Jul 29, 2015
Catching Up with Vern Gambetta

The following article appears in the July/August 2015 issue of Training & Conditioning.

For longtime readers of Training & Conditioning, Vern Gambetta’s byline is as familiar as a comfortable pair of gym shoes. After writing his first article for our magazine in 1992, Gambetta, MA, quickly became the most prolific author to grace our pages. A pioneer in the strength training profession and considered the founding father of functional training, he has offered cutting-edge viewpoints on everything from sport-specific speed training to using slide boards.

A member of our Editorial Board since 1992, Gambetta has also provided insight into working with a diverse array of athletes. Over his 45 years in athlete development, he has headed up the performance training programs for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets, worked with the U.S. track and field team and Canadian national men’s and women’s basketball teams, and coached high school track and field athletes in Florida and California.

As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, T&C recently talked with Gambetta, who has been the owner and Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems since 1988 and has run the Gambetta Athletic Improvement Network since 2007. He spoke about the evolution of his training philosophy, the importance of mentoring others, and why he doesn’t use the Functional Movement Screen.

How did you get your start in the profession?

I played football at Fresno State College [now California State University, Fresno] but I was always very interested in track and field and other sports. During my last semester, I saw legendary track and field coach Bill Bowerman put on a clinic and came away knowing that I wanted to coach the sport. Shortly afterward, I started at the junior high and high school levels in Santa Barbara. Then, other sport coaches at the school started asking me, “Your athletes are so fast and explosive. What do you do?” I never in my wildest dreams thought those conversations would lead to a career as a strength and conditioning and athletic development coach. Pretty much everything I have done since as a performance coach came from my track background.

I went on to coach the University of California women’s track and field and cross country teams. During that time, I also helped the Cal volleyball coach design the team’s jump training program, worked with the softball team on speed development, and created a speed and conditioning program as a consultant for the San Francisco 49ers.

In your first article for T&C, titled “The Competitive Edge: A Tailored Program,” you wrote about the cornerstones of your training philosophy. Do you remember writing that article back in 1992?

I remember it clear as day. It discussed five principles that I believe should guide a training approach: the demands of the sport, qualities of the individual, set order for training, periodization, and evaluation. Those cornerstones have enabled me to keep growing and have a long career. I’ve never wavered from that philosophy and foundation.

How did the early parts of your career help shape those principles?

By starting out as a junior high and high school coach, I had the good fortune of working with young athletes throughout their developmental years. It was a beautiful opportunity to watch a multi-year progression. I could see the benefit of building an athlete slowly and mastering one phase of training before moving on to the next, which are contributing components of my five principles.

How did you develop your philosophy toward functional training?

I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and what we call functional training today was simply how people “trained” back then. Everyone was outside running, throwing, and growing their overall athleticism organically, so I never knew anything different.

Then as a young athlete, I got into weightlifting, powerlifting, and Olympic lifting. I became immersed in a linear approach, but I questioned its effectiveness. As a football player at Fresno State, I remember thinking, “This isn’t working. I’m not progressing as an athlete like I should. We need to find a better way.” Later, that meant incorporating elements of gymnastics, agility work, body awareness, and balance training into workouts, which when applied to sport-specific movements, became the foundation of my functional training philosophy.

How well do you think today’s athletes and coaches have embraced the functional training concept?

I think the term has become kind of bastardized over the years. A lot of junk is called functional training nowadays. Go on YouTube, and you’ll see somebody lifting heavy weights while standing on a physio ball, and they’ll call it functional training. That’s not functional training-that’s entertainment.

For me, functional training is defined as building foundations in movement skills and physical literacy. Then you have to develop these attributes around the skill and athletic level of the individual. You also have to use common sense and balance the elements that go into progressing an athlete.

When designing training programs for athletes, you’ve said you prefer trainability assessments instead of the Functional Movement Screen. Why is that?

My big argument against the Functional Movement Screen is that it only looks for what the athlete can’t do. With a trainability assessment, I look for what they can do, and I adjust my plan based on what I find. I am doing the athlete a disservice if I spend most of my time looking for and improving their weaknesses instead of preparing them for the demands of their sport.

If an athlete is injured or in pain, that’s when you need to use remedial exercises and make modifications in the program. But trying to correct dysfunction and imbalances in healthy athletes takes giant steps backward in their training and doesn’t make sense. Because guess what? Imbalances are easy to find, no matter who the athlete is.

In 1995, while with the White Sox, you wrote an article for T&C about putting together a performance team. Why did you create one with the club?

It was a really unique situation. We had a forward-thinking general manager, who, along with the director of the farm system, wanted to do things differently and build players from the ground up. We created a performance team consisting of athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, physicians, and nutritionists, among other personnel to make that happen.

I was in charge of the club’s minor league athletic trainers and oversaw rehabs. Our staff was doing everything that people are calling cutting edge today-vision training, psychological training, sports nutrition, extensive biomechanical testing, strength training, and speed work.

What have you been up to lately?

I mostly serve in a mentoring capacity through my Gambetta Athletic Improvement Network, a group of performance training professionals who are interested in learning and sharing ideas to improve their abilities and enhance their development. However, I also work with Megan Wallin, a professional women’s beach volleyball player, as well as with a number of swim clubs around the country on their dryland training.

Why has networking, mentoring, and sharing ideas been so important to you over the years?

I’ve always been about giving back to the profession. Aside from my parents, my high school basketball coach is largely responsible for me being the person and coach I am today. I’ve been fortunate to mentor a lot of people-some who have far surpassed me in terms of accomplishments-and they’ve always been willing to share with me and help me learn, too. You can’t just take, take, take. You have to give back.

How can the performance training profession be improved?

We need to clearly define it as a profession. It needs to be about athletic development, so we should get away from only using the term strength and conditioning. We also have to clearly differentiate ourselves from personal training and the general fitness market.


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