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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Hooker coming to grip with the yips

Hooker coming to grip with the yips

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1 Hooker coming to grip with the yips on Sat Feb 18, 2012 10:23 am

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http://www.theage.com.au/sport/athletics/coming-to-grips-with-yips-20120217-1ter2.html

Coming to grips with yips

Michael Gleeson
The Age
February 18, 2012


STEVE Hooker has won everything there is to win in pole vaulting. He has broken records, and won gold medals. Only one man has vaulted higher than him. When he is jumping he is comfortably the best pole vaulter in the world. But he is not vaulting and he does not know when he will. Right now the biggest jump Steve Hooker has to clear is the voice in his head telling him NO. Pull out. Don't do it.

Every pole vaulter has been here. At some point, every pole vaulter has been struck by the mental paralysis stopping them jumping. It has hit Hooker - again - now, even after he has become one of the greatest athletes this country has produced and probably the greatest pole vaulter the world has seen, for Sergey Bubka's record was achieved under different rules in a different sporting world.

Hooker revealed last week that, less than six months out from the Olympics, he has lost the confidence to jump. He abandoned thoughts of competing in the domestic season and has shelved plans to jump competitively until he can get back out on the track confident that when he wants to jump he will be able to.

So what does he do now to get it back, needing to jump 5.72 metres in competition somewhere before the Olympic team is finalised in order to be in London when the Games start on July 27? He is working with his coach Alex Parnov and psychologist Kevin Hayter on the physical and mental side of his sport.

Mark Stewart, who coached Hooker for nine years before he wanted to train full-time and moved to Perth to train under Parnov, said that Hooker and his support team would now be doing as it did back in 2001 when, after a bad accident, Hooker was unable to jump for almost two years.

Stewart, who is also the national youth pole vault coach for Athletics Australia, said the only way to deal with the yips was to pull back to jumping off short approaches first.

''The way we got over it, and I know what is happening now with Steve and his team, is you just do what you can do so you pole vault off a two-step run-up and you keep doing that until you can do that automatically and then you go to a four-step run-up, then six, then eight, then finally off a full approach,'' Stewart said.

Stewart said the gradual build-up - being confident jumping off each approach distance so that it became second nature, before increasing the distance - was the only way he had found for athletes to overcome the yips.

''I have spent lots of times with sport psychologists, hypnotists - Steve saw a woman who did hypnotism at that time - and I have spent time with lots of sport psychs and, to be quite honest, no one has given me good answers to the problems in pole vault, because I think anyone who hasn't pole vaulted really can't appreciate the fear that goes through a pole vaulter's mind,'' he said.

''All pole vaulters of any level over their career will go through what Steve is going through. It's common, it happens all the time. Pole vault is scary and dangerous so it is rational to be scared of it.''

It is rational, therefore, for your subconscious to be cautious and to act almost reflexively to tell you to pull out of a jump. Only through a repetition of routine does the mind begin to relax into a confidence that you are in control of what you want to do.

Emma George, the former Australian world record-holder, empathised with Hooker's predicament. After a bad accident in Switzerland where she missed the mat, George said she was never the same again. She felt bulletproof before and vulnerable afterwards.

''That was the start of my downfall. In my brain before, I never thought about missing the mat or hurting myself but after, it was a big player,'' she said.

''It is really hard for people who do not understand the sport and the psyche of the sport. When you are at the end of that runway with a big pole in your hand at full approach and to run down that runway at 100 per cent, you have to have your mind clear, which is a difficult thing.

''Especially after I had my accident in Switzerland where I missed the mat, you become scared and you are almost having this battle in your mind before you take off thinking 'I can do it, yes I am fine' and then this other voice saying, 'Oh, look the wind is a headwind, are you going to hit the mat?' It is a constant battle in your brain and it is something you have to commit to 100 per cent because if you don't run 100 per cent and jump 100 per cent committed to the jump that is when you have accidents. Pole vault is a mind game.''

The term ''yips'' is commonly associated with a golfer being unable to putt or a footballer to kick a goal from close range. It is the process where the mind makes the easy difficult.

What Hooker is confronting at the moment is slightly different. He might make vaulting look easy, but it is not. The consequences of error are far graver than a bogey or kick out on the full. The sport has known its fatalities and very serious injuries. ''Your mind convinces you your run-up is in the wrong spot, or the wind has gusted up, and it is not conscious, it is just something in your mind. And the vaulter desperately, desperately, wants to vault but there is something that is in their mind that stops them from doing it,'' Stewart said.

''It's horrendous for the athlete. They want to jump and something stops them.

''It's terrible for the athlete and the coach and everyone concerned.''

Logically they know they are fit and able to do what they have done before - such as Hooker winning world indoor and outdoor championships and Olympic gold medals - but logic plays little part.

Hooker believes he has time enough to conquer his demons. Stewart is hopeful.

''It's unlikely that things just click and you are OK. History does not say that that is what happens … sometimes in training you are struggling but if you are a competitive animal like Steve and you get into a competition with other guys you can tough it out,'' he said.

''Steve is a very fierce competitor and if he is vaulting he is still the best in the world.''

All he needs now is to clear the first, and most important, hurdle.

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