I’m not certified in anything.

Not USATF, USATFCCA, NSCA, or any other acronym that means something to a select few people ingrained in their small enclave of workers.

Wait, I take that back, I am certified in CPR thanks to a class that took a few hours.

What’s the goal?

With credentialing, or coaches education, what is the true goal?

Is it to truly educate our coaches, to prepare them to be the best coaches they can be?

Is it to credential individuals, signifying to potential bosses that these individuals have a basic knowledge that they can do their job?

Or, Is it to jump through hoops? A barrier for entry to decrease liability of employers hiring, and to make money for those offering the credentialing?

In most cases, I’m afraid, it’s the latter, a simple box to check off. Something to say, hey, this person is qualified.

But when we dig deeper, do credentials in the sporting world accomplish anything? Is a few hours written test worthy of certifying someone in Strength and Conditioning? Is a written paper enough to certify someone as a Level 8 wizard, errr I mean track and field coach?

Going further down the rabbit hole, why do we value someone with a business undergrad degree and a weekend certification over someone with a 4 year degree in exercise physiology, or even someone with a M.S. in a similar subject, but with no certification?

In fact, in the NCAA systems, you could have a PhD in an exercise related field, but not be able to step foot in a weight room, while someone with a B.S. degree in English poetry and a weekend course, would have full rein to condition athletes. Where’s the common sense?

Has the world gone crazy in certifications?

The Cycle of Credential Inflation

Sociologist in the late 90’s and early 2000’s saw the future of the “knowledge economy” we currently reside in. Gone are the days where we value having a skill or trade; replaced with a focus on the ability to collect “knowledge.” Over the last few decades, we have pushed towards everyone going to college, expanding the reach of graduate degrees, and doing away with trades in exchange for credentialing.

In his book Shop Class As Soulcraft philosopher Matthew Crawford deems this “the cycle of credential inflation.” As Crawford outlines, the push towards everyone obtaining some sort of credential­–be it a Bachelors, Masters, or certification– created an illusion. The optimistic ideal was that the push towards knowledge and some sort of status symbol that was based on achievement would level the playing field, allowing anyone to succeed; as long as they worked hard enough. Or as Crawford stated, “The escalating demand for academic credentials gives the impression of an ever more knowledgeable society, whose members perform cognitive feats their unschooled parents could scarcely conceive of.” Simply point towards the statistics, with more kids graduating from college, more people certified in “stuff”, and it’s easy to make the case that our society was progressing. Professionalization quickly took hold.

Learn. Get certified. Get a good job.

It sounds like a fantastic system. Increase the barrier to entry, certify that you have obtained some basic level of proficiency, and the profession will grow.

In academic settings, in fields based on competency that can be easily measured or compared with, it works. Take the medical field. Having a “credential” has improved the field immensely, decreasing charlatans and quacks to a much larger degree.

Certifications largely work in the medical field, where research and “evidence based practice” can truly dominate. The barrier to entry is high (years of commitment, applicable undergrad degrees) and it weeds out those who don’t have the knowledge or motivation to accomplish their goal. Do we lose potential smart doctors along the way, of course, but the payoff is the majority of individuals can walk into a hospital and feel confident that every doctor in there has a baseline of competency.

Secondly, medical knowledge is largely measurable. We “know” what is generally correct, at least at the basic level. In medical fields, practices are routinely tested through controlled trials to provide a foundation for what actually works. In coaching fields, the nature of research, the complexity of the human body, and the lack of funding (and inherent constraints) for applied training, make it impossible for us to adopt this model. Look through the history of successful coaches, as judged by performance, and you have coaches who trained Olympic medalist by doing interval training 5 days a week, and others by running mega mileage for much of the year. As much as we’d like to define what truly makes a great coach, the reality is that great results can be produced in a wide variety of manners.

The Certification of a Coach

If certifications in coaching can’t establish a basic line of competency, then what about their educational benefit? All coaches’ education is beneficial, in the sense that it makes you think. But for the most part, education systems in athletic endeavors, given their weekend type nature, are set up to put a focus on a few select variables: Science (Physiology/Biomechanics) and writing training programs.

The education emphasis largely focuses on providing a basic understanding of the science behind workout creation, and then workouts themselves. Handbooks are littered with dividing workouts into different types, and then how to plug and play them. The emphasis sends a clear message that what matters most is the workout creation, and that it should be backed entirely by “science.” There’s little understanding of history of training, little on the art of communicating with athletes, or in developing your own principles of coaching.

In most certification systems, we teach the idea that there is one true way. Contrasting and dissenting programs that don’t fit the narrative of “best practice” are seldom considered. The coach is left to his own devises to explore on his own and see the complexity outside of the well-packaged narrative.

In essence, in athletics coach’s education we are taught to write training plans, to program, not to coach.

What do we Value?

We teach towards what we value.

In classrooms across the country, we don’t measure learning of the student; we don’t assess the pedagogical competency of the student. We aren’t actually concerned with teaching. No, instead, as Matthew Crawford rightly points out, rank is what matters. How does each individual stack up against his peers on a standardized test. How many students are we sending to college? Did the teacher increase the test scores on some exam designed to measure competency? We value these metrics.

In coach’s education, it’s much the same. What gets tested at the end of certification programs is often your ability to write a training plan. Is that really the most valuable skill to certify a coach?

You might say, head out into the world and you’ll be judged by your results. Perhaps, but the reality is we value the outliers. You’re a successful coach if you produce a handful of athletes visible at whatever level you are competing at. At the collegiate level, it could be NCAA qualifiers, at the professional level it may be individuals qualifying for national teams. It would be akin to teaching a classroom and only paying attention to the progress of the top 3 individuals in the class, forget the other 20.

And while this started as a piece questioning our credential and education process, it ends with asking the question of, what are we valuing?

If providing a barrier to entry, a performance basis, then professions of difficulty should have shifted their criteria in the manner that Physical Therapy did. Increasing the demands and barrier to entry. But when we see a profession like coaching, with a minimal credentialing procedure that has little to do with competency in coaching, my cynical side says that the purpose is to check off a box, to make money for those providing “certification” and not to shift what it is that we, as coaches, value.

Should coaches require credentialing and at what level of difficulty? At some point, credentialing can go too far, as Crawford points out in his book, asking if the next step in credentialing is that of baby sitters, dog walkers, and dish washers?

But maybe that’s the wrong question, and instead we need to look at what the low-level credentials has done, “When the point of education becomes the production of credentials rather than the cultivation of knowledge, it forfeits the motive recognized by Aristotle: ‘All human beings by nature desire to know.’ And Students become intellectually disengaged.”

For more on the psychology of performance, check out my NEW book Peak Performance. Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold!

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    1. John Lofranco on August 15, 2017 at 8:30 am

      Steve! I love your work, I read the blog ravenously and I listen to the podcast religiously. I agree to some extent with your assessment of credentialing as a hollow exercise, but I think you are off-base here in a few of your assertions. I should preface this by saying that I work in coaching education and development in Canada, so I am certainly biased towards coaching courses and certification. That said, I wanted to take a moment to share what I believe is the value in what we are doing up here in the Great White North (I have taken USATF Level 3 for what it’s worth: it was a fantastic experience, one of the most valuable bits of learning I’ve done as a coach).

      First, the bulk of track and field coaches are working with minors. When you deal with kids, you deal with parents. Our provincial associations require a police background check for any coach who wants to affiliate (and you can’t coach in a club in Canada without being affiliated…at least you aren’t supposed to be able to). This seems like a very fair ask to me. Parents would likely agree. I think it’s also fair of parents to ask that there be some oversight into what the people who coach their kids know and how they share it. The institutional trust that we have in teachers is not quite there in club coaches (but maybe in the US, because of the very weak club system, most high school coaches are teachers, so it’s not as much of an issue), so it becomes important for parents to know who this person is that they are dropping their kid off with after school. You’d expect the lifeguard or swim teacher to have their Red Cross levels, right?

      So I think having some sort of credentialed system is a must for the bulk of the sport, starting with First Contact programs (Run Jump Throw in Canada) to elementary and high school track. I do agree with you that a coaching course that is only focused on physiology and workouts misses the mark. I do not agree that this is what you will find in a coaching course today. I don’t want to put you on the spot, but you said you don’t have any certification…so when was the last time you took a course? I don’t say this to suggest you lack credibility: the proof is in the pudding, as they say. My point is just that maybe there is some value in the coaching courses that are out there. I am not saying everything is perfect. I can confirm that in every coaching course I’ve ever taken, there has been overlap. I’ve definitely had the thought, “well I’ve already learned this” but I have also learned something new in every course I’ve taken! A coach can always learn. You know this. You embody this!

      Another good reason for coaching courses, in particular the more entry-level ones, is that in our sport, there are a lot of events. I’m a distance coach, like you. If I wanted to start coaching throws, I would certainly be able to make use of my “soft” skills that you correctly identify as being so important, but I would not be able to tell a kid how to throw. I think that marrying good teaching and coaching skills generally with new technical information can allow a coach to enter new areas of practice. This is particularly important for elementary and high school where not every school or club has the resources to staff many coaches. A teacher might be a natural sprint coach but not have a clue about cross country. A coaching course can help get that coach on his or her way.

      Now, when a coach has lots of experience, it may seem like these courses outlive their usefulness. But I would argue this is the time for a coach to spend more time learning. Of course this can be done by reading great books like yours or Ryan Mantha’s (thanks for writing about that, I would not have know about it otherwise!). The more advanced courses are a great opportunity for coaches to learn. The first great opportunity is simply getting in a room with other coaches. Coaches love to talk shop, but the reality is that it’s rare for two coaches to be able to get together (the way you and Marcus do) and talk. That’s why your podcast is so great: it is like being able to sit in on two great coaches shooting the shit. The courses like our Performance Coach or the USATF Level 3 bring together coaches (in the case of Performance Coach, from multiple event groups) with a wealth of experience to share. When I taught the PC a few years ago, I was lucky to have in the class a coach of a couple of our Olympians. He obviously didn’t need the certification to improve his coaching: he was doing just fine. But he understood the value of being with others, and we certainly appreciate his presence. I actually asked him to take over the class at one point, and it was awesome to hear from him in that way.

      The content needs work. On this, I can agree. But more and more we are recognizing the value of communication and people skills. These elements are more and more a part of our coaching courses. We offer, through the CAC (Coaching Association of Canada) courses in making ethical decisions, promoting a drug free sport, conflict resolution, working with athletes with disabilities, and these are all easy to do online courses (so they don’t offer the peer-to-peer benefits, but they have some great content).

      Going even higher on the coaching education chart, the IAAF Academy (which is actually given in conjunction with USATF 3) is basically a conference with some high level coaches and sports scientists. There’s enough time to go into topics in detail, for coaches to ask questions and work on some projects that they can take back to their schools and clubs and actually use. In Canada, we also have a course called the Advanced Coaching Diploma, which is a multi-sport course, so the peer-to-peer benefits are even greater, in my opinion. A track coach can sit down with a xc ski coach or kayak coach or volleyball coach and share best practices. My best coaching teacher and mentor ever is a university volleyball coach. I’ve learned so much from him, through this program.

      Finally, there’s also the process by which certification actually occurs. In Canada, when you take one of our sport-specific courses, you are considered “trained.” To be “certified” you go through an evaluation. An evaluation involves a portfolio of work, an observation of a practice, and of a competition, so a evaluating coach can review your coaching process, not just the workouts on paper. Having done such evaluations I can tell you, they are the best thing to happen to coaching education in a while. It is not a pass/fail situation. It is a situation where if the evaluating coach finds there are things to work on, the coach goes to work on them and comes back when he or she is ready. The process is meant to be collaborative and guide the coach to certification. It’s also possible to skip the course and go right to evaluation if you truly feel like you will not gain anything from the classroom setting, and certainly for some coaches, this is a valid concern.

      The system isn’t perfect, but I think there is a whole lot of value there. On the topic of value, one of the ways that we are failing coaches (when I say we I guess I mean governing bodies) is that we are not valuing the work coaches do enough. Certification has been too much stick and not enough carrot. So we need to start showing coaches that we appreciate their value. That’s a bit off your topic, but I think that recognition of credentials is a good way to do that.

      There you go, a bit long, but I wanted to add a little institutional and international context to your post. Coaching certification is not about a piece of paper that says you are a good enough coach. It’s about a process for coaches to continue to learn, to provide credibility to the athletes and their parents, and to provide a context for recognition of coaches.

    2. […] background, there’s a wide range of credentials, letters, and training that go into coaching. Here, Steve Magness (who’s coached some of the top runners in the world and has zero credentia…  My opinion? If the coach you hire works for you, don’t worry about the […]

    3. CJL on August 15, 2017 at 10:38 am

      I found this post fascinating. As someone who has spent time in Higher Education, is now in K-12, and has been a runner since middle school, this post resonates with me. We are asking the same thing in our education sector given the glut of PhD’s and the inability for “credentialed” graduates to find a job. Many employers are struggling to fill certain jobs because even though someone may have the right piece of paper, they can’t do the job.

      I believe credentialing is overrated. When I look for a running coach I look at how they live and run. I spend time with them to gain a sense of what they believe and why they do what they do. If their values do not align with mine, I will dump them, credentialed or not. I have spent time under credentialed coaches and many were not worth their salt. Too often they slap together a workout that may work for them, but not for the athlete. Just because you know how to do a particular running routine does not mean you are a coach (heck I can search online and build my own routine).

      A true coach inspires me, leads me, mentors me, and is in the thick of it with me. I think of a running coach as an old battle-hardened Sarge in the Marine Corps who will guide his troops towards victory while not afraid to get in their face and instill discipline in the basics. I want a running coach who I can, metaphorically speaking, go into combat with, not an arm-chair general.

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