LSU: A TEAM of Leaders

After speaking with Track and Field Coach Todd Lane, it is easy to see why Louisiana State University is an exciting school.  “We are located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an hour northwest of New Orleans,” Coach Lane starts off.  “Our mascot is Mike the Tiger.  We are proud to say Mike VI, a live tiger who has his own 15,000-square-foot habitat with a waterfall, swimming pond, grass trees and enclosure, lives  right here on campus.  He lives one minute from the track and overlooks the loudest, craziest football stadium in the country.  He is a national hero to the passionate LSU nation.  If someone ever wanted to see the passion that there is in Louisiana for LSU, they just need to show up on campus on a Friday afternoon of a football game weekend and watch the motorhomes roll in.  Then come to practice Saturday morning with us and see the tailgaters who take over every inch of openness on campus.  Take in the smells of jambalaya, boudin, alligator, and porc du being cooked and tossed back with adult beverages.  The football game Saturday night in Tiger Stadium is deafening with all 94,000 of those people in there (and, at times, the estimated 20,000 outside the stadium).”

“This is my 18th year of college coaching,” Coach Lane tells us.  “I graduated from college with a degree in political science and was an average Division III distance runner.  I realized I wanted to be in athletics when I graduated.  I went and got a master’s in sport administration and, while doing that, taught classes and helped out with the cross country team at the university.  Through other stops in coaching, I took on coaching other events.  I eventually pursued another master’s in exercise science and attended coaches’ education every summer.   I have coached just about every event in track and field through my career.  I consider myself to be a track and field coach, not a pole vault or high jump coach etc.  Physiology and mechanics of athletics applies across all spectrums.  I have been at LSU for six seasons.  This was always a dream job for me and every day I feel incredibly humbled, honored and fortunate to have this opportunity.”

What’s also great is that the LSU track and field team has more than just one passionate coach.  When asked about the staff, Coach Lane tells us:  “We have the NCAA maximum of six paid coaches with our program at LSU, along with a director of operations to handle a lot of administrative work for us.  I work with the combined event, long, triple, high jump and pole vault athletes for both men and women.”  According to Coach Lane, LSU typically has five to six men and two to four women on the team in the vault.

We knew that joining this exciting track and field team would be desirable to many, so we asked what it takes to be a part of it.  Coach Lane says, “Minimally we are looking for student athletes who have the ability to continue to grow and improve in the event area and help our team at an SEC or NCAA championship.  This probably means, in terms of heights, 15-6 for men and 12-6 for women along with the speed qualities that you see of vaulters who are scorers at the championship meets.  We also want someone who is a competitor and who wants and can handle the pressure of being in the hunt to win championships.  We are a track and field TEAM.  We look for people who can compete when things aren’t going well- people who can deal with adversity.”

Coach Lane explains why perseverance through adversity is so important to the LSU team:  “We talk a lot about overcoming adversity and problem solving as part of the road to being good.  The process of developing as an athlete constantly has shifts in it.  I always remember several years ago at the NCAA Meet in Eugene; the weather was horrendous, it was raining, cold, there were delays, and there was an officiating error in not raising the bar when it was supposed to go up- all kinds of things.  We had a guy, who probably was not the best vaulter there, go out at the bar they forgot to raise, get back in because of the error, take 17 jumps that day and somehow finish second for eight huge points for our team.  He was a competitor and handled the adversity better than many and wanted to excel for the team.”

“Our setup at LSU is, I think, the most ideal in the country for a track and field athlete,” says Coach Lane proudly of the track and field facilities.  “Our track is centrally located on campus; it is a five-minute walk to pretty much any academic obligation.  We have an indoor track which is right next to our outdoor.  It is currently being renovated, but will include boarded runways that are flush in the ground.  We are a little soft in Louisiana, so if practice gets a little cold or rainy, we are able to walk 50 meters right indoors.  Outdoors we have three to four pole vault pits that run north and south and eight boxes total, so we can host multiple competitions at once.  The outdoor track was renovated in 2011 and the surface is ideal for training and competing.  Our entire infield is track surface, so there is plenty of room for all event areas to train.  We get great competitions every year.  We also have a track-only weight room and a large storage area at the track.  Our athletic training room is a two-minute walk from the track.  We vault on UCS Spirit poles and all of our pits are UCS.  The gymnastics practice facility is attached to the indoor track so we are able to utilize that easily as well.”

“I think all the vaulters, in some way, have been a leader within the group and the team,” continues the proud Coach Lane of his team.  “Our men and women train together.  What I find is the women tend to lead the guys more in practice, in terms of staying on task and moving efficiently through practice.  They don’t put up with a lot of wasted time.  In terms of the highest vaulter this year, on the men’s side it has varied from meet to meet.”

According to Coach Lane, competition has been fierce for the Tiger vaulters recently.  He tells us, “We compete in the SEC and NCAA Division I.  It’s a challenging conference in every single event, including the pole vault.  When you can vault 18 feet for the men and 14 feet for the women and only be third, you get a perspective on what is really good.  The SEC Conference Meet, indoor and outdoor, every year is the greatest team competition across the board in the United States in my opinion.  You go into that meet knowing you are going to see some incredible performances and you walk out of it shaking your head at the amazing things the human body can do.  Our men’s and women’s teams are always in a battle for a championship, both at the Conference and NCAA level.  We view track as a team sport.  The vault group embraces doing their part to help the TEAM win.”

Not only has the competition been fierce, but Coach Lane tells us this interesting fact about this year for the LSU track and field team:  “This spring we put together a men’s vault 4 x 100 meter relay at one of our home meets.  No records were set and they did manage to run slightly faster than our women’s relay team who is always battling to win a national championship in that event.  The best part of that relay may have been the full diving extension that took place on the first exchange that didn’t miss a beat.  Russ Buller, our school record holder in the vault, ran on a top-three-NCAA-finishing 4 x 100 relay team.”

Here is a detailed look at the training Coach Lane has put in place for his team:

“We ask for two to three weeks totally off of physical work after the last meet,” he says.  “Summer workouts are mailed out July 1st for those who did not make it to the NCAA Meet.  Those who are competing in the summer take their break later at some point.  We officially start practice together the day after Labor Day (first Monday in September).  Our training progresses through the fall into January when we begin competitions.”

Coach Lane also tells us, “We run our training in four-week cycles.  The fourth week sees a reduction in volume, with Saturday and Wednesday training removed, and the work of those days shifted.  This is to allow recovery and adaptation to the previous training.”

“A typical week in the fall (Sept- December) would look like this (gymnastics work is included, but varies as to the day we do it):”

Monday Acceleration Development:  20, 30, 40m acceleration runs from various start positions, including starting  blocks and resisted runs,  with total volume of 180-350 meters of work.  Periods of the fall we would do these with poles also: Short jumps such as standing long jump, standing triple, double leg hops; Strength training consisting of a clean or snatch, squats, and bench movements; Explosive multiple throws (overhead back, between the legs forward, squat chest, and a rotational throw) performed with shot puts.
Tuesday Technique/General strength:  Technique work- starting with remedial work in the early fall of skips, run-run-jumps, hurdle skips moving to stiff pole to short run jumps; General body strength work done in circuit style; Weight room circuit.
Wednesday Speed Development:  Stadium runs (singles and doubles) without poles, then progressing to stadium runs with poles to pole runs on the track; Stadium hops- single leg going up, going lateral and medial and a 180 jump; Strength training consisting of a clean or snatch, single leg squat/lunges and overhead squats, and an incline bench.
Thursday Technique/General strength:  In the early fall, because of NCAA rules; this is often a day that the athletes will complete practice on their own.  Later in the fall we can add this day in as a coaching day under NCAA rules.  Similar to Tuesday. When we are later in the fall doing our short run jumps from Tuesday by either running a different number of steps or vaulting with a narrower grip to work on swing, something that provides variance from what was down on Tuesday.  Motor learning research shows that variance is important in practice.
Friday Acceleration/Speed Development Day:  In the early fall we will run a lot of resistance runs during this day and then graduate to a more speed-oriented day.  We have an exercise that involves running 8-10 steps full speed into 10-20 mini hurdles in which the athlete steps between each hurdle running as fast as possible.  The distance is calculated based on the athlete’s speed.  Eventually we add in running with a pole and will complete a drop and plant coming out of the run with fewer hurdles. Mini hurdles hop jumps; Heavy clean pulls, very deep squats, bench press variation and a pull up series.
Saturday Stamina day:  We run a total of 1,200 meters with a four-week cycle being outlined below.  The rest starts short and through each cycle gets longer, so naturally the intensity gets higher; Week 1- 8 * 150m; Week 2- 10 * 120m; Week 3- 12 * 100 m; Week 4- Off.  After these runs we gather the entire jumps group for “Words of Wisdom”, with a different member of the group providing some words and thoughts of inspiration and motivation to the group each time.  It was really good this year with everyone providing hand-outs, color copies and all.  We then go to the weight room for a circuit and finish with some work barefooted in the sand.  Saturday is the day that I know we’ve done a good job when I see them sitting on the bench outside the weight room after it’s all said and done and they don’t have the energy to go home.

“I mentioned the fourth week being lower in volume- or unloading as we call it,” Coach Lane continues.  “During this fourth week we run several field tests to help measure responses to training in speed and power and to evaluate areas of weakness for athletes.  At the end of the third cycle, we run.  On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, we have a huge team-wide testing competition.  It has been held at LSU for 20-plus years, so we have records for each event group.  These 20 years of test results give us some norms for desired speed-power numbers if one wants to vault at certain heights.  We usually have twenty men and women who comprise our jumps group and training on some days is identical across all events, so you will see our vaulters training with that group.  Pound for pound, our combined event and horizontal jumpers are the most powerful group on the team, so it doesn’t hurt to train with them, it keeps everything in perspective.  Plus, again, we are a TEAM and we want to foster that environment.”

Coach Lane is not against his team having fun in the midst of all their hard work.  “Practice itself is fun,” he says.  “We have a group of men who all have similar abilities, so there is a good bit of trash talk that goes on in practice or overall records against each other throughout the meets.  It is not uncommon for competition of some sort to break out, from a game of stick ball to inventing new techniques for the standing triple jump.  Late this spring, one of our vaulters was able to talk himself into being faster than one of our triple jumpers.  During a session of some fast 120s, a race broke out.  He got beat, but is claiming a false start to this day.  I missed this one, but there was a good bit of talk between the distance runners and pole vaulters over who would win a 4 x 100.  Apparently a 4 x 200 race was set up on a day the coaching staff was gone between the two groups.  With 100 or so spectators, the race went off.  The vault squad won handily.”

This program Coach Lane has in place seems to work, as many successful alumni vaulters have graduated from LSU.  He could not say enough about the amazing vaulters he has seen through his program.  He tells us, “The alumni we have within our track and field program, period, is incredible athletically,” he says.  “When you talk specifically about the vault, it has had incredible athletes; also incredible in life.  Our pole vault group, currently and in the past, has been 99.9 percent Louisiana high schoolers.  There is a fantastic development group for the vault in Louisiana high schools, now and throughout the past years.  Doug Fraley and Mark Rose in New Orleans, Shane LeLeux in New Iberia, Erica Bartolina with her club, Steve Sorrell, and Greg Duplantis are a few of the wonderful pole vault coaches we have in Louisiana who promote, coach and work with many of the young pole vaulters in our state.  When you take the talent and the pride that so many kids have in Louisiana and LSU, it shows through when they have the opportunity to wear the uniform and compete across the country.  At our home meets there are quite a few of our alumni back, either working or watching the meets.  It is neat to see the generations of vaulters, going back to the mid-60s through now.  We’ve had five individuals clear 18 feet in LSU history, so it’s a good group talent wise.”

“I would start with two individuals who are less famous for their pole vaulting and more for their professional work since then.  The first is Dr. James Andrews, world-renowned orthopedic surgeon, the guy who just about every professional athlete goes to see for knee and shoulder injuries.  He was the SEC Champ in the pole vault in 1963 for LSU.  One of his teammates, Pete Boudreaux, who won the SEC Indoor vault in 1965, coaches here in town at powerhouse Catholic High School and was also the 2010 National High School coach of the year.  He tells me that he always would tell Dr. Andrews ‘Why do you want to quit track to go do this medical school deal?’  Of course, looking back on it, that move was well-warranted with the success he has had now in the medical world.”

“In terms of vaulting high, Russ Buller, our school record holder, had a great career and was so close to making the 2008 Olympic team before an injury hit him in the middle of the competition during the Trials.  Greg Duplantis had a long career after LSU on the professional circuit and topped the 19-foot barrier during this time.”

“What’s interesting now is that we are starting to get the sons and daughters and, probably soon, grandsons and granddaughters of some of our former greats.  Mark Rose, was a 17-5 vaulter for LSU back in the 80s. We have had both his son Kyle and daughter Laura with us recently.  Greg Duplantis’ son, Andreas, vaults for us now.  I know Pete has a granddaughter or two in elementary school whom he is teaching to vault in the back yard, so you never know.”

“On the women’s side, Katelyn Rodrigue graduated in 2010 and may have been the shortest and lightest vaulter to jump as high as she did.  She was all of 4’11.5” and 100 pounds with a PR of 13-7. She could move on the runway and was a regular at NCAA meets.  She probably maximized her talent the most of any athlete I have worked with in any event group.  Rachel Laurent was one of the first 14-foot high school vaulters in the U.S. who joined us. She had a great career, earning several All-American honors and helping our team to some top-three NCAA finishes during her career.  Katelyn and Rachel were, and still are, such good human beings.  They both were actively involved in community service in helping people and continue with that today.”

Good coaching, good people, and passionate community– all three come together to make an ideal vaulting and track and field situation.  We hope LSU continues to thrive.  If the vaulters they are putting out now are anything like their predecessors, there will be no holding this team back.

By:  Michelle Walthall


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