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Article By: John D. Mahr,
Coach, Sultana High School, Hesperia, CA

The task of advancing a pole vaulter to a higher rated or"stiffer" pole is always fraught with guesswork. It is never really based on objective or factual data. The decision is generally made after much intuitive observation of the athlete's progress in strength, speed, and a host of other factors.

Although the training and competitive conditions will often dictate a change to a higher rated (heavier) or longer pole, the vaulter will be required to have the confidence gleaned from practice and competition to advance to another pole.

The task of instilling this confidence can be greatly simplified through a five-step progressive program:

1. Run-throughs with the higher rated pole
2. Sliding-box drills with the pole
3. Sand-pit pop-throughs/pop-ups
4. Short-run jumps into the pit with pole
5. Sand-pit declined-box vaulting

The pole advancement should occur ideally in 5-lb. (test weight) increments or decreasing 1.0 cm deflection-rating progressions.
Note: The same result can usually be obtained by simply moving to the next highest length of pole, while keeping the same test weight/deflection rating.

1. Run-throughs:

Have the vaulter perform one workout of run-throughs on the runway with a competition length run-up. A run-up of 12-16 strides will give the vaulter the feel of the new pole and help him adapt to the added weight or extra length of the pole.

If the pole is in fact heavier and therefore longer, changes will have to be made in the carrying of the pole and the rhythm of the run-up. The pole will have to be carried more vertically in order to offset the additional weight, while the run-up may have to be lengthened slightly (1-2 strides) to accommodate the somewhat slower entry into the run-up.

2. Sliding-Box Drills:

The sliding box is simply a pole-vault plant box that has been taken out of the ground and is no longer in service. A facsimile of a box can be made in a metal shop as long as the regulation box's measurements are followed.

Key: The weight of the metal sliding box is usually just right to assure an active planting action with the sensation of some returned force back to the vaulter.

The sliding box should be placed on a dirt or grass surface, so that the vaulter can begin walking through the planting action from approximately five strides out. The vaulter should advance the pole into the box by bringing both hands high overhead and pressing to an active, high plant. At this point, he will feel the resistance of the box at impact and the box will move slightly.

As soon as the vaulter feels more comfortable with the box plant, have him progress to a jogging plant from five steps and then progressively move back to 9 or 10 quick, aggressive strides.

Once the vaulter begins to hit the plant more aggressively, he will bend the pole slightly and begin to put himself into an active driving position at takeoff. The optimal sequence of action comes when the vaulter hits the box with timing and enough force to maintain a high pole and active split-leg position at takeoff--moving the box several to many feet.

While providing an excellent simulation of an actual vault, the sliding box can serve as an excellent drill throughout the season. Such drills are excellent when used as a warm-up or indoor vaulting drill.

3. Pop-Through:

The third step in pole advancement takes the vaulter to the long-jump pit. The pit is prepared by digging the sand and building the pit higher toward the middle. This is necessary to reduce the chance of injury in the drills.

Once the pit is soft and ready, the vaulter should find a mark on the runway approximately 5-6 strides from the pit. He should then remove the plug from the end of the pole to ensure the pole's stability on contact with the sand.

With the vaulter holding a little more than halfway up the pole, he's now ready to perform a jogging plant into the pit. At this point, check to make sure the vaulter's handhold is above forehead level at the plant. If the handhold is not above this level, have the vaulter move his grip 3-4 inches and proceed to the next phase.

As the vaulter becomes accustomed to the runway and pit situation, he can begin jumping at takeoff with a swing-through into the sand pit, landing on his feet.

The vaulter may then move his run-up back several strides and perform a swing-up. He must plant high and take off actively so as to allow the legs to be swung above the waist in a pendulum fashion and then back down to land on the feet.

As the vaulter develops the body awareness to perform more acrobatic positions after takeoff, he can be allowed to use up to a 10-stride approach and to use higher handholds. He will generally want to move to handholds (top hand) within 3-4 feet of a competitive grip. When he appears to have the technique necessary to take off and perform swing-through movements, he can attempt abbreviated vaulting actions.

These vaulting actions may include simulated bar clearances. The closer the vaulter can stimulate the actual technique positions, the better. He should be careful to emphasize a high plant, which, in turn, can lead to a swing-through action and ultimately to a vertical position just prior to the turn and push-off from the pole.

The entire vaulting sequence should not be cut short, but rather, abbreviated. Although not recommended, some vaulters can actually progress to near competitive heights during this phase.

With pole advancement and safety being the primary concern, it is unnecessary to stimulate competition jumping into a sand pit.

This step in the advancement series should take approximately one session to complete.

4. Short-Run Jumps:

At this point in the pole advancement, the vaulter can begin using the vaulting pit and stationary planting box. He can execute short-run vaults with the "new" pole and begin to gradually move his run-up back while moving his handhold up.

This step is characterized by the use of "pop-ups," or drills designed to emphasize several aspects of the plant, swing phase, and bar clearance. Pop-ups are generally taken from a 6-9 stride approach in which a high and accurate plant rather than speed is the prime concern.

The stress on a high-aggressive plant (in the pop-up) will facilitate the smooth transition of the body into vertical pre-clearance positions. The vaulter must attempt to move his handhold gradually to a point close to the bottom handhold of a competitive grip.

Caution: Do not allow the vaulter to move his run-up beyond 10 strides. Too long a run-up will allow for too much speed and reduce the efficacy of the plant and takeoff actions.

This step may include the use of a bar in order to emphasize bar clearance techniques. Step four will generally take one session to complete.

4. Declined-Box Vaulting:

The final step in pole advancement is actually made up of several progressive phases, all utilizing a sand pit, pole-vault pit, and portable plant box. The run-up length is that of a competitive approach.

First, a portable plant box must be sunk into the sand pit end of the runway. The box must initially be placed at a depth wherein the closed end of the box is four inches below ground level, with the flared or open end of the box remaining flush with the runway surface at ground level.

Be careful to move the sand away from the edges of the box and to pack sand under the box for stability. The lowering of the closed end of the plant box will promote greater mechanical leverage for the pole plant. This, in turn, will allow the pole to bend more easily and facilitate the use of a high rated pole.

Once the vaulter has attempted several run-ups and achieved a rhythm and feel for the run-up, have him attempt a vault or two with his previous competitive pole. Since the pole will bend much more easily with a declined box, he may want to hold an inch or two lower than in previous situations.

If the vaulter's techniques are proper and his confidence appears good, you may allow him to progress to the new pole. With the declined box, the new pole should bend and progress far enough in toward the pit so as to move the vaulter well into the pit.

Hesitancy by the vaulter may cause his first vault with the new pole to be unsuccessful. Make sure to have him try again and again. Whenever the pole appears to be working well with the declined box, the vaulter can be judged ready to move to Phase Two of Step Five.

If the pole is not progressing into the pit as hoped, the vaulter is obviously not ready to advance beyond this point, and may need another session before continuing.

Whenever you see the vaulter handling the pole better, or if the pole is bending too much and feeling "soft" to the vaulter, it's time to raise the declined box. By adding sand under the box and thus raising it an inch or so, the coach or vaulter can gradually move toward vaulting with a level box.

As long as the raising is gradual with a number of vaults being taken at each level, the vaulter will become accustomed to his new pole and can complete his advancement.

It is recommended that the box be raised in approximately one-inch increments. This will allow for a smooth transition into jumping, with the box at ground level. At the same time, the vaulter will not experience any great change in pole stiffness and his techniques will remain ideal.

With many inexperienced pole vaulters, the act of advancing from a lighter to a heavier/higher rated pole can be very frustrating and dangerous. The pole-advancement series will assure the coach of progressively building the vaulter's confidence and advanced technical skill, enabling him to move to an advanced pole.

The pole-advancement drills can be used as part of the vaulter's everyday workout. Each step can be used as a diagnostic indicator of the vaulter's strengths and weaknesses.

The series should be followed step-by-step when working with new or inexperienced vaulters. Since each step represents an important aspect of pole advancement, it should be given adequate time for completion. An average high school vaulter (12-14 feet) will need approximately 4-5 days or sessions to complete the series.

Experienced vaulters may actually pack all five steps into one or two workout sessions, with the main emphasis of pole advancement being placed upon Step Five. With an experienced vaulter, the act of advancing to a higher rated pole will take on a new meaning when done in competition. This is true for high- and low-level vaulters alike, so that the pole advancement series becomes a superlative source of preparedness training for competition. This series will enable both coach and athlete to develop patience with the event and its intricacies. While performing the series, there's no reason the vaulter cannot continue to use his old poles.

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