If you are 85% proficient in a skill, then it should translate to your performance. You can’t write a paragraph without learning sentence mechanics first. You can’t play chess without understanding how each piece moves on the board. The same theory applies to sport—at any training age, at any skill level. As athletes develop skills, they gradually progress from coordinating gross motor skills (large muscle groups) to refining those skills, or improving their fine motor skills1. Novice athletes improve their performances more frequently than advanced athletes, because advanced athletes must invest more time into skill development.Skills translate to performance when you achieve 85% proficiency. Click To Tweet
Think about any post-game interview with a professional athlete. The interviewer asks, “What went well today and what could you have done better?” The athlete typically notes a previous weakness that they’ve been working on extensively in practice, and how it finally came together that day. Or, the athlete acknowledges a weakness that cost them the win, and now they know what to focus on for next time. (Alternatively, the athlete has no sense of what went wrong, and you, the fan, start shouting out what they did wrong from your living room. You might be able to identify someone else’s skill deficiency but cannot execute the skill yourself.)
Identifying Skill Deficiencies
On HMMR Media podcast Episode #154, Nick Garcia and Martin Bingisser interviewed sports science Professor J.B. Morin from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis. During the interview, Morin used an extraordinarily effective analogy to describe training. Comparing athletes to tubes of toothpaste, Morin suggests that novice athletes have a full tube, so no matter where you press, toothpaste comes out2. Regardless of which skills you select to develop, the novice athlete benefits and their performance improves. Advanced athletes, on the other hand, have mostly empty tubes: It’s harder to squeeze toothpaste out, because you must know exactly where to press on the tube2.
In other words, advanced athletes have already developed many of the necessary skills for their sport. If advanced athletes wish to improve, then it’s critical for their coaches to identify the skills they must focus on and improve upon. In pole vault, even advanced athletes display a wide variety of proficiencies and deficiencies. The best vaulters are usually extremely fast and strong, but how they utilize their strength and speed varies based on their technical proficiency.
Every vaulter has their quirks—their little deviations from consistent, reliable mechanics. You can call this “personal style” all you want, but you’d be fooling yourself by labeling these quirks as beneficial. Some common pole vault skill deficiencies are:
- Skipping steps
- Poor posture
- No jump up at take-off
- Late pole drop
- Poor arm extension at plant
These are just a few of many possible skill deficiencies that can be gradually corrected by practice drills. As a coach, you must balance generalized skill development with individualized attention, because your practice sessions should give all athletes an opportunity to improve on their skills or the skill focus of that session. On a high school track team or at a pole vault club, your coaching practice must consider the economy of scale. Too much individualized attention will not allow your other athletes to receive enough feedback to efficiently pursue 85% proficiency. Finding the appropriate balance will elevate your coaching practice.Too much individual attention means other athletes won’t get enough advice to reach 85% proficiency. Click To Tweet
Warm-Up Drills Build Skills
I believe in beginning every training session with a comprehensive, skill-based warm-up that lasts 30-40 minutes. The warm-up should include drills that address the five components of the vault. Recall from my previous article that the components are:
- Pole carry
- Air mechanics
The warm-up does not have to be identical every day, nor does it have to follow the sequence listed above—but I firmly believe that you should stick to a core set of warm-up drills that you have confidence in and value above all others. For example, at Apex Vaulting Club, we always begin our warm-up with sprints, dynamic stretching, and running drills before grabbing poles. Our running drills are comprehensive, including B-skips, straight-leg bounds, two-leg bounds, and high knee drills. Sometimes we include mini-hurdle walkovers or sprints.
Each of these drills addresses a different part of the run (#2). When we move on to pole drills, we begin with one-arm pole drops, two-arm pole drops, rollovers, and pole runs. Pole drops address the pole carry (#1) and the plant (#3). Rollovers develop an athlete’s hip movement and pole speed at take-off (#4). Rollovers partially address air mechanics (#5) too. Pole run drills develop a vaulter’s natural sequence of the pole carry, run, and plant. Some days we add stride-stride-long-short jump drills to further develop take-off, but this drill substitutes for another drill removed from the warm-up.
It’s better to know more drills than you can use in a single warm-up session because you can vary the drills in each training session and avoid staleness. The cumulative training effect of these drills will reinforce skills necessary to move your athletes toward 85% proficiency, which will translate to improved performances. Let this principle drive your respect for tedium and routine. I have included instructional videos of the following component-specific drills to support your coaching.
Video 1. Front-Side Running Mechanics with Mini Hurdles
Observe your athletes’ running mechanics during the warm-up and give them feedback. One by one, watch how they execute each sprint drill over 30 meters. Have them walk back and repeat the drill. We rely on B-skips, straight leg bounds, double leg bounds, and high knees.
Then, put it all together with mini hurdles. Spread the mini hurdles 2 feet apart and have your athletes walk over the hurdles with good form. High knee lift, toes pointed upward, walk a straight line, keep your body over the foot when it lands on the ground, chin up, chest up, etc.
When your athletes complete these walkovers several times and show improvement with your feedback, you may move the mini hurdles to 4 feet apart and instruct your athletes to sprint at 60-80% max speed. This opens up the stride to a more natural sprint and reinforces the skills developed in the previous drill, as well as the warm-up.
One-Arm and Two-Arm Pole Drops
Video 2. One-Arm Pole Drops
Have your athletes line up shoulder to shoulder with approximately 2 feet between them. Place the left foot forward and the right foot back. Lift the pole for a high pole carry. Keep the right hand in front of the right hip and the left wrist bent backward near the middle of the chest. Keep the shoulders tightened back, as though pinching the upper back. Release the right hand and allow the pole to fall under its own weight. As the pole tip drops in front of you, extend the left arm so that the left hand is slightly above the forehead. Squeeze the left triceps to finish. Repeat 9x.
Video 3. Two-Arm Pole Drop
For two-arm pole drops, allow the pole to fall under its weight and keep the right-hand grip loose until the left arm extends and finishes. The two-arm pole drop is like the one-arm drop, but the placement of the right hand at the finish will differ depending on the technical model you use. Repeat 9x.
Video 4. Rollovers
Hold the pole as high as you can so that your arms create a 45° angle. Keep the wrists and elbows inward, closer to the pole. Place your take-off foot one foot length away from the pole. Lean forward, and actively pull yourself upward. The goal for this drill is to move, or “rollover,” the pole quickly and raise the hips. Rollovers isolate the moment after take-off to improve pole speed and hip motion.
Video 5. Pole Runs
Using tape, draw the outline of the plant box 50 feet out on your runway. You want to allow space for your athletes to slow down after they plant the pole. Move your athlete back from this taped box the same distance as their five-step approach and start them there. They should set up a good run, and plant the pole in the taped box. Your focus should be on their pole carry, posture, and timing. You may have your athlete run through or jump up. At Apex Vaulting Club, we run through the taped box.
Air Mechanics Drills
For most events in track and field, the preparation phase determines success. In shot put, an off-balance glide leads to a poor delivery of the shot. In long jump, inadequate sprint mechanics brings the foot under or over the toe board for a poor attempt or a foul. With the pole vault, each component in sequence must support the next for the athlete to effectively execute their air mechanics.First and foremost, teach your athletes to jump. This is a vertical event. Click To Tweet
If your athletes never learned proper air mechanics, however, then it won’t matter how effective they are on the ground because they won’t know what to do after they jump up. First and foremost, teach your athletes to jump. This is a vertical event. If you believe that jumping up is useless for vaulters, then you’re missing out on one of the easiest ways to increase your grip height or pole’s weight rating. (With no jump up, I hope you’re using heavier poles anyway; otherwise you have a greater likelihood of snapping a pole, too.)
At Apex Vaulting Club, we use take-off drills, swing to sit, swing to belly, and full jump from a one-step to reinforce jumping up. These drills have other skill applications, but provide smaller scale opportunities for the athlete to feel the jump and coaches to observe this skill in action. When you watch the videos, note how much each athlete jumps up before they begin working the pole.
Video 6. Take-Off Drill, Swing to Sit, and Swing to Belly
Once you’re in the air, you have to work the pole. Whichever technical model you use, you must scale down your jumps to focus on the necessary skill—pushing or pulling on the pole3. At Apex Vaulting Club, we relax the arms for a natural block and then begin pulling on the pole to bring the hips upward to initiate the turn.
Swing to sit and swing to belly drills support athletes feeling these mechanics in the correct sequence. Feeling the motions in a drill reinforces the athlete’s repeated coordination in successive attempts. The pole vault community often understates and overlooks the importance of feeling. Your athletes’ conscious perception has value in developing translational skills that support them through all phases of the jump. Let’s stop worrying about hitting positions and let’s start drilling the motions.The pole vault community often understates and overlooks the importance of feeling the motion. Click To Tweet
Video 7. Full Jump from One-Step
In From Beginner to Bubka and Isinbyeva too!, author and coach Alan Launder posits that “what is tactically desirable must be technically possible.”4In other words, an athlete’s performance in a competition depends upon their compounded skill development through numerous hours of practice. Launder’s words are profound enough to not be limited to pole vault alone.
All sports require the development of general and specific skills, because sustainable athletic improvement depends on consistent execution and resilience to fatigue5. Launder also argues that “what is technically desirable must be physically possible.”4Without enough strength or speed, many pole vault drills can become inaccessible to athletes, especially with a short approach, where drills are most beneficial.
Fortunately, most of the drills shown in the videos above are useful for all ages and skill levels, with the correct pole. All athletes, regardless of sport, need to be strong enough to access the skill for a performance benefit5. When athletes are not strong enough to effectively execute the skill, they increase the probability of injury to the muscles supporting that skill. Strikers on the soccer pitch must develop an accurate and powerful kick to consistently score goals. Distance swimmers must have the forearm strength endurance to maintain a correctly cupped hand for the entire duration of their race.
Surprisingly, pole vault and high jump, the two vertical events in track and field, require vastly different skill sets. A vaulter develops greater “push” off the pole by increasing the distance between their hip height and their grip on the pole. Full jumps from a one-, two-, or three-step approach are great drills to work on this skill. Vaulters also need to increase how quickly they move their pole to vertical. Rollovers and take-off drills support increasing pole speed, like the way high jumpers use short approaches to improve the translation of horizontal speed into vertical ascent.Great athletes rely on their strengths in competition and focus on their weaknesses in practice. Click To Tweet
The multi-events, which include both high jump and pole vault, provide a remarkable opportunity to observe general and specific skills because each athlete offers a different balance of the two in each of the 10 events. For example, Kevin Mayer’s recent 9126-point world record in the Décastar demonstrates an impressive dependence on strength and coordination, compared to the equally impressive emphasis on speed and power in Ashton Eaton’s decathlon world record set in 2015. Great athletes rely on their strengths in competition and focus on their weaknesses in practice.
Feeling Their Way to Long-Term Improvement
Every athlete is different and brings their own unique set of challenges to training. Their strengths and weaknesses shape their journey in sport. If we, as a coaching community, wish to build resilient, lifelong athletes, then we cannot become hindered by short-term performance goals at the expense of long-term skill development. Even when your brightest athletes want to dive into a technical analysis of a single jump, they still need to “feel” the movements of their own body. Athletes develop competence in skills from an awareness of execution and its repetition.
You can talk it through all you want to with them, but if athletes aren’t feeling the movements, they will struggle to repeat them correctly. Remember, skills translate to performance when you achieve 85% proficiency. Drills can be tedious and sometimes even frustrating when they don’t go right, but they are necessary and beneficial tools for long-term improvement. Sometimes, the trade-off is worth it.
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1. Higgs, C., Balyi, I., Way, R., Cardinal, C., Bluechardt, M. (2009). Developing Physical Literacy: A Guide For Parents Of Children Ages 0-12. Canadian Sport Centre.
2. HMMR Podcast Episode 154: Force and velocity (with JB Morin).
3. Kaminsky, Noah. “Critical Indicators for Pole Vault II: Cueing Hip Movement by Model.”
4. Launder, Alan and Gormley, John. From Beginner to Bubka and Isinbayeva too!CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, second edition, 2014. First edition, 2005.
5. Verkhoshansky, Yuri. “Main Features of a Modern Scientific Sports Training Theory.” New Studies in Athletics, IAAF Quarterly. 1998: 13(3); pp 9-20.