Athlete Focus | Inside a pole vault squad
Pole vault is one of the most intriguing disciplines in athletics (and it is the event that started Neuff Athletic), so we thought we'd find out more about what it takes to be a vaulter from our affiliate club Yate AC...
The Pole Vault Squad at Yate AC comprises 20 athletes ranging in age from 9yrs to mid sixties, coached by Sam Hillier-Smith. This squad is an active, friendly group which usually trains together at their track close to Bristol, and includes some top level junior athletes (U13 girls rank 1st and 2nd!)
We have been talking to them about life in a PV Squad, both in lockdown and in ‘normal’ times…
Why pole vault?
Pole vault is a gravity-defying feat of speed, strength and courage, so what is it that draws athletes to vaulting, rather than some of the other athletics disciplines?
Liam (U20) was a solid all-round club athlete and only started vaulting to help the club out. “The team desperately needed someone to step into the B string for a comp called Avon Track and Field and I said yes and did well. From that moment on, I knew pole vault was going to be my event.” Equally Jerry (M60) ‘fell’ into the sport by accident. Having planned to compete in a Pentathlon after joining the club in summer 2020, his first multi-event competition opportunity was for the Decathlon, which meant he had just 2 weeks to learn to vault from scratch! Not one to back away from a challenge, Jerry teamed up with Coach Sam and cleared 2m in his first ever session! By then he was hooked on “the challenge, excitement, defying gravity using only a pole, ecstasy in clearing the bar!”
For others, watching athletes vault is enough to spark their curiosity. Matt (U55) says “I’m old enough to remember the 1972 Olympics and was fascinated by pole vault. Watching the athletes run and catapult themselves over the bar, I thought was awesome! I remember going into the back garden and pretending I was a pole vaulter using an old garden cane! I never thought I’d have the opportunity to have a go, but when my daughter joined Yate AC and started the event, I had to ask Sam if, at the age of 51, I could have a go!” Hannah (U20) agrees “Pole vault has always interested me, I would definitely argue that it is one of the most exciting events. For me, it was the first event I tried at the track and I saw no need for trying out any other. There is a pure thrill and adrenaline rush you receive when competing, and clearing a height that you haven’t been able to for quite some time is a great feeling.”
Who can be a pole vaulter?
Clearly pole vault is suitable for all ages of athletes, so what special qualities does a vaulter need?
The whole squad agrees that commitment, interest, determination and mental strength are the key qualities of a vaulter, with strength and flexibility firmly in second place. Whilst Megan (U17) started vaulting due to her gymnastic background, Matt and Jerry have proven that it is entirely possible to successfully take up vaulting in your 50s and 60s. Jerry agrees: “While a good base level of fitness is important, to me mental fitness has been key and particularly complete trust in my coach Sam Hillier-Smith.”
Ben (U20) sums it up: “Personally I think you have to be mentally strong to compete in pole vault as it is tough as things may not go your way. I also think you have to believe in yourself, as you are trying to fly upside down! I have observed with other athletes and myself that if you don’t think it can happen or are sceptical then it becomes 10x harder. As an athlete you have to be very strong physically as well, and of course it will suit some somatotypes better than others.”
The physical strength required by vaulters is perhaps the most varied of all athletic disciplines. Liam explains: ”you have to be physically fit and strong to be able to keep a consistent 30ish meter run ups (elite jumpers) along with carrying a pole and be able to push the pole and go upside down for several jumps which can be so tiring on the muscles even if you’re that fit!” Jack (U11) adds that to do well in pole vault you need a strong core, but ultimately it comes back down to not being afraid.
What training do pole vaulters do?
If pole vaulting has sparked your interest and you think you have what it takes, what training can you expect?
Ben explains: “Winter season training usually starts October/ November till March/ April depending on the weather. Over the winter we work heavily on strength and core work to become as strong as possible. This is usually very intense and lots of hard work with drills, weights and body weight training. As we start jumping on the bed in the summer, we still work on drills, but less strength work and I keep fit in-between sessions. As a group I think we have a bit more of a laugh in the summer as we train in the summer evenings which are very nice and we take turns to jump on the bed so we do have time in-between to have a bit of fun.”
Hannah agrees “Through the summer months we focus on technique and maintaining strength for the competitions, and through winter we recover from the season and then work on improving and strengthening any weaknesses for the season to come.”
“As a multi-eventer, in a normal year I train at the track 4 times a week, with each day dedicated to something different” adds Liam. “For example, 1 day would be sprinting, another day endurance, a third on core and the final on technical work. Then on 2 of the 3 remaining days, I would go to the gym to build up my strength (one day legs, other days arms) whilst my final day would be a break so my muscles can rest.”
Matt describes a typical winter session: “We start off with warm-up stretches before moving onto warm up drills which might include the following:
Walking high knees, Fast Arms, High Knees, High Skips, Scissor Runs, Heel Flicks, 40m Sprint, 20 20s, Box extension drill.
After this we would have either Core Sessions which might include
Tuck Ins, Glute Bridges, Incline sit ups, Leg Lifts on multi gym, Dish hold, Back lifts off block, Press ups, Triceps dips / press ups, Dish Hold, Pull ups, forward and Reverse
Alternative to Core Sessions would be Weights sessions. These would include:
Weight Hold, Chest Squeeze, Bench Press, Lat Pull Downs, Squat, Snatch, Leg Curls and Hamstring Curls.
Is Pole Vault fun?
The main theme that comes through is enjoyment! Pole vault, particularly in a squad environment is an exciting, fun activity and the athletes buzz with their favourite training elements. Favourite drills include look-back games (to identify what the coach is holding to encourage looking back on take-off), upside-down drills on the rings, suspended turn-and-push drills and Stephanidi drills (Katerina Stephanidi won gold at the 2016 Olympics and triumphed in the May 2020 Ultimate Garden Clash!).
But the firm favourite is clearly simply vaulting. “The best training sessions for me are when everyone is there and all working on their plans. The sessions are usually buzzing and good fun as everyone is supportive, no matter what an individual’s ability. My favourite training drills is when we get to practice actual pole vault” explains Matt. Hannah agrees: “Getting along with others in the squad is awesome and I have definitely made some friends for a very long time. Ultimately, in pole vault the work you put in is what you get out, meaning that although they may be disgusting, every drill and exercise is worth doing in the long run. Just simply running and vaulting is a great stress reliever and fun.”
Is pole vault difficult?
Vaulting isn’t all plain sailing, so what challenges can you expect?
As with any athletics discipline, determination is key, but vaulting has the added dimension of defying gravity. The vaulters agree that it’s all about technique, whether that be for newer athletes to concentrate on clearing a bar and getting upside-down in mid-air, or for more experienced athletes it’s the finer points of technique to get higher over the bar with a straight arm, 180° turn and pushing the pole away.
It’s all about balance though, for athletes of all ages. Jack struggles with winter training, Jerry has to remind himself he isn’t a teenager, and Hannah constantly manages the balance between schoolwork and training. Lockdown has definitely increased those challenges, with a lack of access to the track and other training resources, and perhaps more importantly the lack of motivation provided by squad sessions.
Can I do Pole Vault during COVID restrictions?
During lockdown, Coach Sam provided training plans, bought the squad some basic kit and hosted online strength & conditioning sessions, but the athletes all struggled with motivation and the lack of direct coach input, and are looking forward to being on the track this spring and summer.
For athletes looking to join an athletics club the current circumstances can be a concern, but the athletes agree that joining the squad during restricted training can be a great thing to do. Jerry joined Yate AC before training could restart from the first lockdown. “I am so glad I did because I was able to train and be coached as soon as the gates reopened. The club is always looking forwards and I have no doubt will continue to support members in many ways to be ready for the next reopening and season.”
Jack agrees: “The team has helped me during lockdown by talking through the WhatsApp group and my coach putting training plans on there. Without the team to help me I would struggle. During lockdown would be a good time to join the club because you get to meet new people through zoom calls and texting before you see them in person.”
Can I do Pole Vault if I have a busy life?
Vaulting requires commitment, but so does the rest of life! We asked the squad about their secret to balancing life and training.
It seems the answer isn’t terribly difficult. Firstly, be structured yet flexible with training plans. Setting a clear day and time to train can help, whilst being clear on your goals to enable adapting your training around other priorities and increasing training when you have more free time works well. Secondly, if training is fun, it is never a burden! As Matt says, “I see pole vault training as something fun with great people. It helps me forget the normal everyday stuff for an hour or two.”
Megan sums up: “The squad has helped me a lot during lockdown as we always look out for each other, if you need something or someone to talk to they are always there. If you were looking to join the club I think any time is right to join.”
Yate AC was founded in 1983 and is located close to both Bristol and Bath. They aim to enable all athletes to participate in, and more importantly enjoy athletics, with a thriving membership across all events. Yate AC successfully hosted a number of competitions during 2020 and will be hosting the Premier West National Athletics League, Youth Development League and local league fixtures in 2021.
Sam Hillier-Smith is the pole-vault coach at Yate AC, with a full squad of athletes including a number of junior champions. Sam is, like many club coaches, a volunteer coach who balances coaching with work and being mother to 3 kids.
Pole Vault equipment
Neuff Athletic is proud to stock a full range of vaulting equipment. From beds to grip tape, poles to bar lifters, bungs to uprights. Browse our collection here.