Firstpost Masterclass: 'Fat don't fly' Tejaswin Shankar breaks down the science behind the high jump

In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Tejaswin Shankar dons the professor's hat and breaks down the science behind taking flight in a very special class of High Jump 101.

Aadi Nair July 02, 2020 18:20:37 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: 'Fat don't fly' Tejaswin Shankar breaks down the science behind the high jump

Editor's noteProfessional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

At the tender age of 21, Tejaswin Shankar has his entire career ahead of him, but if you were to take a look at just his accomplishments, you'd be forgiven for thinking he was a seasoned veteran. With a personal best jump of 2.29 metres and a high-jump national record to boot, the Delhi native is one of the most exciting prospects in the world of athletics, and is at the vanguard of India’s quest for Olympic greatness, alongside the likes of Neeraj Chopra, Jinson Johnson and other young talents.

In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Tejaswin joins us all the way from Kansas, USA, to break down the science behind the high-jump.

Could you talk to us about your path into the sport? You used to be a cricketer for a while, before deciding to turn to the high jump. What inspired that decision?

I used to play cricket because everybody plays cricket when they're young in India. My father was also very well connected in the cricket community as well, so, he told me that, even if you're decent, I can help you do something with your talent. Cricket’s one of those sports which parents are proud of their kids for following, so he was very excited about me playing it.

I was a pacer, but when my training actually started, when I was in the U-14 age group, I was bowling to the 16-18 age group. For them, it must have been like facing a spinner, because that's how fast I was bowling. It wasn’t working. Some people are very talented, and they make it in cricket, but I didn’t feel like I was good enough at the time.

So, for a while, I was struggling to cope with cricket and I wasn't getting any success or being picked for teams. That’s when I met this coach, Sunil Kumar, and he was the one who taught me that you have to have a high level of fitness to be able to play any sport at a high level. You can't just be a good bowler or a good batsman, you have to be physically fit.

So that caught my eye and I thought, ‘well, yes, that makes sense.’ I told my dad that this coach wants me to do athletics for a while to improve my physicality, and then maybe we can go back to cricket. My dad was very clear that he didn't want me to waste time doing athletics. So, I mean, at that point, I wasn't really very focused on anything.

The school I was in, there was a really good sporting culture, athletics and cricket and football and all these sports, everybody played everything. And during our sports week, I did really well in the running events and then you know, the long jump and high jump events. I was pretty physically gifted since I was young.

One thing led to another and I really liked doing athletics workouts because they were short, but at the same time, they were highly intense. On the cricket field, you're there for three hours and just waiting for somebody to toss you the ball. At that point, it was more a matter of interest, because I was able to do something, and I was better than other people at it, and when you taste success, you go towards it. And that's how I got into athletics.

What were the toughest adaptations that you had to make when you switched over to high jump?

I think at that point, everything was difficult because I didn't know anything about the high jump. The one thing that I think I was lucky with was the fact that we didn't have a high jump mat. Most people cry about that, but I’m grateful because that way I was able to improve my takeoff.

Generally, when you practice the Fosbury flop, any young athlete who's learning the high jump has a tendency to go and fall on the mat rather than go upwards. I was lucky because we didn't have a high jump mat. We had the crossbar and the standards and then behind that we'd have a long jump sandpit, so you have to jump off the bottom and land on the sandpit. You couldn't land on your back on the sandbar, you’d break your back.

Could you talk us through a day in your life? What’s your schedule like, when do you train and what muscles are you working on?

Coronavirus changed everything but if not for it, then this probably would have been the first few weeks off after NCAA nationals, after which we would have begun recovering and competing more in order to get ready for the Olympic Games.

Generally, during fall prep, which is August through December, it’s pretty much just hard labour and trying to get in good shape. There’s this thing my coach loves to say, he says all the time that ‘fat don't fly.’ If you have any unwanted weight that you're carrying, you need to get rid of it. So yeah, high jump preparation consists of weight training, bounding and running because those are the three main ways to improve physicality as a high jumper, because, it's a power sport.

You want to stay away from running long distances and you don't do a lot of aerobic activity, because the two key components to power are force and time. You have to be able to move heavy weight, but at the same time, you have to be able to move it fast. You probably get around a few milliseconds of take-off time, and in that time, you need to produce force that’s equivalent to around 10 times your body weight.

A lot of people say, ‘oh, you've been there for two years, you have a good coach, why aren’t you jumping 2.40 or 2.30?’ Well, my simple answer is, it takes time, you know. I’m not being given a magic pill, which will make me jump higher. It’s a process.

The high jump is a sport of fine margins. For the average person who isn’t aware of exactly how fine those margins are, how much effort goes into increasing your personal best by even a centimetre?

So, from when I began high jumping, it took me three years to get to two meters and 26 centimetres, which was the first time I broke the national record. Since then, it's taken me three years to get to two meters and 29 centimetres, which is just three centimetres more. If I’d continued at my initial rate, I’d have been able to clear a pole vault without the pole by now.

After a certain point, in any sport or any event, it's about fine-tuning, and that’s where I’m at now.  There’s potential that I haven't tapped into, I don't know what I’m capable of. You can have strength, you can have speed, you can have natural ability, but once you’ve tapped into all of that, that’s when the real process begins. That's when the mental side of it all kicks in, like how strong you are and how well you accept failure or bad days, even when there are months’ worth of bad days. That’s when it comes down to how much you can give. That’s it. There's no shortcut, I think.

Now, when it comes to technique, The Fosbury Flop, popularised by American athlete Dick Fosbury, is by far the preferred option of leading athletes in the sport. What is it about this jump that makes it more efficient than others?

I’m pretty sure Fosbury was probably a mechanical engineer or somebody who paid a lot of attention to physics in high-school, but even when somebody who doesn’t know a lot about the high jump talks about it, there's always these two words that are thrown into the conversation: centre of mass and centrifugal force. It’s a pretty basic concept.

To jump high, you have to take your centre of mass over the bar. When you’re doing something like the scissor kick or whatever, you raise your hips in order to go over it. Once your hips are above the bar, you can easily bring your legs over, but if your hips aren’t high enough, you're going to go into the bar.

The Fosbury flop is so effective because what he did was genius, he arched his back. When you do it like that, the centre of mass is effectively under your body. You don’t have to exert the same force as someone who is using another method, and then you manoeuvre your body over the bar, which means you go over bit-by-bit. That's the beauty of the jump.

But then I also think the most important concept is the approach run, because 90% of the jump consists of your approach. That's why there's a J-shaped run, because there's this concept called centrifugal force where, when something is moving in a circular path, the curve pushes you outward. For example, when you were a kid, and you were on a merry-go-round, you’d feel this sensation of being pushed towards the edges. That's the basic force that we're trying to recreate in this J-shaped approach.

But it is easier said than done. Because you have to have the strength to be able to withstand that force which is trying to knock you off course. The faster you run, the more velocity you bring in, the more angular momentum you bring in, which will make you rise higher, but at the same time, you need stability. There’s also gravity acting on you, because you’re up in the air for flight times of over a second.

This is why it takes time to progress. Even if you understand the principles, you just need repetition after repetition after repetition. At this point, I know how it's done, but at the same time, I'm not there yet. This is the toughest part because you know how everything works, but there’s little you can do other than work on it again and again.

There are several different methods which high jumpers use to begin their run towards the bar, including a static start, a walk-in start and a skip-in start. Which of these do you think is best and why?

The one that our coach advocates is the static start, because ideally, all you have in the high jump is 12 steps, or 20-25 meters. You want to maximize each step and push out on each step, but at the same time, you want to be consistent with it. That's why when you begin from a static start, you know exactly how hard to push on every step. If you're trying to teach someone as a beginner, then ideally, you'd prefer a static start, but at the end of the day, all that matters is consistency.

I've convinced my coach into letting me do the walk-in start because that’s how I prefer to do it. I don’t have to expend as much effort on my first step, and it gives me a little bit of momentum as I run into my approach. Luckily, I was able to complete 10 or 12 approaches consistently when I used that method, and when he saw that, he was convinced.

Once you’ve begun your approach, how do you build up the momentum required to get you over the bar?

When I'm about to take my jump, I visualise my approach, and chunk it into different phases. So, the first four steps are just pushing out, because you want to build up as much speed as you can. Because, I mean, at this level, you have to run as fast as you can. When I was younger, I was told to be controlled during this phase, but now I can do these first four steps at 90-95 percent of my top speed, and build up some speed.

And then after that fifth, sixth and seventh steps are the most important steps because that's when you're about to initiate your curve. The curves are important because you can cut in or initiate it too soon, and then your path looks less like a curve and more like a straight line to the bar. If you do that, you'll just knock the bar off, and you won't have enough rotation in the air to throw you over the bar.

I come in from the left side, because I take off on the right leg. The cue that coach tells me is to keep my left shoulder back, because if I'm running and if I think about keeping my left shoulder back, my mind is no longer on the curve. My problem is that I generally like to initiate the curve a little bit earlier than what I'm supposed to, so the cue really helps. It’s important to not bring your upper body forward, you want to keep it a little bit behind the mid-line, because when you take off, your foot is about to come forward, out in front of you.

That’s why those last steps are really important. You’re not accelerating, because you can't do that in a curve, but you need to maintain that speed. And of course, the arms also play a big role. Sometimes when you're running in a curve, you forget to move them, which is bad, because they help you generate the force you need to launch. Once you're at the take-off spot, then at that point, you just have to jump.

If you’re employing the J-curve run-up, the last few steps before take-off are taken at an angle. This seems like a tricky proposition at the best of times. How do you prepare for it?

If you ever talk to a high jumper, you’ll find out we’re always running around in circles. All we do during fall during preparation is make big circles in the park using chalk or cones or something and just run around them all the time. People often say, ‘oh, you run like a high jumper.’ They usually just mean that you're running really tall and erect, kind of like Michael Johnson, you know? That’s how we’re supposed to run, standing tall and bringing our knees up — almost like a gallop instead of a run.

That’s why we run around in circles. Once you're comfortable doing that, it's easier to make the right approach. Also, as a high jumper, you're taught to run in a heel-toe pattern. Generally, sprinters run on the balls of their feet, but high jumpers go in heel-first. It’s called grabbing. It prevents you from slipping and coming out of the curve.

The bar is raised incrementally over the course of several rounds of jumps. How much does your lift-off technique change as the bar increases?

A good coach will say you shouldn't change your jump with the height. What I always used to think is, ‘if it's a low bar, then I can just half-ass it, I can go over it easily.’ But once my coach understood that this was what I was trying to do, he pulled me aside and told me that's not the right way to do it, and that I would never be successful if I did that.

At this level, you have to be smart about what height you begin at. In high-level competitions, you wouldn't have to worry about those things because the competition will start at a higher height, and everybody comes in at that height because they don't want to miss out on any chance of preparing themselves. In smaller meets, you have to make sure that you come in when you are comfortable, rather than when the competition starts.

You just have three chances, and if it’s a bad jump, it’s not like the javelin, where your attempt is still counted, even if it's a few metres short of where you wanted it to be. It’s zero.

The general rule is that you're completely warmed up and you're at the peak of your performance at the fifth, sixth and seventh jump. That’s when you want to try and go for your personal best. And in case I missed my sixth jump, say, for example, you don't want to go into the seventh thinking I could miss this twice, and then I'll go on to my third attempt. It's challenging, mentally, and you need to have an extremely positive mindset going into competition. You just have three chances, and if it’s a bad jump, it’s not like the javelin, where your attempt is still counted, even if it's a few metres short of where you wanted it to be. It’s zero.

When you miss a jump, how much does that play on your mind, and is there anything you do to get over the nerves that must come along with it?

After the first miss, you start doing all these calculations, and you’re thinking things like, ‘oh, he’s ahead of me now, because I missed and he didn’t.’ You begin making a few adjustments, because you want to do all you can to avoid the second miss.

Once you have two misses, you have the added pressure of it being your last chance. If you miss it, you’re out of the competition. But then again, at the same time, for some people their adrenaline kicks in and they just start scraping through everything with their fight or flight response. Sometimes I envy people like that, because I’m not that lucky. Mostly, I’m successful on my first or second attempt. But of course, I’ve also learned that you have to make the most of the three chances. You can’t give up.

How important is spatial awareness? Once you’ve left the ground, there’s a portion of the jump in which you don’t make eye-contact with the bar. Is it still important for you to know where it is, or is that beyond your control at this point?

90% of the jump is your approach and what you do on the ground and how you get up. After that, there's still 10% left, and that 10% is when you're in the air. In that moment, you’re kind of like a projectile, and you can’t do anything to change your path, but you can still manoeuvre your body. That's when spatial awareness comes into play.

There are times when I'm not even looking at the bar, but I can sense where the bar is, on the basis of my speed. I know that at the moment I've completely tilted, the bar is going to be right under my hip. And that's when I have to arch my back, at that precise moment. If I arch too slowly, my hip will hit the bar, and if I arch too quickly, my hamstring will.

These things really matter on the higher heights, because in lower heights, you can get away with faulty technique. Overall, I wouldn't say it's the most important thing, but it is important. The most important stuff is working on physicality, improving your physique and, you know, weight training, plyometrics, bounding, running, doing whatever you can to get into shape.

When you land, is there ever the fear that you could hurt yourself, since you’re coming down hard on your back and shoulders?

That’s something I’ve struggled with a lot. When our school got a high jump mat for the first time, it was basically a rock in the guise of gym equipment. Whenever I would jump, I would literally land on the mat and then bounce back onto the ground, because that's how hard it was. So then I just developed a bad habit of not landing properly on my shoulders, which is ideally where you're supposed to land.

When my coach figured out I was doing this, we moved to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi, and they had better equipment. I did have the same problem for a while though, and after every meet you’d see me limping around with a bag of ice on my sore neck. But over time I’ve worked on this, and recently I think I’ve gotten a lot tougher.

The World Record (2.45m by Javier Sotomayor) in high jump was set in 1993. The Olympic Record (of 2.39m by Charles Austin) was set in 1996. While world records in many track and field events have constantly been evolving, records in the high jump have remained relatively stagnant. Why do you think that is?

Yeah, and it’s been the same on the women’s side. I think that's just how extraordinary the records are. In 2014, everyone thought that the world record would be broken, because there were a couple of guys that jumped over 2.40. Mutaz Essa Barshim and Bohdan Bondarenko were really close, and everybody thought that they would be able to break it, but then the record is still there.

That just shows you how extraordinary it is. Eight feet. I honestly feel that it's just really extraordinary that somebody is able to jump eight feet — because even in the 21st century, with all this technology, and science and an understanding of physics, no one has jump higher than that.

Lastly, is there any advice you’d like to give young athletes who have taken up the sport?

Before I give this advice, I would like to say that I am also paying heed to it at this point. Because, as you said, I'm young and I have a lot of time left. The one thing that I think young athletes should know is that there’s no rush to narrow down on one specific discipline.

Take Jonathan Edwards, for example. Everybody knows that he's the triple jump world record holder, but a lot of people don’t know he’s run the 100 metre in 10.4 seconds. Everyone knows that Christian Taylor is probably the best triple jumper in the world right now, but nobody knows that he's run the 400 metre in 45 seconds and has jumped over 8 metres in the long jump.

I think early specialization is what kills a lot of athletes, because then they're just no longer athletes, they're thinking that they're high jumpers or pole vaulters or whatever. But you can learn something from every discipline, you need to keep your options open. Also, focusing on different areas can help you get past plateaus in form and difficult moments in your life.

In 2018, in my first year at college, I jumped 2.29, a height which I think is still the national record. But the following year, I wasn't jumping very high, though I was physically strong and had improved a lot. Instead of getting mad, or letting the pressure get to me, I just started doing other things. I started doing the 400 metre, which I always used to do, and some other stuff which kept me in good shape. And somehow, when I went into the final meet of the year, which was the NCAA nationals, I managed to do really well and finish second.

At the end of the day, the most important thing is to be fit, and keep your motivation up. If you need to take a break and try other things, that’s okay. As long as you’re having fun, and you’re training at a high level, that’s all that matters. Do everything, and just stay fresh.

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