Robyn Webster is a children’s well-being and activity advocate, the newest Director of Talent Optimization with Athletics Alberta and Canada’s very own female athlete and pole vaulter. She is inspiring beyond words, an amazing role model for women in sport and we were excited to sit down with her for a little Q& A.
How did you get into the sport of pole vaulting?
I was into track and field events as a kid, but as I grew up in a small town, and many places do not have access to pole vault facilities. Regardless, I didn’t end up trying it until my first year of university. I showed up for the cross country practice, and they very quickly transitioned me over to the speed power group, ha- ha!. One of the coaches there suggested that I try pole vault with my jump and sprint background, so I did. I found it crazy addicting, and never looked back! Well, except when I’m upside down that is… ;)
I’ve now been vaulting for 13 years!
If you had to describe pole vaulting in 3 words what would that be?
Crazy, challenging, and addicting.
To some people watching it might seem pretty simple. Run, put the pole in place, and jump over. Can you explain some aspects or components of pole vaulting that most people overlook or don’t understand?
Does it look simple?
Haha I hope my explanation does justice to the intricacies that every vaulter learns to manage on a daily basis:
1. First, it is not easy to run naturally holding a 10–16 foot pole!
2. It is very tricky to time up the drop of the pole as you sprint to perfectly hit the box in the ground at take off.
3. It is also against every protective instinct to extend your arms as far as possible away from your body at take off, relying solely on speed, power and the bend of the pole to propel you through the vault. Every instinct is saying to keep your limbs close to you and pull your arms in, but if you do that, it is very likely you will go straight up, straight down, and land right back on the track. If you jump into outstretched arms you will actually be safer and maximize your jump more, but try telling that to your brain!
4. There are different lengths and stiffnesses of poles. Many people ask, “Why don’t you just grab a longer or stiffer pole so you can clear the bar?” And every veteran vaulter’s response is, “Trust me, it would be nice if it was that easy!” There are so many factors which go in to a vaulter choosing to jump on a particular pole at a given time: weight, height, physical state, mental state, weather conditions, vault pit conditions (runway surface, box set up) etc. Successfully completing the jump is physics- you need to generate enough velocity to move the pole to peak at the appropriate point to clear the bar. If you grab a longer pole, not only can it add a fear component mentally because you know that this could air on the side of danger, but you also just might not be strong enough, or powerful enough to efficiently move that added length of pole at that particular time. Vaulters are constantly trying to push the limits of lengths and weights of poles at all times. To go to a competition a veteran vaulter could bring anywhere from 4–12 poles in anticipation of the factors which could be at play and the hope that they can get onto some bigger poles with some added adrenaline.
Can you dive into the mental aspect of getting ready to jump? What is running through your head before you start running? Have you always been strong mentally or is this something you continually work on?
We always say, pole vault is 80% mental and 20% physical ability. That’s probably why you get an interesting, crazy crew in the pole vault world! In our sport, pushing your limits, is not about pushing through physical pain (although there are lots of injuries), it’s about pushing your mind through fear, through failure, through frustration, through exhilaration, to learn and try to execute again and again. Before I go down the runway in a competition, I usually have some anticipatory jitters going on in my stomach; have to be careful how much coffee I drink those days, ha! I try not to focus on how I am feeling, or if I’m nervous about one factor or another, but what I have to execute. In the last year, I have been writing a cue on my left arm ‘SEE,’ which I actually do try to ‘see’ as I prepare to set up my take off coming down the runway. But sometimes you are just plain scared at the back of the runway, and you have to try to muster up the courage to go for it anyways, HA!
I have not always been mentally strong; I was emotional and unaware as a vaulter for many years. In fact, about 5 years into my vaulting career, I was working with one of the best coaches in the world in England, and he told me I had no resilience. Over the years, as I have matured as an athlete and an adult, I have become a student of the sport, and have become obsessed with learning about mindset. I believe that taking ownership over my learning, my decisions and my mindset has not only assisted in my performance over the last year, but my overall enjoyment of pole vault and general happiness. Our ego and identity get tangled up in our performance all too often, and employing a growth mindset has allowed me to reframe this. I continually strive to improve in this area. I highly recommend reading Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, for read more about this!
Can you explain what it feels like when you are flying in the air up and over the bar?
A whole lot of “YESSSSS”! But otherwise, it feels like a mixture of relief, joy, and accomplishment all at the same time!
We say Jump, you say how high-but really how high can you jump? What is your best jump?
Haha! My best jump is 4.10m (13’45 in feet), so far anyways! ;)
How has Kinetic Living and Dr. Kara helped you in being ready for competitions?
Where do I start, ha! For years, Dr. Kara has pieced me back together, whether I have come to her with reconstructive knee surgery, acute accidents, or chronic over-use injuries. She knows how driven and motivated I am, and what my goals are for the year- allowing her to guide my treatment plan accordingly, and get me ready for when I need to be. I have always been, and especially as I have got older, an injury-prone athlete, who still likes to push my physical limits. On top of training high impact for 10 months of each year, I don’t think I have gone a single season without a disrupting injury. However, in recent years, with Dr. Kara’s help, we have developed a maintenance plan to prevent things from building up, address them when they do, and fine tune prior to competition. With this plan, despite the interruptions, I have managed to be healthy to peak exactly when I have needed to the last few years- and this is tricky once you turn 30!
Cayleigh and the entire Kinetic Living team have impacted me so much more than they probably know. They truly are a community- caring about their clients, not just as clients, but as people and as friends. Always going the extra mile, and taking the time to get to know the people who walk through their doors, I truly feel they are behind me, not just in my athletic journey, but in life in general. When I do head into a competition, I truly feel that I have a team behind me. Kinetic genuinely wants to invest in their community; you can feel the motivation as soon as you walk in.
This year you had a set back with a small injury, how do you stay positive mentally and physically strong during these times where you aren’t able to be going 100%?
Well, one thing that has definitely helped in the last couple years is knowing that I have consistently come back stronger and mentally fresher after injuries; as you get older, the years of training truly do add up, and rest is underrated! Even though I know this, it’s still hard to keep up motivation during the injury period when it feels like you can’t do anything, and all you are worrying about is losing fitness and what other people are doing. I just have to keep reminding myself of my ‘why’- why it’s worth it for me to keep going, and how much I’ll regret it if I let this injury beat me. Shifting my focus a little to other things I love, always helps too, to broaden my perspective on the matter.
In our eyes you are an incredibly strong female, and role model for young women in sports. Who are some of your role models or people you look up to? What does it mean to you to be a strong woman?
Awe, well thank you very much! I have been so fortunate to have some incredible role models in my life, and I am honoured to be consider one for others. My parents have always been role models to me, encouraging me to go after my goals, but above all to be a good person. My sister and my close group of girl friends all inspire me on a daily basis with their resilience, courage, kindness, humility and authenticity- this is what it means to me to be a strong woman. I believe we all hold each other accountable to our goals and values; it really helps to be able to talk about what we are working on together.
The 2020 Olympic Trials were something you had been training for and there has been a rescheduling of that date to 2021 due to COVID-19. Where has this left you today?
I was indeed training for the 2020 Olympic Trials. This past January I achieved an all time personal best of 4.10 metres only three weeks back from a hamstring tear- I was definitely excited for the season to come. Unfortunately, COVID happened, disrupting plans, goals and life on a global scale. I, along with the rest of the world, was faced with a number of significant personal changes to navigate, from work, to training, to family and relationships, all which led to in-depth reflection. Through this reflection I actually made the difficult decision to retire from competing in pole vault. This decision did not come easy, but I feel very confident in it; it is the shift I feel I am ready for in my life.
I feel exceptionally grateful that I was able to make my own autonomous decision to retire, and feel no bitterness whatsoever towards leaving the sport I poured my heart and soul into for 15 years. Did I hope to make National teams and go to the Olympics? Yes of course, but I gave them my best shot, and I have nothing but gratitude and happy memories for the journey sport has taken me through. And with that, I am excited to move into the next phase of my life, spending time with loved ones, trying new activities, and starting a new role as Director of the Talent Optimization Program under Athletics Alberta! I truly look forward to helping, athletes, coaches and our sport community continue to grow in a healthy, sustainable, performance-producing way.
If anyone ever wants to chat about athlete transition or their sport journey, please do not hesitate to reach out at: firstname.lastname@example.org