The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

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The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby Steeleboy » Sat Jun 25, 2011 5:38 pm

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 freaking 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 (I mean the last few years), something far beyond the standard dysfunction seems to be transforming the event in America. I have no empirical data to support this, just my gut. Let me explain.

Houston, We Have a Problem
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 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.

When Can I Expect a Call?
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. I want everyone to really absorb that statement. If you can’t teach, you can’t coach. 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 lots of 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, regardless of coaching or technical expertise. When you consider how few pole vault clubs/facilities there really are in this country, these coaches almost always work in a non-competitive 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 mediocre and even 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.

So 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:

1. 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)

2. Hannibal Lecter Advice
List by name and advice, each person (athlete, coach, official or fan) that offers unsolicited advice on your vaulting. They are pointing you down the road to hell. 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 the sheer volume of writing they will produce in one calendar year.

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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby Kholev » Sun Jun 26, 2011 4:33 am

Amen Dan,
You are absolutely right. I trained with some of the best Soviet coaches and was shocked when first time competed in the US. Not once I told people to go to hell with their unsolicited opinions and advises. Among Soviet coaches it was most unethical to start talking about technique with someone else's athletes (it still happen of course) and completely unacceptable during competition. Pole vaulting culture here in US is more similar to the "hang out" surfing or skating culture, than to a professional business. Your observations are great, I wish you will continue to develop guidelines that athletes and coaches can agree and adhere to, developing a new, more professional culture of the pole vault.
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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby dj » Sun Jun 26, 2011 9:35 am


huge thumbs up....


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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby VaultPurple » Sun Jun 26, 2011 2:31 pm

I think this is very true in college and elite pole vaulters. And in large part for high school kids that have a pole vault coach. That is why a site like pole vault power should be used for knowledge by high school kids and coaches. Top level guys and gals need to stay away from outside knowledge because it is very hard to coach yourself, and if you end up disagreeing with your coach on a technical issue that you want done your way, you are out of luck in a lot of cases.

The way I look at it, if you are working with a coach, and you are steadily improving, then just keep doing what you are doing. There is no need to buy into anyones words about "hey come work with me and you will jump 19 right away'', because improvement can never be guarantee.

And even if you do not agree 100% with your coaches philosophy because you leaned about a new one, if you had been jumping high and consistently improving under the old program, and that coach consistently has top level vaulters improving, then stick with it, because as bad as it sounds to coaches on here that are sticklers about technical methods, most people will improve more being taught a less effective method than by battling with a coach and trying to do it on your own while getting tid bits here and there from everyone.

I recently talked to a very good coach who had a guy jumping among the elite ranks that once the vaulter got really good, everyone wanted to give their input to how he should be training and jumping. The problem is the vaulter listened, and decided he had been being coached wrong, even though he had PRd by a good amount every year since high school. This athlete then stopped listening to his coach, and looked elsewhere for advice, then eventually moved to train somewhere else. Since then, the athlete has not jumped near as high as he used to.

Moral of the story.. If it ain't broken, don't fix it!

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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby CowtownPV » Thu Jun 30, 2011 9:01 am

There are some coaches out there who want to coach every kid at the meet because they think they are the only one who knows anything and they want to impress everyone with their knowledge. I do still belive that most of the people in the pv community are good people who just want to help. People just need to learn some basics about coaching, not pv coaching but coaching in general. Like don't try to coach athletes that are not yours. Also realize that athlete or coach may fully realize the problems and they have been working to correct it, you pointing out the problem again won't help. Most coaches will ask other coaches they respect for help if they need it. People everywhere are looking for the quick fix to everything (debt, weight loss, education) so vaulters thinking they can change coaches and automatically improve 4 feet doesn't really surprise me.
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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby fishman4god » Thu Jun 30, 2011 10:27 pm

It is a fact that unsolicited "coaching" happens in all sports. I was a gymnastcs coach for 30 years and had guys on the US national team and......................the better they got the more "advice" was given. Interestingly the majority of the advice was from individuals with lets just say limited knwledge. Most of the really "good" coaches ie. they had great athletes also, would NEVER say anything unless asked and even then it was like pulling teeth to get a straight answer. I have been coaching in Florida for the last couple of years and there really is not alot of "cross coaching" as I call it ,happening. I agree that unsolicited comments are unwelcome and potentially detremental....................however there are vaulters out there with litte or no coaching that do downright (I mean dangerous) crazy things with their vaulters.
so there is a time to speak up as it were to prevent a potential catastrophe. I do think there is to much of a casual attitude in the US with regard to Track and Field and particularly Pole Vault. As an example I was at a meet in central Florida and there was a guy there who was jumping 5.5M and was at the meet without a coach of any kind. That is inconceivable to me ( I jumped in the 70's ) that would have never happened then. So I beleve what you are saying is true but there is a time to speak up, but generally not without request. Just my two cents.


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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby kcvault » Fri Jul 01, 2011 2:22 am

I agree that unsolicited advice should not be tolerated. Everywhere I go people tell me all of the flaws in my vault and how I can jump so much higher if I change a couple of things. I often agree but I try to always focus on the biggest technical flaws in my vault and this often takes my mind off it and causes me to over think. However I often travel with out a coach and if there is a coach present I respect I will ask them for help.

Also in high school I ran into a lot of meets where kids at the meet where learning to vault that day with out a coach present in this case I believe it is OK to help them for safety reasons. Also I had a great coach in high school as far as devotion but he was not a pole vaulter. A lot of the advice I got from other coaches though I did not ask for it was very helpful (I however was a beginner now If I need help there is only a few people I trust).

I however believe it is OK to interfere when a vaulter is jumping dangerously. When you see a vaulter does not have a coach and they hit two feet under are over gripping and land on the runway I see no harm requesting them to lower there grip or offering them a smaller pole if they do not have one. But once a vaulter is in college I believe there is almost no occasion where unsolicited advice is warranted but that does not mean you don't help if someone asks. This year at D2 nationals one of the kids was not able to have there coach fly out. Through someone else I got a call asking me to help them. I told him at the beginning I was not going to try and instruct him on what he needed to change because I was not his coach but that I would catch his step, tell him if he overstrided, say how far the pole was from vertical or how far past vertical, and give my opinion of where his standards should be. IMO actually coaching him would have made his performance drastically decline.

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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby Bubba PV » Fri Jul 01, 2011 8:21 pm

The better my athletes got, the more others tried to coach them. Bubba
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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby paul11151 » Sat Jul 02, 2011 1:05 pm

I agree completely with steelboy. when egos get involved with coaching, the vaulters are the ones who suffer.
I know of one instance where a paid D1 coach with no vault coaching experience forced out a very good volunteer coach so he could coach and take credit for their vaulter

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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby vaultwest » Wed Jul 06, 2011 2:00 pm

While I agree with some of your points, Dan, I am not sure why the rant. I certainly never talk to other athletes about technique, just encouragement and positive statements. If I see a problem I let the coach know what I see if I know that coach, if not I just keep my mouth shut, unless I see a potential catastrophic crash about to happen. I watch my own athletes jump at meets and think that they look like if they had some good coaching man would they jump better, in other words most kids are not performing the way they or their coach want, so it seems pointless to criticize other programs. The frustrating thing is that there seems to be few coaches that are doing a great job with their athletes, so we see a lot of poor performance and dangerous results, it is hard to keep ones mouth shut. My only reason for posting about this at all is because I don't see it as a problem for my program so perhaps the way I handle it could help coaches and athletes that find this to be a problem.
I sit down with my athletes and let them know that they may encounter other athletes and coaches trying to help them and that they should be polite and listen but not take it in. I think that if your program is complete, in other words you are doing the proper progressions and drills, then each part of the vault has already been covered in training, each of my vaulters knows exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are and they know which of the 50 different drills and progressions that we consistently do throughout the year is designed to help them improve each part of their vault. So when someone tries to coach one of my kids they are way ahead of them and can explain where they are in their development in the vault and what we are doing to improve their technical and physical challenges. Potential problem solved and perhaps a little reverse learning has happened. Hope that helps,
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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby ADTF Academy » Wed Jul 06, 2011 5:08 pm


If you take offense to the post by Dan Steele than you may be part of the problem......

It's one thing to talk technique and have discussions with another coach. It's another thing to talk technique to an athlete when their coach isn't there. This is why I struggle with doing clinics anymore unless both the coach and the athlete can and do attend or the athlete has no coach. Athlete shows up to your clinic and as the coach you proceed to rock the world of the athlete who really doesn't understand what they are trying to do. This athlete must than go back to their home and attempt to work with their coach again. How is this a good thing? At the 2011 Reno Summit I made the comment to coaches in the audience that we must remember Athletes have one career we have many. If you are not looking out for the best interest of the athlete you are part of the problem as much as you think you are helping. I was lucky to have great mentors and internal growth to learn the grass is not always greener. Despite the success of the elite athletes I work with, I have actually stopped watching other vaulters on a regular basis cause no matter what I think or would fix it really doesn't matter. Unless your in an athlete's camp or welcomed into their camp you have no idea what they are attempting to fix or the athletes learning curve. Hypothetical fixes is all it is!

BTW this is not only a problem in the US its all over the world the only difference is there are less people playing pole vault coach. No matter the success an athlete has other coaches and athletes will talk and give advice cause human nature is to butt into places they were never invited. One Athlete One Coach! Together make decisions.

Dan Steele thank you for taking the time to make this post. Sadly our sport is what it is. It's nature is Dysfunctional.

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Re: The Dysfunctional World of US Pole Vaulting

Unread postby littlewilson85 » Thu Jul 07, 2011 2:37 pm

I actually struggled with this problem this past outdoor season. As a 25 year old coach, I was looked at as a young clueless coach by some of the other coaches in my area. I didn't handle the situation well. A local coach stepped in during warm-ups, decided to tell my freshman vaulter what he was doing wrong and even tried to put him on a different pole. My vaulter no heighted after PRing the previous weekend. I shut down mentally mainly due to frustration and second guessing during the meet. I actually felt like I lost the trust of my vaulter. The next practice I pulled the vaulter aside and had a one-on-one and we talked about the situation. The vaulter was actually very mad that someone stepped in and he felt like he was letting me down.

This article really hit home with me and I have several opinions on this subject but I just wanted to provide an instance of the harm that can be caused.

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