Dan Baker Interview


Dan Baker is the Strength coach for the Brisbane Broncos (Australian Rugby League) In my eyes he is the consummate professional. He just completed his PhD under Rob Newton at Edith Cowan University. It was a joy watching the strength training sessions this past May when I was with the Broncos. His ideas and concepts could have a huge impact in American football,but it would require a huge paradigm shift and a distinct change in mindset. He has certainly made me rethink my approach. Enjoy this interview Dan really took a lot of time to answer the questions.

What are most essential requirements for a successful conditioning program?
An analytical, holistic approach to programming based upon the sports movements, forces, speeds and work dynamics (like work:rest ratio etc) should deliver a good program. What you also need is a fully supportive head or skills coach, a supportive administration to fund it and athletes with a good work ethic to enthusiastically implement the program. It is especially important that the senior athletes or best athletes have enthusiasm for the program because it they don’t, then that attitude permeates to the other athletes.

What are the most common mistakes in conditioning?
In resistance training, I find that coaches are influenced in their prescriptions by four broad philosophies – 1: the bodypart philosophy, derived from a bodybuilding influence, which is typified by prescribing exercises that train the same muscles used in the sport but with little regard for other factors. For example, leg press, leg extensions and leg curls may be typically be prescribed for lower body training. 2: the “core & stability” philosophy, derived, originally at least, from physiotherapists and Pilates types. It typically entails exercises that train the body with unstable situations such as with Swiss balls, bosus etc. The underlying beliefs of this method are that if the body is more stable from doing these exercises, it will transfer better to all sports skills. 3: The heart rate philosophy, which is an older philosophy, based upon the fact that in some sports such as soccer, rugby union & league, wrestling, boxing etc, the HR is typically >165 beats per minute – therefore your resistance training should mimic this situation, most likely through circuit training with high reps and short rest periods, so that the strength adaptations occur in a nature that is specific (HR-wise) to the sport. 4: Movements and kinetics. This philosophy is based upon prescribing to train the movements of the sports, the forces and speeds encountered or generated in the sport.

In my opinion, the last of these (movements and kinetics philosophy) is the best way to analyze and train athletes. You can utilize some aspects of the others such as some circuits are necessary for strength-endurance etc (from the HR philosophy), but I think it is a mistake to be beholden to the core and stability philosophy or the HR philosophy, without consideration to the sports movements or the forces or speeds. I never actually think of bodypart training at all.

For conditioning training, especially in Australia at least, the biggest mistake is too be overly influenced by other sports programs when they do not directly apply. We should take what we need, not everything. For example, in Australia we have always had a successful background in endurance sports such as distance running, swimming, cycling, rowing and triathlons, especially the last four sports. But their endurance performance is based upon a critical speed – the athletes race at a relatively steady speed, the highest they can maintain for the race (sure they have a few speed spurts here & there, but it is relatively steady). It is nothing like soccer, rugby union/league, Australian football, field hockey, boxing etc which are more intermittent with important explosive bursts that come at unpredictable times for unpredictable durations with decisions to be made under the fog of fatigue or game pressure. So I see the biggest mistake as to much critical speed or anaerobic threshold training for intermittent sport athletes. Tied in with this coaches may say, for example, soccer is an predominantly aerobic game with 10-12 km’s in distance covered in a professional game – “So let’s go for a 10-12 km run”. It just does not take into account all the changes in speed, direction, work time at very high intensity and so on that actually occur during a soccer game.

What is “functional training” from your point of view?
Analyzing the sport, you see how the body “functions” to complete the various sports tasks – then you program accordingly. What are the functions occurring in the sport – pushing, pulling, leg drive, lunging or braking, jumping, twisting, and throwing or whatever they may be. If those are the tasks involved in the sport, then those should be the tasks involved in training. We just apply a form of overload in training to these tasks to ensure a positive adaptation so that the sports tasks then become easier to perform. The overload modality can take many different forms (weight, speed, reps, decreased recovery time etc).

If you don’t look at the sports tasks, then you will probably just program using the body part approach – eg. leg press, leg extension, leg curl 3-4 sets x 8-12 reps. How many programs look like that? This basic body part approach is training, but it is not functional or good training for increasing sports performance.

What do you do to make training more functional?
Again, I look at the tasks involved and also the resistances to be overcome and movement speeds and power outputs and program according to what I feel are necessary. I really emphasize power output as much as possible during most (but not all) tasks, be it ballistic power (20-40% 1RM), maximal power (40-60% 1RM) or explosive power (60-80% 1RM) in all athletes. Also in my athletes (rugby league players) the ability to “easily” overcome a resistance equal to the bodyweight of their opponent in as many different exercises (movements/functions) as possible is a key functional requirement.

Whatever the exercise or how it is varied, I try and explain why we are doing it, with a sports example. So some exercises may be a hanging rings push-up to archer or power snatch because that helps protect the arm during a bad tackle situation (ie. when the arm is hanging out like a turnstile while the opponent runs into it). If we are doing clean or snatch pulls the explanation is simple “ Because this exercise trains your leg drive and trains you to smash your opponent and lay down some pain on him”. That is the function of the exercise and how it relates to the sports task of smashing your opponent and driving him backwards. Blokes understand simple explanations like that.

How important is specificity?
Exercises can have general, special or specific effects. Specificity is important, as outlined above, but so are some general exercises that lay down the foundation (technical or strength foundation) for the successful completion of special or specific exercises/effects. Every exercise I put in is important – some more important than others, some more specific than others. But too much general training, especially for the lower body is not helpful. You have to look at the sport. In my sport I say the full squat and Romanian deadlifts develop the basic general quality of lower body maximal strength, extensions of those exercises such as jump squats and clean/snatch pulls or power cleans attempt to transfer that quality into the special requirement of explosive power and exercises with the legs in an alternating or split position further transfer that power into more specific sports situations or positions. That is why we do a lot of split leg exercises (eg. cleans finishing in a split, split jerks, split leg push press, alternating leg jump squats, lunges, step-ups) or conversely split arm exercises (alternating arm versions of presses and rows) and so on.

What aspect of conditioning athletes is most difficult and how haveyou tried to address it?
Flexibility is one of the most difficult things because it can be boring or less challenging to the mindset of a motivated athlete – accordingly they do not do it well. That is why I like mobility training more; you are moving and stretching at the same time. You can also incorporate sports skills into mobility training, like reaching up or down to catch balls etc. Flexibility with PNF or static stretches are still necessary, especially for some problematic areas, but mobility training is more fun and dare I say “functional”. If you have a good mobility program, then you can do far less of the “boring” static or PNF stretching.

The other area is to utilize high intensity aerobic conditioning. As explained above, most field sports in Australia and other places, embraced too much training around the critical speed or “anaerobic threshold”, which may for example be equal to about 85% of the Maximal Aerobic Speed (MAS). It is more important to work in the maximal zone (92-100% MAS) or above it (100-130% MAS) for short periods (15-30 s) with an equal amount of active recovery intervals at 70% MAS (or less) for field or court sport athletes. Getting athletes or other coaches to embrace this methodology has been difficult, because historically they have not done it. Dean Benton really got the coach and players to embrace it when he joined. For years I couldn’t get the shift to occur, other coaches preferred the longer intervals at 85%. But our team was less successful for 2-3 years (which for us means we did not win the championship, even though we always made the final play-offs), so it sort of became obvious that we needed to change the methodology of our energy system conditioning, both aerobic and anaerobic, to go to the next level. Losses that hurt can also allow you to make the necessary changes – they make you go to the Big House of Mirrors so you can have a good, long, hard look at yourself from every different angle, not just in the mirrors that you like.

With the plethora of information available how can you determine what is best?
There is a saying I got from another website, which goes something like “New good training information or methods does not invalidate or replace good older, training information or methods, it just adds to it.”

I look at who is providing the information and who is it aimed at. Is the provider a personal trainer or a sports performance / strength & conditioning / athletic development coach. If it is the former, I don’t pay too much attention, unless it appears really different or revolutionary. If it is the latter, I look at the level of athletes that they work with (or have worked with) and who the information is deigned to help such as junior athletes, emerging elite, elite professional and so on. I just try and imagine how that information would fit into my programs. Would it alter them? For example, if it has to do with resistance training would this information affect how I prescribe my 8 training variables of 1. Exercise 2. Sets 3. Reps. 4. Resistance 5. Lifting speed 6. Rest /recovery periods 7. Order of exercises or 8. Periodization strategy, which is how the first 7 variable come together over a few weeks to months. So if the information does not make me alter any of those variables for any of the athletes I train, then it is of no practical use to me as a strength & conditioning coach. It may be of interest to me in my very part time role as an academic, but if it is not changing my programming, then it is no use to me as a S & C C.

Where do you stand on nature versus nurture? How much difference can training make?
The late Bruce Walsh, a prominent figure in the development of S & C in Australia and a national Olympic weight-lifting team coach once said during a roundtable discussion on the topic at an ASCA national conference “You can’t make strawberry jam out of pig-shit”, implying you can only get so far with poor quality ingredients. I agree, but you also have to play with the cards you are dealt. If these are athletes the coach has chosen, then I will endeavor to make them the best athletes they can be for the sport they are in. Training can make a huge difference and I would rather have an athlete with less genetic potential but a great work ethic and attitude than a gifted athlete with a poor attitude. I have a saying that I give the latter “ Where are you going to be in 10-15 years? Sitting on a bar stool in a dingy pub with a fat ugly whingeing wife and two rotten mis-behaving kids, wondering what could of been if only you had applied yourself better at training? Or will you become a professional athlete with all the riches and trappings that it brings because you embraced hard work and got the most out of your natural talent?” Because I have seen the unfortunate scenario happen to a number of talented “next best things” who thought it would all come so easily and they didn’t have to train much at all or train hard.

My other related saying is “The only place that success comes before work is the dictionary”. So for me, work ethic is important. Talent/genetics just gets you invited to the awards ceremony – hard work will help you pick up the gongs once you are there.

What is the sure sign that a self proclaimed conditioning guru is not a good source of advice?
The saying “self praise is no praise at all” comes to mind. Really I think it is similar to my answer up above – who are they, what athletes have they trained, has it been done drug free (unlike personal training or bodybuilding), have they done it for years? I don’t like the word guru because it tends to imply an almost mystical knowledge that other, “less worthy” coaches do not possess. I tend to think of another word like sensei is more apt than guru because while people think sensei means “master” or “teacher”, I believe it more accurately translates as “one who has gone before” or “one who can show the way” – ie. a sensei can show the way through experience and knowledge. Can the self proclaimed guru do that? Have they the experience? A coach should be judged by their peer coaches and by the athletes they have trained, across a period of time.

What do you differently with the female athlete in terms of conditioning?
I don’t train female athletes anymore but when I did, these were the things that I did differently. 1. Be aware of the changing Q angle with female teenage athletes as it negatively affects running, jumping and landing mechanics, which in turn can cause a lot of knee and hip pain. So there are times you need to really alter the training plan to help them cope, especially in sports with repetitive running and direction changes (eg. soccer, field hockey) and jumping (eg. diving, basketball, volleyball). 2. I used a different coaching persona – more empathetic and less disciplinarian – because back then even getting females involved in resistance training or hard conditioning was fairly new (to them) and I wanted to be as supportive as possible to keep them involved and not get scared off because they had some nasty S & C C. 3. Aligned with this, give them belief that they can gain upper body strength (them = “but I am weak!”…. me = “but you can become stronger”). 4. Also aligned with this be careful or sensitive of body image issues. 5. Ask permission to touch if you deem it necessary to help explain technique etc. and make sure it is never done alone!!!!! While I never had any problems dealing with female athletes, I have heard horror stories about coaches who made mistakes regarding points 4 & 5 and there have been some big court cases in Australia concerning them.

What has been the biggest innovation in training that you have seen during the course of your career and where is the biggest room for innovation in training athletes?
The biggest innovations have been in technology, not really methodology. Definitely the areas of measurement and recovery. We now have various power measurement devices like GymAware, Ballistic Resistance Trainer, Tendodyne, Myotech etc that let us know the speed or power or height jumped for every set we do. No more “I think that looked more powerful”, it either was or was not. The accountability of your programming – determining what works, what does not – goes through the roof. A lot of my academic publications are simply testing of different power training methods or theories to see if they really work and should I continue or not to use them (I got sick of waiting for exercise science academics to do this sort of applied research, they were still busy playing around with isokinetic leg extensions and curls, so I basically did the research myself). The other measurement modalities like light gates and switch mats for speed and agility have become ubiquitous, but when I started it was stopwatches! Even heart monitors, you see them on teenagers now, but again when I started it was fingers on the carotid pulse for 15 seconds and multiply by 4 to determine the heart rate. I think in sports like soccer and other field and court sports, the use of GPS and other data sensors (accelerometers, gyroscopes etc) to monitor players’ movements and distances, forces and body positions has and will continue to be a major growth area. For example, the former S & C C for the Australian cricket team had to fight tooth and nail to get recovery days after 1-day internationals for the players a few years ago. Administrators thought it unnecessary. They bought in GPS to monitor workload – last month an Australian player covered 17 km (about 12 miles) in 100 degree F heat in a game in India. I think he needed a recovery-oriented day after that! So the measurement modalities are helping us also to plan recovery, which we do a lot better now. I don’t think the methods of recovery, except for supplements or medicine, are better now because what we do – massage, different types of baths, hot and cold, stretching, acupuncture etc has been around a long time. Hot and cold baths have been around since the Roman times and massage, stretching, even acupuncture, have been around since at least sometime between 1000 to 3000 BCE so they are not innovations, we just implement them better now as compared to previously in the modern era.

I just think the more we can measure, the more accountable we are for our programming and planning recovery, so that is good. Technological measurement devices provide a wealth of information not only on performance measures but also upon recovery ~ if the athlete is not well recovered then it shows up immediately in the resultant performance measures during training. So now we can use these devices not only to monitor gross training improvements or game analysis but also the day-to-day or week-to-week recovery. I am really excited about how this utilizing this data will improve me as a S & C coach.

What’s the biggest issue in training athletes today?
On the negative side, the use of drugs in sport. I abhor their use. So I think things like the DEA operation Raw Deal during September 2007 that shut down over 50 steroid factories and suppliers in the US and Mexico and Marion Jones’s “outing” as a drug cheat are actually good things. Can’t wait to see what happens to some of them big and cut athletes (or trainers) when they can’t get their “gear” in the immediate future. They might start shrinking before our eyes and having sudden bad form patches. Watch for it.

On the positive side, those of us who have always trained and coached drug free – happy days for us, our athletes should do well. We, as coaches, need external authorities, like WADA, USADA, ASADA etc to drug test athletes but we also need the government bodies to do their jobs by cracking down on suppliers. I know a bloke who sold $1 000 000 worth of gear while doing his PhD about 10 years back (he reckons it was only about $700 0000) – he got fined $12 000. Wow, was he ever remorseful (“ only a days pay” he said). So governments need to get tough as well. That is an issue for me, being tough on drug use in sports.

Who has been a role model in your career and why?
I won’t use the exact words role models, but major influences or very helpful have been the following people – when I first started to train in powerlifting, Glen Waszkiel, Wayne Scarffe, Dino Toci and Mason Jardine, all world class lifters in IPF world c’ships, really helped me understand the nuances of lifting technique and what applies to what level athletes and what doesn’t. Especially Glen, I did a lot of training with him during my first year in competition. He was very experienced, 12 national titles in a row, 2nd and 3rds in the World c’ships – experience, man you just got to tap into it. He was fantastic for me. In his last ever competition, a state c’hip, he got first and I got second (by a long, long way), what an honor.

As S & C coaches, all the earlier pioneers that wrote articles in the NSCA journal in the 80’s like Vern Gambetta, Boyd Epley, Ken O’Shea, Charles Poliquin and so on. You couldn’t easily get the NSCA journal in Australia, I remember being in Canada and the US in 1986 & 87 and photocopying heaps of articles (which I still have, much to my wife’s dismay). I joined the NSCA in 1987, but you could not get earlier articles, there was no Internet and man, some of that early stuff is great – really influenced me. Obviously all the S & C coaches I have worked with have also influenced me – Dean Benton, Jeremy Hickman, Steve Nance, Kelvin Giles, Andrew Lulham. They are all great coaches. As an academic (not really a good one) I always have been influenced by practical-oriented research so Dr. Greg Wilson and Professor Rob Newton from Australia, Professor William Kraemer from the US and the Finnish duo of Professors Keiko Hakkinen and Paavo Komi. When I write academic sports science articles on strength or power stuff, most of my references will be from that group above. I think that select group of academics have influenced anyone interested in strength and power training. And the French group, I can’t remember all their names exactly, but they do great work on MAS intervals, modeling of training etc.

What are the biggest professional challenges have you had to face?
The biggest and only real professional challenge I have faced is when an athlete from another sport attempted to sue me a few years back for $1.5 million. I had professional indemnity insurance with the company recommended by the Australian Coaching Council, but guess what? They went bankrupt due to some corporate malfeance and illegalities. So there I was, that sporting team sacked me and tried to blame me so they could slip the situation (thanks for the support), I had lost indemnity insurance and I had no lawyers. Of course I had no $1.5 million sitting around in loose change in the sock drawer either nor the money to pay for proper legal representation. Luckily the federal government stepped in and provided funds for all the policy holders in legal battles and the lawyers I got quickly squashed the claim, which was “found to have no basis in fact”. However I was in legal limbo for over 4 years, with this Sword of Damocles dangling over my head. This professional and life challenge taught me many things – suing people is the realm of grubs, the lawyers who pursue this type of case or practice are grubs, some people just plain lie to get ahead in life and some people will not stand by the truth ~ when there is pressure they cave in and look for a way out, despite knowing the truth or the facts. It also reaffirmed my strong beliefs in the concept of Hindu or Buddhist karma ~ the grubs and liars had bad things happen to them not long after. A karmic payback, if you wish. I also strongly believe in loyalty (I have been at the Broncos for > 12 years and am a Life Member of 3 different organizations or clubs) and the lack of loyalty from that team/employer dismayed me. Now I wouldn’t piss in their ear if their brains were on fire.

What do you enjoy most about what you do? Dislike?
It is a great job! I enjoy seeing achievement and improvement in athletes that is brought about through dedication and hard work. I am a goal setter and I like to see achievement of goals. Every workout a player may have a power output goal for every set or a goal time to complete for an interval etc. If he gets it I say “Goal achieved” – it keeps reinforcing the training process of setting a challenging, yet realistic goal, working hard to achieve it and then attaining it. It is a metaphor for certain, but not all, aspects of life.

The only thing I dislike is the travel to work because I live 100 km (60 miles) away at the beach, so I lose 3-4 hours a day traveling and it gives me a sore back and hips. I love the smell of the salt air when I get home and open the car door.

Did there come a time in your career where you were faced with a “fork in the road?”
If so, do you ever revisit the decision you made or didn’t make?Apart from the legal hassle mentioned above, I suppose it could only be when I first started or tried to start as a S & C C. Upon returning from a holiday to the US and Canada in 1986-87, I tried to become a S & C consultant coach. I could see what was happening with sports in the US and where the professionalism of sport was heading – but it was the wrong time for Australia, they didn’t believe in that stuff back then. So after getting zero clients I gave up to work in construction, which is well paid in Australia. After a few years of construction work with some part time S & C work here and there, I saw an ad in a newspaper sports section to complete a Masters in Sport Science (I already had by Bachelors degree in 1985). So I applied, got in, did it and became a consultant S & C coach 5-6 years after I first attempted. If I had not done the Masters I would probably still be working construction or in the coal mines with my brother (but coal miners are actually the highest paid workers in Australia).

Also I am really glad I pursued and completed my PhD under Prof. Rob Newton through Edith Cowan University. Doesn’t make me a better S & C coach, but some things are about goal setting and goal achievement.

What inspired you to get into the field you are in?
It was all I ever wanted to do, since I was 15 years old. I don’t know what the inspiration was. I have never actually considered why I am in this profession, it just seems normal or right to me. After being in it so long, I am singularly unqualified to do anything much else now.

Is failure ever valuable?
First we have to define failure. If failure is losing, then as a coach you must be prepared, emotionally and analytically, to cope and deal with failure because statistically you will have a lot of failure. If you look at my team and we look not just at win/loss but the number of championships won as success/failure (which is what we do to a degree), then even with four wins out of the last 12 years, which is the most of any major team in any sport in Australia, it means we have also failed 66% of the time. So we need to be able to deal with that, not go killing ourselves, not go blaming other coaches or players, not go seeking easy solutions like drug use etc but basically go to the Big House of Mirrors like mentioned above and have a good long hard look at all aspects of the operation. Determine what was done well, what needs improving, what are the trends emerging, how do we use this analysis to get back to the top.

So I see failure as being of two parts – failure of effort or failure of analysis & action. If you put in the effort, tried to the best of your ability at that time and lost the game or contest, that is not failure, that is a loss. If you did not apply yourself and lost, then that is a failure, a failure to contest.

If you lose and don’t analyze where improvements can be made or maybe you do know where improvements could be made but couldn’t be bothered, then that is a failure to analyze or action.

So failure is unacceptable if it implies lack of effort or intent, but losing is not failure. Losing can make motivated athletes and coaches even more motivated and make them take stock of their physical, mental or strategic situations. From taking stock or going to the Big House of Mirrors, they can implement changes to training that makes the athletes better.

Which changes now taking place in your field that should be encouraged, and which resisted?
There may be a seemingly endless list of things to resist if I start to rant.

I think the drive to make athletes better all round athletes is great, not trying to make 5 year olds the next Tiger Woods by specialising too early. So all round athletic development needs to be encouraged. I know early specialization sports like women’s gymnastics, diving and to some degree swimming start the athletes early, but if the kids don’t enjoy it, don’t make them do it. Parental pressure to perform well in sports so the parent can live vicariously through the exploits of the child is not good. The trend to stamp that out and to stop parents yelling out abuse or rubbish from the sidelines is gaining momentum, so that is good.

The Internet remains a good source for swapping, gaining or delivering information and products- you just need to be a “discerning buyer” of the information. So I encourage the use the Internet to learn more.

I think another good thing is that our ASCA in Australia has a professional structure that recognizes two things – whether you have completed an ASCA Level 2 or Level 3 course (the university degree does not matter) and most importantly, years of full-time experience working with elite or professional or emerging elite athletes. So we have grades of S & C C like Intern S & C C (6 months experience), Graduate (6mths-2yrs), Professional (2-4 yrs) Elite (4-8 yrs) and Master (> 8yrs). So experience working at the coal-face with professional or elite athletes is basically what it is all about and employers and coach peers must verify this experience.

This system is aimed at helping employers in the sport industry distinguish S & C C with peer recognition and years of experience from the “fly-by-nighters”, “self proclaimed gurus” and university graduates in sports science who apparently know it all. It is about a career pathway of recognition of experience. So it draws heavily on the Mentor or Sensei system. For example, Julian Jones is a Master S & C coach at the Australian Institute of Sport. He has to sign off on the capabilities of all the S & C coaches in that system as they progress up the pathway. He mentors the elite and professional S & C coaches, who in turn mentor the intern and graduate S & C coaches. We are trying to get all the pro teams and state Institutes of sports to recognize this system. The “self proclaimed gurus” may have to stay in the fitness industry where looks and hype count for everything and experience for little ~ but that probably suits them. There is more money to be made in the fitness industry anyway.

Discuss entry

Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta


Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
RT @GreatestQuotes: Your aspirations are your possibilities. - Samuel Johnson - 4 years ago
Vern Gambetta

Latest posts by Vern Gambetta (see all)