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The Pole Vault – Getting Off the Ground

Larry Bartels

by Larry Bartels, U.S. Naval Academy Track & Field Coach

I was flying from Salt Lake City to Baltimore the other day.  I found myself staring out the window watching the ground crew refuel the plane, load luggage, put that really bad airline food onboard, and I started thinking. The pole vault coach in me came out. It occurred to me that the event of pole vaulting is a lot like getting a plane off the ground. Before anyone can fly, the groundwork has to be done properly. If you don't leave the ground with the proper training you're only asking for trouble.

For the vaulter, like the airliner, it all starts with the proper equipment. In our case, the equipment is an athlete who has decent speed, a good sense of body awareness, athleticism, and upper body strength. Now, I know that vaulters, like planes come in all shapes and sizes, but bear with me.  Once you actually do find someone who fits the bill, the job of teaching the vault becomes a lot more difficult. It begins with basic pole carrying skills.

Pole carrying requires placing the hands properly on the pole, at the proper distance apart, to allow the vaulter a comfortable enough grip, yet allowing the vaulter to "swing" through their shoulders. This can be learned through trial and error. For most beginners, the simple act of holding their hands shoulder width apart will do.  A drill with that grip of holding low on the pole, and doing a short run into a long jump pit will help them get more comfortable with leaving the ground. Have them ride the pole to the opposite side of the pit. Passing the pole will give them some idea of what is comfortable.

A vaulter carrying the pole, like the pilot on the runway, has to keep the "stick" steady. The end of the run is where a great deal of mistakes are made. A vaulter will often times find themselves out of position at the moment of take off, and not get their hands fully extended. A desirable take off position is where the top hand is in line with the hip and the take off foot. The obstacles that can cause these problems here are many. Having your vaulters practice their carry and pole run on a flat surface for 3, 5, 7, or 9 left or right steps, depending on their takeoff foot will be beneficial. Repetition is key... yes it's boring, and no it's not as cool as the trampoline or diving board, but it does help the jumper to learn the skill by doing it over and over, and over, and, well... you get the point. Having vaulters run with their hands behind their backs requiring them to run tall with a flat back and tight stomach, with the "knee up, toe up" will also help tremendously.

As for the pole drop, that takes practice. Once the jumpers have found themselves at the end of the runway, the next step is the steady, patient, drop of the pole, to the proper plant position. It is commonly thought that three steps out from the box is where the pole should be parallel to the runway. Having your jumpers slowly walk through this phase using a slide box, towel or the box itself is a great drill. Again, repetition is key. Keeping the thought that at the plant, again, you want the vaulter to be tall through the hips, in the proper line, and to have a big knee drive with the toe up. The tip of the pole should hit the box an instant before the vaulter takes off the ground. Doing pop ups from short runs and holding low on the pole is a good drill.  Doing an "A-frame" drill is beneficial as well. Tie two old poles together near 13 ft., and place the untied ends at either side of the long jump pit with the tied end at the top. Lean it towards the long jump runway slightly. Have your vaulter time their steps running towards the A-frame. As they leave the ground the will try and reach as high as they can on the A-frame, get separated and swing to the opposite end of the pit.

If you have a pool available that would also be a tremendous tool. Have yourself or one of your athletes stand on the side of the pool deck close to the water and hold a pole vertical in the semi deep end of the pool. The vaulter will go under the water hold the pole properly and simulate the swing under water, emphasize shooting the feet together out of the pool.

Some vaulters are comfortable being slightly under their take off mark, and some vaulters are comfortable being slightly outside of their take off mark. With a beginning vaulter, try to emphasize the importance of the run, settle jump phase or penultimate, and taking off as close to their mark as possible. These athletes may not fly as high as a jetliner, but for those who learn properly, it can be more fun.

Good Luck!

Larry Bartels is a member of the men's track and field coaching staff at the Naval Academy. For the five years prior to his arrival in Annapolis, he was the head coach of both the men's cross country and track & field programs at Division II Northwood University (Mich.). There, he garnered three Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) Coach-of-the-Year awards. He was named the conference's Outdoor Track Coach of the Year in 1997 and also received similar honors in cross country that fall. In 1998, Bartels received the GLIAC Indoor Track Coach-of-the-Year award.

Prior to coaching at Northwood, Bartels served as the head track & field coach at Division III Coast Guard where his dual-meet record was an outstanding 74-6. In 1995, he led the school to a 10th-place finish at the NCAA Division III Championships. Bartels also led the squad to the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) championship in 1994, and he received both ECAC and New England Coach-of-the-Year recognition at the end of the campaign.