Olympic pole vault champion Ekaterini Stefanidi is not just a high flying athlete, but also a graduate student in cognitive psychology. The Arizona State University scholar gives us her five-point mental breakdown of the pole vault.
1. Fear not
Ekaterini Stefanidi describes her event as the most “psychologically demanding” of all athletics disciplines. She believes the use of a foreign object – i.e. the pole – is central to this.
“It is the pole that can create the fear,” she explains. “It [the extra object] is not present to that extent in any other athletics event, except maybe in the hurdles.”
In the past, Sefanidi was reluctant to use harder poles in training. She has overcome this psychological barrier with the help of the fearless high school kids who form part of her training group in Phoenix.
“These high schoolers weren’t worried,” she adds. “They just went for it. I thought ‘I’m not losing to a couple of high schoolers! I can’t be scared!’”
2. A coach’s challenge
To be a good vaulter you need an extensive range of physical attributes – speed, strength, flexibility and agility – as well as supreme technical proficiency. This, Stefanidi says, makes the coach’s role a tough one.
There is simply no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching the pole vault. When you add in the mental strength required by a vaulter, you begin to understand the fine line that all coaches have to tread.
“A coach may be great at teaching technique,” Stefanidi says. “But everyone has different sensitivities about what they can hear and what they can take.
“A big part of a pole vault coach’s needs is to study psychology and change their coaching style dependent on the athlete.”
Stefanidi won the European title in Amsterdam in July
3. Go blank
As a graduate student in cognitive psychology, Stefanidi is prone to over-analysing the pole vault. This, the European silver medallist insists, is a big mistake.
“The best way for me to perform is to turn my mind off when competing on the runway,” she explains. “I need to stop thinking.
“Generally I perform much better in competition with this attitude. The adrenaline I get from performing in that competitive environment, and in front of a big crowd, helps me perform to my best.”
4. Gossip girl
Everyone has their own individual way of keeping the nerves in check and staying focused during a competition. Stefanidi likes nothing more than spending her competition downtime catching up on a bit of chitchat with her fellow competitors.
“Those who know me know I like to talk,” she says. “Sometimes some of us get together and gossip about what the other pole vaulters have been up to. Just talking helps me relax during a competition.”
The undoubted highlight of a fine 2016 came in Rio, where Stefanidi won Olympic gold with a clearance of 4.85m
5. Have fun
For Stefanidi, pole vault has to be enjoyable. Otherwise, why do it?
“Those who treat the sport too seriously usually go worse. That approach only works for maybe 10 to 20 per cent of people,” she says.
“Most people do sports for fun. This feeling can make you want to get on the next pole and overcome your fears.”