I sat in front of a pole vault coach on a recent plane ride. Overhearing his discussions brought back memories of my vaulting in high school.
I had no idea I’d become a pole vaulter when I went to the first track practice in my sophomore year. The coach told us to go run a green (running around all the grass in the school, maybe a mile) as a warm-up. I didn’t know anyone on the team as I started my warm-up run. Suddenly, a group of guys ran up behind me and asked what my event was. I said that I didn’t know, but I was a pretty fast runner so I figured I’d do one of the running events. Looking back now, I really had no idea.
Immediately their response was, “You should be a pole vaulter. It’s the best event out here!”
My response, “I’ve never vaulted before,” was met with an even quicker response of, “No problem, we can teach you…it’s easier than it looks.”
So, by the time we got back from running the green, I was a vaulter. When the coach called my name and asked what event I was trying out for, I said, “Pole vault,” like it was my plan all along.
Fast forward a year or so. I was stuck at 11 feet for the longest time. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t clear 11’ 6”. We were blessed to have a pole vault coach, and he recommended I move to a pole that was a foot longer and rated for a bit heavier vaulter than my actual weight.
Moving up to the next pole is quite an adjustment. It feels completely different. Everything is off from what you’re used to. The run-up needs to be adjusted to accommodate the additional height of the pole. Plus, you have no idea how the pole will respond on your first jump. In a worst-case scenario, your step may be off, the plant goes poorly, the launch is compromised, and the pole might spit you back, instead of taking you into the air. For a high school kid, that’s a lot to consider.
In practice, I never actually took any jumps with the new pole. I merely worked on adjusting my run-up to get the plant right. As our next meet, against Warren High School, approached we decided to bring both my old pole and the new, longer and stiffer pole. I remember the bus ride to Warren, wondering if I’d have the nerve to jump with the new pole in competition.
Warren had the “new” rubberized track and runways (standard nowadays). The rubber runways added bounce and speed to my approach. This was the perfect time for me to get on the new pole.
My coach’s advice was to block out any negative thoughts (always good advice, by the way), focus on a smooth approach, and nail the plant. He said that if I relied on my technique, the rest would take care of itself, and I’d have no problem making my first jump.
My warmups were over and I still hadn’t actually vaulted with the new pole. The plan was for me to take my first attempt on the new pole, and if it didn’t go well, then use the old standby pole to clear a height.
My opening height was usually 10 feet, just to establish an opening. We decided to pass to 11 feet since our competition was good and we might need to win with fewer attempts. Pole vault competitions are won by the vaulter who goes the highest with the fewest number of total attempts on the day.
I passed at 10, and then 10′ 6″. Other vaulters cleared their opening heights. My tension mounted as 11 feet came up. He gave me the sign to pass that height as well! So, I did.
Finally, at 11’6″ I took my attempt. My heart pounded in my ears. I didn’t hear anything else, except for my deep breath as I readied for takeoff. My run up felt great. I focused on hitting my plant perfectly and blocked everything else out.
The plant was perfect and I felt a sensation I’d never felt when vaulting. There was a noticeable pause in the takeoff and then a sudden lunge straight skyward.
As I twisted at the top of my vault I saw the crossbar whiz by and still I was climbing. I had skied over the crossbar by at least two feet! Everything slowed down and I reveled in amazement that I was higher than I’d ever been before. I caught myself celebrating in my mind before realizing that I needed to let go of the pole and prepare for my landing.
I fell backward toward the pads in slow motion. All I saw was that crossbar sitting there, motionless, as I cleared my opening height with a pole I’d never used before that day.
The cheers from my fellow vaulters (my team and the Warren vaulters) and my coach were deafening. The height I cleared wasn’t high (even by 1983 standards). But, everyone knew that I’d just catapulted (literally) to the next level in my vaulting career.
“You flew that vault! You could have easily cleared 12’6″ or even 13′!” my coach yelled as he patted me on both shoulders.
We decided to pass at the next two heights and come back in again at 12’6″. Another height I’d never cleared in my life.
On only my second vault of the day and my second vault on the new pole, I easily cleared 12’6″. My new personal record.
I don’t remember what place I finished that day. I think we swept the top three spots in the vault and collected all the points from that event for our team.
It didn’t matter to me at the time. Overcoming my fears, leaping to a new level, delivering for my team, and creating a new launch pad for future improvement was more important to me than my place in that day’s standings.
We are being formed throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not. We face opportunities for failure every day. Opportunities to let fear win, for status quo to take the day.
Overcoming the mental terrorism that only we can inflict on ourselves is the key to finding that new level. The new levels are there, waiting for us to arrive.
Once we arrive, we can choose to stay or leap to the next level.