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Safe pole vaulting & the helmet issue. (Track & Field).

2002 WAS A SAD YEAR in the pole vault. The deaths of two high school and one college vaulters due to head and neck injuries recreated the vigorous debate on pole vault safety and helmets.

Over the last seven years, USA Track & Field's National Pole Vault Development and Education Committee has invested considerable time and effort in the use of helmets in vaulting. Its main concern has been to protect the head upon contact with an unyielding surface:

Were the existing helmets capable of reducing or eliminating catastrophic head injuries?

Could the helmets have prevented any of the catastrophic head injuries that occurred in the previous 20 years?

The three most common circumstances that lead to virtually every catastrophic head injury include:

Situation One: A vaulter completely misses the landing mat and strikes his head on an unyielding ground surface or an arbitrary hard obstacle near the landing mat.

Situation Two: A vaulter bounces or rolls out of the landing mat after landing, striking his head on the ground or an object around the landing mat.

Situation Three: A vaulter is whipped upside down into the planting box during the takeoff and strikes his head in or around the planting box.

Based on the cause of the injuries, current technology, and dialogues dealing with the injuries, the findings are clear: the forces applied to the head, neck, brain, and brain stem in Situation One and Three are believed to be far beyond the capability of any feasible helmet.

It is therefore paramount to (1) ensure the education of the coaches and vaulters, (2) comply with the existing rules on pole size, landing mat size, and soft landing zones around the mat, and (3) use common sense when faced with poor weather conditions or dangerous obstructions.

As for the level of protection in Situation Two during a "bounce out" or "roll out," Snell R-12 or SNRVP rated helmets may provide marginal protection. If, however, the area around the landing mat is free of hard or dangerous obstructions and is in compliance with the "soft landing zone" rules, the helmets would not be necessary.

During the investigation dialogue, two additional issues developed: First, would helmets increase the vaulter's perceived feeling of invincibility and safety, causing him to take chances he may not otherwise take? (A valid concern, but largely dependent on the competitiveness and personality of the individual athlete.)

Second, and more important, could helmets cause injuries when vaulters land properly in the landing mat?

Helmets, by current design and size, pose two very real dangers in the pole vault: (1) their increased surface area reduces the normal amount of head penetration into the landing mat during deceleration and (2) the outward protruding portion of the back of the helmet increases the leverage action against the neck by nearly two inches.

Both of these dangers will increase the amount of the hyper-flexion forces applied to the vaulter's neck during every properly executed landing. It therefore follows that even if the athlete wore a helmet during a technically correct vault and landing, he would still be vulnerable to a major catastrophic injury Since virtually every vault ends in the landing mat, the risk of wearing a helmet places the vaulter at an increased level of danger during properly executed vaults.

Snell and the NSRVP, the organizations that currently establish helmet standards, will not certify the use of any existing "pole vault feasible" helmets due to the heights being achieved.

Snell's highest rating "R-12" is for head protection from heights of approximately 20". The NSRVP rating is for head contact from 2 meters or about 6'6". In short, there isn't a single helmet feasible for use at vaulting heights that exceed 7'!

This fact isn't clear to many misinformed parents, coaches, athletic directors, and school boards, and the sports equipment catalogues have compounded the problem by implying that these helmets are "Safety Helmets" or "Sports Helmets" for the pole vault and show photographs of vaulters, poles in hand, modeling helmets.

Fact: There isn't a single feasible helmet that legally or marginally satisfies the necessary requirements for a pole-vault helmet.

In a knee-jerk reaction to the injuries sustained in the vault during the past year, many scholastic and collegiate programs have forced their vaulters to wear helmets. And since helmets certified for use in the pole vault do not exist, these schools are assuming an immense liability and quite likely increasing the danger to their athletes. Such schools should contact their legal councils immediately and investigate this fact.

The solutions for the safety and reduction of catastrophic injuries are simple. Nearly every catastrophic injury over the last 20 years could have been avoided by (1) using common-sense where circumstances dictate, (2) strict compliance to the rules on hazard-free soft-landing zones around the landing mat, (3) proper use and maintenance of legal-sized landing mats and vaulting poles, and (4) seeing that the participants (athlete and coach) acquire an accredited pole-vault event education.

Aside from rules-compliant facilities, the single most important safety factor for coach and athlete is to have a solid understanding of the basic aspects of the event. Athletes and coaches are frequently dealing with dated information, incorrect information, or a minimal understanding of the event's most fundamental components.

Coaches and vaulters who make every effort to obtain a quality polevault education will make the event as safe to participate in as any other sport.

In addition to coaching and serving as chairman of the NPVEI, the author has been the Northeastern U.S. Region Chairman of the National Pole Vault Development & Education Committee for the past 14 years.
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Article Details
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Author:Hannay, W. Mark
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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