Former Olympic champion and Spire Institute Academy coach Tim Mack gives his top tips to the next generation of pole vaulters

You want to be a pole vaulter – and who can blame you? True glory is to be found in flinging yourself over a bar with a fiberglass pole. The truth is, the pole vault is not only one of the most fun events in track and field but, in my opinion, it is also the most rewarding. 

There’s a lot more to it than a random fling over a pole. There are many different qualities that one must possess, including a little speed, strength, gymnastic ability, flexibility, mental toughness, a hard work ethic, patience, competitiveness and the willingness to try something new and exciting.  

It helps to excel at any one of these attributes, but it’s not required. You can be great at some of the elements and not so good at others but, ultimately, you must have the willingness to work hard to get just a little bit better. The true beauty of the sport is that there are limitless ways to get better. 

I am going to identify some elements that will help a young vaulter enjoy a long, safe and healthy future in the sport.   

Step One: Find your coach and mentor

Before you even start this journey, it’s important to find a pole vault coach. This person may be at your school or a private sports club in your area, but he or she could also be a private individual that offers lessons.  

Step Two:  Learn to run properly

As a pole vaulter, you should run upright, extending your legs fully into the ground while maintaining a high heel recovery and lifting your thighs very high. Remember not to lean forward. We have a pole that is trying to pull us forward and the only way to counter that is to be sure to run tall. 

Make sure to take all the running drills very seriously. Understand the hows and whys for each drill. Eliminate talking while performing drills; talking takes your focus off the task and slows down your progress. Really try to feel what your muscles are doing and become “in tune” with your body. As a young athlete, you may not initially feel any connection with your muscle groups. Give it time and patience and you will.

Step Three:  Maintain your flexibility and co-ordination  

Although you will work on developing flexibility and co-ordination in your regular workout routine, commit to an additional 10 or 15 minutes each morning to focus exclusively on these aspects.

In pole vaulting, your body must be able to move in strange and different positions. If I ask an athlete to perform an action and they aren’t able to do it, I want to be sure it isn’t an issue with their flexibility. I call this a “sticking point”.  

To remove these “sticking points”, I have a series of pole vault-related exercises and drills that we perform four days a week. These exercises are related to running mechanics, hip and shoulder flexibility, abdominal and shoulder strength and flexibility. I also add many pole vault-specific skills to these morning sessions.

These may include walking drills with a pole, swinging on rings or a rope or whatever the focus is for that time of the year. I do these to further create layers of pole vault technical patterns, literally programming the pole vaulter’s body.

We do these exercises at SPIRE Institute & Academy (IA) before 8:30 am. Early morning is when it’s calmest. Quiet sessions, without any stressors or distractions, provide the optimal atmosphere to learn. These early morning repetitions, done over the span of a year, can lead to thousands and thousands of repetitions more than the average pole vaulting competitor will achieve.

Step Four: Learn to run with the pole and drop it properly

You must become on with the pole! The width of your grip should be as wide as if you jumped up to hang on a high bar. Don’t grip too wide or too narrow.

I teach every vaulter to count their left steps quietly under their breath. This is because there are certain “checkpoints” that I use to determine if the pole is falling at the proper pace. I teach them to count down high to low, from the first time their left foot hits the ground until they jump off the ground.

At the vaulter’s sixth step out from take-off, I like the pole angle to be 50 degrees from the ground. Then, at the vaulter’s third step out from the box, the pole angle should be approximately five degrees. Finally, at the vaulter’s take-off position, the pole should be completely extended with the vaulter ready to jump off the ground.  

I made up many drills, if not all, on my own to mimic these positions. I had fun with it. I was just being an actor, acting out what the best pole vaulters in the world were doing. 

Tim Mack (Mark Shearman)

Step Five: Use your Imagination

Use your imagination while practicing, when creating your own drills, and when motivating yourself each day. I used my imagination when I looked at myself in the mirror and told myself, “you are the greatest pole vaulter to ever live,” even when I didn’t necessarily believe it. I used my imagination to build a running sled to help my running posture and when I tore apart my running spikes, I rebuilt them and glued them back together to make me taller. I used my imagination to see myself walking out to the Olympic Stadium every day. Use your imagination to visualise your goals each and every day.

You are the next generation of pole vaulters; learn from those who came before you, as I did. When you’ve succeeded, I hope to hear that they helped you achieve your dreams.

» Tim Mack, Program Development Director and Head Coach – Vertical and Horizontal Jumps at SPIRE Institute & Academy, started his vaulting career at the age of 13 and retired at 37. He won Olympic gold at the Athens Games of 2004

» This article first appeared in the March issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here