Pole vaulting is not a normal activity. Nobody is able to just pick up a pole and jump high straight away. It takes months or years of training before even the most gifted athletes can call themselves a pole vaulter.

That is because pole vaulting goes against all of your natural instincts of self-preservation.

You know how you get sweaty palms when standing on the edge of a cliff? How your heart starts beating faster when you see a snake or spider? Or how some people are deathly afraid of flying?

That is your body telling you that what you are doing is not normal and your survival instinct saying you should stop doing it. Now.

Well imagine if your chosen sport meant that you had to ignore that inner voice. That is what pole vaulters have to do every single jump.

But then it gets more complicated because while you have to ignore that instinct so that you can pole vault you have to listen to it so that you don’t do anything to hurt yourself.

If most pole vaulters actually thought about it and broke down what they are doing, they would never take off the ground.

Pole vaulting involves running as fast as you can holding one end of a 5m long skinny fibreglass pole, then, when you are at top speed, accurately putting the other end of the pole into small hole in the ground, trusting the pole will bend and not break, rocking backwards so that you are upside down and shooting yourself up to 6 meters up in the air.

Sounds pretty ridiculous when you put it that way doesn’t it?

If when a pole vaulter is standing at the end of the runway, they have a single negative thought in their head, they simply wont take off.

This is because while pole vaulters largely need to ignore the dangers of their sport they also need to instinctively know if they have done something wrong or different in their approach. If something is wrong and they try and take off, they could seriously hurt themselves.

This could be over-striding in the run-up, their hips might be 3cm too low at take-off, they might have lowered the pole too early, or perhaps simply the wind changed direction while they were running.

Any one of these things can make trying to complete a jump dangerous. In the 100m if you are a bit off you might false start, in the long jump if you are a bit off you might do a foul, in pole vaulting if you are a bit off you might die.

Starting blocks don’t come with a warning label saying “This sport is a dangerous activity; serious injury, paralysis and death have occurred”. Vaulting poles do.

So what happens when that instinct that tells a vaulter “this jump is bad, do not go through with it” starts to misfire? Well, they stop taking off and get ‘the yips’.

A specific example of this is that there is one track I compete at where the mats that you land on don’t extend as far out from the box (the hole in the ground where you put the pole) as at my usual training track.

This puts off my visual clues as to how close I actually am. Because of this every time I jump there I feel like I am too far away on every attempt and my self preservation instinct kicks in, telling me that if I take off this time I will be too far out, I will land back on the track and I will hurt myself, even though I am not too far away and I will be fine.

To jump at that venue I have to ignore that inner voice and let me tell you, it is hard.

At some stage in the last year or so, Steve Hooker’s inner voice started to misfire. Telling him every time he ran down the runway that something was wrong, even when it wasn’t. It could have been for any number of reasons.

During that time he made some slight changes to his technique, he changed the type of poles he jumps with and injury forced him to take a long break from training. Any of these things individually, let alone combined, or even some other factor could have made his jump feel wrong and cause him to not take off.

The good news is that the yips, while extremely difficult to overcome, are not a career ending injury.

Steve has overcome them before and he can do it again. Steve finished fourth at the 2000 World Junior Championships but some time in 2002 things started to go wrong. He got the yips.

He struggled to take off for nearly two years until in February 2004 he went to a meet in Perth, managed to take off in competition and jumped an Olympic qualifier. A repeat performance of this jump at the National Championships a month later saw him selected for the 2004 Olympic team.

There he did not make it through qualifying jumping off a short run but he looked around at the best pole vaulters in the world and thought “I can beat these guys”. He came back from Athens and the yips were gone.

It should be easier for Steve to overcome the yips this time. That is because he knows he can do it. He has done it before. And he knows that when he is jumping well, he is the best in the world.

Steve would be the first to admit that his lead up to these Olympics has been less than ideal. He jumped the qualifying height in his personal training centre in a Perth warehouse but his initial performances in Europe were sketchy at best.

However, on 21 July at his last meet before the Games he jumped a season’s best in what I am told were not ideal conditions for vaulting. This result says that Steve can take off and jump competitive heights.

Pole vault qualifying is on Wednesday night at 7:00pm Australian EST. If Steve manages to take off more than he runs through in qualifying then he is looking good for the final. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

By: Cam Baker

From: http://www.theroar.com.au/2012/08/07/steve-hooker-polevaulting-and-the-yips/

Steve Hooker
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About The Author Derek Bouma

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