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Article By: Jan Johnson, Olympian

Part of the process of learning to pole vault is learning to manage risk. It should be a big part of any pole vault education program. Many of the lessons learned in pole vaulting are parallel to those in life. Consider for a moment the way basic skills of reading, writing and math have such a large impact upon a student's later success. Now consider the way a vaulter's ability to run with and plant the pole also have a huge impact upon his later success. In both cases, his early lessons have a big impact upon later results. Perhaps the most important aspect of controlling risk in the pole vault, as in primary school, is environment.

Pole vaulting requires supervision. In the ideal, pole vaulting program time is spent on the five criteria necessary for success: fitness, skill, cooperation, conceptualization and adjustments.


Control risks by making your pole vault environment as risk-free as possible. This requires a daily assessment prior to actual vaulting. The list of things that need to be investigated on a regular basis are as follows:

  • Are pads and top cover properly fastened together? If not, and buckles and/or straps are broken, clothesline, pieces of old bike inner-tubes , or some other form of rope may be successfully used to keep things together.
  • Are standards fastened to the ground or counter weighted so they are stable and won't tip over? This can be quickly fixed by using sand sacks upon the bases. Hint: the sacks can be made from old care inner-tubes (free at any tire shop), filled with long jump pit sand. Another good method to stabilize standards is to bolt them to 1/2" plywood so that a couple feet of the plywood fits under the outside edge of the pad. Please note that sand sacks or plywooding your bases should be done so as not to interfere with the base protector padding.
  • Is the pit in proper position? Many times during the course of practice or a meet, the pad may slide back too far. The rules allow it to be as far behind the back of the box as 14". However, many vaulting pads are designed to fit snugly around the outside edges of the planting box. The pads could also become crooked at times. It is important to monitor this and get your vaulters to participate in keeping the pit in proper position.
  • Are poles in good condition? Are there nicks, scratches, max weights and max handhold marks visible? Hint: always carry fiberglass poles in protective tubes or cases of some kind. Storage is also important to the lifespan of the pole. It is best to store poles on a rack inside your equipment area out of direct sunlight.
  • Are any hard surfaces exposed within a 5-foot perimeter of landing pad or between the planting box and "front buns" sections of the pad? Around standard bases? Hint: use pieces of old gymnastics or wrestling mats to pad these areas. Other suitable applications are old high jump or pole vault pad sections around side and back edges of pit.
  • Are weather conditions safe for pole vaulting? Rain, sleet, snow and excessive wind are all conditions that can make pole vaulting too dangerous at times.

Other Improvements and Safety Features Which Should be Checked

Does the box have the correct dimensions and is it set properly in the runway? Is the box up to National HS Federation rules? It's a good idea to consult the appropriate rule book for this information. The most important criteria to consider are as follows:

  • The box should be approximately 8.4" deep from the top of the runway to its bottom.
  • The box should be approximately 16" across the top of the back. This also allows the pole to bend and roll properly. The sides and back of the box should be slanted to allow the pole to bend and roll.
  • Under no circumstances should the box ever have a front edge raised above the top of the runway. Sometimes a pole plug can get caught on the front edge or "lip", which can be very dangerous.

Is your pad large enough? This issue is very important when considering facility safety. It is perhaps best answered by considering how high the potential users of the pad are going to vault. As a rule of thumb, larger is better in vaulting pits. The width and length dimensions should be considered when assessing the safety value of a pole vaulting pad. The pad should be approximately the same length as its highest intended user can vault (from back of the planting box to back of pad). The width of the entire pad near the base units should be not less than 16'6".

The padding of hard surfaces around the landing pad is also very important. If you have a small landing, your requirement for padding hard surfaces around the pit may be greater. However, if you have a large pad, your need for padding hard surfaces may be less.

The shape of the padding around the planting box is also important. Two important design features here can help increase safety:

1. The "front buns" should extend out at least to the front of the planting box.
2. The inside edges of the front buns that surround the planting box should be slanted up and away from the box to offer protection right to the edge of the box, and at the same time allow the pole to bend. If you have a pit that does not cover this area adequately, it is a good idea to consult your respective rule book regarding vaulting facilities and equipment. These rule books offer important information regarding equipment specifications and safety.

Good Basic Skills = Safety

Perhaps the most important area to consider in pole vaulting risk management is the teaching of basic skills. I call the following progression the "Standing Grip Plus Progression." It is a great way to control handhold heights and approach distances for the beginning and intermediate vaulter while they learn basic skills. Here are a few helpful hints that will promote better skill development in your program. Teach pole vaulting as a simple progression of skills in the following order:

  • Begin teaching vaulting skills by vaulting on grass, carrying the pole in the overhead position. Grip the pole no higher than the athlete can stand and reach with the top hand with the butt-plug end between the feet as a beginning grip. Progress to a grip approximately 12" above standing grip. Emphasize jumping up at takeoff from the correct foot, and going on the correct side of the pole.
  • Vault into the long jump pit carrying pole overhead and gripping pole between one and two feet over standing grip from a short run of 3 lefts onto a pole vault pad, making no attempt to swing up or turn over. Carry the pole in the overhead position with a beginning grip of one foot above standing grip, and progressing to a grip between two and three feet higher.
  • Vault from a run of 3 lefts onto a pole vault pad with emphasis upon carrying the pole in normal side carry position with the top hand in the hip area, and shifting the pole on the second left (assuming the vaulter is right-handed). Emphasize correct pole plant execution whereby the vaulter begins shifting the pole to the overhead position on his next-to-last takeoff foot so as to yield enough time for a complete and efficient pole plant.
  • Vault from an approach of 3 lefts with emphasis upon learning to stay rightside-up just after takeoff. Swing a straight trail leg to an "L" or seated position for the landing on the pad.
  • Vault from an approach of 3 lefts with the appropriate handhold, plant and swing with emphasis on shooting the feet up over the top hand and turning over to face the runway while landing on feet in center/middle portion of the landing pad.
  • Practice running with the pole on track or long jump runway with emphasis on pole carry in horizontal position with the top hand next to the hip; relaxed hand grip, pole tip directly in front of the body, holding pole steady; running with erect posture and counting lefts or takeoff feet.
  • Practice running with pole on track or long runway counting lefts and shifting hands in the proper planting motion on a specific predetermined left of takeoff foot.
  • Progress the student vaulters first to five left and then seven left approaches when they have mastered the basic progressions outlined above and vaulting over crossbars with no pole bend.
  • Vaulters will normally be capable (and ready) to bend poles at or slightly over their body weights when they are capable of holding a top hand grip 4' or more above their standing grip and can clear a bar within one foot or less of this handhold and land in the center of the pit on a consistent basis.

    NOTE: The practice of counting lefts of takeoff feet encourages vaulters to more easily cue the proper time to begin shifting the hands up to an efficient takeoff position. It also acts as a method to control the length and accuracy of the approach run.

Helmets for Increased Safety?

Currently there is no specific helmet for pole vaulting. However, some in the field believe helmets may be a good idea as they may add a possible measure of safety. Several brands of hockey and/or skating helmets offer excellent protection to the sides and back of the head area. These helmets are lightweight, 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 that the vaulter should supply for himself. 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. Most importantly, the helmet should never be a substitute for other safe equipment or sound technique.

Basic Adjustments for Consistency

The relationship between technique, grip height, approach run, and pole stiffness are very important to understanding the pole vault. Please note the following rules and incorporate them into your program. Keep in mind that the relationships between these items are the basis for improving technique as well as safety. These adjustments are ongoing in that they occur on a jump-by-jump basis:

  • Lower your grip if you are not penetrating deep enough into the landing pad to produce a safe vault.
  • Lower your grip if you are landing near the side edges of the pad.
  • Lower your grip if you are over-bending your pole (more than 90 degrees).
  • Raise your grip if you are not over-bending your pole and landing too deep in the pit.
  • Go to a slightly stiffer pole if you are over-bending your pole and landing well into a pit.
  • If you've mastered the progression outlined above and you can't bend the pole, go to a softer or shorter pole, but never under your body weight.
  • Check your takeoff step on a regular basis. Adjust the starting point of your run so that your takeoff foot is directly under your top hand at the moment of leaving the ground.
  • Never adjust your grip upward in increments larger than two or three inches per jump.


Part of safety is understanding the task of pole vaulting, its risks and mechanics.

  • A short run with a low grip is the safest and fastest way to learn technique.
  • Do not progress to the next skill until you have mastered the one that precedes it.
  • Pole bend is a result of proper size poles and skill mastery.
  • Pole bend is not encouraged or recommended until basic skills have been met.
  • The proper size pole cannot be determined until all basic skills have been mastered from five lefts.
  • Good basic technique helps athletes vault higher and safer.
  • Understand the relative stiffness chart.
  • Need for progression of poles.
  • Emphasize clearing bars above handhold, and less emphasis on high handhold.
  • Do not emphasize pole bending.
  • Emphasize high hands and jumping up at takeoff.
  • Emphasize vaulting with the standards set between 18 and 26 inches behind the back of the box.
  • Emphasize taking off from a position where the takeoff toe is directly below the top hand at the instant of leaving the ground. Vaulters should take turns catching each other's takeoff step.
  • Emphasize swinging feet to hands and then "shooting" feet up and over for the turn. Emphasize clearing bars higher over top handhold.
  • Runway speed and jumping ability are the most important elements in jumping high.
  • A measured step and checkmark system will yield the fastest, most consistent run.


For those who participate wisely, pole vaulting is fun and very rewarding. A pole vaulting supervisor need not be an expert in vaulting mechanics, but rather an expert in relationships, a facilitator of plans, and an organizer of people. Vaulters do not need motivation; they will be the first to arrive at practice and the last to leave. The lessons of pole vaulting are similar to life; the relationships between meaningful preparation, conceptualization, adjustments, work and rest, fun and luck, the law of averages, educated guesses, conquering fears, overcoming problems and making adjustments. The pole vault supervisor needs to understand those relationships to provide a fun and risk-free environment.

Jan Johnson
6505 Santa Cruz
Atascadero, California 93422
Phone: 800-652-5201
Fax: 805-466-8273

E-mail: skyjumpers@msn.com

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