The Physics Behind a Pole Vault

Pole Stiffness and Angle of AttackMechanics of a Pole VaultInteractive Demonstration of a Pole VaultBiomechanics of the Vaulter

My Pole Vault History

At my high school, New Providence High School, we had a very unique incentive to participate in sports. Student-athletes were given study halls during their gym period as long as they did not have health class for that quarter. This made the extracurricular activity participation at my high school very strong. So, after soccer season it was logical for me to sign up for track (I had experience in basketball and baseball, but 1. I’m white, and can’t jump that high, and 2. baseball is boring.). I started by running the 400 and below – sprints. These events were short, but were extremely exhausting and took a lot of work to improve times marginally. Plus, I grew up in a town that’s about 20 miles down I-78 from New York City — so, you could have said the competition in the sprinting events was quite stiff. I was all about getting the maximum reward for as little effort as possible (why not?); and pole vaulting maximized my marginal utility, in vault heights and team points, for a certain amount of extra effort. This might have been due to the fact that I had the speed and body-type (after freshman year) for the sport, and my coach, Gary, was able to work with me on the technique. He was able to get me to the point where I was competing in the Meet of Champions by the winter of my junior year.

Okay, so to wrap all that up, I wound up breaking my leg on my very first practice jump at the Group 2 championships — that wasn’t very pleasant. It turned out that the Osgood-Schlatter in my knee became so severe that the force of my quadriceps generated for the take-off pulled off a chunk of bone from its insertion into my tibia – known as the tibial tuberosity.  This rare form of bone breakage is known as an avulsion. It was almost more shocking than painful, as it was already pretty painful before the accident and I was used to it. Here’s what the aftermath looked like:

Side Shot - Knee

Front Shot - Knee

Mmm… Isn’t that pleasant?

So, to bring physics into the picture, this demonstrates the sheer magnitude of forces involved in this event. There’s nothing else like it, and it’s been rated the second-most difficult thing to do in sports next to hitting a 90 mph fastball. So, I’m proud to be part of this little vaulting brotherhood, because we all know you’ve got to be a little nuts to run full-speed at the mats and launch yourself 15 feet into the air.

Pole Stiffness and Angle of Attack – Mechanics of a Pole Vault – Interactive Demonstration of a Pole Vault – Biomechanics of the Vaulter


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