Interview with Vern Gambetta - Complementary Training
Interview with Vern Gambetta

Interview with Vern Gambetta

I have known Vern for couple of years mostly from his writings and books, but luckily I was introduced to Vern last summer in Boston by Carl Valle. We had a small round table discussion on everything (mostly technology since Carl was there). I have found common language in matter of seconds with Vern, mostly because we have read the same books. Our first discussion was constraints-led approach and ideas by professor Keith Davids (check the interview with professor Keith) while we were waiting for Carl, close to Harvard Football Field. 

Since Vern is really experienced coach and very knowledgeable guy, I decided to pick his brain with couple of questions. They say that common sense is not so common, but you will soon see how much common sense Vern possess. Vern was also kind enough to provide an extensive list of recommended reading at the end of the interview. Anyway, I hope I will have more opportunities to pick Vern’s brain, because I think this humble and very experienced coach has a lot to offer for up and coming young coaches. Enjoy the interview.

Vern Gambetta

Vern: Thanks for the opportunity I sincerely hope my answers will make people think and question the guruism and marketing that is so prevalent. I am not saying I am right, far from it, but please think and develop your own stem of training.

Mladen: Vern do you mind introducing yourself to the readers. You know, the basic stuff: who you are, what you do, and your short history/biography

Vern: I am currently the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. I have coached 42 years at all levels of competition. I have authored over 100 articles and nine books on various aspects of training. I received my BA from Fresno State University and my teaching credential with a coaching minor from University of California Santa Barbara. I attended Stanford University and obtained his MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education. My philosophy is quite simple: coach the best to be better. I have worked with a wide range of sports, but my foundation is Athletics, that is where I spent the first 16 years of my coaching career. You can’t get far away from the basics of running, jumping and throwing that is why my background as an Athletics coach is so important to me.

·         Track & Field: Coached at all levels. National Hurdle Coordinator. Editor of Track Technique, USA Track & Field Technical Journal. Editorial Advisory Board IAAF Technical Journal New Studies in Athletics. Division I Head Coach, Women’s Cross Country and Track & Field, University of California, Berkeley. Nike Oregon Project

·         Baseball: As Director of Conditioning for Chicago White Sox he pioneered conditioning for baseball with model program. Consultant to Cincinnati Reds, Director of Athletic development, New York Mets

·         Basketball: Assistant conditioning coach for Chicago Bulls. Conditioning coach for Canadian National men’s team and women’s team. Consultant to Milwaukee Bucks.

·         Soccer: Conditioning coach for Tampa Bay Mutiny. Consultant New England Revolution. Consultant to Chicago Fire  Consultant University of Virginia Women’s Soccer. Conditioning coach 1998 US men’s World Cup team. Consultant Chivas of Guadalajara. Consultant UNC Women’s Soccer.

·         Swimming: Consultant on dryland training to: Mission Viejo Natadores, Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins, University of Michigan Women’s Swimming, Harvard Women’s Swimming, Kenyon College Men’s and Women’s Swimming, Carmel Swim Club.

·         Competitive Athletic Career: Played Football at Fresno State. Competed in decathlon as a post collegian.

I have had the opportunity to for 42 years to prepare teams and individuals for the highest levels of competition in amateur and professional sport. The key to success at any level is a five-step process:

Prepare for the demands of the sport & positions/events in the sport

Meet the needs of the individual player

Have a detailed plan

Have a system to implement the plan

Objectively evaluate the results and adjust accordingly

It is a simple paradigm, but if you study successful teams and nations all those elements are evident. Just to compete in 2011 and beyond, much less win, we must train the complete athlete.

Mladen: In the current information age, there is information overflow and abundance and it is harder and harder to filter the good from mediocre and even wrong. Who do you turn to for the right information regarding training/coaching and how do you decide and filter all the information out there?

Vern: Know the foundational principles of training, understand them and apply them. Look closely at those systems and coaches that have produced consistent results over time. Not a one off success or someone blessed with talent, but someone who does the most with what they have. Gary Winckler sprint and hurdle coach, Jack Blatherwick Phd condtioning coach for many US National Hockey teams, Jerry Clayton throws coach at Auburn University. Look at guys like Frans Bosch& Kelvin Giles who are outside the norm, who have the audacity to question conventional wisdom. Look beyond the self-promotion, hype and marketing that are so prevalent today. Is there any there really there? I am interested in and look for substance not style. I look for people who have had many experiences, who have made mistakes and admit their mistakes and learn from them. I am not interested in dogma and those who preach one way. Over the course of my career I have observed that those who are generalist have the most to offer, they seem to be able to connect the dots and make connections between seemingly unrelated areas. Simon Sinek said it quite well: “Knowledge is understanding based on what has been studied and learned. Wisdom is understanding based on what has been felt and experienced.” Look for people with wisdom and hang out with them. Some of it will rub off.

Mladen: Today, more than ever, coaches are available with the right information and usually for free (if they know where to look for). With all that quality knowledge out there, available to everyone, what do you think what is the thing that actually makes the difference between 1st place and 2nd place, elite and mediocre? Is it technology/equipment, training program, psychology, mindset, team culture, recovery, monitoring, injury prevention, gene pool? What is your opinion on this?

Vern: Coaching! A great coach trumps all else. Those other things you mention are factors but in the end it comes down to quality coaching and a systematic approach to training and athlete development. Look around today and look back in the history of sport performance. Great consistent success is never about facilities or science it is about coaching. Look at the former GDR, no one could be a national coach until they were forty years old! Why because it took that long to gain the experience necessary to work with international athletes. Growing and developing great teams is a process, it takes time and patience. It happens run-by-run, throw-by-throw; jump-by-jump that is guided by someone with knowledge and a vision that can communicate the knowledge and vision.

Mladen: What are the problems of planning strategies (and solutions to them) in modern sport games (football, soccer, basketball, rugby, etc) compared to more traditional individual sports? Most, if not all, training wisdom comes from traditional sports with 2-3 times longer preparatory period to competition period with strictly defined peaks, meets and competition dates. Some of the solution for these situations involve complex-parallel and block (sequential) training system organization, but how can someone approach problems in modern sport games where preparatory period is actually 2-4 times SHORTER than competition period, and where is the constant need for providing good quality of play over long period of time? How can one apply this traditional wisdom in those situations?

Vern: We are dealing with a new reality, that is for sure but that does not mean conventional wisdom cannot be of use. Use conventional wisdom as a starting point. Preparation periods are passé, most of the time in high level sport you will be lucky to have six weeks without competition. Training principles are training principles, the body has not changed, what has changed is the demands we are placing on the body.  Remember Roger Bannister prepared to run the first sub four-minute mile by training one hour a day due to demands of medical school. I think of it as dividing training into bite sized chunks, very digestible. It requires tremendous organization and laser like focus. It must be highly individualized based on the physical qualities of the athlete and their position/event and how they play the game. Training is cumulative, appropriate stress consistently applied will have profound training effects. We can complain about the problem or we can do something about it. I prefer to do something about it.

Mladen: There is a huge emphasis on high intensity conditioning these days. You know, shuttles, tabatas, suicide drills. What happened to aerobic training and low intensity? Do they really kill speed and make you slow and fat?

Vern: Aerobic training is necessary; it is just where in the program it is placed and the training means used to achieve it. Sustained “slow slogging” will dull speed; the research is irrefutable on this. In a properly designed program all systems of the body should be trained during all phases of the training year. We need to forget energy systems and think more holistically about how the systems of the body interact. I think we need to look closely at the work of Tim Noakes and his colleagues in regard to “Central Governor” concept. There are answers there. We need to get away from the antiquated concept of VO2 max and realize and understand that the brain controls all. VO2 max is convenient to measure but virtually meaningless. I have been privileged to coach world-class athletes in explosive events and also coach world-class 10K and marathon runners, it always comes down to speed. It is so important to train speed in, to preserve speed, don’t compromise speed. Work capacity will accumulate from year to year, it is a process that takes time.

Mladen: Back to sport games again. One of the aspects of success in sport games, besides being quick and powerful (from physical preparedness standpoint) one needs the ability to repeat the bursts of high power output. Researchers call this RSA – Repeat Sprint Ability. It is especially important to be able to deliver quality efforts in repeated manner in the last parts of a game. How do you train for this?

Vern: Simple train it by doing different variations of repeat sprint work. Don’t make this real complicated, because it is not. Some of the so called “small sided” games also address RSA depending on how you define the constraints and dimensions of the field. Don’t do all RSA work in a straight line. Run curves and S patterns and base it closely on the game demands and where they play on the field and how they play. I think we must be careful here not to add stress to stress. What are they doing in the actual sport practice will go a long way to determine how much RSA work we can and should do.

Mladen: Everyone is into screening and stuff these days, injury prevention, posture, etc. It seems that physical preparation coaches are more and more becoming physical therapists. I see a lot of people doing corrective and stabilization stuff and less and less I see ‘animals’ doing great quality squats, cleans, hill sprints, etc.  

Vern: We are really fucked up right now in this regard. We are doing “corrective exercises” based on flawed biased movement screens to the exclusion of actual training. My philosophy is that training=testing and testing=training. Coach’s coach and therapists do therapy. As a coach I need to understand what the physio does, what is their domain and their skill set. The physio needs to understand that the coach is the captain of the ship. It is the coach who is ultimately responsible for performance. The athletic body is incredibly adaptive, great athletes are great compensators. If we wait for everything to perfect and aligned we will never compete. Use common sense and coach.

Mladen: What is your point on recovery methods, EMS, OmegaWave, HRV?

Vern: Do you mean recovery of recovery modes and monitoring methods? A lot of this depends on your circumstances and the support staff you have available. Most of the time I have been the lone ranger with no help so I had to keep it very basic. I strongly believe the younger the training age the less external means of recovery should be used. Recovery methods need to individualized and periodized. Some respond to ice baths others do not. We cannot apply recovery methods universally. This area has become a dark hole. First train hard enough to warrant recovery.

The key to management of the recovery process is a sound system of monitoring training to accurately assess the stress of training. Monitoring is analogous a compass that keeps training on the correct path.  It occurs on several levels, all of which are important.  The simplest level is just recording the results of the workout.  This is a dual responsibility –for the coach and the athlete, it is not an option, it is essential.  Monitoring does not always provide immediate feedback; it takes time for patterns to emerge even if you use the sophisticated technology you mentioned in your question.

Mladen: What are the good resources (books/DVDs) you can recommend to the readers of my blog?

Vern: Of course you should read my books (Shameless self promotion). Below is a list of reading that I recommend, of course there are many more, but this is a start. I read an average of two books a week and numerous research articles. That is something you must do as a professional. You must get off the Internet; just use that as a secondary resource and a guide. The Bosch DVD on Running is a must.

Bondarchuk, Anatoly P. Transfer of Training in Sports. Ultimate Athlete Concepts. Michigan, USA. 2007

Bosch, Frans., and Klomp, Ronald. Running – Biomechanics and exercise Physiology Applied in Practice. London. Elsevier Churchill Livingstone. 2005

Butler, David S. The Sensitive Nervous System. Adelaide, Australia: Noigroup Publications. 2000

Cardinale, Marco. Newton, Robert. And Nosaka, Kazunri. Strength and Conditioning – Biological Principles and Practical Application. Wiley-Blackwell. 2011

Davids, Keith. Button, Chris. Bennett, Simon. Dynamics of Skill Acquisition – A Constraints-Led Approach. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishing Company. 2008

Drabik, Jo’zef Ph.D., Children & Sports Training, Island Pond, Vermont: Stadion Publishing Company, Inc. 1996

Dominguez, Richard H. M.D., and Gajda, Robert S. Total Body Training. New York, N.Y: Warner Books,1982.

Enoka, Roger M. Neuromechanical Basis of Kinesiology Second Edition. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics Books, Inc.1994.

Garret, William E. and Kirkendall, Donald T. (Editors) Exercise and Sport Science, Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. 2000

Gambetta, Vernon A. Athletic Development – The Art & Science of Functional Sports Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishing Company. 2007

Gambetta, Vernon A. The Gambetta Method – A Common Sense Guide To Functional Training. Sarasota, Florida: Gambetta Sports Training Systems, Inc. 1998

Gabbard, Carl., Leblanc, Elizabeth., and Lowy, Susan. Physical Education for Children-Building the Foundation, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1987

Gustavsen R, Streeck R: Training Therapy; Prophylaxix and Rehabilitation. New York: Thieme Medical Publishers 1993

Issurin, Valdimir. Principles and Basics of Advanced Athletic Training. Ultimate Athlete Concepts. Michigan, USA. 2008

Kreighbaum, Ellen and Barthels, Katharine M. Biomechanics – A Qualitative Approach for Studying Human Movement. Fourth edition. Boston, Allyn and Bacon. 1996.

Komi, P. V., Editor,(Second Edition) Strength and Power In Sport, London: Blackwell Scientific Publications. 2003

Lederman, Eyal. Neuromuscular Rehabilitation in Manual and Physical Therapies – Principles to Practice, Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone – Elsevier. 2010

Logan, Gene A. and McKinney, Wayne C. Kinesiology.  Wm. C. Brown Company Publishers. 1970

McArdle, William D. Katch, Frank I. And Katch, Victor L. (2007) Sixth Edition. Exercise Physiology – Energy, Nutrition and Human Performance. Baltimore, MD. Williams & Wilkins.

Newton, Robert U. Expression and Development of Maximal Muscle Power. Doctoral Dissertation, Southern Cross University, 1997

Radcliffe, James C. and Faentinos, Robert C. (1999) High- Powered Plyometrics. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishing Company.

Renshaw, Ian. Davids, Keith. And Savelsbergh, Editors. Motor Learning in Practice – A Constraints –led approach.  London, England: Routledge Taylor & Francis group.  2010

Scholich, Manfred. (1986) Circuit Training. Berlin: Sportverlag

Schultz, R. Louis. And Feitis, Rosemary. The Endless Web – Fascial Anatomy and Physical Reality. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books. 1996

Starzynski, Tadeusz. And Sozanski, Henryk. (1999) Explosive Power and Jumping Ability for all Sports. Island Pond, VT: Stadion Publishing Company.

Todd, Mabel E. The Thinking Body. Princeton Book Company Publishers. Highston, NJ. 1937

Winters, Jack M. and Woo, Savio L-Y. Multiple Muscle Systems – Biomechanics and Movement Organization. New York, New York: Springer-Verlag. 1990

Recommended Historical Works – Game Changers

Bunn, John. (1955) Scientific Principles of Coaching

Dintiman, (1974) George B. What Research Tells The Coach About Sprinting AAHPER, Washington, D.C. 1974

Doherty, Ken. (1985) Track & Field Omnibook (Fourth Edition

Doherty, Ken. (1963) Modern Track & Field

Counsilman, James E. (1968) The Science of Swimming

Dyson,Geoffrey H.G. (1977) The Mechanics of Athletics

Hoffman, Bob. (1959) Better Athletes Trough Weight Training

Jesse, John (1977) Hidden causes of injury, prevention, and correction for running athletes. 

Knotts, Dorothy E. and Voss, Margaret. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation: Patterns and Techniques

O’ Shea, Patrick. (1976) Second Edition. Scientific Principles and Methods of Strength Fitness.

Wilt, Fred. (1964) Run Run Run

Recommended Readings on Coaching Excellence

Collins, Jim Good to Great Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins. 2001

Collins, Jim Why the Mighty Fail. New York: Harper Collins. 2009

Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House.2006

Esquith, Rafe. Teach Like Your Hairs on Fire. New York: Penguin Books. 2007

Farr, Steven. Teaching as leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2010

Gardner, Howard. Five Minds for the Future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 2006

Godin, Seth.  Linchpin. New York: The Penguin Group. 2007

Hargadon, Andrew. How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 2003

Heath, Chip & Dan. Switch – How to Change Things When Change is Hard. New York. Braodway Book. 2010

Hsieh, Tony. Delivering Happiness – A Path To Profits, Passion, And Purpose. New York. Business Plus. 2010

Johansson, Frans. The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 2003

Kelly, Tom. The Art of Innovation. New York: Doubleday. 2001

Leonard, George. Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment. New York: Penguin Books USA.1992

Leonard, George. The Way of Aikido: Life Lessons from an American Sensei. New York: Penguin Books USA. 2000

Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind – Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. New York: Riverhead Books. 2005

Pink, Daniel H. Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books. 2009


I am a physical preparation coach from Belgrade, Serbia, grew up in Pula, Croatia (which I consider my home town). I was involved in physical preparation of professional, amateur and recreational athletes of various ages in sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball, martial arts and tennis. Read More »