THE APPROACH START
Assuming we have a right-handed vaulter from here on, the top hand at takeoff is the right hand, with the bottom hand being the left.
At the start of the approach, however, the pole is upside down. When the pole is in the vaulter's grip, the right hand is beside the right hip and the left hand should be in front, chest high. (See Figure 1)
The vast majority of the world's best vaulters start with the pole held up at an angle of between 70 to 80 degrees to the ground. (Figure 1)
If the pole is held too low at the start, the weight of it will be far out in front of the vaulter, causing undo strain on the arms.
The pole tip should be held high enough so that the arms can remain relaxed, but not straight up at perpendicular. A pole held straight up at 90 degrees can accidentally topple behind the vaulter once they push out to start their run-up.
Another important detail is that if viewing the vaulter head on, the pole should be slightly diagonal across the torso.
If the left hand is in front of the chest (Figure 2), the left elbow will remain on the left side of the body, and the pole will cross the torso diagonally. This will enable the athlete to remain squared up in the direction of the run. Should the pole be held totally on the right side of the body, the shoulders and waist will be twisted to the right-inhibiting the vaulter's running mechanics at the start. Ideally, a vaulter wants to run as close to a sprinter's model as possible. This means running the approach with the chest facing down the runway and not partially turned.
The vault has the shortest drive phase of all the jumping events. Commonly vaulters push for two steps using a forward body angle, with the next two steps being a transition to upright posture. The angle of the pole will lurch slightly forward as a result of the vaulter's lean in the early steps, but the actual arm-work in dropping the pole doesn't engage until the drive phase is over.
Fundamentals of the pole drop during the approach:
- After the drive-phase the vaulters body is aligned vertically for an acceleration which builds down the runway.
- The pole tip is at its highest (70 to 80 degrees) at the beginning of the acceleration phase, and never climbs higher-only descending for the rest of the run-up.
- The pole must be lowered in a smooth uniform fashion during each step. There must be no stoppages and no abrupt increases in drop rate--the drop should be much like the trunk of a falling tree.
- Both hands of the vaulter should bounce up and down slightly and in unison on each stride in order to absorb ground contacts during the run.
- For the right handed vaulter, the pole drop initiates via the left hand lowering until it's even in height with the upper abdomen. At that point the left hand stops its descent and acts only as a fulcrum for the pole to rotate about.
- For the remainder of the approach, the right hand and right elbow then rise gradually to the rear of the vaulter in order to let the pole tip drop under control -- with the left hand again acting only as a pivot point. (See Figure 3)
ENTERING THE PLANT PHASE
By the 2nd to last left foot contact the pole tip should be at approximately the same height as the vaulter's head. At that point the vaulter curls the right arm toward the deltoid and then presses the right hand directly vertical-the right hand passing close by the ear and temple on the way up to full extension. This curl and press maneuver occurs during the last two foot contacts of the approach. At the plant the body should be in alignment vertically from takeoff foot to top hand. (See Figure 4).
- The athlete must learn to time the drop in harmony with the speeds they attain on the runway. Too early a drop will require the vaulter to strain the arms and hover the pole statically over the final few steps. A late a drop will disturb their running pattern.
- The pole should slide on the down-ramp of the box into the back of it. Too quick of a drop will cause the pole tip to hit the runway first.
- The vaulter must improve their ability to control the speed of the drop by means of the right elbow's ascent--such that there is a uniformity. This can be rehearsed first in a standing or a marching position, and then during pole runs on the track using marks on the ground, or a portable box.
- Vaulters should perform pole runs of various distances to learn slightly different drop speeds as they develop. In that way when approaches get longer they will be skilled at drop-timing.
- Pole runs off the runway-using a track-- allow the athlete to focus on sprint and pole mechanics free from an oncoming pit.
- Vaulters who are extremely new to the event cannot start with the pole up at an 80 degree angle on account of them not having a full approach yet. Shorter approaches that start mid-way down the runway should have a lower pole angle-perhaps 50 degrees or so. The pole drop and press from there still must obey the same general fundamentals. In the meantime novices can still practice farther pole runs on the track with the pole starting up higher, until they are ready to implement a full run in the event.
Robert Marchetti, a former NCAA Division I track coach at Rider University and Columbia University, is a private track and field coach located in Hamilton, New Jersey. For more information, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can visit his website at www.coachup.com/coaches/robertm-4.