The Decathlon Metaphor for Training


Just to refresh your memory the decathlon consists of ten individual events contested over two days. The final performance is determined by the sum of scores assigned for performances in each individual event. To achieve a good score demands a balance in scoring throughout the ten events. You can’t be good just at one or two events, in fact you could a world record holder in one event and be mediocre in the decathlon. You must show a degree of proficiency at all ten events. I competed in the decathlon, I was not very good, but I realize today how much that competing in the decathlon formed the foundation for my philosophy and system of training that have used across sport disciplines.

In the spring of 1968 I took a class called Theory of Track & Field from Red Estes, the assistant track coach at Fresno State. As a requirement for the class the class we had to learn the events in track and field and show proficiency in those events. As soon as we did a few events I began to see relationships between the events, connections, and similarities in movements. I learned quickly that I could capitalize on those similarities to help to learn the events and score better. (We were graded on a ten-point scale.) By April I was sure that I wanted to be a track coach so I went to coach Estes and asked what the best way to gain a deeper understanding of the events would be since I had not competed in track in college, I had played football. His answer was very succinct, do the decathlon. So that started an odyssey that continues today.

I dove into the decathlon head first and totally immersed myself in getting fit for the event and learning and refining the technique in all the events. Because it occurred over two days and was grueling, I did a lot of distance running, 30 and 40 minute runs to get “fit” and because I knew you needed to be “strong” I spent a lot of time in the weight room and achieved some big numbers there. After going down this path for a year getting injured a lot and not seeing much improvement I had to take a step back and reassess what I was doing. The reassessment was simple, I did what I have preached many times in this blog and my books, and I took a close look at the demands of the event. The total competition time in the decathlon is around 6 minutes and 30 seconds, that is the actual time performing the events. Yes you are out there 12 hours each day, but it is not a test of stamina rather it is a contest to learn to distribute your energy and effort, to economize your warm-up, to hydrate well, to eat at the opportune moments, to focus and refocus. I realized that I had spent way too much time in the weight room, that I needed to incorporate more ballistic work, throwing and jumping into my training and that above all I needed to do the events and become technically proficient. To become technically proficient I could not spend an inordinate amount of time on any one event or events that I liked, I needed to look at the scoring table and see where I could tease out the most points. I had to look at commonalities between events. Commonalities between the throws and the jump take-off for instance and capitalize on those commonalities and relationships to be more efficient, to make each minute of training count.

The lesson that learned on that journey are lessons that I apply each day that I coach. You cannot do just what you like to do or what is convenient, you must focus on the need to do, the training where you will get the most bang for your buck, in the decathlon where you will get the most points. I learned that in strength training I needed to be a strong as could be, as light as could be, if I added unnecessary muscle mass it would help me in the throws and hurt me in the jumps and the 400 and 1500. I learned that too much emphasis on endurance training took away explosiveness, it led me to the concept of work capacity. I learned to balance training between the conditioning components and the technical components. I learned what components were compatible and which training components clashed. I learned how important an active warm-up is and how to economize the warm-up, an important lesson that carried over in my work with team sports. I learned to manage aches and pains and not turn them into injuries. I learned about being a “24 Hour Athlete”, how it wasn’t just the training time that made you better, but your lifestyle. I learned that I had train to my strengths and weaknesses, not copy what other were doing.

The longer I coach the more I realize how the decathlon is a terrific metaphor for training in general. It teaches you to make connections, and capitalize on commonalities in movements. I am so thankful for the advice that Red Estes gave me 42 years ago and the journey he started me on then, that continues today. I believe it has given a real advantage in my coaching, an advantage you can also capitalize on by looking at the bigger picture.

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.
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Vern Gambetta

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