Olympic Pole Vault: Hooker Needs a Better Imagination

 

Pole Vault London 2012Anyone who has ever watch the pole vaulting knows its not for the faint hearted!

Sticking a long bendy pole into a hole in the ground and positioning yourself upside down as you patiently wait to be catapulted into the air and over a 5-6 metre bar before landing on a mat can seem nuts to the average person.

Of course this is what happens when it all goes to plan – but sometimes it doesn’t go to plan and its then we see the true character and mental toughness of these outstanding, if not a little crazy athletes!

At the recent London 2012 Olympics, Lazaro Borges’ (Cuba) pole snaps into multiple pieces during his qualifying jump, throwing him upside down into the mat.

He simply dusted himself off, returns to his very long kit bag, selects a new pole and does it all again – he clearly has the right mental toughness.

Pole vault has always intrigued me, I love the biomechanics of the sport, the sheer guts and determination required and the mental difference that these athletes have – its a very primal sport and one that resonates well with my days as a Gymnast.

When I first saw Australia’s Steve Hooker jump, I was amazed that this fuzzy haired dude could actually jump – I almost wrote him off before he had even put one foot in front of the other let alone sunk the pole into the ground to launch himself skyward!

But Steve Hooker clearly has massive talent and incredible guts. He has been Olympic Champion 2008, World Champion 2009, World Indoor Champion 2010 and Commonwealth Champion, so the guy knows how to jump despite his unassuming appearance.

That being said, this past year or so Hooker has a very public nemesis who has recently been beating him, who trains with him, lives with him and, dare I say, sleeps with him.

No, not is partner – but himself, his mind and his own very maverick imagination.

Last year Hooker misjudged a jump and toppled off the landing mat and onto the ground, damaging his knee. Of course the physical damage could be repaired and after physical therapy he was able once again to jump.

The Australian Athletics community gave a collective sigh of relief, thinking this sporting champ was once again back on track and heading towards the London Olympics to defend his title.

However, he was physically repaired but the psychological damage was running much deeper. Hooker had lost his nerve and confidence in jumping and London 2012 was looking shakier than ever.

As a gymnast, who had practically come to be on first name terms with many of the medical staff at the local hospital, I can certainly understand what an injury of this nature could do to your mind.

The random thoughts of it happening again, the physical changes you would subconsciously make to the pragmatics of the technique would rock your sense of familiarity and control and feeding an over active imagination…

… Your mind running through multiple worse-case scenarios as you stand there looking down the lane towards the jump, trying to collect your thoughts and think about what needs to be done…

It’s not like twisting an ankle on the track, the emotional monster goes into active overdrive, thinking that maybe next time it could be more than just a buggered knee, it could be spinal or even worse.

And so I imagine this is what began Hooker’s internally animated downward spiral, missing and avoiding jumps and worrying about what could be just around the corner. The knee was the catalyst but the mental torture was relentless in proving to himself why he shouldn’t jump.

Hooker publicly acknowledged at the 2011 World Championships whilst defending his title he felt lost on the runway. He admitted to being very nervous and even scared of the jump, choosing to run through three times, culminating in his being eliminated from the competition.

Back home in Australia, Hooker was dubbed as having the ‘yips’. (Urban dictionary – The Yips: Overthinking something so much you become unable to do it. You will often proceed to implode.)

Steve Hooker is just one example of an athlete mentally letting something in, something that eats away at you, as your confidence collapses and your imagination takes on a life of its own.  I have seen this in a number of sports and with a number of different catalysts.

Steve Hooker may not have even thought about the Rio 2016 games just yet as he comes to terms with his dramatic loss in London. However, as a Mind Coach, I think it needn’t have been this way, there are as many ways to combat the ‘yips’ as there is to get them and Hooker just needs to learn a better strategy of dealing with his imagination and more specifically his fears.

Hooker needs to learn to acknowledge what he fears and then, without emotion, deal with it. This very straight forward strategy could have enabled Hooker to have a different outcome in London 2012.

Something that I feel is paramount for all athletes is learning how to read, understand and effectively manage their emotions, they can drive you forward but can also hold you back, so understanding them is paramount.

To have such a grasp on what makes an athlete tick and what is likely to give them the wobbles can help manage them when a sniff of the wobbly wheel occurs, nipping it in the bud and bringing them back on track, maintaining direction and ultimately giving them back their control.

Fear becomes debilitating when our primal imagination becomes overly active and we begin to not only imagine all sorts of hairy things, but ultimately convince ourselves that its a forgone conclusion.

Having strategies that bypass this and keep you well and truly on the straight and narrow enables an athlete to do what they do best, whatever sport it is and to leave the worrying to the parents in the stands.

 

 

Image Credit: Flickr mrtopp

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