The Complete Athlete

While many athletes impress with a few flash moves, the best are those who can do it all. Here are the pitfalls to avoid and the best way to develop an all-around athlete.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at

Training & Conditioning, 11.2, March 2001,

Where have all the athletes gone? At first, that may seem like a very naive—or wildly exaggerated—statement, but let’s examine it further. We have basketball players who can slam dunk but cannot execute a basic pivot move; quarterbacks who can throw a seventy-yard pass but can’t avoid an onrushing lineman; baseball players who can hit forty-plus home runs in a single season but who cannot play defense.

How have we gotten to this state? What is missing?

In a word, athleticism. We know it when we see it. We all talk about it. But what is it? Why is it declining? And, how do we reverse this decline and develop athleticism in our athletes?

Let’s begin by defining the term. Given its widespread use in the world of sports performance, I was surprised that I was unable to find an acceptable definition, so I came up with the following: Athleticism is the ability to execute a series of movements at optimum speed with precision, style, and grace.

It is certainly not a complicated definition. It is easy to see when someone has athleticism. But throughout the world of sport, even though performance standards continue to skyrocket, we are seeing less and less athleticism. Why? There are several factors that have led to the decline in athleticism. Here are the main ones, with some suggestions of what can be done to correct them.

Causes and Remedies
Early specialization in one sport and even in one position or event within a sport is a serious problem that has contributed to this decline. This is the downside of the emphasis on specificity in training as well as the emphasis on early specialization. Sometimes we are led to believe it is an either/or proposition. Produce a better athlete, or produce a better sport player with refined specific skills—but you can’t have both. But, ultimately, athletes must have both—the goal is to produce the best possible athlete who plays a particular sport. In this way, not only will performance be enhanced, but injuries will be reduced.

Some people argue that there is an apparent conflict in terms of time and effort. ‘With the same amount of training time available, it’s just not possible to train to improve athleticism without sacrificing specific-skill training,’ they say. Again, we need to eliminate the distinction—the two are not mutually exclusive. They are co-dependent and intertwined—one enhances the other. Training must have a purpose. Mainly, the training must transfer to the game. With a base of athleticism, specific training will be even more purposeful.

Many people have forgotten about the importance of the broader range of motor skills developed through free play and of exposure to many varied motor programs. There should be time within the context of the existing structure of any training program to fit in athleticism components. It just needs to be made a priority.

The New York Times sports pages of Sunday, November 12, 2000, had a great article on University of Connecticut women’s basketball that highlighted the value of athleticism. There was a section on Kelly Schumacher, the starting center, who attended a small school in Quebec where she participated in a number of sports.

“Unlike athletes from larger cities who often are forced to specialize early,” the article stated, “Schumacher played a number of sports at tiny Pontiac High School in the town of Shawville, where she was part of a graduating class of 50. Soccer helped her footwork and agility. Volleyball refined her timing for blocking shots in basketball. She won a tennis tournament in her first attempt, her mother recalled, and she made an intimidating opponent in badminton. She even learned to play the fiddle, and step dancing honed her keen sense of balance.” No doubt, all of these experiences helped make her one of today’s top college women’s basketball players.

One-sided training with an emphasis on one or two components of performance rather than a blend. The components of performance, and therefore training, are speed, strength, stamina, suppleness, skill, and recovery. There is a synergistic relationship among all components; therefore, all components must be trained during all phases of the year in varying combinations.

The Highlight-Play Syndrome has led to an erosion of fundamentals. The young athlete is trying to be spectacular rather than fundamentally sound. But games are made up of hundreds of average plays that are more important than the one highlight that gets on television. Focusing on good, sound athletic development will prepare the athlete to make the average play consistently and the spectacular play when needed.

“Monkey See—Monkey Do” Syndrome. Just because an athlete or a team has been successful with a particular training method does not mean that the method is the best or that it should be copied. It is my experience that many athletes and teams are successful in spite of, not because of, their training. Make sure that what you are doing is based on sound training principles and a good progression.

Nobody gets hurt, but nobody gets better. Training that is so conservative or narrow that the athlete is never challenged will not produce results. The justification for many machine-oriented strength-training programs is that they are “safe.” In fact, they might actually predispose the athlete to injury because they fail to challenge his or her athleticism.

Further, the fact that we live, work, and play in a gravitationally enriched environment cannot be denied. Over-reliance on machines will give us a false sense of security because they negate some of the effects of gravity. Gravity and its effects must be a prime consideration when designing and implementing a functional training program; otherwise, we are not preparing the body for the forces that it must overcome. We cannot ignore gravity; it is essential for movement. Therefore, we must learn to overcome its effects, cheat it, and even defeat it occasionally.

A Return to Athleticism
It is always easy and convenient to look to the “good old days” as being better. But, sometimes, it really is worthwhile to look back to gain perspective and insight into how to move ahead. The simple fact is that before the advent of specialization, athletes at the high school level, and even at the college level, participated in several sports. It was not unusual to see a high school athlete play football, basketball, and baseball, or run track. The athlete may not have been as good in any one sport early on, but once he or she did choose to specialize, he or she had a broader base of motor skills to draw upon to enhance specific sport skill. We cannot go backward, but we must look for ways to enhance athleticism that has been lost due to early specialization.

The basis of training athleticism is rooted in running, jumping, and throwing—three actions that encompass the whole spectrum of human movement. It is imperative to look for every opportunity to incorporate these elements in all aspects of training. This doesn’t mean a whole new set of training exercises and drills. Keep in mind the saying, “You don’t need to see different things, but rather to see things differently.”

Athleticism can be developed through a systematic approach to athlete development (see Sidebar “Fitting in Athleticism,” at the end of this article). Specific sport skills are a combination of patterns of complex motor programs. They are patterns that can be reproduced when we tap into the wisdom of the body. Through experiencing all different patterns of movement we learn to let things happen. We learn to let the motor program run efficiently. We learn how best to cue an action that will result in a “chain reaction” of efficient movement. In order to develop this fluidity and improvisational skills, we need to emphasize a free-play approach.

The body is built on a link system, often referred to as the kinetic chain. Athleticism training is all about linkage—all the parts of the chain working together in harmony to produce smooth, efficient patterns of movement. The brain does not recognize individual muscles. It recognizes patterns of movement, which consist of the individual muscles working in harmony to produce movement.

Should we try to teach every movement and then coach it? Or, should we allow the athlete the joy of discovery through exploration? There seems to be a concern about athletes getting it wrong. But, what is wrong? In all athletic endeavors, there must be a spontaneity and anticipation, not a robotic, programmed approach. It has been my experience working with athletes at all levels in a wide variety of sports that athletes will find their own best way of doing something if they are put in a position where they have to adapt. We need to encourage an extemporaneous approach that will allow each athlete to develop his or her way to solve the problems presented in sport activities—much like a great jazz musician improvises.

Understanding and training athleticism is a challenging process. It demands creativity and imagination. It is often contrary to conventional wisdom as represented in current mainstream sport science research that emphasizes specificity and measurable outcomes. Do not be limited. Use conventional wisdom as a starting point and move forward while thinking and acting outside the box. You and your athletes will more greatly enjoy the day-to-day challenges of training—ultimately resulting in a higher, more injury-free level of performance.

Sidebar - Fitting In Athleticism
Where do you put athleticism training in a team workout? Start with the first step of the workout. You need to warm up every day before every training session. Make the warmup the start of your daily dose of athleticism training. An extensive, well-planned, dynamic warmup can set the tempo for that day’s practice. This should consist of a variety of running patterns, skips of all different varieties, side-stepping, and backward runs. These all should be done in a progressive manner with one movement flowing into the other. Have your student-athletes warm up in this way every day and you’ll soon see a positive training effect.

I think it is best to develop various modules that address each of the fundamental movements that are the precursors for sport skill. I suggest that you have two to three modules that you can utilize both in warmup and that are then also spaced at strategic intervals throughout practice.

Let’s take balance as an example. The following balance modules were developed by Steve Myrland of Myrland Sports Training in Madison, Wisc.:

Basic Balance (do these drills on firm, flat ground):
Static balance (standing still) on each foot.

Progress to barefoot, repeat with eyes closed, then add an unstable surface such as a foam pad.

Dynamic Balance
Forward step to balance on each foot
Backward step to balance on each foot
Lateral step to balance on each foot
Transverse step (turn and step) to balance on each

Repeat with eyes closed, then add an unstable surface such as a foam pad.

Ballistic Balance
Forward bound to balance on each foot
Lateral bound to balance on each foot
Backward bound to balance on each foot
Transverse (turn and bound) to balance on each foot

Balance Circuit
Stepping Stones (place a group of small medicine
balls unevenly spaced about two to four feet
apart; the athlete must step from one to the
other without touching the ground)
Balance Beam
Foam Roller
Foam Pad
The footwork component of agility can be addressed daily through use of the agility ladder. The following are three footwork modules that can be used as part of a warmup or incorporated as breaks throughout practice:

Agility Ladder Footwork Module I
Forward 2 In
Forward 1 In
Lateral 2 In
In/In - Out

Agility Ladder Footwork Module II
Two ladders three-to-five meters apart
Any combination of drills
Pick four to five drills (repeat each drill twice)

Agility Ladder Footwork Module III
Forward 2 In - Sprint Out - Inside Turn and Sprint
Lateral 2 In - Sprint Out - Plant and Sprint Back
Shuffle - Sprint Out - Step Over and Sprint Back

Combining Skills
Another great daily athleticism activity is jumping rope. It develops hand/eye and hand/foot coordination and combines the elements of balance and footwork. It is also more beneficial than jogging to raise core temperature. Use a variety of patterns of jumps. Follow that with two to three sets of multi-direction jumps. These consist of a jump forward immediately followed by a jump sideways, followed a jump sideways in the opposite direction, followed by a jump back.