting up competition scenarios in practice can also help to stabilize these factors under pressure. For example, giving athletes three attempts on each height, using a competition bar rather than a bungee, or imposing time restrictions can be useful aids to preparing athletes for a the unique pressures experienced in competition.
Micro-plan for day before the meet and the morning of the meet
The day before a competition will either be a rest day or an activation day. If it’s a rest day, athletes should take it easy, avoid anything exhausting, eat and hydrate well, and go to bed at a reasonable time. Athletes should be educated to ensure all required poles are present in their pole bag, are taped correctly, and have bungs on them.
Athletes should also be encouraged to pack and check their competition kit bag the night before the competition. Controlling the controllables is a strategy they should understand early on. While they cannot control the weather, for example, athletes can control their preparation the day before a meet. By ensuring they have packed a comprehensive uniform, and all necessary equipment the day before the meet, they can often gain a competitive advantage over less prepared rivals, and feel confident in knowing they have prepared themselves for their best possible performance on the day. Giving less experienced athletes a check list can be a useful aid. Items could include:
-30m tape measure
-Chalk or grip sticky in the appropriate container
-Marker pen – permanent
-Run up markers / tape for run up
-Run up measurements
-Spikes and spike key
-Spare kit for wet weather
On the day of the meet, athletes should be educated to wake in plenty of time to travel. Eat the appropriate meals, and pack appropriate snacks and fluids. Educating athletes on these basic factors from the start of the career is a key role of the development coach. Bad habits learned early on are hard to eliminate!
Plan for the warm up
On arrival at the stadium, the athlete should have a plan for when to start the warm up. They should follow their set routine, not add anything new, and leave plenty of time. Expect the unexpected! For most competitions athletes need 30 – 45 minutes on the run up for vault warm up, so they should start their warm up roughly 1 hour to 1 hour 10 minutes prior. If there is a in a call room, agree which elements of the warm up the athlete should complete prior to going into the call room.
Athletes should also be educated on what clothing to wear during the warm up. Young athletes often turn up to meets wearing only their vest and shorts. However, unless they’re competing in particularly hot or humid conditions, athletes should instead warm up in a tracksuit and remove layers as they go. They should also put their tracksuit on in between vaults to stay warm. Clearly if it’s very hot or the meet is indoors less layers may be sensible, but the athlete should be educated on best practice to allow them to make appropriate decisions.
Finally, looking at the start list on arrival will tell the athlete the number of competitors in their competition pool or final. This is a useful piece of indication, as it gives them an idea of how long it may take to get practice jumps in warm up.
Educating athletes on controlling what they can control in the competition area is an often overlooked factor. On arrival to the competition area, seating and shelter is often limited. Athletes should stake a claim to an area as soon as they arrive in the competition area, and then locate their coach in the stands. Setting down their run up marks would be the next step, followed by organizing their poles for warm up. Young athletes in particular should also be made aware of the importance of not leaving poles lying on the floor.
In terms of the pit set up itself, while the coach will no doubt check the competition area where possible, the athlete should also be taught to check the pit set up is correct, with the appropriate gap around the box etc. Athletes should also ensure stands are placed at the appropriate place in warm ups. Too many times stands are left set at 0 for the first warm up jumps after bar calibration takes place. Both coach and athlete should be vigilant and ensure the stands are pushed back for warm up vaults.
Finally, athletes should make it habit to check the order of jumping on the official’s list, and make sure they are aware of when they are up. They should also be taught to be aware that an athlete may skip a height – meaning they are on sooner than they think, and to look at how long they will have to wait before starting their first bar, given the other athlete’s start heights.
While the weather is clearly not something we can control, what the athlete can control is their preparedness in terms of strategies and equipment. Athletes should therefore be educated early on in their career on the impact of the weather, and strategies to adjust for sub-optimal conditions.
In a head wind athletes should prepared to start a pole down and/or on a lower grip. In a tail wind, athletes should be prepared to move their run back, raise their grip, and/or move to a stiffer pole. In a cross wind, athletes will likely need to make similar adjustments as for a head wind. For swirling wind conditions, athletes should be taught to wait for the wind to come around within their given time period on the run up. They should also be prepared to make last second adjustments in terms of bringing the run in if they need to start their run into a head wind, due to the time running out.
Using coaching checkmarks to analyze the run up is particularly useful in these conditions, as it allows the coach to provide more accurate information on how the athlete is structuring the run. However, don’t become a slave to these marks – make sure you are also looking at the athlete’s overall run rhythm and postures.
In rain athletes should ensure they keep their hands and grips dry. Getting athletes to work as a team and hold umbrellas over each other at the start of the run is a good strategy, as is having athletes catch each other’s poles to avoid them hitting wet ground.
Pre-vault routines & eliminating distractions
Prior to any competition, athletes should have developed a pre-vault routine, which centers them for their effort. They should be encouraged to use this same routine in competition, as this serves to stabilize nerves and build confidence. Set pre-competition routines to provide the athlete with a familiar anchor; building feelings of competency and confidence.
When planning pre-competition routines, this should be done weeks away from key meets, and by the time the meet comes around a familiar routine should have been grooved. In the weeks preceding the event you have to experiment with what you do the day before, as well as the day of a competition; it should not be a huge deviation from what you’re doing on technical workout days. The difference in a meet being that these things will vary with travel, weather, state of health, conditions – and the like.
Video Stop: Coach Scott Simpson (Wales) on getting the best out of an athlete in a competition…
Debriefs after competition
Irrespective of the outcome, following any competition we have a great learning opportunity to explore the performance and identify what went well, what went wrong, and how this impacts training and athlete KPIs moving forward. We call this process a debrief.
Historically, debriefs originated in the military to discuss what happened on the battlefield or on a specific mission. What went wrong? What went right? What can we do better next time? What happened that we weren’t prepared for? Etc.
We view our post-competition debrief as very similar to this strategy, whereby we are looking to gather as much information as we can about what happened prior to, during, and after the competition – which we can use to then prepare for the next competition. It is our opinion that one of the end results of the debrief process is athlete accountability; they have to look back and take an honest perspective of what happened, report it to the coach, and move forward in the process with a renewed passion for honing their craft.
We try to do a brief overview immediately after competing to gain information for a deeper, more detailed debrief to follow some days later. We also do a series of debriefs after major competitions that lead to a very detailed and soul searching year debrief once the season ends. I find it unproductive to do formal or deep debriefs immediately after the competition, as emotions are often way too hot by both parties. Often the post meet debrief does not happen due to drug testing, media duties, etc, so in that case it is late afternoon the next day if possible.
The Post-Comp Debrief Form has the four sections that we ask the athletes to complete and return/email to us. It’s best to do this while the feelings and details of the comp are still fresh in the athletes mind:
1. What did you want to achieve?
a. What was your competition strategy (from both coach and athlete)?
b. What was your mindset going in to the meet?
2. What actually happened?
a. What were the details of what happened in the competition?
b. Where would you grade the execution of your strategy (poor to good)?
c. Where would you grade your mindset (poor to good)?
d. Was there a gap between what you wanted to achieve and what actually happened?
3. What caused the gap?
a. How were competition tactics?
b. How was technique?
c. How was mindset?
d. How was nutrition?
e. How was overall health?
f. What other stressors?
4. What did you learn?
a. What did you do well?
b. What do you need to keep doing?
c. What needs to improve?
d. What did you learn that you would not have learned if you had not done the competition?
We don’t guide our athletes to feel like they have to answer every question listed above, but we do let them know that the more accurate information we can get, the more we can move forward with conversations, training adjustments, outside help, etc. As you move through a season these debriefs can help to identify KPIs and give clues as to which KPIs have stabilized enough in training to hold up in competition settings – thus allowing you to start chipping away at the next performance virus.
Roadblocks to success: The Fear Factor
As discussed in earlier modules, the Pole Vault comes with unique mental demands. While some athletes are blessed with the ability to override or overcome fear, others struggle. If in competition panic happens I think I’ve failed in the lead in. The ability to have full blown panic attack or anxiety attack at the moment of truth seldom comes out of the dark: There’s usually been commensurate behaviors at other times that lead one to believe that the potential for this meltdown could occur. So you’ve got to intervene years before, months before, weeks before. Trying to mix a major emotional storm on the day seldom works.
The videos below take a deeper look into this facet of Pole Vault, and aim to provide a range on views on the topic.
Double Olympian – Holly Bradshaw (UK) on fear and run throughs…
Former National Event Coach for Great Britain – Alan Richardson, on building confidence and the fear factor in Pole Vault…
Dan Pfaff on coaching Korean Olympic Pole Vaulter – Yoo Kim, who had to battle through fear following an accident…
Stacy Dragila: Olympic Champion – Sydney 2000 on fear in the Pole Vault …
Roadblocks to success: Injuries in the Pole Vault
Credits to Coach Scott Simpson for his contributions to this section.
This section will explore injuries specific to Pole Vault which can become roadblocks to performance. However, be aware athletes can of course also be at risk from injuries commonly seen in other speed-power sports. The aim of this section is to outline the risk factors, and to build awareness of the causal factors of injuries. By doing so this should equip you will the understanding to construct training in a manner which addresses these items. Some of these injuries are termed as acute – these are generally trauma based injuries as a result of impact. For example, spraining an ankle by landing feet first on a defective pit. Chronic injuries are those which have a gradual onset over time, and are generally the result of overuse, biomechanical inefficiencies, or poorly designed training schemes.
Chronic injury risks
Running compensations influenced by pole carriage
Athletes who lock down the shoulders will find they also restrict the undulation and oscillation of the shoulder axis. This is an unwise strategy, as not only does it cause backward-forward arm pumping, but it means the lumbar spine has pick up the rotation required to counteract the contralateral patterns of the hips as a result of compromised arm action resulting from the carriage of the pole. The lumbar spine is designed to predominantly flex and extend, with only a little rotation. When it it forced into rotations we see the development of chronic injury chains over time.
External rotation presentations
With more experienced pole vaulters, we tend to see a range of external rotation presentations, through the shoulder, hip, and right hip and or leg/foot. The video below explains these factors and why they occur:
Right side limb external rotation example
The below displays a specific example of how external rotation presents itself on the right side hip, leg, and ankle (for a right handed vaulter). As well as causing various rotations through the spine, the external rotation of the foot and ankle causes achilles tendon torque on the first and penultimate steps, which can cause chronic dysfunction over time. If this is combined with a stabbing or toe first penultimate step, we have even more stress being placed through this structure. Coaching first step alignment, and a flat foot penultimate step is therefore critical not only for performance, but for long term athlete health.
The video below further exemplifies the magnitude of external rotation a vaulter typically exhibits…
This vaulter has competed in two Olympic Games, and has regular therapy inputs.
Pole drop / lowering – torque and resistance
A pole weighs approximately 3 kg, but can be up to 5.2 m long – producing 150 N.m of torque in the sagittal plane. Athletes must resist / control that lever during the lowering action. If this is done incorrectly by dropping the pole to late or early, we are faced with compensatory issues and stress points:
Pole lowered too early
If the pole is lowered too early, the athlete has to resist the torque while running. This usually results in a compromise in pelvic position, manifesting itself in antiversion (forward rotation of the pelvis), and lumbar lordosis (excessive arching of the lower back). Both factors compromise running mechanics, plant mechanics, and place undue stress on both the joints of the lower back, and soft tissue structures such as the quadratus lumborum, hamstrings, and erector spinae.
Pole lowered too late
If the athlete lowers the pole too late, they have to effectively apply force to pull the pole down. This greatly compromises running mechanics, posture, and energy transfer. The athlete will normally have to lean back to get the tip down, meaning a negative body angle, and ground contacts significantly in front of their center of mass. This not only causes deceleration, but the associated forefoot landings impart significant stress onto the foot, ankle, and shin, as well as associated soft tissue structures.
Take-off & Pole Impact
World Class male vaulters hit take off at a speed of 9.5m.s – colliding with the stiffest / least flexible pole they can use, and absorbing all of that impact through their shoulders and spine. The movement signatures associated with the pole strike and take off are manifested through shoulder hyper-extension, whereby we see huge range of motion and force absorption on the “top arm” side of the body. Coaches should therefore pay particular attention to range of motion in shoulders, as well as imbalances in shoulder strength and range. As a minimum, athletes should be able to hold their arms overhead with a neutral pelvis and closed thorax.
Secondly, athletes must also have good thoracic mobility and hip flexor mobility to achieve the inverted “C” position immediately after take-off. If they don’t have this range of motion, the compensation will come from the lumbar spine ‘stealing’ that range to achieve the same position. This presents as back pain, stress responses, or even stress fractures.
Taking off close
Rotational stresses caused by the single leg take-off, combined with asymmetric hand positioning on the pole transfers force throughout the body. This has huge implications for all spinal segments – (cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral) as well as the associated soft tissue structures. Minimizing pole bend while the athlete is on the floor is therefore a key consideration for athlete health.
Acute injury risk factors
Acute injuries in pole vault are those resulting from trauma. We will explore the most commonly seen causal factors below:
When a pole breaks mid bend, the force is transferred to whatever structure the recoiling fragments hit – with vibrations causing bruising, or direct impact causing lacerations. Landing and associated compressive forces from the resultant uncontrolled rotations can result in back and neck trauma. Maintenance and storage of poles should therefore be reinforced as a priority.
Missing the landing area
Any injury linked to falls can cause acute trauma, which can range from severe to fatal. This includes both missing the landing area entirely, as well as injuries sustained from a ‘rejection’ type jump, or a stall out where the athlete lands in the box. Athletes should also take care when stepping off the pit, to avoid rolling their ankles – there are sometimes unexpected hazards, as outlined in the clip below:
As well as being frustrating for both coach and athlete, run throughs cause undue stress on the body, and should of course be avoided! The video below outlines further thoughts on this topic.
Landing feet first can cause a number of injuries including ankle sprains and strains, as well as knee injuries associated with torque through the joint. Athletes should always be taught to land safely on their back. Due diligence should also be conducted on a regular basis to ensure the pit sections are sound, and safely tied together. Going through the pit on landing can cause severe injury.
Being hit by the pole or cross bar following bar clearance, can cause bruising or trauma. Sandi Morris explains her injuries sustained this way in the video below, which follows her win at the World Indoor Championships 2018.
Finally, the accumulation of stressors and loading levels should be considered within the realms of annual, macro, meso and micro planning. If an athlete is injured prior to the meet so they can’t make the ‘start line’ we have failed as a coach. We should therefore carefully consider training based stressors, which include, but are not limited to:
Run Up Length
Both coaches and athletes should be familiar with the current rules, as well as which rules a given competition is being held under.
Athletes should develop set routines the day before a competition to prepare themselves with the necessary equipment.
Defining a KPI list for a competition provides a focus for the competition, and can help to direct feedback – however this should be flexible if the reality of the day’s conditions mean circumstances change.
Debriefing is an important facet of learning. The learning opportunities which stem from debrief discussions shouldn’t be overlooked.
Sustaining athlete health is critical for long term success in the Pole Vault. Awareness of risk factors and working towards minimizing these risks is a key element in coaching.