Interview with Dean Starkey, Coach, former Elite Pole Vaulter

This is part 3 of the Freelap Friday Five Series, 2013 Edition. To review the 16 part 2012 edition, click here.

Part 1 was Matt Scherer, Professional Pacer-Rabbit.

Part 2 was Stuart McMillan, Bobsled and former UKA Sprint Coach.

Dean Starkey is a former world class pole-vaulter jumping over 5.92m or 19 feet 5 inches.  His accomplishments include 2 time NCAA champion for University of Illinois, 1986 World University Silver medalist, and 1997 World Championships Bronze medalist Athens, Greece. 

As a coach, he was the pole-vault coach for Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo where he coached many vaulters over 18 feet.  Today, he coaches at the Atlas Training Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

Friday Five is sponsored by Freelap Track and Field, a leader in electronic timing.

Interview with Dean Starkey

Freelap Friday Five

Q1. Can you give us a “day in the life” of training for the pole vault?  For example, how much of it is Sprint training, Strength training, and actual technique work?  What kind of training/cross-training can you do outside the pole vault? (i.e. gymnastics, weight training, etc?)

Dean Starkey

Dean Starkey:  We do a lot of different things on different days. On days that we actually jump we would do a long warm-up with dynamic flexibility and sprint drills followed by a few sets of straight pole drills to get things loosened up. Once we start the actual jump session we take between 15-20 jumps depending on the length of approach. After the jump session we might do various throws with the medicine ball or shot put to work on our power. We would then head into the gym to perform some Olympic lifts and other types of lifts focusing on various parts of the body. We end with a core circuit and a good warm down and flexibility routine. Ideally you would want to split this training into two sessions due to the volume. Most of our vaulters have jobs or live far enough away from the facility that they usually try to get it done in one long session.

The main types of cross training our vaulters do include gymnastics high bar, rope work, weights, speed work, plyometrics and flexibility. We typically only jump two times per week which is a small part of the overall training.

Q2. For sprint mechanics, pure sprinters use their arms and legs. But a pole vaulter has to carry the pole at all times, so is it fair to say they have the best biomechanics on the runway (i.e. frontside and backside)?  You don’t (or can’t!) see pole vaulters with bad sprint form!  Can too much speed hurt a pole vaulter?  If so, how do you adjust, as in London with MondoTrack?  Is there a sweet spot for the number of Jumps in a competition? In the high jump, the magic number is usually 6 or 7.

Dean Starkey:  Not really. Running with proper sprint mechanics with a pole in your hand is quite difficult. If you do not carry and drop your pole tip the right way through the take-off it causes all kinds of compensations that degrade your ability to carry speed and momentum through the take-off. This can impact a vaulters running mechanics dramatically from when they are not running with a pole.

Too much speed can hurt a vaulter if they do not know how to control it. If they are not strong enough to convert that speed into vertical energy it will result in a flat take off and a low bend in the pole. Ideally you only want as much speed as you can use that will result in a high take off position and efficient take-off.

As far as number of jumps goes, I think every athlete has a different tolerance for how many jumps they can take in a competition. As a very general rule of thumb, I usually like my vaulters starting a foot to a foot and a half below their PR which tends to set them up for there best jumps in the 6-10 range. On average, I would say that most vaulters would have there optimal performance in this range.

Q3. Some events like swimming have a stigma where technology has a clear advantage. Are you worried PV will have the same outcome?  What are the rules and regulations for standardizing poles so they are affordable for everyone?  Are today’s poles the same as the Sergey Bubka era of 20 years ago?   What does it take to PV 6 meters or 20 feet (again)?

Dean Starkey 2

Dean Starkey:  It doesn’t worry me. The last major technical innovation in regards to poles was the introduction of carbon which is lighter than traditional E and S glass that is still currently used by most pole manufactures. Carbon versus non-carbon poles are more of a matter of preference in how they pole reacted to energy loaded into it and the carry weight. People have jumped high on both types.

The standardization of poles according to USATF rules say, "The pole may be of any material or combination of materials and of any length or diameter, but the basic surface must be smooth." This keeps it pretty simple for the manufacturers.

The other standardization to keep in mind is the weight rating of the pole. The manufactures try to be relatively close to each other but it is not perfect sometimes resulting in confusion when switching brands.

Unfortunately, as simple as the rule for making a pole is, they are very expensive to produce ($300-$700 each!). A typical vaulter might need as many as 8-10 poles between having a training and completion series.

The pole technology today is the same as it was when I watched Bubka jump his world record in Sestriere, Italy in 1994. Unless someone invents a pole that gives more energy back than you put into it we may be at a standstill for awhile as far as technology on poles go.

There were few major rule changes after Bubka retired that has made jumping high bars and breaking the world record a bit more challenging. One rule being the shortening of the pegs that the crossbar sits on and the other rule not being able to touch the bar and steady it with you hand.

There are only a few guys capable of breaking that world record right now. Nothing needs to change technologically for them. For the record to be broken it will take great preparation in the off-season and good conditions at the right time. If everything lines up it will go down. It is definitely not out of reach.

Q4. Speaking of technology, what can you use to measure improvement?  Dartfish and Freelap immediately come to mind.  Can you give an example of a workout using Freelap (perhaps with Brad Walker) and give some actual splits/results?

Dean Starkey:  We started off-season using an infrared system that had tripods you had to set up in the lanes which was a bit cumbersome. We also went through a lot of batteries. I wanted a timing system that was more convenient to bring to the track and set up. I found Freelap while reading articles on SpeedEndurance and the Internet and decided to give it a try. We like it a lot better than what we were using due to its ease of use and accuracy.

Other than typical speed work, one of the things we plan on using it extensively for is timing our velocity over the last 10m into take-off. This is the most critical area to have speed in the pole-vault.

A typical Freelap timing speed session for Brad or anyone in our group would be something like the following:

  • Workout 1 – 3 x Flying 10m with 30m build-up, 3 x Flying 13m with 30m build-up
  • Workout 2 -  Accels 3 x (3 x40m)

Q5.  The PV used to be a USA dominated event, Sergey Bubka, notwithstanding. Why the “drop from the top”? Better facilities?   In general, Facilities & High Performance Centers are the key to developing athletes, with centralized coaching and shared services. The pole vault can certainly gain from this being a highly technical event and it requires complex, expensive equipment.  Tell us a bit more about the Atlas Training Center in Phoenix.

Dean Starkey:  America still has one of the top vaulting in the world, Brad Walker. However, the depth of the pole-vault has dropped since the late 80 and 90’s. I remember when there used to be 3-5 Americans, all 5.80m plus jumpers, in almost every international meet. I think there are up and down cycles in every sport but a few things that may have contributed to the depth issue are:

Reduction in high quality domestic competitions – Pole-vaulters need opportunities to jump in good meets that can pay travel expenses and prize money. Although there are a few around there are far less than there used to be. Even the good meets now have fields of half the size that they used to be in order to reduce costs. More high quality meets would allow more chances to refine the vaulters competition skills without going in the hole financially.

Lack of quality training environments – There are not many facilities around the U.S. that are set up for post-collegiate training. Most collegiate coaches have a primary responsibility to their college athletes and try to fit time into a busy schedule for their post-collegiate athletes. This is not optimal when considering many other countries have dedicated elite level coaches that can monitor all aspects of their training.

Lack of money to allow full time training – Most post-collegiate vaulters need to have jobs that allow flexibility for training and travel to completion. Most jobs that pay well won’t give you that type of freedom so lower paying jobs are the most common option. Back in the 90’s when I was competing there were probably as many as 8-10 U.S. vaulters in a given year that could get by on competition earnings allowing them to dedicate themselves to full time training. I believe there are only a few in the U.S. that can realistically do that these days.

Brad, My wife Jill, and I, all got together to try and figure out how we can fix the problem of where post-collegiate vaulters can go for total training package. The Atlas Training Center concept came to life shortly thereafter. Brad Walker wrote a great letter that we are currently sending out to coaches that sums things up pretty well.

Letter From Brad Walker

Dear Coaches,

At the end of last season after the London Olympic games, I came back home to the US Olympic training center in Chula Vista CA and was forced to reevaluate where I was going to put in the next four years of my career.  As the American record holder, I was at a facility that no longer had a pole vault coach, I had no other training partners, and I was struggling to find motivation.  I thought to myself that if the US wants to get back on top, we need to do something about it.  I gave Dean Starkey a call, and a month later, we had the Atlas Training Center. 

The mission statement of Atlas is:

"Atlas Training Center is committed to elevating the status of the pole-vault in the United States by creating a world class facility and training environment conducive to helping athletes win Olympic medals and breaking world records."

As the mission statement indicates, we are working towards building a facility that I hope can be a place elite vaulters call home and get the advantages that most of our European competitors already have.  This however, is only part of what we hope to accomplish with Atlas.  In our attempt to fund the project, Dean and I have been working hard to create a plan that we believe can not only fund the facility, but directly help our young athletes and coaches.    We have put together a service called Virtual Coaching that offers structured training, online exercise and drill videos, Skype time with one of our vaulters to answer questions and video review, as well as email review’s and other services that we think can help both coaches and vaulters. 

Specifically for coaches, we have put together a group-training package that can guide coaches in proper training and vaulting technique.   The group package must consist of a minimum of 5 athletes, all of which will have full access to the drill and exercise video library, as well as week-to-week workouts throughout the season.  The coaches in this package will get 30 mins of Skype time per week to go over video review and answer any questions, as well as the ability to get emailed video review once per week.  Our hope is to offer guidance and work with coaches to help get their kids jumping as high as possible.  Common issues such as how to train high school athletes will be covered as well as why shin splints are so common, or how to keep the kids sharp through the state meet.  We really do want to be a resource for the coaching community as we know that success at an early stage can help pave the way for the next group of elite vaulters. 

There is no cost for the coaches in this program, but we will work with you to help get the information out to your athletes.  The fee to the athletes will be $50 per month, per athlete, or for the minimum group of 5 athletes, $250.  The vaulters will have full access to our website throughout their membership, so they can pull up videos while they are actually doing drills out on the track.  They will also have access to written workouts throughout.  This can also help guide your vaulters during that period of time where coaches are not allowed to work with their athletes due to school restrictions on out of season coaching. 

All of the information about our virtual coaching can be found here:

We realize that we need the help of the pole vaulting community to get a facility that the United States pole vaulters can be proud of.  With your support, I strongly believe we can build that home, and create an environment for the post-collegiate vaulter.  Please feel free to call or contact us with any questions or ideas as to how to offer the best program we can to help our coaches and athletes.  Lets help each other and get the US vault back on top!!


Brad Walker

Jimson Lee

Jimson Lee

Coach & Founder at
I am a Masters Athlete and Coach currently based in London UK. My other projects include the Bud Winter Foundation, writer for the IAAF New Studies in Athletics Journal (NSA) and a member of the Track & Field Writers of America.
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
Jimson Lee
  • Absolutely….brilliant!…& totally wicked! Great article. I love watching Pole Vault, Bubka was one of those athletes who made watch PV for so many years. However, credit must also go to Brad Walker for continuous perseverance and dedication for the sport he loves.

    Even though i am not a PV, reading a article piece like this must be very encouraging to all. I think i may have read in one of Jimson’s recent article that ‘PV are the most complete, and best Athletes out there because they can’t allow any weakness in their sport’. Now i can see why. My hat off to those who Pole Vaults.

    I’ve always noticed the drop in numbers of PV when i attend a meet, so much so that majority of them are Master Athletes. I would like to know why there is a shortage of young PV o the non-professional level. If i’m wrong please forgive me my ignorance. Mind you, after reading this lovely piece it shows the great obstacle ahead…, yet we can only hope it will get better.

  • I fogot to mention a big big thank you to Jimson for such a good website, and a big cheers to Dean Starkey for his work and wonderful contribution. Without these contributors great articles like this wouldn’t make it out there.