Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Psychology of the Teenage High Jumper

We have a new assistant track coach this year. She is an older lady, who took the job mostly so she could boost her paycheck for retirement. She is always smiling. She came up to me at the meet on Thursday and breathlessly asked me, "why aren't people fighting for this job?"

It's true. One of the best jobs in any school district is that of assistant track coach. You get to spend hours outside in the springtime weather cheering on kids who strive for that Personal Best.

I am the high jump coach at my school. When I joined the staff, that was the spot that needed filling most desperately. I was a sprinter in high school and college, so pretty much the only thing I knew about high jumpers was that we saw them lying on the mat quite a bit as we ran past.

So I jumped in and started reading. What should we do at practice? How do we find our start point? What does a good jump look like?

Lucky for me, I live in the world of the Internet and Youtube. I can plan practice and I can show them exactly what elite jumpers look like when they PR. It occurred to me this morning that if I had a better phone, we could actually watch this at practice. Hmmm...I digress.

What I was not prepared for was what goes on the in the mind of a high jumper as he or she competes. I never really thought about it before, but when you realize what those kids are facing, it's amazing they don't come to school in straight jackets.

Think about it. If you long jump, you run, you jump as far as you can and wait to find out how far the jump actually was. If it is farther than your best, you celebrate. If not, you try harder the next time. As you are preparing for your jump, you are thinking to yourself, "this is gonna be the one."

Runners go out and run their hearts out (or not, depending on the day) and when they cross the finish line, they find out how fast they ran. If it was faster than your best, you celebrate. If not, you try harder next time. As you are preparing for your run, you are thinking to yourself, "this is gonna be the one."

But if you are a high jumper (or pole vaulter), you are staring at your Personal Record. You know, deep in the depths of your mind, that you have never made it over this height. This is going to take all you have. Probably more.

It doesn't take much for a teenager to talk herself out of a good jump. You can see it in her eyes. You can see it in her approach. And your heart breaks.

I have a girl right now who PR'd her first meet of her freshman year and hasn't since. For three years, she has had a mental block. You can see it. You can feel it. As soon as that bar goes up, everything is off.

At our last meet, she made it. She finally cleared her mind and got over that hurdle*.

The relief. The feeling of a giant weight was lifted. She feels (as do I) now that anything is possible.

What a good day.

*In case of a tie for first place in the vertical jumps, there is a series of complicated procedures that often result in no one having any idea how high the bar is set. Each remaining competitor has one more shot at the current height. If neither make it, the bar lowers one inch until someone makes it. If both make it, the bar goes back up. My girl had no clue what the bar was set at when she cleared it. This often works out well for her.

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