By Rob Assise
I am just in my fourth year of devoting the majority of my coaching time to male athletes who participate in the high, long, and triple jumps. Prior to this, I coached girls for 12 seasons. During that time, my focus was the sprints, sprint relays, and hurdles. There were also years in which I had to work with high jumpers, depending on the make-up our staff.
I give this background to verify that the amount of time I spend at the sand pits during a meet has increased substantially. While I am a coach who is far from having even a portion of the answers to the horizontal jumps, there are things I see at every meet that leave me scratching my head. I consider these three the cardinal sins of horizontal jumping.
Cardinal Sin No. 1: Obtaining a Mark by Running Backward from the Board
I was guilty of doing this as an athlete, as I didn’t know any better. However, all coaches should know better. Whenever I see this happen at a meet, I make it a point to say to our jumpers, “That athlete may have more ability than you, but he is not as prepared as you. You have at least one advantage over him in this competition.” Here are three reasons why this needs to stop.
- It screams, “Hey everyone, look at me, I am not prepared!” There’s no need to elaborate this point.
- Every athlete who has a mark to rehearse before the meet hates the athletes who need to run back to set their mark. It disrupts the flow of warm-ups. Warm-up time is often limited, and negotiating who is running which way takes extra time. Furthermore, it is a safety issue. At times, high school athletes are not entirely in tune with their surroundings. I have seen near-collisions on the runway with athletes approaching each other from opposite directions.
- It is inaccurate! I’ll be honest: I would find comic relief in athletes who use this method if I did not feel bad for the athlete’s lack of preparation, and sad for the future of humanity as a whole due to the lack of logic. During most outdoor meets, wind plays a huge role in the jumps. Most of the time, the direction of the jumps is aligned to take advantage of a tailwind. If a jumper is going to have a tailwind during competition, how the heck can attempting to establish a mark by running back from the board into a headwind be accurate?
When an athlete who uses this method tells his coach, “I’m not on the board,” what I hear is, “I’m not on the board…because I just ran into a 20 mph headwind, and now I am supposed to have the same number of steps going with a 20 mph tailwind.” This is the converse of timing a 10-meter fly spiked up on a track, and then heading to the beach and expecting the athlete to produce the same 10-meter fly time in the sand.
Solution No. 1A
Every athlete should come to a meet with their numbers (distance back from the board and number of steps/cycles). We define steps as going from left to right or vice versa. We define one cycle as LRL or RLR. So, a 16-step approach has eight cycles.
Jumpers should know their distance back from the board and their number of cycles. That way, when a coach is not available to watch their approach rehearsal, they can go to their distance away from the board and have a teammate watch where they are at in regard to the board by saying, “Mark my eighth left (jumping leg).” Most long jumpers take an even number of steps; meaning, their jumping leg is forward in their starting stance.
If an athlete monitors the approach of another athlete whose jumping leg is their left leg, the athlete’s second step would be the first time their left hits (first left). If a jumper takes an odd number of steps (more common for triple jumpers), their jumping leg is the first contact out of the starting stance and would be counted as first left or right. For reference, a 15-step approach would be considered 7.5 cycles.
When obtaining a starting mark, do so away from the runway (on the track straightaway). Roll out a tape measure and have the athlete start from zero. Give them a number of cycles to complete based on their experience. For long jump, I usually have beginners start with 5-6 cycles. Experienced athletes use 7-8 cycles. Occasionally, an upper-tier athlete may benefit from nine cycles. Have them rehearse the approach a few times, recording the distance where their jump contact hits each time. Ideally, the marks will be in the same ballpark, making it easy to assign an approach distance.
Due to the high force demands of triple jump, the number of cycles in the approach is usually 1-3 fewer than long jump. Decreasing the number of cycles does reduce takeoff velocity, but the trade-off is the athlete will be able to handle the forces to complete three quality phases. Besides poor posture and too high of a first phase, another reason that athletes struggle to have a second phase is they are unable to handle the force that comes with the velocity of their takeoff. In general, triple jump is a grown person’s endeavor—athletes need to earn the right to have a longer approach. The easy way to determine this is if they are able to consistently take attempts without any breakdowns.Coaches must watch the long jumper’s approaches with their own eyes (during the practice leading up to a meet event) for an unfiltered view, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
Once the distance is established, a mock board can be set up and the athlete can rehearse using the board as their target. During that time, it is imperative that coaches watch the approaches with their own eyes. If you want to record, have another person do so. An unfiltered view is the best way to determine if there is a disruption to the athlete’s rhythm and speed as they move through the approach. If there are changes to the rhythm or speed, further adjustments to the approach distance may be needed.
Solution No. 1B
The following guidelines are general ranges for approach distances. I often use this method for athletes who aren’t with us at the start of the season (competing in a winter sport) or begin doing the horizontal jumps mid-season. While the other athletes rehearse with their set approach distances, I give the new athlete a number and tell him, “Ignore the board. Just focus on what we discussed regarding getting to vertical in six steps and continue. I’m going to watch where your sixth left hits.”
I assign the number within the ranges based on my observation of the athlete’s stride length. Since the tape measure is on the track, it just requires simple addition or subtraction from the number I gave the athlete at the start. Note: These ranges are guidelines, not absolutes!
10 steps: 50-60 feet
12 steps: 60-75 feet
14 steps: 75-90 feet
16 steps: 90-110 feet
18 steps: 115-125 feet
Cardinal Sin No. 2: Switching Starting Legs to Get the Jump Leg to Hit the Board
To ensure clarity, here is what I mean: An athlete jumps off their left leg and begins their eight-cycle (16-step) approach with the left leg forward. During their rehearsal, their 15th step (right leg) hits the board. A common solution I have heard from various coaches and athletes who have done the event prior to being part of our program is to switch the feet at the start. However, while this may get the athlete to end up with the correct leg on the board, it is a garbage solution.If the jumper can’t feel the difference of taking one less step in their approach, they simply haven’t spent enough time rehearsing their approach. It interrupts the rhythm. Click To Tweet
The approach of any jumping event is a rhythmic endeavor. The flow of the tail end of the approach would have a significant disruption if it is one step less. If an athlete cannot feel the difference of taking one less step in their approach, they simply haven’t spent enough time rehearsing their approach. Ask a musician if the 16th beat taken out of a four-bar section in 4/4 time would disrupt the flow of a song.
Solution No. 2
If the wrong foot is hitting the board, a simple solution is to move the athlete forward or backward somewhere between 4 and 6 feet. This varies based on the athlete’s stride length. For example, if an athlete takes 16 steps and their 15th step is on the board, they could back up 5 feet and do another rehearsal. If the same athlete’s 17th step was on the board, they could move up 5 feet and do another rehearsal.
What if the athlete is between steps (misses the board completely)? Simple—have them get to the magic approach step number by moving them up or back 2 or 3 feet. In the hopefully rare case that the athlete is off by more than one step, just use a combination of the guidelines above. For example:
1.5 steps off – 7.5 feet forward/back
2 steps off – 11 feet forward back
Cardinal Sin No. 3: Altering Approach Distance Due to a Minor Foul
We have all seen this before. An athlete looks great down the runway and pops a huge jump, but the red flag goes up because of a toe foul. On the next attempt, the athlete backs up one foot, and toe fouls again. A book could be written on this topic alone, but what most miss is the phenomenon of steering.
As a jumper progresses down the runway, the variance in step location increases until they are six steps out, and then it decreases until takeoff. No matter the skill of a jumper, no two approaches are ever identical. Yet, minor adjustments are made like the next approach will be the same as the preceding one and, since the jumper is a foot further back, all will be good. I do not have official data, but in my experience, I would venture to say the success of those adjustments yielding a positive result is less than 50%.No matter the jumper, no two approaches are ever identical. Yet, minor adjustments are made like the next approach will be the same as the preceding one, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
An extreme example of this occurred with a jumper of mine a few years back. He looked great during run-throughs, but toe-fouled his first jump. He ended up moving back 7 feet by his fourth attempt (still taking the same number of steps in his approach). All four attempts were toe fouls. There were no noticeable changes in his rhythm. He did not “reach” for the board, and despite four “big” jumps, any of which would have won the competition, he did not obtain a legal mark.
Solution No. 3
I am not saying I do not make minor adjustments to an athlete’s approach length during competition. Ideally, the adjustments are made during warm-ups, but we all know that adrenaline can play a big role in approach consistency when the competition commences. I think there is a positive with small adjustments via enhancing an athlete’s confidence because an intervention is taking place. However, the approach length adjustment is not the first place we go. Here is a series of questions that you can use:
- Did you maximize the first six steps of your approach?
We emphasize consistency out of the back end of the approach. If we strive for as little variance as possible, the most controllable steps will be those at the start. To overcome inertia, we look for athletes to execute big, powerful strikes into the ground. We want these to be maximal because it increases consistency. Ideally, this will lead to less variance for the steps that typically have the most variance in the middle of the approach. We already know variance will decrease from six steps in.
- Did you manage your arousal level appropriately?
Athletes need to be taught strategies to manage their arousal level so they are in a state that will allow them to operate appropriately. Belly-breathing, meditating/visualization, singing, dancing, socializing, and doing some sort of physical activity between attempts are all viable ways for athletes to get “in the zone.” Every person is different. Give them options and let them explore what works best for them.
- What was your targeting system?
This could be the most overlooked area of all in the jumps. In fact, another cardinal sin could be coaches who tell their athletes to never look at the board. Young athletes have enough issues being accurate without having to wear a self-imposed blindfold down the runway. As the athlete gets closer to takeoff, they should use their peripheral vision to monitor the board. I do not want to jeopardize an athlete’s posture toward the end of the approach by having them tilt their head forward to look directly at the board.
When athletes are consistently over or short of the foul line, a better approach than altering the approach distance is to change their target. If the target is the foul line and the athlete is consistently toe-fouling, he could target the front of the board. If he is short of the board, he could target a spot behind the board. The jumper will steer to where he thinks the board is located, so this alteration is almost like trying to trick the brain into thinking the foul line is in a different location. You must note that this is highly based on the individual because visual interpretation of the world is variable.When athletes are consistently over or short of the foul line, a better approach than altering the approach distance is to change their target, says @HFJumps. Click To Tweet
I must also point out that factors such as track color, indoor lighting (bright, dim), outdoor lighting (day, dusk, night, cloud cover), precipitation, and board system (the boards we compete on vary from 8 inches to 18 inches) are all factors that can alter an athlete’s perception of the location of the foul line. Since a high school track schedule is often consistent, a coach should keep a library of the school’s facilities so they can be replicated during practice prior to the competition (if possible), along with a log of athlete performance at each meet. Over the course of time, trends can be established and adjustments that find the most success can be put into place.
- Given your answers, do you feel confident with the adjustment(s) that need to be made on your next approach? If not, do you think it is necessary to alter your approach distance?
While I may come off as a down-talking know-it-all in this piece, I do want to reiterate that I am still in the early part of my journey with the horizontal jumps. I hope I was able to offer some items for consideration and I would appreciate any feedback.