Surprising High Jump Lessons at the Track Meet

I high jumped for about nine years, from age 10 to age 19. I was never all that great at it, but I loved the sport and I learned a lot. Now that I’m older, I’ve been having a great time coaching middle school jumpers. (Above is one of the jumpers at a practice.)

What I am not having is a great time dealing with the people running the meets.

At the first meet I attended, the woman running the event had never been taught how to run an event. I explained to her what the starting height was, that the bar only goes up (and not back down), and that jumpers could opt to pass at any height they chose.

To her credit, the woman took my advice, especially after I explained that when kids are competing in multiple events, they need to come and go from time to time — just as one of our jumpers was trotting away to compete in the 100m.

That’s the kind of discussion I was happy to have. It was the woman’s first time running that event, I got her up to speed, the event went smoothly. Besides, it’s middle school, and many of these kids are trying these sports for the first time, and the meets are run with the kind help of volunteers.

The next meet was an invitational, an all-day affair with schools from as far away as Seattle (we’re in Portland). It was a much bigger affair: There were people running the competition, and so many competitors that they had to jump in two flights: if you were in the first flight it was like a time trial, where you had to post your best mark and hope no one beat it.

The guy running the event worked for the school, and he was not lacking in confidence. He brought all the jumpers in the first flight into a circle and in clear, unambiguous terms, he explained the rules. One of which was, “If you exit the pit by climbing back under the bar, you are disqualified.”

Wait, what? In all my time jumping, from pokey all-comers meets to the city finals in high school, no one had ever mentioned that one.

Well, whatever. The first flight went smoothly, although I did have to explain to the guy marking attempts on a clipboard that jumpers could pass at heights. And sometimes they might pass multiple heights, so you don’t have to keep calling their name.

This came up in the second flight, when I told them we had a jumper who was competing in another event, and wouldn’t start until 4’6″ (the starting height was 4′). Nonetheless, they kept calling his name, and I kept going over and saying he was going to pass.

One of our jumpers is really good, and set the school record this spring. There was a good chance he’d be one of the top competitors, which is why I wanted him to pass heights, because one of the tiebreakers for first place is the fewest total number of missed jumps.

The second flight was more competitive. Our team’s jumper was vying with another jumper for first place. When the bar reached 5′, our jumper approached on a jump, and at the last second, bailed out. He stopped, and as he did, his shoulder went under the bar.

The meet director called him over, and said it was a missed jump because he “broke the plane.”

Hold on. That’s a rule in football, to determine a touchdown. That’s not a rule in high jumping. I thought the rule in high jumping was —

Before I could get over to where they were talking, our jumper was back in position, looking a little rattled. But he cleared the height.

I was a little rattled too. What did he mean, “broke the plane”? Had that become a rule since I stopped jumping?

No, it turns out: It’s only if the jumper “Touches the ground or landing area beyond the plane of the crossbar, or the crossbar extended, without clearing the bar.”

As it turned out, our jumper came in second on height, so the number of misses didn’t matter.

What does matter is that the meet director got one rule wrong — and worse, he simply made up another one. The US Track and Field rules for high jump make no mention of where you climb out of the pit, and as I quoted above, you have to touch something past the plane of the bar for it to count as a miss. If the jumper’s feet broke the plane, it would be a miss because they touched the ground. But it wasn’t his feet, it was his shoulder, which touched nothing. That sounds like a minor point, until one miss separates first from second place, and then it isn’t.

So if everyone’s learning, what are the lessons?

  • For me, it was, put a copy of the rules in my backpack, so I can pull them in case someone gets it wrong.
  • For that meet director, it’s read the damn rules, and follow them.
  • And for the kids, the lesson might be that everyone makes mistakes, even adults who sound like they know what they’re talking about. Sometimes all you can do is shake it off and just keep jumping.