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Have fun! Jump high! Be safe! Safety in the high school pole vault.

Safety in the High School Pole Vault

The safety of high school pole vaulters has been a source of much concern in recent years.

All kinds of serious injuries have been widely reported and something obviously has to be done. Though the rules-makers have introduced a few safety factors, I believe that several other things, if implemented, could virtually eliminate serious injury.

The three specific things involve engineering, education, and enforcement.

ENGINEERING

The first step is to provide a safe environment, specifically the runway, the landing surface, and the area surrounding the pit.

The rUnway should be flat. I've seen high school runways surfaced with conveyor-belt material that had ripples in it that made running, hazardous. There should be a smooth transition from the runway to the planting box (no lip) to enable vaulters to slide the pole easily into the box without catching.

The runway and the adjacent surface must also be on a level plane to protect the ankles and knees whenever the vaulter doesn't make it into the pit.

The landing surface should be marked with a "Safe Zone," and the base pieces of the pit must be securely fastened together with no gaps between them.

The top piece holds the pit together and distributes the vaulter's impact (upon landing) over a large area. This piece must be securely fastened to the base pieces and must be kept in good condition. Whenever it shows signs of wear or if the foam contained within becomes powdery, it should be replaced.

The area just behind the planting box must allow enough room for poles to bend.

Since pits have a tendency to creep backwards, you must keep your eye on this gap. When the gap begins endangering the bending pole, you should have the vaulters get behind the pole pit and shove it forward to reduce the gap.

Never allow anything to be placed near the pit, such as hurdles, chairs, etc.

The bases of the crossbar standards should be padded with thick foam to reduce the severity of injuries caused by landing on them.

EDUCATION

One of the reasons vaulters get hurt is that they are never educated on what it takes to vault safely, and the biggest reason they do not understand the event is that their coaches do not understand it either!

Pole vaulting is a complex undertaking that coaches have to study in order to take the mystery out of it. Just a few very basic guidelines will, if followed, not only make the event safer but easier to succeed at.

When was the last time you saw somebody get hurt landing in the middle of the pit? It is possible, but not likely. Vaulters get hurt when they miss the pit.

I used to jokingly tell my vaulters that Rule #1 is "Always land in the pit!" The more I think about it, the more I realize that not only is this premise not a joke, but it is the key to keeping vaulters safe. We must teach them how to jump so that they land in the middle of the pit.

This "Safe Zone" should be marked on every high school pit, and we should get our vaulters to land in that area every time. They should be taught its importance and shown how to adjust their jumps whenever they begin straying from it.

During competition, they should be required to land within that area or be disqualified from the event.

Two things must be understood in teaching young vaulters to land in the "Safe Zone": take-off position and pole speed.

Take-off position: Right-handed vaulters take off from their left foot with their right hand as the top hand on the pole. Their body passes to the right of the pole as they complete their jump. (Left-handed vaulters obviously do just the opposite.)

To be successful, the vaulters must take off from a point almost directly under their top hand. Any variation of more than a few inches either way can cause the vaulter to stall out and not make it into the pit.

In his practice program, the vaulter must try to increase the consistency of the run so that he will take off at the same point every time. This will significantly enhance the safety of the vault.

The top hand must be extended as high as possible. I tell the vaulters to "get tall" at the take off and plant as high as they can, as this position is not only safer but leads to higher jumps.

Another element in proper take-off position is balance. The vaulter should be straight up at the moment of take-off, with no lean to the left or right. The shoulders should be parallel to the crossbar and the takeoff should be straight in and up.

Any deviation from this position will cause the vaulter to finish the vault moving to the left or right.

If your vaulter is landing at one side of the pit or the other, rather than the middle, stand behind him or her and watch for the following:

1. Is the pole in the middle of the body at take off? It should be. Vaulters should have the sensation that the pole is right in front of their face when they leave the ground.

2. Is the vaulter's body, including the head, straight up at the moment of take off? If there is even a slight lean to one side or the other, the vaulter will end up moving in the direction of the lean. The greater the lean, the more the deviation from the center of the pit. The higher the vaulter's grip, the more this effect will be magnified in the course of a vault.

3. Are the shoulders level and parallel to the crossbar? Any twisting of the trunk at this point in the jump will cause the vaulter to finish the jump going somewhat sideways.

POLE SPEED

Refers to the movement of the pole from the plant position to vertical or just past vertical. Basically, pole speed is a function of the velocity at take-off and the height of the top hand on the pole.

Note: Other variables that affect pole speed are the angle between the pole and the ground, the forcefulness of the jump at take-off, and the efficiency of the swing, but these have far more subtle effects than take-off speed and grip height.

If the pole, and consequently the vaulter, is moving too slowly, it will not reach the vertical position and the vaulter will not make it into the "Safe Zone" of the pit - a hazard to ankles and knees.

Vaulters should be taught not to let go of the pole if they are not making it into the pit. This will at least get them clear of the box. If they land on the ground in front of the pit, they can roll to help absorb the shock.

What can be done to solve the problem of not enough pole speed? Either lower the grip or use a lighter pole. If your vaulter is using the right pole for his weight and capability, or is not appreciably bending the pole, he can increase his pole speed by simply lowering the top hand 2-4" on the pole. This is also a good first step when faced with a headwind.

If your vaulter is bending the pole and not making it into the pit, he may be a little more difficult to correct. While pole selection may be the problem, you must look at two things before changing poles:

First, the take-off position. Remember, the pole must be planned as high as possible to vault successfully. If your vaulter is not extending his top arm completely, he will not generate adequate pole speed.

Second, the angle of the take-off. The vaulter must forcefully jump in and UP. Some high school vaulters, believing that a larger bend in the pole equals higher jumps, will begin jumping in and DOWN at the takeoff to facilitate a larger bend.

Not only is this terribly inefficient, it is downright dangerous, and can lead to broken poles and broken body parts. If your vaulter is planting high and forcefully jumping off the ground and still not making it into the pit, it's time to switch poles.

Poles are rated by their length and the weight of the vaulter. Vaulter's capabilities vary so much, however, that it's a mistake to rely strictly on the weight rating for safety. Some vaulters can jump safely with poles rated at less than their weight - assuming that they don't generate much take-off speed and/or are holding low on the pole. Other vaulters must use poles rated considerably higher than their weight. In fact, the goal of all vaulters is to hold as high as possible on the heaviest pole upon which they can make it safely into the pit.

Poles rated for weight are further classified by what is known as a flex number. Some poles are measured in inches and others in millimeters. The thing to remember is that the lower the flex number (when measured in the same system), the stiffer the pole.

The flex number is derived by hanging a weight from the middle of the pole and measuring the amount of deflection. When switching to a lighter pole to help the vaulter make it into the pit, you should check for a pole with the same weight rating but with a higher flex number before going to a lower weight rating.

If the pole is moving too fast, the results can be disastrous. The vaulter can penetrate too far and go past the "Safe Zone" - landing in the back of the pit.

Serious head injuries have occurred in this manner. The solution is to slow the pole down by either raising the hand grip or using a heavier pole.

You should teach your vaulters to hang on to the pole if they ever get "lost" during a jump. Letting go of the pole when you don't know where you are is a lot like taking a flying leap off a roof blindfolded.

ENFORCEMENT

While it is extremely important to teach vaulters how to jump safely and to make the proper adjustments if they are not landing in the "Safe Zone" of the pit, we must empower track officials to protect vaulters who are not jumping safely. My experience is that most pole-vault officials know very little about the event. For this reason, the rules on safety must be easy to understand and enforce.

I propose the following: Require all high-school pits [in the state) to be marked with a "Safe Zone" and require vaulters to land within that zone in meets. Allow one "miss" per meet, and make it mandatory for the vaulters to be disqualified and not allowed to take any more jumps the second time they land outside the "Safe Zone."

This rule should be enforced during the entire meet, including warm-up jumps.

What constitutes a "miss" is up for discussion, but I would suggest language similar to this: The vaulter must land substantially (in the official's opinion, more than 50% of the vaulter's body) within the "Safe Zone." To make this a viable rule, the size and location of the "Safe Zone" must be agreed upon by the AIA.

Dick Rambo, Pole Vault Coach Valley Christian H.S., Chandler, AZ
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Author:Rambo, Dick
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Apr 1, 1998
Words:1906
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