The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting



By Dan Steele

I love the pole vault… But man, sometimes I really hate the pole vault… I love pole vaulters… But man, sometimes I really hate pole vaulters…  And so goes the most dysfunctional relationship I have ever had: The pole vault.

The vault has always been a crazy, dysfunctional event. Most of us close to the event have come to accept this. When it’s good, it is SO good. And when it is bad, it feels utterly apocalyptic. You hear words like “quit, suck and retire” freely tossed around. All of this I accept as the price of doing the pole vault business. It is one of the most thrilling events in track and field. But lately something far beyond the standard dysfunction seems to be transforming the event (by lately, I mean the last few years).  I have no empirical data to support this, just my gut. Let me explain.

It is my strong opinion the United States pole vaulting is currently an exercise in recreational mind-screwing. No other event in track and field routinely invites and tolerates outside influences and unsolicited advice like this one. I believe through the event’s recreational gain in popularity and the current ease of information exchange in the modern world, a recreational teaching/learning model has replaced a professional one. We have somehow arrived at the wildly dysfunctional place where it is common to offer and accept unsolicited coaching advice at all levels. This should be totally unacceptable to anyone who cares about the current and future success of pole vaulting. The reason why this should be so unacceptable is because that is NOT how one learns and teaches most effectively. When you offer unsolicited advice to an athlete during a competition, you are essentially saying: “Forget about what your coach is telling you. I know he is with you every day and knows what specifically you are working on today and what cues work for you and which ones screw you up, but from my snap-judgment, this is what you need to do…” And this happens EVERYWHERE. Pole vault athletes are some of the worst offenders. They do this to each other at every level. It seems as if some vaulters actually invite a wholesale critique of their vaulting at anytime from anyone with an opinion. Social sport/media sites such as Neo Vault and Pole Vault Power unwittingly accelerate this model through their coaching-by-committee forums. A bizarre and unaccountable group-think Intelligentsia has emerged through this free exchange of information. Creating a forum to exchange information is both terrific and detrimental to good vaulters. It is terrific when great coaches share information. It is detrimental when amateur coaches (and non-coaches alike) also get an equal voice and seat at the table. Imagine you are an emerging elite vaulter. Your college coach has done a terrific job of developing you and your improvement has been steady and exciting.  At a certain level of success, you can expect to hear from more and more people about what you should be doing, about what your current coach isn’t doing, and who you should work with after college. “Do you do this drill? No? Oh boy… Do you do that drill? No??? Oh wow… If you worked with Coach (fill in the blank), you would be freaking AMAZING!” And so it goes. (I should note here that there is one clear athlete exception to this coaching-by-committee model; Jenn Suhr. Regardless of your opinion of her coach, Rick Suhr, he has managed to keep his athlete a safe distance from the American Pole Vault Intelligentsia.) 

So Don’t Listen
This is the obvious thing to do in order to survive the destructive onslaught of ideas about one’s own vaulting problems, but it is easier said than done. First, you have to recognize unsolicited advice is destructive to your training.  And recognizing this is a problem isn’t easy when the pole vault community is by-and-large THE problem. When you have a coach you trust who freely offers advice in front of you to other athletes; you normalize this behavior. 

The Karaoke Affect  
The pole vault is a fun, quirky, cult event.  That is not a judgment, just an observation. The fans of the event are zealots with a sincere passion for pole vaulting. I don’t believe in any way this is inherently bad. I do believe there are some unfortunate and unintended consequences. Anyone who has been to a karaoke bar knows there is very little correlation between one’s love of a song and one’s ability to perform the song well. The same is true for coaching and teaching. Simply loving a subject (the pole vault) does not mean in any way you possess the ability to successfully coach it. Coaching is teaching. Teaching is a very specific skill, wholly independent from the ability to perform or any great affinity for the subject being taught. Therefore, someone who has a great love of pole vaulting may or may not possess the skills of a teacher. The same is true for someone who is or was a great pole vaulter. There is absolutely no empirical correlation between the ability to perform at a high level and the ability to teach at a high level.  And yet, American pole vaulting has become a track and field sub-culture where simply participating, coaching or having a great love of the event makes you an expert, free to offer unsolicited advice to masters athletes and Olympians alike. Can you think of any other event or sport in the world that would tolerate this beyond the recreational level? 

The Great Pole Vault Coaching Myth
The pole vault is perhaps the most technical of all the track and field events. Good track and field teachers understand that simply exposing beginners to technical events almost always results in great improvement. The more developed the athlete becomes, of course, the more advanced the teaching needs to become. The vault is unique in that access to facilities plays an enormous role in the event. Any person in control of access (a club, high school, college coach with a facility) can yield great improvement of athletes regardless of coaching talent. They need only to expose the young athletes to the event and give them repetitions. The problem with this fact is that ALL coaches with a passion for the event will produce results and nice resumes, regardless of actual coaching ability. I can think of no exceptions to this. Every single youth/club/prep pole vault coach who lets their athletes do a lot of vaulting will develop pole vaulters and yield great results. When you consider how few pole vault clubs/facilities there really are in this country, these coaches almost always work in a non-comp environment. There is no control group to test actual coaching talent.  Don’t get me wrong; there are some amazing pole vault coaches in America. It is just difficult sometimes to identify the good ones from the bad. Follow this out to its logical conclusion and you arrive at today’s pole vault reality, where all pole vault coaches, regardless of talent, carry tremendous influence.  This is because of a flawed assumption they all are talented and knowledgeable due to the athletes produced and improved under their tutelage.

Process Coaches vs. Results Coaches
You can pretty much divide all coaches (for this article I mean pole vault coaches) into two categories; process coaches and results coaches.
Process coaches LOVE the pole vault. They light up when the start talking about it. They almost seem intoxicated when they are explaining drills or telling pole vault stories. They talk a lot, watch a lot of videos and spend a lot of time on websites discussing their hobby. These coaches spend a lot of time fixing symptoms of larger problems and are rarely devastated by poor results or no-heights. For them, this is a process to be thoroughly enjoyed. In fact, these coaches often seem to be preparing for a day that will never come. Practice is at least as much fun as a competition. It’s not unlike watching a father and son building a tree house together. The building is far more fun than the end product. At competitions, these process coaches seem to be on vacation, excitedly catching up with their buddies. Process coaches make great clinicians.
Results coaches, on the other hand, follow a process that always leads to the bottom line. They talk frequently about the major competitions the athlete is preparing for. They study intently their whole athlete and have a clear understanding of what makes them tick. They occasionally offer unorthodox solutions and cues in an effort to solve their athletes’ problems. They see the vault holistically, focusing on the source of problems and not the symptoms. They have a firm grasp of the prioritization of skill acquisition and application. They judge each season’s success or failure on place finishes at the championships and improvement of pr’s. The results coach’s athletes are well-prepared for the big competitions.
Athletes of results coaches usually win the championships.

What’s the answer?
Professionalism; pure and simple. It needs to be re-established. We need to reset the bar on acceptable behavior. We need to establish a zero-tolerance for mind-screwing pole vaulters.
Be the change.
Coaches: Call out anyone who is trying to get into your athlete’s head.  Zero-tolerance.
Athletes: Tell anyone offering unsolicited advice to go mentally screw someone else.  Zero-tolerance.

I have started asking my vaulters to keep a journal chronicling the destructive mind-screwing I am referring to. I ask them to keep track of two things:
 
      New Magic Bullet Ideas
Every new epiphany on your vaulting should be listed here. (The big thing/change/solution that will solve your problems and get you to the next level)
                                                                                                                                                                                                  
      Hannibal Lecter Advice
List by name and advice, each person (athlete, coach, official or fan) that offers unsolicited advice on your vaulting. Any advice that encourages a change in training, technique or focus can disrupt and destroy the current learning curve. Good coaches NEVER do this. They are very cautious of interfering with another coaches coaching because they understand the learning process. Unless you are training with an athlete on a daily basis or somehow have an intimate understanding of their vaulting, you simply cannot know what they are working on or what specific problems they are trying to solve.  

I am confident any America Pole Vaulter who keeps a similar journal will be shocked at sheer volume of writing they will produce in one calendar year.





Video: Ashton Eaton's first  pole vault competition as an Oregon freshman at the 2007 Reno Vault Summit.