Interview with US Pole Vaulter Brad Walker (Part 2)

19 June 2012
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In Part 2 of this interview, Brad details stretching techniques, his mental approach, and the funding behind his Olympic pursuits. Read Part 1 here.


Brent George: Brad, in particular to your sport, what do you find is the most effective way to prepare? You’ve talked about needling, ways to increase blood flow which, in turn, loosens tissue. How about actively, are there things you’ve found that work well for you to prep your tissues before competition?

Brad Walker: There is research that has come out in recent years suggesting long slow stretching and holding postures isn’t the best way to warm the body up for a competition. It slows down the actual rate at which the muscles contracts for a short period of time.

To me, I still hold long stretches and make sure that the body is opened up as much as possible. I’ve never felt that my stretching causes my body to not respond. I like to make sure that everything is loose. I do longer stretches; I do hamstring stretches, the traditional warm ups that most of us are probably used to.

But then after I do stretching, I get into a little bit more dynamic warm up. I do a lot of rotational stretches. I’ll put a javelin behind my head and start doing rotational twists, shoulder exercises, and mobility exercises that are in a dynamic range. Followed by sprint drills and track work.

I also do a lot of thoracic mobility because in the pole vault, our thoracic backs are usually really tight; our lower back and neck take a beating if our mid-back isn’t functioning or moving properly. I’ll do a lot of lower back extension over a foam roller. Working each segment trying to pump and prime it so that it’s ready to move as I get ready for competition. The more that my thoracic spine can move, the better the back works in general but it also takes pressure off my low back and my neck. A big part of my warm up is making sure my spine is mobile.

The Mental Approach Is Everything

BG: Brad, we’ve talked about your medical attention and approach, your diet, and some specific things you’ve found help your warm up. How about the mental approach to what you do? Are there specific things that you do to prepare mentally for competition?

BW: Your mental approach at the top level is the single most important factor. Everybody who can jump 19 feet or higher is a talented pole vaulter and it comes down to the mental game when you go to a major championship or begin that third attempt at a major meet.

The mental approach is everything. 

Not only do I think the mental approach is important in the event itself but I also personally believe that your mental approach and stresses in life can lead or help your body overcome injury. When I loosen up mentally, my body loosens up along with it.

When I get to a competition, I have a meditative focus. I am also an intense person in general and I like competing intensely. What I don’t do, however, is intensely think about things. I stay in an intensive mindset but I don’t overanalyze or over think things.

It’s a weird balance because you want to stay in a certain kind of mindset but not focus on specific things. You need to try and keep yourself from over thinking. It’s being in the moment; it’s relaxed intensive preparation. I think the more you can stay relaxed, confident, and focused, the better your body responds to everything.

I’ve gone to meets where you start thinking too much and you get in this mental mindset where you’re not relaxed anymore. You’re now tense and over thinking. Its hard competing in that mindset.

BG: Have you had guidance in developing your mental edge?

BW: No, it’s mostly me. Once you get adrenaline going in a competition, the energy is there. You don’t have to create excitement; you don’t have to run around and stay all that warm. The body knows that it is in battle. It knows that the energy is going to be there.

If you can focus on a specific cue and not let internal butterflies interrupt you, if you can stay relaxed, this mindset is what I have found works best. As you build more and more confidence, you think less during the competition. You know what you are doing. It is the people who don’t have confidence instilled in them who sometimes over think under pressure and then they start losing their ability to execute.

The Pursuit of Learning

BG: Do you study other jumpers or other techniques?

BW: I do study my competition. Very much so. I know I am capable of jumping as high as anyone in the world. But I never want to stop learning.

If you make a decision to stop learning about what you do, you hurt yourself and your ability to perform well. I know pole vaulting and I know what I am trying to do when I jump. I don’t have to recreate the wheel or anything like that. But it never hurts to study.

Each vaulter has a different set of tools. Each has their own unique way of jumping and figuring out what those versions of jumping can help you see your jump in a different light. There are certainly more efficient ways to jump than others, but there are around 17 vaulters who have jumped 6 meters, and all have done it differently.

The Life of an Olympian

BG: In the journey of getting to your level, when is it that you get support from the Olympic body?

BW: USOC base their grants on a tier system and that system has to do with world ranking. If you get injured and lose your rankings, you lose your supporting income. With some of my injuries, I had lost my world ranking and my institutional support with it.

But, I’ve had Nike as my main sponsor since 2004 and they’ve supported me the entire time. Without their support I probably wouldn’t have been able to do what I do. Things are looking good now. I’m healthy and, with the season I expect to have this year, I plan on gaining back the USOC funding (Currently I’m top 10 in the world).

It’s a cutthroat process and there’s not a lot of funding for athletes who aren’t top 20 in the world. All Olympic sports are a feast or famine adventure where if you’re not ranked high, you’re fundraising and asking your neighborhood for support. The athletes who are doing well continue to do well for a long time barring injury.

BG: Are there countries where that’s not an issue? Is there a system out there you’ve seen that’s actually working well? 

BW: There are a lot of good models out there—most of them are government funded. When you have the government backing you, it’s a little easier to pay the bills and stay in that system. It’s frustrating because we know we have such a great country and yet we still have a hard time supporting many talented athletes. The Olympic model right now doesn’t have the government support. I’m not saying we need government support but the money dries up pretty quickly and there’s a lot of people who decide it’s time to hang it up even if it is a little premature.