Pole vaulting is technically a complex sport.
However, success in pole vaulting – as in any athletic discipline – depends on the genetic prerequisites at a high and highest level.
In reality, however, you also see athletes who were not particularly well equipped genetically, but who can celebrate remarkable successes, and you see athletes who genetically would have a lot of potential, but who, for example, stop at 4 meters in women’s pole vaulting or 5 meters in men’s pole vaulting.
You see athletes with technically skilled coaches who do not realize their potential, and you see athletes with mediocre coaches celebrating successes.
How can this be explained and what is the basis for the prospect of success?
The classic formula for success states:
- The athlete’s genes (including health „robustness“),
- the technical skills of the coach,
- the infrastructure,
- the environment (including a certain „financial carelessness“) and
- the total amount of time someone has been training a sport with focus.
Sometimes „the psyche“ is also found in the formula, often in the guise of personal attitude, will, stamina, etc.
The five listed factors of a classic success formula, plus the psychological aspect, I can confirm without exception. Only one factor needs to be specified, that of the coach. And this coaching-factor is partly related to the psyche factor, which is often overseen.
The coach and the athlete’s psyche are closely linked success factors. What can be observed in the best in the world goes from the athlete strongly dependent of his coach to the independent athlete who acts and thinks independently of a personal coach.
The sum of the coaching-factor and the athlete’s psyche factor must reach a certain minimum value in order to succeed, and this minimum value is very high.
But it is possible that the essential part is almost exclusively contributed by the athlete, without the coach contributing much. And this is what this report wants to point out; that in the end it is the athlete who must have a certain psychological quality and that it is the coach (or the athlete himself) who must work (together) to promote this quality.
The athlete’s basic psychological „outlook on life“ when he starts athletics is essentially already manifested. Whether someone is suited to be a skydiver or an accountant, whether someone is brash or reserved, whether someone is narcissistic or introverted, is not decided in the years of pole vault training, but to a very large extent in early childhood and childhood development.
There are combinations of basic psychological traits that preclude someone from ever becoming a world-class pole vaulter. These athletes are not what I am aiming at, but serve to illustrate that there are intermediate stages between the „born world champion“ and its opposite. In the sporting career of an athlete, phases can always come to light in which it becomes apparent that the psychological characteristics stand in the way of further performance development or that the further development of the athlete’s psyche would lead to an improvement in performance; for example, when a performance stagnation occurs that does not correlate with the current physical potential but falls short of the physical possibilities.
If this is the case (or there is strong evidence for it), the athlete’s further development should focus on a „change of character“ or more simply „the psyche“. As inhumane as this sounds, it is necessary and also possible. To recognize and initiate this is again the task of the coach.
This brings us to a very important point when it comes to the question of why athletes stagnate – and whether it could and should have been remedied. I would think that there are countless athletes who stagnate at a certain level due to their psychological predisposition and then look for the solution not in the psyche, but in more training volume, new training impulses, more strength training, a change of coach, and so on, and in the process at best do not improve and at worst are injured more and more often and ultimately have to abandon their careers.
So the coach whose athlete is falling short of his physical potential has two fields of analysis. One is the technical development, i.e. the improvement of the pole vault technique. A pole vaulter may always lag behind his genetic potential up to the age of 30 if this can be justified technically. It is the most genetically favored athletes who often have longer at technical development. In sprinting, good genes mean a certain level of performance relatively directly. In pole vaulting, good genes can also slow down the development. If I want to learn to pole vault at 8m/s run-up speed, it is much easier than if I can start at 9m/s. Personal development at lower speed potential is completed more quickly.
The second starting point is the athlete’s mental/mental abilities.
This brings me to a second aspect that is also part of the psyche, which has less to do with the „essence“ of an athlete, but which can be influenced much more (by the coach). It is about self-determination, self-responsibility and living pole vaulting as an athlete.
Up to a certain level, say 4.40m or 5.40m, a team of a very good, technically skilled coach and a puppet robot athlete can work.
But, it is wrong who believes that a 5.80m vaulter of a dictatorial Russian coach (I am sorry for the stereotyp example) would be a mere puppet. Even the most dependent puppet jumping 5.80m has a self-image of pole vaulting that exceeds that of 90% of pole vaulters.
Extreme examples of self-dependent athletes are Mondo Duplantis, Renaud Lavillenie and Cornelius Warmerdam. Athletes who have gone their own way and whose coaches were „companions“ in the best sense of the word.
A coach can and sometimes must (in the first years of taking care of an athlete) be a driver (in the psychological sense), a dictator (in the sense of correctness of movement), a friend and contact person (in the sense of friendship) , but on the way to success he mainly has ONE important seed to plant:
„to develop an independent, self-responsible, self-thinking athlete.“
Sam Kendricks jumped 6.06m when his coach/father was there, 6.02m in Lausanne when his father was not there. Mondo Duplantis jumps his world records with or without coach mom or dad, there could be a log with a face painted on it sitting there as a coach. Sergey Bubka was likewise from 1991, more or less independently on the road.
A good coach can teach an athlete a lot, but:
„No one can tell an athlete how he feels when he jumps better than the athlete himself.“
As long as a coach attempts to give instruction or feedback to the athlete based on his or her imagination alone, he or she will struggle to realize the athlete’s potential.
The trainer must work to make the athlete think for himself, and in doing so, he must create a dictionary of how the athlete’s language relates to his own. For this reason, I always had the motto with my athletes that in the first years no other coach „talks in“, i.e. that no one from the outside tries to teach or correct my athletes something in their words, but if at all, then through me, because I knew the athlete’s dictionary best.
An example: For many years I maintained lively exchanges with Herbert Czingon about the development of my athletes – and still do today. Herbert’s feedback was practically always translated via my dictionary into the world of experience of my athletes. I would say, with increasing duration of the cooperation, almost half of the technical discussions with my athletes were about how they mean something, how they put something into words, how I put something into words and how I mean something (idea athlete in his head -> word choice athlete <-> word choice coach <- idea coach in his head).
An athlete basically already has a difficult task when he wants to learn pole vaulting. If he has to deal with „words“ and instructions from his coach, or learn to understand what is meant when the coach uses a word, then that is hard enough.
If before the athlete halfway understands his coach’s instructions another coach „talks in“ using different words, then this usually does not help, but rather increases the athlete’s confusion. Successful athletes have usually learned their basics from a (very good) coach. This allows them afterwards, when they have developed a basic knowledge, to check the absorption of hints from other coaches into their mindset and then either discard or integrate them.
This is also the reason why I basically see no benefit but rather a negative effect in inviting young athletes to squad meetings of the nations federation if something about „pole vaulting technique“ is to be discussed. This can only lead to progress in the young athlete if he has a coach at home who has no idea at all. But then what is the use of 2-3 days of squad meetings a year if the coach at home is so clueless that the young athlete actually realizes within one weekend that the squad coach teaches him better than the coach at home?
The following combinations show why two cooks salting the soup does not work:
Coach says A, means A. Squad coach says A, but means B. Athlete understands A – but squad coach meant B. The chaos in the athlete’s head is perfect.
And in a more complicated version: coach and athlete work out a system A, consisting of the elements, 1, 2, 3 and 4. The squad coach wants to discuss element 2 and has a view that cannot be made to fit with the athlete’s elements 1, 3 and 4, or it makes no sense for this athlete to listen to the squad coach about element 2 and change something about it, because then 1, 3, 4 no longer fit with it. In the best case the athlete recognizes the inconsistency, in the worse case the squad coach sets back the athlete’s development.
Knowing the right thing and wanting to teach it is the job of every coach. But as an external coach B, to possibly contradict coach A is usually critical. Because a basic principle in pole vaulting is: the athlete must always be able to trust his coach. If the athlete realizes that the squad coach knows more than his own coach, what then? Logical answer: either stop the sport or change the coach. Or the athlete is so „modest“ that, even though he is in a squad, he makes do with continuing to learn from his coach, who does not support him as well as another coach could. Not only modest athletes choose this path, but also those who like to stay in their comfort zone. A champion, on the other hand, looks for the best coach.
The right way, when one coach knows more than the other, is for one coach to train the other without the athletes of the latter noticing too much.
So back to the topic of finding your own way in pole vaulting.
The reason why Mondo Duplantis is already celebrating great successes at a young age is that he has always been thinking about pole vaulting, that he has been developing a feeling since childhood, has gone through trial-and-error and has found his way.
In the case of athletes who stagnate, the main question is how their self-perception of pole vaulting and their self-responsibility for their own performance development stands.
Do they just do what their coach tells them to do, or does the coach help them with self-development. In my opinion, most athletes stagnate because pole vaulting for them is a movement that their coach has to tell them how to do. Instead of them taking it on themselves and having their coach help them with it.
When an experienced athlete tells me, „My coach cares a lot about [this element of the movement],“ my hair stands on end. An element or movement execution should not be „important“ or „right“ because it is important to the coach, but because the athlete (also) feels that way. If you ask Renaud why he jumps the way he does, he answers in his own words, not by saying that a coach X, thinks it is important or right. Mondo, when asked why he attacks the pole so aggressively with his lower arm, answers, „Because it makes me feel like I can jump any pole in the world.“ He doesn’t answer, „My father thinks it’s the right thing to do.“
Of course, it is also correct if the athlete says: „XY was important to my coach and I have found that this actually brings me something and therefore I now do it this way.“
Athletes who think for themselves, they must not only, they should just meet for squad meetings, training weekends with other groups and coaches, etc.. Because such athletes have a consolidated self-image of their technique and can then only benefit from enriching their self-image with new input, testing input, discarding or integrating it.