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Everyday Poise: Anatomy of a High Jumper

by Ellen on August 18th, 2016

In honor of the Rio Olympics, I decided that today’s Everyday Poise should return to the world of Olympic athletes. My very first Everyday Poise article was about Shawn Johnson and her balance beam skills, so today, let’s leave gymnastics and check out some track and field. Specifically, let’s look at the High Jump.

The official Olympic YouTube channel has a lovely short piece interviewing medalist Derek Drouin about the ideal build for a high jumper. Watch the video below, and then we’ll discuss.

So, as you can see from the video, there’s a lot going on in the mechanics of a high jump. Derek mentions that most of the work is done on the ground, during the approach and take-off. He mentions that the approach is not a straight line; it’s a bit of a curve leading into it. That is really telling for me; essentially, what the high jumper is doing is setting up a spiral. Using our Developmental Movement principles, let’s look at one of the slow-mo replays again. The approach is a curve that begins a spiral to one side, and the take-off uses the outside hand and leg to twist to the other spiral as the athlete goes over the bar. Given that, the initial approach is kind of like coiling a spring; releasing the tension from the wind-up allows more of that momentum to be transferred to the height of the jump itself.

As far as the actual jump goes, you’ll notice that the jump takes the athlete over the bar face-up; they are going into a secondary curve (arching the back) to allow them to clear higher distances. Watch the face and eyes of each successful jumper; there’s a sharp intention behind the eyes as they go into the take off, and they let their head lead the ensuing spiral and secondary curve. Most of them do this by looking ahead of them, reaching with their eyes to see the space behind the bar as they go over. This keys in to the Developmental Movement idea that the head leads and the body follows, and can be connected to the intention behind the eyes of a toddler as they crawl across the floor – just as the baby’s desire to get somewhere coordinates her whole self’s activity, so the high jumper’s desire to see the space behind the bar takes him into that arched secondary curve that allows him to clear higher distances.

And on that note, if you watch the clips near the end of the video where he talks about bar awareness and it shows athletes failing to clear the bar, check out their head and eye positions as they miss their targets. Most of them start out great, but something stops them from continuing their curve and spiral. Whether it’s feeling themselves grazing the bar and getting disheartened or simply getting psyched out, something causes their eyeline to stop moving, which cuts off the spiral and the curve and lowers their hips enough to knock the bar down – and it’s almost always the hips that hit the bar first in these cases. These athletes’ torsos are horizontal on the way down to the mat, rather than the successful athletes’ head down, nearly vertical in some cases, as the spiral completes with their feet clearing the bar. In fact, some of the successful examples from earlier in the video wind up ending their jump with a shoulder roll on the mat, almost coming back up to standing in some cases. Check out the jump starting at 1:07 in the video for an example of what I mean. That represents a clear and direct follow-through on the spiral of the jump; riding the momentum rather than stopping it. Incidentally, we discussed similar ideas of shaking off the fear and riding the momentum of a technique with Shawn Johnson’s balance beam routine several years ago. Perhaps that’s why they often describe great athletes as ‘fearless’!

Forward and Up! is a Pittsburgh-based private practice offering quality instruction in the Alexander Technique in a positive and supportive environment.

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