SimpliFaster virtually convened a roundtable of esteemed and experienced jumps coaches to cover a bevy of topics related to jumps. We have been presenting these questions, and their answers, in a series of articles. This is the fifth in the series, and covers the topic of approach accuracy for jumpers.
SimpliFaster: Specific coaching strategies and philosophies regarding approach accuracy have been written about for some time. Please describe how you tackle the issue of approach accuracy in practice and competition. Discuss your views on the psychological aspects of fouling and how you address those issues.
Travis Geopfert: This is something that we are constantly working on and need to get better at. Dan Pfaff told me last year that, if your athlete is fouling more that 30% of their jumps, then as a coach you’re doing something wrong.
Jarrion Lawson specifically has worked very hard on this and is getting better. His visual steering coming in as a freshman was a little “off.” There were a couple of times during his freshmen year that he would foul by well over a foot and think he had gotten it in. To his credit, over time he has worked very hard to improve upon that.
Of course, there is the simple component of good kinesthetic awareness. We have done numerous drills where we picked arbitrary points to start from on the runway and “steer” to a fair takeoff without fouling, stuttering, or being too far behind the board. I learned from Rana Reider years ago that visual steering starts a minimum of six steps out from the board. With that being said, we have worked hard to get ourselves into a good position that allows us to steer for a positive outcome.
At the end of the day, a consistent rhythm and stride pattern out of the back seems the most effective way to have most of your jumps be fair. We use a checkmark system out of the back that differs depending on each individual athlete’s approach distance, and we work hard in our acceleration development and rhythm patterns to make sure those initial “pushes” are consistent.
Dan Pfaff: This is a pet peeve of mine and I am often frustrated by how little attention and discussion there is on this topic. Somehow, the myth of not looking at the board became embedded in coaching culture here in North America. Granted, I don’t want a poor head position or a declined visual plane just before takeoff, but I find it incredible that athletes are being taught not to steer or target for takeoff accuracy.
Deceleration at the takeoff is often blamed on visual landmarking. However, our research with hundreds of athletes and thousands of jumps shows this not the case. Research also shows it is impossible to program a repeatable run with no variance in step location during the entirety of the approach. If this is fact, then how do the “don’t look” proponents suggest making adjustment while on the fly, so to speak? I think research is needed on visual acuity skills, peripheral vision testing, etc., for this topic to become discussed more in the literature.
I have discussed these concepts at length with Dr. Alan Reichow, O.D., M.Ed., professor emeritus at Pacific University. He is a pioneer in sport vision and strategies. Dr. Reichow has done some very interesting work with NFL receivers that has hugely influenced our practice and research. I first became interested in approach accuracy back in the mid-1980s during a weekend symposium at the University of Iowa hosted by Dr. James Hay and the USATF elite jumps project.
In my role as coach these past 40-plus years, I spent the bulk of my time with inherited athletes; meaning they sought my counsel at their current stage of development. More than 90% of these athletes reported never having been exposed to Hay’s work or the concepts he proposed. When I query past coaches, about the same number respond accordingly. I know this concept is out there on the web and presented in several coaching schools worldwide, so I’m not sure why it isn’t getting more traction. I have also interviewed dozens of the world’s top coaches and their athletes over the past 20 years on this issue and, despite the landmark work of Dr. James Hay back in the 1980s, folks often shortchange this factor or blame fouling on outside variables.
A sidebar research project also shows that many coaches and athletes do not enforce legal jump strategies in practice. It is my opinion that accuracy strategies are very complex skills based on visual acuities. If an athlete is not held accountable for accuracy during hundreds or thousands of practice jumps during the season, then how can we demand accuracy in the heat of battle without corresponding visual strategy experiences?
Our research also notes that pole vaulters and triple jumpers seem to have much more reliable approach accuracies than long jumpers. Perhaps the ramifications of accuracy for these events promote greater subconscious enhancement of visual strategies by the athlete or greater coach awareness of shapes and strategies in these events?
If an athlete is not held accountable for accuracy during hundreds or thousands of practice jumps during the season, then how can we demand accuracy in the heat of battle? ~Dan Pfaff
Dr. Hay studied thousands of athletes and approaches at all levels of the sport, including master’s, youth, NCAA, high school, and world-class. The pool of subjects was global and gender inclusive. Dr. Hay proposed that there were “two main components” to improving accuracy and consistency. He termed the first “programming,” and I teach this as the various sections, postures, rhythms, and kinematics for each step of the run. We call these the “shapes” of the approach. Accountability to these factors is critical. Emotional control, type of start utilized, uniform acceleration efficiencies, and postures at each specific step of the approach are KPI factors for run replication.
The second part of Hay’s proposal came from his graphing of step locations for each step of the approach. An intra-athlete scattergram pattern was noted and, from reams of analysis, Dr. Hay proposed that athletes exhibit increased variance in step location during the first half of the approach and then “steer” to the board over the last six steps of the approach. The variance of step location increases with each successive step of the approach up to this six-step location, at which point the variance reduces uniformly over these last strides. Skilled performers exhibit less variance in each step than novices. This steering phenomenon is influenced by step consistency and kinematics of the preceding run up to this six-step landmark.
We have done additional studies and noted that visual acuity and skill sets of acuity are key indicators of success. It seems that athletes use not only the takeoff board but the landing pit itself, officials at the board, markers at the board, etc. We find much greater accuracy when we use a 1-meter to the pit board as opposed to the international 3-meter board-to-pit distance. I think this implies that the athlete uses multiple environmental landmarks to dial in precision. Lighting, speed of run, and color of surface also show statistical significance on accuracy.
I often question new athletes to our group about their previous strategy to address fouling. For most of them, it involved moving the start mark of the approach for the next jump. My follow-up question is then, “How did that work for you?” How many times do we see athletes move their mark and foul by the exact same amount? That shows a steering issue, in my opinion.
We have also evolved “steering” into a subset skill factor that we term “targeting.” We have done thousands of elite jump analyses and intra-athlete analyses of these approaches. At the world-class level, most athletes have consistent shapes and programming strategies, yet fouls are still a huge problem worldwide and the fouls are often similar in distance and location. To address this type of error, we propose that an athlete with this recurring issue use a double loci strategy. By that we mean that the athlete is aware of the exact location of the takeoff foot—the ball of the foot, for example—and the exact location on the board, such as the back edge of the board. During various teaching progressions and approach work, we experiment with strategies and the monitoring of these loci locations and utilization.
Some of our fastest jumpers actually aim behind the board to obtain legal jumps when their runway speeds are optimal and/or presented with huge tail winds. A corresponding finding on target strategy is that athletes often lift their head or eye plane several strides from takeoff in anticipation of takeoff. Some athletes seem able to take a snapshot three strides out and still target effectively. Others seem to need peripheral visual contact up until the plant action.
Nic Petersen: Fouling and inaccuracies during the approach are some of the most frustrating things we run into as a coach. I do believe that accuracy is a skill that we can be taught. But on a secondary note, I believe that some athletes are just innately better at it than others. There are people who have no trouble negotiating the right spot all the time. The event itself is not easy. It’s not easy to run as fast as you can and hit an 8-inch board accurately, fast, and in a great position. Then add in the pressure of having to do it all right when it counts, in competition.
First things first: I don’t want my athletes afraid of the board. I tell them that they are caged animals and the board is what sets them free. It is the reward of a properly executed approach. They should be happy and excited about it; not worried over and scared of it. They should never have the thought, “Oh, I’m going to foul this one,” on their mind.Athletes shouldn’t be afraid of the board. It is the reward of a properly executed approach. Click To Tweet
All that being said, we do a lot of work on accuracy. We do approaches a lot: We start in the beginning of the year, running our approaches on the track, teaching mechanics, and fixing issues. I do it this way so athletes run their approach. They learn what their run is going to be like before we add the board and the adjustments that happen naturally with a board. Then, as we being to practice approaches with the board, we do it multiple ways.
There are days when we do approaches and I coach the approach and we don’t even talk about the board or where their foot was at all. Then there are days where the only thing we work on is trying to hit a certain spot on the board. They make an approach with takeoff and everything, and I ask them where they were and was it fair. We talk about it from there; we try to teach them to be aware of where they are and how to make slight adjustments. Then there are days we do all three: working on a great approach, great takeoff mechanics, and hitting a spot.
We do other things that involve steering as well. Hurdle takeoffs and certain drills that involve steering, where they are steering for certain spots without the board.
Jeremy Fischer: First, postural integrity is very important. Flaws in postural integrity can lead to inaccurate proprioception. Anterior rotation of the hips can cause inaccurate segment alignment and placement of the distal appendage. Therefore, the athlete keeps fouling by a centimeter each time. Until the athlete corrects this, they are going to have tiny toe fouls all the time. They’ll also have an inaccurate approach, which may cause them not to create enough momentum, while a change in the approach running mechanics can lead to improper steering.
I’ve watched thousands and thousands of approaches and almost every time, from five steps out (the place where steering occurs), the athlete will over stride, shorten stride, or stutter as they prepare for takeoff. Approach rhythm and checkpoints for the athlete allow for greater accuracy (the more, the better). I may use an acceleration mark, a transition mark, and a penultimate step mark for the athlete. I will also let the athlete get behind the board in practice, to take into account the greater speed and intensity in meet situations. More than a psychological effect, I want the athlete to be able to understand and establish the rhythm of the approach in their heads.
David Kerin: While it may sound silly at first read, do you know which of your athletes wear contacts? Have you ever considered asking them if they are wearing them before you get on them for runway faults? As mentioned earlier, visuospatial skills are something I have spent some time researching. For an athlete lacking in this area, it’s like a horse and jockey relationship. No matter how big an engine they have, if they can’t find the board correctly… Also, it is science’s assertion that females face greater visuospatial challenges on average than men.
As far as long jump, I wouldn’t say that PV and TJ athletes are somehow less challenged in their approaches. A PV coach can tell you that many vaults occur on takeoffs that are inside of the optimal mark. A modality that I have used to address approach issues is putting the athlete on a section of the track devoid of markings and making them run without the steering cues they have on the runway. Another way to do this, if you have a roll-up runway, is to lay over the runway markings. They are going to steer, so your job is to make them better drivers.
A modality that I have used to address approach issues is putting the athlete on a section of the track devoid of markings and making them run without the steering cues they have on the runway. ~David Kerin
For high jump, changing the location of the pit on the apron is a good way to change up the backdrop and the benchmarks that the athlete might be settled into. It also spreads the wear and tear of constant plants in the same general area. For the horizontals and vault, most outdoor facilities have a prevailing wind. But is it in the athlete’s best interest to always jump/vault with the wind?
My experience with horizontals has led me to not seek a last pre-meet run-through that catches the whole board. Run-throughs can’t replicate a competition run-up to that level of precision. Generally, and specifically with a multi-eventer at the long jump, I prefer a fair jump to open competition even at the expense of 3-6 inches. After observing the nature of that run and its relationship to the board and checkmarks, I can make a better call for the following attempts than if the first jump is foul. If the first jump is foul, any counsel you offer is yet to be proven successful. Likewise, if the second jump is also foul. Now you are down to a third jump and if it wasn’t in play already, psychology now adds to the challenge.
In all jumps, the athlete needs to have a backup system to relocate a previously placed mark, see: Jeff Henderson/Beijing. I have seen purposeful “scuffing up” of tape marks by competitors and coaches. Officials often mistakenly remove tape from runways and aprons. I have seen a stretched taped inadvertently moved so that it displaced a marker. There needs to be identification of an immovable point like a painted line or odd variation to the track surface, so that the athlete can pace to their original mark location. In the past, I have advised palming a Sharpie to put a small dot on the surface. In a pinch, I have literally offered a tiny piece of chewed gum for a jumper to do something similar with.
Nick Newman: Accuracy of movement and freedom of movement are contradictory terms. You can maximize either in isolation, but together the outcome will always be relative. To achieve high accuracy rates and maximize the potential for freedom of movement, the athlete must develop a subconscious awareness and connection to their approach and its spatial context. It is not possible to achieve 100% certainty with either outcome at the same time. It is achieved on occasion, but never deliberately.
Basically, you have to accept some kind of loss if you want consistency of legal jumps. Targeting the board with great focus will yield high accuracy rates but will inevitably limit performance.
Ultimately, the best jumpers understand when to “go for it” and when caution and accuracy are needed. It is all about reducing the gap between freedom and accuracy. Those with the best ratio can maximize their own potential the most.Top jumpers know when to maximize accuracy of movement & when to maximize freedom of movement. Click To Tweet
Development of the ability to maximize performance while producing legal jumps requires a systematic, not haphazard, approach. It starts with the acceptance that the athlete is in control of their outcome. They must be aware of the board at all times. They must LOOK AT THE BOARD during their approach run. This must occur during every approach and every jump in practice and in competition.
The discipline and focus required for this is challenging—to say the least—especially early, when performance can suffer. However, athletes learn over time to adopt more subconscious habits, allowing their legal performance to increase once again. It takes ownership, trust, and great practice. Discipline from the coach is just as essential as it is from the athlete.
I have discussed specific training strategies in great detail in several articles and will briefly address them here. Once targeting and focus have been established, the use of variable practice methods can enhance the skill of steering further. Options that can be used during practice include changing the approach step number, start positions, and exact targeting positions, etc. The options are endless depending on how much added stress, and difficultly you want the athlete practicing under.
Randy Huntington: I never address fouling psychologically because we learned years ago that focusing on it as a problem creates a much bigger problem. Learning to utilize VC and maintaining technical abilities through the last 6 meters and last two steps is key. Testing the eyes for tracking abilities is the most important item for us. Then there is the small technical flaw of pushing to the takeoff. It is an athletic move and the coach can’t control it during competition. That is why I don’t program to the board during practice and warmups, but instead program to penultimate step position. I know through experience that, if you are at that critical zone, you can successfully jump.
Brian Brillon: I believe that accuracy on the board is a skill that needs to be trained. Like a long division problem, if there is a mistake at any point in the solution the answer will be wrong. The approach is broken down by knowing where the athlete should be on the runway. We have an eight-stride checkmark, a coach’s mark four strides out the board, and a 2-meter penultimate stride mark.
Knowing where the strides should land is only one part of the problem. I like to know what velocities are being produced through the board. Not using the correct velocity can throw off the timing of the run and cause fouling as well. Correct postures are also observed in the head, shoulders, and pelvis. Improper postures can put the feet ahead of where they need to land and can give rise to fouling.
From a psychological standpoint, I try to create chaos in some practices. For instance, I will give the athlete a scenario in which they have fouled twice in the opening rounds and need to get this jump in to make it to the final. I feel this has helped in the real situations that we see at meets. My athletes will also hear me say “control the runway” a lot in practice. I want them to feel that, if they have a headwind or tailwind, they will always be on the board. What I will have the athlete do is either move up a shoe or back a shoe from their starting point, and get their foot on the board for takeoff. When the athlete gets chaos in practice, proper foot positions on the board can be taught.
Tomorrow we’ll feature the next installment of this Jumps Roundtable series: “Training Setup and Programming Style Influences.”
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