still-image – death of dynamics

Video recordings are an important working tool for coaches and athletes alike in pole vaulting.

This article deals with the pitfalls of video analysis, more specifically with super slow motion and still images.

Athletics = Energy

Energy = speed (kinetic energy) or height (potential energy). In athletics, the goal is usually to generate as much kinetic energy, i.e. speed, or potential energy, i.e. height, or a combination of both, as possible relative to the ground.

To gain this kind of energy, the athlete relies on the principle of „actio = reactio.“ Without a footprint on the ground, no gain in kinetic or potential energy (even in the throwing disciplines). I push into the ground, the ground pushes me off, I gain height or speed (or the throwing implement gains energy).

You can’t get movement from a still image. With experience one can conclude from the still picture on the basis of which movements the person depicted there got into the position depicted there. The uninformed can not even do that.

To the extraterrestrial, which is to visit on the earth, a picture of an earth inhabitant, who hangs at a pole, says nothing at all. A pole-vaulting video lets him understand what the goal of the activity is.

Let’s keep in mind that the expert can take much more from a video still than the beginner. This remains to be remembered when it comes to showing the beginner a still image of his jump.

The beginner does not have the skills to interpret a still image as the coach often assumes. While much may seem clear to the coach while explaining something from a still image, the novice may not understand any of it at all. How much an athlete can benefit from a video analysis is something the coach must be able to assess.

But even the expert and the advanced athlete cannot read out everything relevant from a still image, especially not in pole vaulting – and thus to the core of this article.

My observation is that (too) many coaches and athletes judge the technique of their athletes or of themselves by analyzing super slow motion or still images.

The reason for this, in my opinion, is the following:

Many are overwhelmed with real-time video. It takes years of studying pole vaulting to be able to capture and judge movements in real time.

In real time, you don’t see positions, but a sequence of movements. Many coaches and athletes are overwhelmed with the topic of vaulting rhythm (actio and reactio between pole and vaulter). It is significantly easier to compare still images of jumping positions of role models with one’s own positions and to mentally superimpose them, so to speak. „Here I should be a little more this, there I should be a little more that, etc.“

It is relatively easy to see the differences between two still images (the professional and yourself in „the same“ position), The more difficult it is to understand and explain as a coach or as an athlete how the jumping rhythm should be.

What do I mean by this? Pole vaulting is not the stringing together of perfect still images (the so-called serial image, which is in a way symptomatic). If you perfect one position after another, you have no guarantee of ever jumping high correctly, because a position can be done with or without dynamics. Pole vault is a sequence of movements, a dynamic, a flow of energy.

Dynamics is, for example: How from the movement on the last steps of the entry, the movement of the take-off is affected; how the timing of the take-off, affects the roll-up movement; when a pole appears to be too soft based on the movement activity of the athlete in relation to his grip height; when a pole appears too hard to allow an athlete to move a certain way; when someone executes a jump phase too hastily or for an excessively long time.

If you look at world-class jumpers, you’ll find „mistakes“ everywhere in still images. One often asks oneself, why do they all jump so high, if they reveal deficiencies here and there?

What is often overlooked is that pole vaulting in a very pronounced form requires the ability to transform energy: from the approach speed to the transfer of energy to the pole and back to the athlete, from horizontal to vertical, from swing to extension.

A pole vaulter starts with running and the goal is to generate maximum height. To do that, you need maximum kinetic energy in vertical direction as you leave the pole, plus a timed rotational movement so that you jump over the bar without touching it.

So whatever you do, from the take-off to the bar crossing, has these two goals to pursue. It is primarily about dynamics and thus rhythm of movement and not about striving for perfect execution of movement parts.

This can often be observed in women in particular: Success is hoped for from the textbook learning of positions – but that is not the end of it. Then an athlete comes along who runs 1m/s faster and throws herself into the pole with all her energy and „oh miracle“, she then with a “horrible” technique jumps half a meter higher than the model students. That’s my example of what matters in pole vaulting. I wouldn’t include the technique of Sandi Morris or Katie Nageottie in a technique textbook, but I would dedicate a whole chapter to them to show what matters in pole vaulting: energy and power, respectively.

So the still picture doesn’t help with salvation. It is helpful if the individual positions look „nice“. But there are vaulters for whom 90% of the positions look „nice“, but the hoped-for height is not generated, because they release a lot of energy from the system at the decisive moment (e.g. take-off/pole complex) or because the rhythm of movement is not right and the bar is torn, although the potential height would be sufficient. Or simply because in order to ensure the correct execution of the movement, the run-up speed is throttled. However, the velocity energy at take-off is always one of the decisive factors in pole vaulting.

A simple example: The jumper gets into a proper L-position, i.e. rolled up with shins at the level of the upper hand. This still image usually says little. This is because it may be that at that moment the jumper’s dynamic movement is just ending, so he can no longer push his hips up, but „empties out“ to the bar. This, in turn, can have a variety of reasons that you could see in a real-time video or a faster slow-motion, but not in a still image. There, you just suddenly see something wrong with the next frame, but not why.

For me, a video in about 38 to 66% speed is the best tool to teach an athlete to explain how he hit the dynamics, the rhythm of the jump. I like also to switch back and forth between slow motion speeds.

Example of dynamic jumping: Sam Kendricks. Take the still images of Sam Kendricks jumping off and in the L-position. The textbooks say otherwise. Also the grip height with just under 4.90m far below average for a 6 meter jumper. So what is the man doing right when he does so much wrong and doesn’t even get to a proper grip height? He develops a sensational dynamic.

In the end, coaches and jumpers do not have to care if an athlete puts his head in his neck when he rolls in (like Kendricks) and wins the Diamond League for it. The question whether Sam Kendricks would jump even higher without his head in his neck can be dealt with, but I would rather have two or three 5.90m vaulters in the country who take their head in their neck, for that, by the way, have understood very well that pole vaulting is about producing dynamics and not nice still pictures.

We pole vaulters are track and field athletes, not artistic gymnasts. The belief that good artistic gymnasts make good pole vaulters persists. Up to a level of 5.00m and 4.00m it can indeed be stated that former artistic gymnasts reach this vaulting level in disproportionately many cases more easily than non-artistic gymnasts. But when it comes to jumping 6.00m and 5.00m, approach speed and movement dynamics are the relevant components.

Power, explosiveness plus reasonable technical quality simply beats gymnastic beauty.

I don’t mean that beginners should pay more attention to power than to correct technical execution. Rather, I am saying that when jumping with a bending pole, more attention should be paid to the factor of dynamics and rhythm. Pole vaulting was done with a rigid pole for a very long time. This fact and the great influence of the Russian pole vaulting school led to an, in my opinion, exaggerated focus on the technique on the rigid pole at the beginner level and as a basis or preparation for jumping with a bending pole. I question the mantra that one should jump „the same“ on the bending pole as on the rigid pole.

More recently, pole vaulters of many stripes have been showing us what you can get out of a bent pole. I call these athletes artists on purpose because they are in a way practicing art when moving on and with the pole. Romain Mesnil, Renaud Lavillenie, Ninon Gouillon-Romarin, Mondo Duplantis, Axel Chapelle and some more, get out of their working equipment what doesn’t look anything like jumping on a rigid bar. They are slow (Mesnil), have low grip heights (Chapelle), are not strong (Gouillon-Romarin) or jump „too“ far off with extreme bending (Lavillenie), which does not correspond at all to Botcharnikov’s teaching of the Continuous Chain, and all are very successful with it in relation to their physical possibilities (body size and run-up speed).

Therefore, in my opinion, the goal should first be a rudimentary correct sequence of movements, with the correct rhythm. Likewise, one should not blindly focus on the correct execution of exercises on a rigid pole, disregarding the learning of the feel of a bending pole.

This brings us back to a topic already discussed: Expertise. It is difficult to tell from a beginner’s modest performance whether he or she is on the right track in terms of rhythm. However, this does not absolve any trainer from deviating from teaching the right rhythm, but should challenge the trainer to improve his or her skills. I often see beginners who, when they have just hit the jump rhythm not badly at all, receive feedback from their coaches about this and that, which the athlete cannot yet grasp. In such a moment, it would be more beneficial to let the athlete just get on with it. If the rhythm is right, he should first stabilize it – and 5 jumps are not enough for that.

By the way, the athlete is not stupid. It is not difficult for the beginner or advanced to recognize the difference between his positions (stills) and those of the professionals. But to judge the quality of his jumping rhythm, he is unable to do, that is the job of his coach. If the coach cannot guarantee this, the athlete has a problem, because then the ship steers without a clear course on the open sea.

Athletes are often dissatisfied with their stills. Then I always show them the jumps again in real time to show that they are on the right track (if they are on the right track!). Athletes are allowed to be dissatisfied with stills (they should), but they have to learn that first and foremost the rhythm, the overall flow has to be coherent. In the end, it’s not about jumping „beautifully“, it’s about jumping high (see Morris and Nageottie). There are no grades for beautiful jumping and where the focus on technique slows down the dynamics, you have to be aware of the trade-off.