Track Coach

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In the last issue of Track Coach, David Bussaberger wrote a follow-up to his article in the Summer 2020 issue. In Part 2, Bussaberger chronicles the technical innovations of early fiberglass era vaulters and offers his perspective on the vaulting techniques used widely today. While I enjoyed reading both articles, I must respectfully disagree with Bussaberger’s promotion of individualized style in the fiberglass era.

Without a doubt, fiberglass opened the door to a new era in the pole vault. A bending pole allowed athletes to clear bars higher than ever before. This transitional period began with apparent technical contributions from renowned vaulters, like George Davies, John Pennel, Kjell Isaksson, and Bob Seagren. A rapidly rising WR delivered excitement, as well as controversy. In his article, Bussaberger correlates advances in bar clearance with technical innovations from the early fiberglass era vaulters, but a closer analysis reveals a sobering truth about these performances.

While bar clearances and grip heights increased, push-off numbers remained largely similar to the pre-fiberglass era. Push-off is the difference between an athlete’s top hand grip height and their bar clearance, and provides a reasonable indicator for technical efficiency. Minimal change in push-off suggests that athletes jumped higher because fiberglass poles allowed them to grip higher, and not because they moved their hips relatively higher above their grip than athletes had in the past, before fiberglass. I agree with Bussaberger that the first fiberglass vaulters experimented greatly with technical changes, as they adapted to their new instruments, but a holistic interpretation acknowledges that fiberglass produced little improvement in movement efficiency–push-off. (You can learn more about push-off in the article I wrote for Track Coach’s Fall 2020 issue.)

Does Bussaberger’s reference to technique mean the Plant phase into Takeoff, or just Off-the-Ground, or both? Regardless, an ill-defined scope ignores what’s most important in pole vaulting—a sequenced, proficient execution of each phase. For example, a good Pole Carry is a necessary prerequisite for the Run, just as the Run is a prerequisite for a good Plant; and so on and so forth. The best vaulters are not always the best technicians. When bar clearance is 80% runway speed, the fastest strongest athletes can get away with a lot of technical deficiencies in their jump. Technical differences may exist between the best vaulters, but we serve all vaulters, beginner or advanced, better by accepting their differences may derive from deficiencies, instead of proficiencies.

Personal style should not be some elusive manifesto for every young vaulter. No athlete jumping over 5.50 meters wakes up one day and says, “I’ve decided my style will combine Sam Kendricks’ rockback with Mondo Duplantis’ double-leg tuck!” Personal style should be an afterthought—a byproduct earned from years of developing pole vault’s fundamental skills. It is the last accommodation for maxing out your genetic potential in speed and strength, and most of us never get to that level.

Sergey Bubka did. He achieved athletic stardom for breaking the WR numerous times and for introducing the Petrov Model, which would become a widely accepted pole vault technique used today. In Bussaberger’s article, he suggests the Petrov Model may have some mechanical flaws. I appreciate the skepticism, but I think Bussaberger misses the mark on what’s salient about Coach Vitaly Petrov’s technical model. Petrov’s main contribution was a free take-off, which requires the athlete to leave the runway before their pole tip contacts the back of the plant-box. Petrov simply coached his athletes to jump up in a vertical event. However, if we remember Petrov for anything at all, then it should be for his uncompromising emphasis on fundamental pole vault skills, regardless of technical model. When you observe an athlete coached by Petrov, like Bubka or women’s WR holder Yelena Isinbayeva, it’s easy to observe their nearly textbook example. Petrov coaches the five phases—Pole Carry, Run, Plant, Takeoff and Off-the-Ground–in sequence, and he does it sublimely. That is what Vitaly Petrov should be remembered for!

Where Bussaberger might call the Petrov Model an individualized style, I call it good pole vaulting. Do not make a technical model your Holy Grail. An individualized style will merely excuse bad habits and odd quirks. If you must learn from elite vaulters, then look to those who show mastery in the five phases, like Russian vaulter Anzhelika Siderova. Now that’s textbook technique! She’s extremely consistent, and wins often. Could she be better? Sure, but personal style is unrelated. She’s just a masterful technician of her event. Like Siderova, Bubka and Isinbayeva, you should develop pole vaulting skills that will remain relevant no matter how far you advance.

Noah Kaminsky is a pole vault coach in New York City. He supports the Public School Athletic League with meets and clinics.

David Bussabarger Responds

(1) According to Dick Ganslen in the Mechanics of the Pole Vault, the highest recorded push-off achieved by a rigid pole vaulter was 3’-4” by Ron Morris gripping 13’. Note that Dutch Wamerdam only achieved a modest push-off of 2’-½” with a very high grip (for rigid vaulters) of 13’-11”. An important point with hand grip on fiberglass poles is that it has increased very gradually over a long period of time. In the early 1960s, at the beginning of the fiberglass era, George Davies (the first man to break the WR with a fiberglass pole) and John Uelses (the first man over 16’) both gripped only 13’-7”. Davies’ best push-off was 2’-11” and Uelses’ best was 3’-2”. In 1966 John Pennel set a WR at 17’-6¼” gripping 14’-6”, which translates into a 3’-8¼” push-off.

As fiberglass vaulters kept raising their grips and adapting to stiffer and stiffer poles (both factors required significant changes in technique to accomplish), push-off distances continued to improve. In 1972 Bob Seagren cleared a WR 18’-4¼” with a 15’-1” grip , a push-off of 3’-11¼”. In 1987 Joe Dial set an AR of 19’-6½” gripping 16’-1”, a push-off of 4’-1½”. Sam Kendricks, the king of the push-off, has achieved a push-off of about 4’-5” using roughly a 16’ grip. This exceeds Morris’s best push-off by about 1’-1”, a huge improvement. The writer speculates that push-off distance in fiberglass vaulting still has room for further improvement.

Finally, there is a reasonable amount of evidence to suggest extremely high hand grips seen in recent fiberglass vaulters reduce push-off efficiency. For example Sergey Bubka and Renaud Lavillenie both grip/gripped about 17’ and both achieved 3’-10” push-offs, very good, but many other vaulters with lower grips have better push-off distances.

(2) Coach Kaminsky claims that differences in technique seen among top vaulters probably derive from deficiencies in execution instead of proficiencies (a variation of an argument commonly used by Petrov supporters). This is, in effect, defaulting to the negative versus the positive. Why couldn’t at least some of these differences possibly be advantages? Secondly, what real world or empirical evidence is there for this opinion? A case in point is taking off underneath (the toe of the takeoff foot is ahead of the vertical plane of the top hand as the vaulter takes off). This is commonly assumed to be a flaw in execution by a great many people involved in vaulting. However, In Shawn Francis’s new book, The Pole Vault Tool Box—There Is More Than One Way To Pole Vault, he cites well known biomechanist Dr. Peter McGinnis’s study of the takeoff points of large numbers of elite male vaulters. McGinnis used a special timing mechanism to determine the vaulter’s takeoff point, the details of which I will not go into here. He found that the takeoff points of the vaulters he studied varied from a very deep 18” under to 2” to 3” “outside” (The toe of the takeoff foot is 1” to 3” behind the vertical plane of the top hand as the vaulter takes off).

Most notably he found only one vaulter who took off out, Dmitri Markov, a 6.05 vaulter. All the rest took off under to varying degrees. So, from a scientific point of view taking off under has to be a valid variation, even a preferred variation with fiberglass poles. This is not an opinion, but rather a scientifically proven fact. Also note that new WR holder Mondo Duplantis typically takes off about 18” under.

(3) My point in regards to individual style is simply that when initially developing a young vaulter’s technique some consideration must be given to the vaulter’s physical tendencies and characteristics. For instance, should the technique of a 6’6”/195lb vaulter be developed in the same way as a 5’-8”/145lb vaulter? Or should the technique of females, with a lower center of gravity, develop their technique based on that of male vaulters? Of course the vaulter’s technique may be modified over time to improve performance, but that is not what I am addressing.

(4) What Coach Kainsky and Petrov consider to be fundamental skills is not what I consider to be fundamental skills. Petrov promotes a highly specific and standardized method of vaulting that includes the exact execution of all aspects of the vault. I advocate a much more varied approach to what I think are the basics of good technique.

(5) Although Isinbayeva, who was developed into a WR setter by a different coach than Petrov, had superficially similar technique to Bubka, her technique differed from his in several important ways (most notably she did not have a free takeoff as Petrov defines it). So, in my view she had her own individual style.

(6) You mention Siderova as having textbook technique (I assume your idea of textbook technique is derived from the Petrov Model). I have closely analyzed her technique and if any women has a highly individualized style of her own, she has. To say otherwise is to render the term “individualized style” meaningless.

(7) I never said the Petrov Model is another individual style. The definition of the term model is telling here. In this context it means to use something as an example to follow, as in a standard model. In contrast, for my purposes the term “style” can be defined as a way of doing something. Thus you can have many individual styles but only one standard model.

Correction from Track Coach #234, Page 7459 article
“The Evolution Of Fiberglass Vaulting Technique” by David Bussabarger