Beginner's Track and Field: How to Do the Pole Vault

A male pole vault athlete hoists himself through the air to clear the bar.
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Pole vaulters combine some of the best track and field qualities into one event. They require the leaping strength that any good jumper possesses, together with a gymnastic-like ability to control their bodies in the air. A successful vaulter generally has a sprinter’s speed and must build that speed while carrying a long pole. Finally, while pole vaulters don’t resemble discus throwers or shot putters — vaulters are typically tall and lean — pole vaulters do require strong arms to control, plant and push off from the pole. In the beginning, therefore, coaches will look for well-coordinated athletes who can multi-task athletically. Beginning vaulters may then learn the event’s different aspects separately, but ultimately a successful vaulter must treat the event as one continuous maneuver, with each segment flowing smoothly into the next.


Let’s face it, anytime you’re vaulting yourself into the air, there’s some risk. As a beginner, you won’t be vaulting immediately, and when you begin you won’t be vaulting very high. Nevertheless, some coaches invest in extra-large landing pads to protect young vaulters if their jumps go astray. It’s also important to match a vaulter with the correctly-sized pole for better control of his initial vaults.

Gripping the Pole

A pole vaulter’s first lessons will likely include the proper way to grip the pole, and how to hold it at the start of your run-up. You’ll place your hands about shoulder-width apart toward the top of the pole, with your dominant hand closer to the end. In the long run, you’ll want to grip the pole as close to the end as possible. In the beginning, however, your coach will have you place your hands in the proper positions, depending on the type of pole you’re using and the speed of your approach run.

Approach Run

There’s a lot of ground to cover — literally — as you learn to make a proper approach run while holding the pole. The key points include how to pace yourself so you reach top speed at the end of your run and keeping the pole under control so you can plant it correctly. Approach drills will help you run with an erect stance while you hold the pole comfortably. You should move your hands and arms as little as possible until it’s time to plant the pole in the box, although the pole itself will move from a vertical to a horizontal position during your approach. As in the long jump, it’s important to execute your approach consistently so you can plant the pole properly. Beginners will develop a relatively short approach and typically must learn to run with consistent stride lengths before they start taking actual jumps. As with the long jump approach, you’ll also learn the subtle changes you must make in the last few strides before the plant.

Planting and Takeoff

The key to a successful plant and takeoff is to convert your horizontal motion into a vertical jump. Common beginner drills include the “jump over,” in which the vaulter simulates planting the pole after an approach run. The pole won’t actually touch the ground, however. Instead, the vaulter brings the tip of the pole down, then back, similar to a rowing motion. The vaulter may also jump or hop while performing the simulated plant.

Your first planting drill may be to simply stride up to the box and plant the pole while you walk. Before taking an actual vault, athletes may perform some gymnastic-type drills to learn how to flip their bodies, head-down, in the air. They may perform flips using gymnastic rings or may swing themselves upside-down on a horizontal bar.

You’ll likely take your first vaults without a bar. You’ll take a short approach run, plant the pole in the box and raise yourself minimally off the ground — more like a vertical than a horizontal jump — before you land in the pit. You’ll then progress to swiveling your body after takeoff, as if you were clearing an imaginary bar, then you may begin jumping over an actual bar, which will, of course, be set quite low.

Long Term

The pole vault is a complex, technical event. Learning to make a consistent approach run while holding the pole is a skill in itself, never mind planting the pole, lifting off and moving your body correctly through the air so you can achieve your ultimate goal — clearing the bar. Prospective pole vaulters and coaches should be patient during a vaulter’s learning process. If the athlete has the tools and desire to pole vault, give him or her some time to develop.