Jan 29, 2015
Functional Path Manifesto

By Vern Gambetta Gambetta Sports Training Systems

Athletic development is about optimizing training to enhance performance. The basic concepts are quite simple. My experience has shown that simplicity yields complexity–you don’t have to make it complicated. That’s why being a generalist is so important. It allows me to make relationships that specialist, with their narrower vision, will not see.

Defining the Field of Athletic Development: Where We Are Now ••• Why am I writing this? Who am I to tell you how to train your athletes? How can I have the impudence to question some of the hallowed concepts of training and performance, or even sports science itself?

I have consistently questioned much of what passes as conventional wisdom in regards to training and rehab, and I have the audacity to ask you to do the same. Think and question. Why? On whose authority do I speak?

Frankly, I speak with the authority of wisdom based on experience and common sense. I have a passionate belief in defining the field of athletic development.

I am defined by what I am not. I am not a sport scientist, physical therapist, ATC, doctor, or sport psychologist–I am a coach. As a coach, I have traveled in all those worlds, and because of that experience I am not restrained by conventional wisdom; rather I choose to use conventional wisdom as a starting point. I have learned from all those disciplines and incorporated those ideas into a systematic approach to athletic development.

I have specialized in being a generalist. Being a generalist allows me to focus on the big picture, the connections and relationships that define athleticism. The tracks, fields, courts, and pools of the world are the true laboratories to test these concepts. There is no hiding in this arena; it is a results-driven world where training mistakes and inadequate preparation are quickly exposed.

Sophisticated technology and computer algorithms are part of a different picture. Over-reliance on tools and technology will not get the job done. You need an experienced coach to ask the key questions and interpret the data. Without that, high-tech tools are no more than random number generators.

Much of what I stand for is not new. We already know it. It has worked in the past, but has been rejected as old-fashioned, low-tech, and unscientific. We have abandoned proven methods in the name of progress. Certainly, in every field of endeavor everything old is new again, but because of our society’s rejection of the past, we have not studied the coaches who paved the way for us.

It is trite to say that we stand on the shoulder of giants, but without coaches like Bill Bowerman, John Wooden, Doc Councilman, Geoff Dyson, Franz Stampfl, and Percy Cerruty, where would we be today? They were innovators who were unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom. No one stands alone, and I have been very fortunate to learn from many people. Most importantly, I have learned from the athletes I have coached. Who better to learn from? They were the ones who did the training. They were the ones who competed. They lived it.

My concepts of training are based on a study of past training methods, sports science research, best practices, and practical experience working with all levels of athletes. You learn through deliberate practice, through trial and error. You learn in the trenches, not from a book or a laboratory experiment. You learn from your mistakes and your successes. That is where you start, but that is just a beginning.

What I do is common sense. It works because it is simple and natural. If we follow our survival instincts, we will do the correct things concerning movement and training.

Modern society and conventional wisdom has dulled our instincts. The key is to unlock these instincts and allow athletes to solve movement problems the way the body was designed to function. This is not dangerous or extreme–it is essentially what children do in free play when unrestrained by adult supervision and the burden of having to execute movements correctly.

Today, even at the highest levels of sport, coaches are creating robots. Movement is not paint by numbers–it is an expressionist drawing. It is not a classical aria, it is a jazz riff.

We need to stop breaking movement into its smallest parts in the hope of producing a moving, flowing, working whole. It won’t happen. It will only happen if there is a quantum approach, an approach that focuses on the big picture and the connections.

In many respects, this is where sport science has failed us. In the rush to publish and the desire to show statistical significance, we have become so limited in our thinking that we fail to see the forest for the trees.

Focusing on Max VO2 or trying to isolate the internal oblique and transverse abdominis, while very neat and clean in the lab, do not transfer well to the performance area. Is it important to understand scientific concepts? Yes, but we must not be restrained by them.

I remember scientists and academics publishing papers on the Fosbury Flop after Dick Fosbury won the 1968 Olympic gold medal in the high jump. The substance was that this was an inefficient, dangerous way to jump, merely an aberration that would soon go away.

Several years later, when a jumper using the Fosbury technique broke the world record, the same people published articles extolling the biomechanical advantage of the technique. But coaches and athletes understood from the beginning. It was more natural. They could see and feel it. It took advantage of body structure and function to effectively apply force against the ground.

Where would high jump performance be if we had listened to the initial response from scientists? Coaches and athletes lead innovation in training and technique, not scientists.

Most scientific studies are taken out of context of human movement demands. Science needs to measure an isolated component in order to conduct “valid” scientific experiments.

I understand those are the rules of the game for scientists, but in the real world of performance, the rules are different. On the field or in the pool, we cannot isolate variables. Does that mean we should reject science and rely solely on practice and experience? Absolutely not.

As coaches, we need to travel in both worlds. As a coach, statistical significance does not mean anything to me. I am interested in coaching significance and how it applies to making one particular exercise or training method more effective than another.

The great coaches I have known are both artists and scientists. They know what canvas to paint on, what brushes to select, which brush strokes to use, and how to blend the colors to achieve the desired result. We must get all the pieces working in harmony. In performance, the essence is linkage and connections, not isolation. Training should reflect this and focus on muscle synergies and connections.

I am alarmed with the one-sided training regimens I see imposed on athletes. If you are doing a lot of one thing, you are probably not doing a lot of something else. The result is a highly adapted athlete who adapts to the one component being trained. To thrive in the performance arena demands a highly adaptable athlete whose training reflects the demands of the sport and the needs of the individual.

Certainly, we are not going where no one else has gone before. We are not sailing uncharted waters–the path is clear, and the destination is obvious. That begs the questions: With all we know and all the supposed progress we have made, why are results so inconsistent? Why are preventable injuries reaching levels never seen before in sport? Do we need to take a different approach?

We must take a long look at what brought us to this point. Look back at what worked in the past. Look at those people who are producing consistent, reproducible results. We need direction, definition, and leadership, not more marketing and hype. We need to recognize and acknowledge the problems and address them with concrete solutions. To achieve this, we need to shift the focus back on people, not facilities, equipment, and training methods.

Coaching is a people profession–people working with people to raise performance levels. We must do everything possible to raise the standard of coaching.

We can change and we must change, or we will go the way of the dinosaur. I implore you to get out of the weight room, go back to the field, and build highly adaptable athletes who can thrive in the competitive arena.

FEEDBACK Masterpiece. – Phillip Bazzini, CSC

I appreciate this article. I am knowledgeable on Vern Gambetta’s philosophy and believe it to be key in recognizing the essential elements in bringing the best out of athletes. Very well written and I just wanted to give some positive feedback.

thank you,

– Diane Vives, MS, NSCA-CSCS Owner, Fit4Austin/Vives Training Systems Austin, TX

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