Reflections on the Pole Vault in NYC

In a previous blog post, Branko outlined the roles of a pole vault coach--the three hats they must wear. Coaches must know the necessary strength & conditioning appropriate to their event. Like martial arts coaches, all coaches need to know how to teach and develop their athletes’ skills. In competition, coaches are like NASCAR crew chiefs--responsible for adjustments and minor cues when the stakes are high. When I coached the pole vault meets and clinics for the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) in New York City last year, I wore two of those hats.


If Apex Vaulting was where I earned my degree in coaching the pole vault, then the PSAL was my first job after graduation. From mid-November through late February, every time there was a high school meet at The Armory, I was there. I helped the officials set up the standards, check in the athletes, mark the runway, and run an hour-long pre-meet clinic. This wasn’t a lot of time to teach a proper pole carry or plant before new athletes entered a competition, but my goal for these athletes wasn’t to clear a bar on their first day. I wanted to show as many new faces as possible how easily they could progress toward clearing a bar with safe, reliable technique. I talked about running mechanics but didn’t teach it, even though the athletes needed it. I knew my audience. With barely enough jumps from those long runway lines during Tues/Thurs Armory practices, short approach jump drills were the best use of everyone’s time. I focused on what we could accomplish in the time provided. When athletes arrived late and missed most of the clinic, I still gave them a high-five, said I was glad to see them, and set them up with a pole.


During the clinics, I wore my skills hat. I taught the new kids how to hold the pole and let it drop under its own weight. I wanted the new vaulters to feel comfortable leaving the ground too. We practiced rollover drills a lot. For the experienced vaulters, I explained how their plant and take-off contributed to a faster swing speed. I demoed the drills to help kids see what I was asking them to do. My feedback was based on movement and feeling. We rarely took jumps farther back than 3 left steps. Everyone had the opportunity to jump bungees which matched their ability. Some athletes swung up with no turn and that alone was a great day for them. Coaching skills requires meeting the athlete where they’re at, showing them what they’ve accomplished, and explaining where they need to go.


In competition, I wore my NASCAR crew chief hat and made adjustments. I wasn’t required to coach the meets, but I stayed anyway. The athletes’ head coaches were okay with this because quality pole vault coaching wasn’t widely available. Their focus was elsewhere--prepping their sprinters or catching splits. They were doing as much good as possible for as many athletes as possible. I can’t really say I blame them, but this is not a great model for developing field athletes, or conveying respect. Unless an athlete showed up with a dedicated vault coach, which only one high school had, I usually coached every athlete on the runway. They knew me and they trusted me.


Of course, this might seem like a conflict of interest to the coaches so in good faith, I always ask permission to coach the athletes. If it were any other event, such a request would be taken as an insult to the coach. In the pole vault in NYC, this is a reasonable request. No athlete or coach ever questioned my methods. The officials were okay with it too. They knew the experience for the athlete was better, safer and more fun when I stuck around for the meets. Athletes took their jumps. I watched and made simple adjustments. “Nice job. Go up a grip, keep your step.” “You looked tight on that one. Let’s go back a half.” They took their next jump and cleared the bar smoothly. Athletes were astounded by the adjustments. Maybe they viewed these simple changes, in grip or step, as the missing coaching component which prevented them from clearing higher bars.


In any field event, adjustments are important, but skill development is more important. You need both to be a successful pole vaulter. At the Armory, after coaching my own athletes, I used to stay late and help out the very same vaulters who would show up to my weekend clinics and meets. If they asked me for adjustments, I gave them. I avoided offering skills feedback because there wasn’t enough time for them to implement it, or for me to reinforce it. It would have been 5:45pm by then. I needed to get home to grade lab reports or plan lessons for my school days ahead. One runway with 30+ athletes doesn’t really allow for more than 6 jumps per practice. At those practices, I became known as the guy who could help you clear the next bar with simple adjustments.


They would ask, “How do you see that?!?” “How do you know where my grip should be?” and I would tell them I watch pole speed. I watch arm movement in the plant and in the take-off. I think they still thought I was some kind of wizard. When I adjusted their jump and the jump looked better, I think they thought I was developing their skills. I wasn’t. If anything, I was teaching the kids, who were interested, how to watch the jump more critically. I was just wearing my NASCAR crew chief hat, trying to fit the right pole specs to the athlete in front of me.


Clinics and meets don’t give you enough time with athletes to implement any kind of strength & conditioning program so all I did was make recommendations. “Do more pull-ups.” “Increase your bench press.” “You have gym access? Great, it’s time to start deadlifting.” In 9 total clinics throughout the season, I was thrilled to observe athletes improve their skills and their confidence, but I hardly saw improvements in strength or speed. The athletes m