Coaching webinars - focus on pole vault

Thousands of coaches, leaders and athletes have joined our Coaching webinar series, launched at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown as a way to help individuals within athletics and running to stay active and to provide an opportunity for people to continue their development whilst based at home.

The webinars have covered a vast range of topics across all event groups and, within this activity, we ran a five-part webinar mini series solely focused on Pole Vault, delivered by Scott Simpson (British Athletics National Performance Institute Senior Coach for Pole Vault). The series topics included: Introduction to coaching pole vault, speed at take-off, take-off efficiency, pole stiffness and pole technique. The free webinars were delivered to over 170 unique attendees with an average audience of over 80 per session plus many more viewing recordings of the webinars made available online.

If you haven’t yet joined one of our Coaching webinars, then scroll down for a write-up of one of Scott Simpson’s pole vault webinars, click here to view the schedule of upcoming webinars or click here to visit Athletics Hub where you can access recordings of previous webinars in the Coaching Resource library.

Darren Ritchie, England Athletics Event Group Lead for Jumps & Combined Events, said, “If we can take some positives from the lockdown, these webinars have been a great source of information and education to coaches, parents and athletes. In a time where we have been forced into ‘social-distancing’, these opportunities have been great in bringing the sport closer together.”

Speaking about his involvement in the webinar series, Scott Simpson, National Performance Institute Senior Coach - Pole Vault, said: “I have an incredible passion for Athletics in general and specifically for pole vault in the UK. To be asked to deliver this webinar series was both a privilege and a pleasure. I thoroughly enjoyed collating my thoughts and ideas from the last 20 years of coaching and putting them into a presentable format. It was fantastic that so many coaches and athletes tuned in to listen to the presentations and engaged with the Q&A sessions. It has also been amazing to link with so many coaches who had follow-up questions and to engage in dialogue with them after each session. My sincere thanks to Alan Richardson and Holly Bradshaw who came on as guests for the Q&As and to Darren Ritchie for organising and hosting. Also, a big thanks to England Athletics for providing the platform with which we were able to broadcast this content. But finally and most importantly, the biggest of thanks to all of the coaches from across the UK who give up so much of their time each week to support athletes at their local clubs, universities and schools… you truly are the bedrock of the sport and cannot be thanked enough.”

The feedback and impact on the wider audience was evidenced through some of the comments and feedback gained from the sessions:


Case Study – Coaching Webinar on Pole Vault Stiffness

Few could fail to marvel at the acrobatics of the pole vault. Bringing together so many aspects of athleticism - speed, strength, skill and coordination - the perfect vault requires so many factors to come together within those few seconds that the athlete is on the runway and in the air.

One of the variables which the vaulter and coach need to consider in putting together a successful clearance is the stiffness of the pole to be used. The athlete could be in top form but get this wrong and an early exit could ensue.

Pole stiffness was the main focus of one of a series of England Athletics webinars hosted by Scott Simpson, coach of British record-holder Holly Bradshaw, who joined him for the recent session.

When it comes to selecting a pole, stiffness is one of a number of options available to the vaulter, including brand, material and length. Each pole will be marked by labels showing length, weight and a “flex” number. The latter, used in combination with the length, gives a true representation of the stiffness of the implement. The higher the flex number, the softer it is; meanwhile, lower numbers indicate a softer pole.

Stiffer poles in principle allow you to jump higher potentially, but using an inappropriate choice of flex will lead to failure. You need to have enough strength and elasticity to use a stiffer pole as the rigidity of a stiffer pole will result in a “shock” to the athlete’s body.

Often vaulters will change up to a stiffer pole to clear a troublesome height in a competition, but this can backfire. As Simpson, British Athletics National Performance Institute Senior Coach, pointed out: “There is an assumption - to a certain extent, a correct one - that a stiffer pole has the potential to project an athlete higher in the air because it can store more energy. But there are limits to that kind of logic because, if you start to unravel certain mechanical parameters because you’ve taken a pole that’s too stiff, ultimately it can be disadvantageous and that has led to many, many failures where people have tried to use a stiffer pole to get out of jail and jump higher but actually that’s been detrimental to their performance.”

During the live webinar, Simpson (SS) delved much deeper into techniques influenced by pole stiffness which will be of interest to coaches and studious vaulters of all levels. However, the question-and-answer session also involving Bradshaw (HB), who was fourth at the World Athletics Championships last year, carried plenty of interesting insights for even the more casual athletics fan. Here are some of the questions posted by the athletics community during the session:

Question: Do you prefer to use stiffer poles?

HB: “I think definitely when I was younger I would prefer to use a stiffer pole, so I’d do anything I could to rush on to a bigger pole. My coach would be like, ‘Do you want to change up or do you want to do a better jump?’ I’d always go to change up, make it easier, get a big pole and try and get over a big bar. Whereas definitely now my philosophy has changed a little bit and, unless I have to change up and use a stiffer pole, I won’t; I’ll try and do a better jump. I think it’s not a matter of ‘Do I like to use stiffer poles?’ If that’s appropriate for the day, that’s great; it must mean that I’m running fast and jumping well because I’m using stiff poles. I kind of learned, maybe it was last year or the year before, how to jump the same bar on three different poles, so for me it’s more about doing the right jump on the right day, whether that’s a stiff pole or not.”

Question: What training do you do to absorb the shock of planting the poles?

SS: “Ultimately this comes from progressive load through vaulting itself. There’s nothing more specific for dealing with that than actually pole vaulting.

“But you don’t come in hot on a big pole and just try and deal with it and get your arms ripped off. You start on smaller poles and you develop the right specific strength for managing that shock factor. Having said all of that, we do a lot of overhead stuff, straight-arm pullovers, dynamic straight-arm pullovers, lots of chest-through swings on the high bar, we do a whole bunch of stuff in that space which helps to simulate specific physical adaptations.

“But, don’t get me wrong, it is a challenge for some people. Some athletes have challenges with the back and shoulders because that shock is so big and preparing for it is difficult. So yes, lots of overhead variations and ultimately a really progressive series of poles and progressions on the runway to gradually ramp up that shock that you experience.”

HB: “When we finally come back to vaulting after the restrictions, I’m not just going to start screaming in from like 14 or 16 [strides]. We’ll start from four steps, six steps, eight steps and that’s exactly what you need to load the body. But I think the advice that I would generally give to athletes is that, if you’re changing up, your coach has told you that for a reason and, if Scott changes me up, it’s for very good reasons and that should give you confidence. That’s kind of what I cling on to, instead of thinking, ‘This is a big pole, I’m scared, what if this happens?’”

SS: “I think we do need to do some work with flipping the mindset of young vaulters who are fearful of using stiffer poles into understanding that using the bigger pole is an opportunity; it’s a privilege to use the bigger pole.”

Question: How do you know when it’s time to move up a pole in a competition? My son is 17 and a decathlete. He obviously wants to go higher and can be too keen to move to a longer/stiffer pole?

SS: “A lot of athletes fall into this trap and it’s actually quite significant within the decathlete community that the easy way to take the next bar is to take a bigger pole, especially if you’re not jumping particularly well. The downside to that is it gets dangerous, especially if you’re not a technically competent vaulter, which - with the greatest of respect - a lot of decathletes aren’t, because they just don’t have the time to put the practice in that a vaulter would do. Eventually you come up short using that method, you land in the box, you miss the pit, something bad happens and then that shakes your confidence.

“For me, you only want to be changing up if the pole is really rolling through the vertical too much and you’re ‘blowing through’ bars or the pole is really over-compressing and because it’s over-compressing it’s too soft and ‘squishy’.

“The only thing I would talk about when it comes to the blow-through is we’ve come up with a term the ‘fake blow-through’ and that’s when you get out of position on the pole, you get stuck underneath the bend and then - when the pole recoils - it doesn’t push you upwards, it pushes you outwards towards the bar and it feels like you’ve blown through but you haven’t. You’ve got to get into position on top of the bend so the pole projects you upwards. If that’s the situation, if you’ve had a fake blow-through, you should not be changing up because it makes it harder to get on top of the pole, not easier. You’re just feeding the beast.”

Question: What is the main method of extra grip – e.g. grip tape, tree sap, spray glue?

HB: “My best advice would be to have more than one strategy. Have one strategy that you use 99% of the time but definitely have a plan B and plan C. I’ve come a cropper with that, but now I have multiple things that I can use if it goes wrong in a competition. But the main thing that I have is a black tape which is quite hard to source but it’s a hockey stick tape that is sticky on the outside. So I wrap that on my pole and I use a carpet adhesive from The Range, which is £3 a can and then that combination works for me a lot of the time.

“Then, if I’m in a really humid environment or if I need a little bit of extra grip - for example it went really badly for me in Monaco a couple of years back where I literally couldn’t grip the pole and I had a couple of extra plans in place. When I was in Zurich train station, it’s like 35C in there, my hands were sweating and I couldn’t grip the pole. But my plan B is lighter fluid and you put it on the black tape and it comes off on your hand and makes your hand really, really black and keeps it sticky. I think it’s about practising different techniques in the training environment that work for you.”

SS: “The only thing I would add is that at the start of your career you don’t want to be too reliant (on adhesive) because the forces are quite low when you start. So to start with, use just bare hands or chalk on tape. Then perhaps do some reverse taping so you get the stickiness of the tape on the outside of the pole. The only caveat to that is when it’s wet and chalk on white tape is a nightmare so then you have to be jumping on sticky.”

Question: How important do you think it is that athletes know and understand the weights system of poles?

SS: “It’s an education process. It’s a journey for athletes. You don’t have to have 11-year-old kids coming into the club and having them understanding the flexing system. To start with, the kids just need to know which pole to take and the coach does all the thought process and decision-making. As the athlete goes through that journey, they need to start to appreciate that there’s going to be times when you want to change up a pole and for what reasons because the coach can’t always be there at the meet.”

HB: “I kind of would agree with you in that younger athletes maybe don’t need to know what pole I’m on, what length, whatever. But for me, even when I jumped 4.87m (UK indoor record, 2012), I didn’t know what pole I was on, what length, flex - I just went on colour code. It’s a bit of a running joke that my coach would be like ‘take the blue and pink or whatever’. Part of that was quite useful in that I didn’t really know what pole I was on. But I have now learned over the last seven years being with Scott so much more about the event and I think it’s such an important journey an athlete should go on.”

SS: “There is something beautiful about that naivety and that ability to just take the pole, take the grip, take the runway and take the jump, but I think there is a bit of a shelf life to that because, when you’re on your own going to meets, you have to be a student of your event and understand how things affect the jump and that can only come with knowledge.”

Question: What are your thoughts on balancing pole stiffness and therefore jump height depth? Is there an optimum?

SS: “This is a great question and I think it changes over time with athlete competence. When athletes are introduced to the event and developing, you want them jumping as deep into the pit as you can with what’s realistic. Probably if you’ve got Mondo (Duplantis, world record-holder) jumping at six years old, putting the jumping stands at 80cm is impossible because (in relative terms) it’s miles away if you’re a kid who’s only three feet tall. Once a youngster gets to 13, 14 or 15, you want to be jumping with the stands back and jumping deep, just more from a safety perspective. If you’re really pushing boundaries at 13, 14 and 15 and risking them coming up short, I think that’s got a shelf life and that person is unlikely to have a long-term career in the event. However, once you start really getting to the performance end of the spectrum, you’re right, there is a compromise between jumping deep and jumping vertical. That said, when Renaud [Lavillenie] broke the world record, he did it with the stands at 80cm and I think when Mondo broke the world record in Glasgow he did it with the stands at 75cm. That’s unbelievable to my mind because how can these guys go 6.15m, 6.20m in the air and still have that much depth on the jump… Where is the optimum? I don’t even know if I have an answer to that. It’s certainly individual-specific.”

Click here to find out more about our ongoing series of Coaching webinars – suitable for coaches, leaders and athletes and covering every event group.