Jan 29, 2015
The Right Route

Different athletes sometimes need different routes to reach the same goals. Here’s how to map out an effective training plan for any situation.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta is President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning. His daily thoughts on training athletes can be viewed on his blog at: www.functionalpathtraining.blogspot.com.

It has been said that even the longest journey begins with a single step, but most journeys actually begin long before the first footprint is laid. Few people would embark on a trip without first plotting their way, usually with help from maps or travel guides. The same holds true for functional training programs.

Whether you’re planning a summer vacation or a training program, you must begin by clearly identifying your origin and destination. Only then can you devise the best way to get from one to the other.


When examining a roadmap, you usually find many routes to your intended destination. Options typically include a fast route with several shortcuts, a scenic route with some side trips, and a direct route with very few twists and turns. Each choice has its advantages and disadvantages, depending on the priorities you set.

If this is your first trip to your destination, you may want to take more time and travel the scenic route. If it’s a trip you’ve made many times before, you’ll probably prefer the fastest route. If you don’t like highways, you’ll stay on the two-lane roads.

As coaches, we have all been guilty of tethering ourselves to a particular training method or exercise to help athletes prepare for their sport. In doing so, we sometimes overlook possibly better routes to the destination.

On the surface, this approach can appear to produce great gains, especially with younger athletes. When athletes show improvement due to normal growth and development, we sometimes mistakenly credit it to the one-dimensional training method being used. This leads the athlete down a one-way, dead-end street, which confuses and ultimately hinders their athletic development. Once they’ve maxed out the gains they can make from normal growth and development, their one-dimensional training leaves them little opportunity for further progress.

If we take a step back and examine the process rather than the results, we will quickly realize we are creating an athlete who has adapted to the chosen training method or selection of exercises. Instead, what we really want is an athlete who’s adaptable to a broad range of activities. That’s the only way they’ll develop a movement skill set that allows them to meet all the physical demands of competition.

How many times have we seen football players who can lift weights like nobody’s business, but are busts on the field? They work harder than anyone else in the weightroom and top all the lifting charts. Yet once the game starts, they find themselves on the bench because they can’t get out of their own way. They have adapted to the weightroom instead of the playing field, which is where they really need to perform. They’ve followed the map, but ended up at the wrong destination.

As helpful as road maps are in planning a journey, they have one major limitation–they are flat. Being one-dimensional, a road map does not show the terrain you must traverse. There is simply not enough detail to help you make a good decision in choosing a route, so you need more information. Someone who has traveled your route before can tell you what obstacles or difficulties they ran into.

Another idea is to get a better map. A three-dimensional relief map, or at the very least, a topographical map, will give you an idea of the elevation changes and obstacles you could face. A good map will also tell you where the restaurants, rest stops, and motels are along the way. It will warn of detours or road construction that could delay the journey.

These are the types of maps you want to use in athletic development. Your maps should outline the functional path to the destination of a complete athlete. They should provide all the information you need so that the finished product is highly adaptable to all the demands of the sport.


Each journey is unique, even if the destination is not. Sometimes the weather will be clear, other times stormy. Sometimes construction or a special event may slow you down or steer you toward another route. If you’re taking a fully loaded truck, you’ll probably want to take a different route than if you have a sports car.

Similarly, no two athletes are the same. Even when it appears they’re going to the same destination, they may need to get there via different routes. Each sport has unique demands, as does each position or event within a sport. Developing athletic performance is a complex process with seemingly endless variables in play.

However, to make the journey more manageable, you must look for similarities in movements and common characteristics between sports and individual positions. If you don’t, the complexity will be too great. You’ll either get lost entirely or revert to a one-dimensional training philosophy and trade effectiveness for simplicity.

Regardless of the destination, the most effective roads on the functional path are progressive and sequential, giving the athlete increasingly difficult movement problems to solve, a process known as adaptation. The body is highly adaptable, and if left to its own devices, will find a way to get the job done. We do not need a detailed script or a paint-by-numbers approach. That only stifles an athlete’s creativity and limits their natural movement patterns. Still, you must have a well-planned progression that builds on previous gains to keep the athlete moving forward.

There will be speed limits, red lights, and construction zones along the way, all of which must be accounted for. While it may be tempting to ignore those limits, doing so may actually slow you down if you end up being pulled over for speeding, find yourself breaking down, or get into an accident. Similarly, if you rush the adaptation process by having athletes try to lift too much, too soon or move on to more complex movements before mastering basic ones, you risk doing more harm than good. Only the proper progression will lead you to your ultimate athletic destination.

When determining the best way to progress an athlete’s development, remember that the key is enhancing his or her physical literacy. This is a term coined by Kelvin Giles, an innovator and pioneer in athletic development, who maintains that attempting performance enhancement without developing physical literacy is like trying to write a novel without first mastering the alphabet.

Obtaining physical literacy starts with establishing the physical competencies that give direction and individuality to the athletic development process. These are the basic ABCs that the athlete must master before moving onto more complex movements–pulling movements, pushing movements, stepping, jumping, and hopping.

We combine and enhance letters to form words and sentences, then paragraphs and chapters and books. Likewise, enhancing individual skills and chaining them together then laying sports skills on top, makes an athlete physically literate.

The athlete is a living, dynamic system and learns partially through repetition and trial and error. But he or she also has the ability to process information on many different levels and use feedback to produce efficient, coordinated athletic movement on demand. As training allows for greater and greater adaptation, we have to teach the athlete to raise the bar in order to achieve higher and higher levels of performance.


On any trip, we naturally self-correct by constantly seeking input from road signs, landmarks, and people we meet along the way. It’s the way we know that we are on the right track to our destination.

I once heard a presentation about the Apollo moon rockets, and the speaker made a statement that was alarming to me at the time but which makes a lot of sense now. He said that while on their missions to the moon, the rockets were off course 98 percent of the time. They obviously got to their destination and did so within the allotted timeframe, the key being that the computers controlling the rockets were constantly self-correcting in order to get there.

In athletic development, we have to realize that athletes are very much like the Apollo moon rockets. As coaches, we must seek constant input and recognize that correcting will always be necessary. We need to understand that process and not be discouraged by it. If you have built-in feedback mechanisms that allow you to self-correct along the way, you’ll most likely stay on the intended path.

A global positioning system in your car provides immediate feedback about where you are in relation to your destination. When coaching an athlete, you need the same type of monitoring a GPS can provide. This means constantly watching the timing of repetitions, weight loads, and the exertion required to complete an exercise. Based on what you see you’ll make corrections along the way by modifying an exercise here or there, or changing the amount of weight on subsequent lifts.

Before global positioning systems, compasses were the best way to stay on course, and they still provide an important lesson for developing athletic performance. In navigation there is a magnetic north, which is the direction a compass points, and there is true north, where the directional star points on a map. They’re usually close in proximity, but rarely are they exactly the same, so when we navigate, we have to account for the difference between them to stay on course.

In training for athletic performance, true north is the training goal for the athlete’s body. Magnetic north is the direction laid out by the demands of competition. In order to properly enhance athletic performance, we must be able to recognize and reconcile the difference between the two.

When traveling and training, we also need a timeframe to get to our destination. In training, these parameters are typically determined by the length of the competitive season and the amount of time the athlete spends in the off-season. Arriving at the destination precisely on the chosen day or time is important to the outcome of the journey.

Accomplishing that means timing your arrival correctly at various points along the way. Poor planning of these interval stops can negatively impact your trip. For example, if you arrive at a hotel to sleep at 3:30 a.m. and you have to get up again at 6:30 a.m., you will likely be too tired to drive safely. The same thing occurs in training when we spend too much time on one component and do not have enough time to recover properly for the next, negatively affecting performance.


The athletic development process is not linear–it is a sinusoidal process. There are ups and downs, and judging an athlete’s progress using a quick snapshot can be deceiving.

If we’re not thinking long term, we are really shortchanging the athlete’s potential for reaching his or her peak level of performance. Growth and development are big parts of this process because during this phase the athlete is highly adaptive.

Similarly, when taking a journey, you don’t just transport yourself instantly from Point A to Point B–you progress there over time. Simply looking at the amount an athlete has lifted or their latest 40 time provides a skewed picture of performance gains. That’s why it’s important to keep the big picture in mind and recognize the interaction of the various biomotor qualities and how they are ultimately synergistic.

In developing athletic performance, adaptability results from the interaction of and coordination between all the biomotor qualities–speed, strength, endurance, power, flexibility, and skill. All of these interact to produce athletic movement. No one of them is more important than another. If you train speed, you will affect endurance. If you train endurance, you will affect speed. Or when we’re doing highly ballistic work in the weightroom, there may also be some range-of-motion adaptations occurring in the background.

As a professional who has been in the field for more than 38 years, I know there are no secrets, no shortcuts, and no one-size-fits-all answers. A journey on the functional path is a complex one with many different solutions and many ways to reach the final destination within the desired timeframe. But it is crucial to understand the principles of adaptation in order to set sound goals and find the right ways to apply methodology to the athletes you are working with.

Following the functional path is a journey to new territory where we can help the athlete reach the final destination of athletic excellence. The key is drawing a map that will help them explore and find their limits, then testing those limits on a consistent basis to achieve an even higher level of performance.

The true joy in athletic performance training is the joy of discovery–of finding new ways to do and to solve movement problems. This is an exciting process. It is a growth process that allows for creativity and individual expression. Enjoy the journey, and the destination will be more meaningful and satisfying when you get there.

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