SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Kendall Grossman isn’t sure what caused her overwhelming fear.
She doesn’t know why the dread gripped her so tightly. The irrational panic. The paralyzing resistance to competing in the pole vault, something that was almost second nature to her for nearly a decade.
There were no accidents. No near catastrophes in an event that can be dangerous and perilous. No awkward landings in the pit that would give her pause.
(Photo courtesy of Slippery Rock University)
Yet the Moniteau graduate and sophomore on the Slippery Rock University women’s track and field team just couldn’t launch herself in the air like she had thousands and thousands of times since she was 13.
Not even an inch.
“There was a month during indoor season where I couldn’t even take a jump,” Grossman said. “I was so scared of pole vaulting.”
Quite simply, Grossman developed a nasty case of the “yips.”
Some baseball players have famously developed the strange condition, where normally routine athletic acts become inexplicably difficult: a pitcher throwing a strike; a second baseman throwing to first; a catcher tossing the ball back to a pitcher.
Golfers are also notorious for the yips. Out of nowhere drives off the tee, once straight and true, slice and hook erratically; easy putts on the green lip out or roll wide.
For Grossman, her yips ran deep.
“I was jumping really well,” Grossman said. “Then one day, nothing made sense.”
A million thoughts raced through her mind. She began to hyper-analyze everything about her technique, right down to her hand placement on the pole.
She even began to doubt the very physics of what she was doing, deeming the very act of vaulting impossible in her mind.
“I began to think this is just all wrong,” Grossman said. “There’s no way I can run and take off with this pole and fling myself that high in the air. It just can’t happen. I was so much in my own head, so overthinking every little thing. It was rough. Really rough.
“I’ve always been a little bit of a head case,” Grossman added, laughing, “but this was extreme, even for me.”
To make things even more confounding, the pole vault is something of a Grossman family business.
Nine of her family members have competed in the pole vault, all at Moniteau. Her grandfather, Frank “Joe” Grossman was the first.
Her father, Matt, once held the Warriors’ school record in the event.
Kendall was one of the best in the state during her days at Moniteau, qualifying for the PIAA Track and Field Championships three times (her senior year was wiped out by the COVID-19 shutdown), placing second as a freshman and sophomore and sixth as a junior.
She still holds the Moniteau girls pole vault record at 11 feet, 6 incehs.
Yet Kendall Grossman suddenly couldn’t bring herself to even take off.
She had to start from scratch.
Luckily, she had Jakob Graff to help her through it.
Graff had taken a year off from competing in the pole vault at SRU and was assisting the coaching staff in the event.
He knew what Grossman was going through; he had a similar experience with the yips in his past.
“The pole vault is an incredibly mental and technical sport,” Graff said. “There’s a million different things happening at one time and a million different variables that affect every vault you take. The biggest thing you can do is take a step back and start from the beginning. That’s what we did with Kendall.”
That meant going back to “Pole Vault 101.”
For a week, all Grossman did was run down the runway. The next week, she used a very short pole just to get off the ground again.
It worked. Before long, Grossman was jumping again.
By the end of indoor season, she was back clearing the heights she had before her mental block.
“She pushed through and she showed up,” Graff said. “Maybe she didn’t do her best technically, wasn’t her fastest down the runway, but she competed and was mentally there and ended up jumping the highest she had all season when she needed to.”
This outdoor season, Grossman continued to put that frustrating experience behind her, placing second in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Track and Field Championships.
Her outlook on the pole vault has completely changed, she said — one of the positives to come out of her month-long crisis.
“I just remembered why I do this,” Grossman said. “I do it because I love it. I do it because it’s fun. I don’t get as upset with myself if I don’t do as well as I hoped. Everything I do, every height — it means so much more to me now.”
It has Grossman looking forward to her pole vaulting future again.
There was a time this winter when she loathed just going to track practice. On the days she knew she’d have to vault, she fell into a deep state of despair.
“I was dreading those days, just dreading them,” she said.
Now she looks forward to the chance to vault.
And she knows how to combat the yips should they threaten to return again.
“I had to fight so hard to come back,” Grossman said. “If I have doubts now, I know how to counteract them. I know it won’t bother me like it did before.”
Back on track, Grossman is eager to pursue her goals again.
To be the best vaulter in the PSAC and perhaps even in NCAA Division II.
“I think I can definitely go somewhere,” Grossman said. “I was kind of sad when the season was over because I was just kind of getting back to being myself again. I think I’ll be more confident. I feel like there’s nothing holding me back now.”