Acrophobia – heard of it? Possibly not. Yet, it’s almost certain to have impacted each and every one of us at various points in our lives. Acrophobia is the irrational fear of heights and according to ‘Fearof.net’, it represents the third most common phobia throughout the world.
With it being so vastly prevalent, it makes you wonder how one could find themselves hurling over a five-meter bar, with just a terrifyingly bendy looking pole and a crash mat as support.
Holly Bradshaw is an Olympic-level track and field athlete who specialises in the pole vault. She holds the British record for both in and outdoor jumps, with heights of 4.87m and 4.81m respectively. Holly also recently secured silver at the 2019 European Indoor Championships.
Aside from her sporting achievements, Holly is also fascinated by sports and exercise science, which she is now studying at Manchester Met University. Additionally, she holds a great interest in Psychology, something undeniably significant in her beloved sport.
“Pole vaulting is such a psychological sport. You have a little knock in confidence, and it can send you into a downwards spiral,” she said.
This was something particularly evident during her run to the Indoor European Championship silver medal. Holly was visibly talking herself through premeditated mindfulness techniques, both leading up and after her medal-winning jump.
She said: “I’m very into psychology and I love all the little quirks. Taking four or five deep breaths, it relaxes me brings me back down to thinking about what my purpose is.”
Prior to Holly’s final jump, she had already been confirmed with at least the silver medal. It far exceeded all previous expectations. The emotion, particularly being in front of a home crowd, was overwhelming. It made focussing increasingly challenging, something that can particularly dangerous in this sport.
She said: “I just remember standing on the run thinking I can’t really win here, and I’ve already got the silver medal. I was just so content, and I had to really take some quite deep breaths and do some mindfulness to compose myself. I thought if I don’t focus here, I could end up hurting myself.
“I had to push the screaming thoughts of ‘oh my god you’ve got a silver medal’ away. I have certain words that I use. When I got to the run I was thinking ‘strong, feet down, attack over and over again.”Embed from Getty Images
Holly recognises the significance of her strong mindset, attributing it as a significant factor to her success.
“Confidence and psychology are big things. For pole vault, you have to swing as quick as you can, over the floor (rather than the mat) and that requires a lot of psychological confidence,” Holly explained.
“You can’t just get that from nowhere – it has to be built and that’s what a lot of people don’t understand about pole vault. It’s a process that you have to prepare over months and months to get in the right head space,” she added.
This can be intensely problematic when things start to go wrong mentally. ‘The yips’ is a well-known phrase in sport, one that describes the loss of specific motor skills in athletes. It’s a phrase Holly is all too familiar with.
She said: “You can be in the best form of your life, lifting the numbers in the gym, running quick. But if you’ve not got the confidence or the psychology there, you might as well not even bother.
“I have never had it (the yips). But when I do a Q&As with youngsters, I would say two out of any five athletes are experiencing it at any one time. You see it all the time. The main ones are run throughs or not wanting to change up to a bigger pole and they always ask me how I overcome it.
“Pretty much every training group I’ve been in, there’s been someone that has a bit of a run through confidence issue. I watch it and it can last for months, even years.”
The term ‘run through’ refers to the action of approaching the bar but failing to actually attempt the jump. Holly states it can be something excruciatingly frustrating for athletes, who struggle to comprehend just why it is occurring.
“One of my friends explained it to me. They said you’re running down the run, waiting for that green light to go on in your head, but it’s always red. The green light never comes,” Holly explained.Embed from Getty Images
In a sport that is clearly so mentally demanding, Holly has a variety of techniques that help her avoid these types of issues. Where so many differ, the European champion looks to avoid all possible superstition.
She explained: “I don’t have any (superstitions). I’ve always dealt with them there and then when I’ve felt one creeping in. I just felt I needed to eradicate them.
“A lot of athletes out there have rituals they just have to go through, and I just think I don’t want to have to be dealing with that. What if I can’t fit it in? Or what if something throws me off? I wouldn’t be able to focus.”
Instead, Holly believes in the importance of visualisation, a common psychological technique that conditions athletes’ brains for successful performance. However, she does admit that over-using the technique can be harmful.
“I do a lot of visualisation. I got stuck in a bit of a rut a couple of years ago of doing too much. I would do it every day, constantly watch videos and analysing them,” she said.
“Now I do it once or twice a week, where I sit down formally with my coach and do a video analysis session. We go through my jumps and bounce ideas of each other. Coming up to a tournament, I will pick a perfect jump and that’s the one I’ll run through my mind.” she added.
Holly also believes her relationship with her coach is a fundamental factor that enables her mental fortitude.
She said: “The coach is of massive importance in that department. Having 100% confidence and trust in my coach is always what makes me not run through, I think.
“We have a saying. ‘I’m the feel for the jump but I can’t see. But he can see but he can’t feel’. Together we complete the puzzle. If you didn’t have that relationship it would be really difficult. He’s been vital in helping me succeed.
Psychology is a pertinent factor in an abundance of sports, but pole vault must surely be up there with the most mentally demanding. Holly now sets her sights on the Doha 2019 World Championships and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games, where she will once again hope for glory.
Despite all of the pressures she will have to endure, thankfully, acrophobia is not one of them!