MANAGEMENT OF RISK IN POLE VAULTING
By: Jan Johnson, Olympian
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.
FIRST, A SAFE ENVIRONMENT!
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
- 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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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
- Go to a slightly stiffer
pole if you are over-bending your pole and landing well into a
- 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
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
- Need for progression
- Emphasize clearing
bars above handhold, and less emphasis on high handhold.
- Do not emphasize pole
- 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
SKY JUMPERS VERTICAL SPORTS CLUB
Atascadero, California 93422