This week's post comes from Head of Coaching and Performance for Welsh Athletics - Scott Simpson. Scott has coached athletes to Commonwealth, European, World and Olympic finals and is coach to the U.K's number one female pole vaulter Holly Bradshaw, who finished 5th at least years Olympics in Rio. Scott is going to talk about what he believes to be the fundamental key performance indicators (KPIs) in the pole vault.

Pole Vault: Fundamental KPIs

What is the “problem” that athletes must attempt to solve in the pole vault event?  To project their body over the highest bar possible without dislodging it?  How do they seek to solve this problem?

Let’s keep it simple…

How high an athlete can vault (vault height) is the product of two other factors – how high they grip on the pole (grip height) and how high they can project themselves above their top hand grip (push height).  Each athlete must find their own unique balance between these two variables.  There will be those who prefer to exploit their ability to grip high (examples of international vaulters include; Shawn Barber in the men’s event and Jenn Suhr in the women’s event), while others will maximise their ability to project themselves high above their top hand grip (examples of international vaulters include; Sam Kendricks in the men’s event and Yarisley Silva in the women’s event).  It is critical that athletes find the optimal solution for them.  But what determines this solution?  Firstly, we must gain a greater understanding of what underpins each of these two factors.  Again, this is presented as a simplified model in Figure 1, but one that covers the critical aspects that we must consider.

Figure 1:  Hierarchical model of the critical KPIs that underpin pole vault height

Figure 1: Hierarchical model of the critical KPIs that underpin pole vault height

One of the critical determinants of pole vault success, is the ability of a vaulter to rotate the pole to the vertical.  It is this factor that limits the height of the grip an athlete can take on the pole.  If the grip is too high, then the pole will fail to reach the vertical and the vault will “stall” and ultimately be unsuccessful – not to mention endangering the athlete involved.  If the vaulter wishes to increase their grip height, they must improve their ability to rotate the pole to the vertical.  The height an athlete can grip on the pole is determined by;

i.)  The speed they can achieve on the approach run, and critically, the speed (energy) they can take into the take-off – “Speed at take-off”

ii.)  The efficiency with which the athlete transfers that speed (energy) into the pole at take-off – “Take-off efficiency”

The more speed an athlete can generate on the approach run, the higher the energy they have to potentially utilise in the vault.  This energy serves multiple factors, but critically, it gives the potential to increase the rotation of the pole to vertical and increases the shortening of the pole (chord) length (increases bending), which subsequently further increases pole rotation; if combined with increased horizontal speed.  Therefore, two critical training components emerge from this;

1.  Coaches must attempt to develop the speed qualities of the vaulters they work with

2.  Coaches must develop an approach run structure that serves to maximise the velocity of the vaulter at the point of take-off

However, maximising speed alone does not solve the challenge of maximising grip height.  The athlete must possess the ability to convert that speed at take-off.  This conversion takes two forms; firstly the conversion of some horizontal speed to vertical speed (i.e. an ability to “jump”), and secondly, the ability to transfer the speed into the pole.  We regularly see athletes with great speed qualities who are ineffective in utilising it effectively at take-off – this highlights an imbalance in the athlete’s speed and their ability to use it in a jumping event.  The short term solution to this is to reduce the speed that the athlete has access to – i.e. to shorten their approach run length or get them to run slower on the approach run!  However, longer term, it places a requirement on the coach to develop the athlete’s take-off efficiency, which can be achieved by addressing the following (depending on the limitation that the athlete faces);

1.  Improve the athlete’s horizontal position from the back of the box at the point of take-off.  There is an optimum “zone” that the athlete can take-off from in relation to their grip height. This “zone” permits the athlete to be between mid-stance and toe-off during their take-off step ground contact, when the pole strikes the back of the box.  If the pole connects before mid-stance, the athlete is likely too close to the box and their ability to transfer horizontal speed to vertical speed will be compromised.  If the pole connects after toe-off, their ability to transfer speed to the pole, while maintaining horizontal speed, will be compromised.

2.  Develop the athlete’s posture at take-off.  The athlete must strive to maximise their take-off height – this requires great postural awareness and execution, together with the running and pole plant mechanics to optimise their postural position at take-off.

3.  Assist the athlete to understand and maximise their intention at take-off.  This comes from optimising the stride length / frequency ratio over the final steps of the approach run, from setting up the take-off step effectively and (as Mondo Duplantis recently said in an interview), trying to “hit” the pole as hard as possible at take-off.

If coaches can support the development of an athlete’s speed, which they can both achieve and effectively utilise at take-off, the athlete has the best opportunity of maximising their grip height on the pole.

For clarity, we will refer to the phases of the vault after the athlete leaves the ground as the “on pole” phase and the actions that they perform during this time, their “on pole” technique. 

For an athlete to “fly” from the top of the pole and maximise their push height, there are two key variables that must be optimised;

i.)  The stiffness of the pole that the athlete is using – “Pole stiffness”

ii.)  The technique that the athlete employs while swinging on the pole – “On pole technique”

Pole stiffness is a critical variable in supporting an athlete to achieve greater push heights.  The stiffer the pole, the greater the potential for energy storage and subsequently energy return later in the vault.  The greater the energy return in the latter stages of the vault, the greater potential for the athlete to be projected higher above their top hand grip height.  However, an athlete cannot simply use a stiffer pole – sadly, it is not that simple!  It is harder to store the energy in a stiffer pole in the initial “on pole” phase of the vault – which results in less bending and subsequently less rotation of the pole to the vertical (as discussed previously).  The technique that the athlete employs to bend the pole must be considered and optimised without compromising other aspects of the vault (which will be discussed later).  Additionally, there is a greater requirement for the athlete to be able to physically resist the forces that come from the pole back to the athlete when they use a stiffer pole.  From this, coaches need to consider developing the following qualities in their athletes;

1.  Develop an “on pole” technique that promotes pole bending without compromising their ability to swing effectively

2.  Physically prepare athletes for the forces that they will experience when using stiffer poles.  This includes the stabilisation of the shoulders and lumbar spine, and the mobilisation of the thoracic spine and the hips

WLTF athlete Sophie Dowson achieving a great "on pole" position during warm weather training

WLTF athlete Sophie Dowson achieving a great "on pole" position during warm weather training

The last part of the puzzle with regards to maximising the push height is to optimise the “on pole” technique.  Three critical things are happening during the on pole phase – all of which interact and effect one another – but understanding these and appreciating how to manipulate them, is critical to obtaining a greater push height.  They are;

i.)  The pole (chord) is rotating to the vertical (pendulum 1)

ii.)  The athlete is rotating about their hands on the pole (pendulum 2)

iii.)  The pole is compressing (shortening) and then straightening again (lengthening)

We have already discussed the pole rotating to the vertical in a previous section, but it is important to appreciate that the vaulter has a finite amount of time available before the pole reaches its finishing position.  It is the timing of the vaulter’s actions and positioning at key moments that is the essence of success in this area. 

In order for the athlete to rotate effectively around their hands, they must “swing” – a difficult concept to understand, but it must be rhythmical and flowing – an action that is in time with the pole and prevents energy “leakage” while using the speed that is available within the system.  It is useful to observe how gymnasts swing on apparatus (high bar, rings etc.) in terms of the flow / rhythm of movement.  However, swinging on the pole differs in that it is on a piece of equipment that is both moving and compressing / extending – which adds complexity to the understanding required by both the coach and athlete.  It is also important to understand that the human body is a series of joints / hinges and that these joints must flex and extend as part of the swinging action on the pole – essentially “pendulum 2” (listed above) is a body with multiple joints - which can all impact on the way the athlete swings.  The actions at the hips and shoulders are a critical part of this.

Putting the task as simply as possible, the athlete must find a way of relocating as much of their body (mass) as high as possible in relation to their shoulder joint at the moment that the pole changes from compressing to extending.  During the initial part of the swing, the pole is compressing / shortening.  The swinging action (if executed effectively) adds to this compression – which will be at its peak as the athlete passes through the pole chord.  However, as the athlete moves further away from the pole chord, the compressive forces on the pole start to reduce and the pole reaches the point of “maximum pole bend”.  It is at this moment that the pole changes direction and begins to straighten.  In this moment, the athlete must be in position to start working with the recoiling pole and align with it.  This can only be achieved if they have a critical amount of their body mass high in the system at that critical moment.  Their joints and limbs must also be positioned appropriately to work in synchronisation with the pole as it recoils.   Finally, the pole must be suitably rolled forwards to the vertical at this moment in order for the athlete to continue moving throughout the swing – if not, the athlete will have to wait for the pole – often observed by a pause mid swing when the hips stop rising.

So, coaches and athletes can implement the following technical components in order to achieve success with regards to creating a synchronisation between the vaulter and the pole and subsequently maximise the athlete’s push height;

1.  Encourage a shoulder “release” in the first part of the “on pole” phase – this puts the athlete in the best possible position for swinging

2.  Swing early (minimise the amount of time it takes for the take-off foot to change direction after take-off), initiated by a strong take-off leg kick or “tap”

3.  Maintain pressure in the hands during the swing.  The vaulter must hang from their top hand – keeping the pole compressed while they execute their swing

4.  Cover the top of the pole with the legs and raise the hips as high as possible before the pole begins to recoil

If the athlete is able to re-position their body appropriately by the time the pole changes direction – and if the pole has rolled forwards sufficiently – they give themselves the best chance to maximise their push height.

To conclude, it is always worth remembering that there needs to be a balance between grip height and push height – they do have the potential to impact on each other (i.e. a higher grip makes achieving a greater push height more challenging).  Additionally, each athlete will have certain qualities that predispose them to being either a grip dominant, push dominant or balanced type vaulter.  Knowing the athlete and their strengths and weaknesses is the key to optimising this.  As always, we must strive to maximise strengths and minimise limitations in the pursuit of success.

We would like to say a massive thank you to Scott for writing this for us and we're sure it will be very useful to everyone that reads it. We'd like to wish Scott and his team all the best for the upcoming season and the best of luck to Holly Bradshaw in the World Championships in London this year.