High Jump Approach Technique

Athlete high jumping in an arena
Athlete high jumping in an arena. Robert Daly/Getty Images

The approach run is the key to the high jump, according to former Florida State All-American jumper Holly Thompson. The approach sets up the jumper’s flight path and, if performed properly, allows the jumper to rotate correctly in the air. Thompson offered her take on the high jump approach at the 2013 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association’s annual clinic. The following article is adapted from her presentation.

A high jump approach follows a basic J-style turn, that uses centrifugal force to get around the turn and get up and over the bar. Most high school athletes either run an 8-, 10- or 12-step approach. Many beginning girls run eight steps, advanced girls run 10, boys run 10 or 12.

During the approach, jumpers should have long, bouncy, active arms. When the gazelles run on the National Geographic Channel, you know how they look? That is how your athletes should look. Long, bouncy, active arms. Shoulders back, hips up, up on their toes and bouncy, natural running.

Determining the Takeoff Foot

Most of our jumpers jump off their left foot. Left and right handedness have nothing to do with the takeoff foot. I have a good trick for testing kids in the beginning. Because you get a kid who comes out, and you ask, ‘What foot do you jump off of?’ ‘Well, I hurdle off of this foot, but I long jump off of this foot…’ So, I don’t tell them what we’re doing, I say, ‘Close your eyes.’ They close their eyes, then I have them fall forward.

Every athlete’s going to catch themselves on a particular foot, they’re not going to fall on their face. They catch themselves on a foot, and that’s the foot, neuromuscularly, your brain wants to go with. So that is the stronger of the feet.

Importance of the Approach

The approach is by far the most important part of the jump.

The approach has got to be perfect. Your athletes have got to run hundreds and hundreds of approaches during the season. They don’t want to do that. They don’t want to run approaches. All they want to do is jump into that pit. Constantly. So your trick as a coach is to teach them that you’ve got to run this perfect approach. You’ve got to tell them, whether it’s 80 degrees outside and beautiful, or if it’s snowing and it’s 20 below, your approach should always be the exact same. You’re going to have to modify it and change it a little bit, but you as an athlete should always feel confident.

Probably the number one thing your athletes come to you and say when they’re having problems in a meet is, ‘My approach is wrong.’ And you say, ‘Did you measure it?’ So you’ve got to teach these kids how to get a perfect approach. Because if they have the confidence in their approach, they have confidence throughout the jump, throughout the whole thing. Remember, high jump is a total mental event. How many people can jump 5-10 but they can’t jump 6 feet? Or 4-10 and can’t jump 5? It is a total mental event. It’s an event where, if athletes have confidence in what they’re doing, they’re unstoppable.

If they feel like they can’t do it, it’s not going to happen. High jump and pole vault are the only events in the whole world, of any sport, that always end in defeat. If I break the world record today, I’m supposed to keep going. It only ends when I miss. If I jump 8 feet, somebody’s expecting me to jump 8-1, for sure. So you’ve got to instill confidence in these kids. And teaching them to run a good, solid approach, is one of the main things you look for.

Common Approach Problems

The biggest problems in the high jump always occur during the approach, on the ground. They never really occur up in the air, unless you’re totally sitting over the bar. Once you leave the ground your flight path is set. You can move very little in the air. So usually, when athletes make mistakes over the bar I don’t look at what they did there, I look at what they did during the approach.

The three biggest mistakes athletes make on this approach happen in what I call the transition point. I’m running, I’m developing speed, I’m coming out strong. Step four (in a 10-step approach) is good, strong running. And then it’s time to start our curve. Steps five, six and seven is where approach problems happen.

Problem number one, the majority we see: Most boy high jumpers have played basketball, they’ve played football – wide receiver, running back – they’re in a speed type position. Their whole lives everyone’s been taught to run post patterns, flag patterns; they run down and they cut. The biggest problem we see in the high jump is that transition step, especially the boys, between steps five and six. They cut off the whole turn and run a direct, straight line at the pit.

Second biggest problem: The athletes get ready to start their approach and they’re going through all of their stuff, whatever they do – and whatever they do is fine, as long as they do the same thing all the time – then they start looking at the bar. So instead of running the first five steps absolutely straight, they start to cut in, and eventually, they take off in the middle of the bar, which carries them to a higher point on the bar. Remember, the middle of the bar is about an inch, inch, and a half lower than the ends. Also, if you run straight, then you don’t have a turn to establish a rotation in the air, and you can’t get up and over the bar. It’s a flat jump in the air.

Third problem: Athletes, once again, are ready to start their approach and they start running and they feel tight.

So they swing all the way out to the right (or the left if they approach from the left) and they come in, again, in a straight line. So now there’s no turn at all. There’s no turn to set up the rotation, so it’s a long jump-style jump.

Eyeline During the Approach

My first five steps in a 10-step approach, I look straight ahead. And I count, one, two, three, four, five. When I get to my transition point I now pick up the top of the far standard. Do I look at the bar? No. I look at the top of the far standard. I’m cutting in, I’m in good body position and as I get ready to take off and I’m leaning back away from the bar, I raise my eyes and look at the top of my head (rather than the bar), as hard as I can, as I drive up. This bar, as I’m getting ready to jump, is like a huge magnet. If I drop the front shoulder, everything goes. If I drop my head, everything goes. I have to stay back away from this bar as long as I possibly can. So my visualization points are, straight ahead for the first five steps – or if you’re running eight steps, the first four – and then the top of the far part of the standard.

The objective in the high jump is to bring all of this speed and bring it down into these last few steps. Our speed wants to really accelerate from here, we want to tell the athletes to accelerate, but we don’t want to use the words ‘run faster.’ Because when you tell an athlete to run faster they drop their shoulders. The key to the high jump is to learn to accelerate and go through this turn but keep everything back away from the bar as long as possible.

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