The Cycle of Credential Inflation – Science of Running

The Cycle of Credential Inflation – Science of Running


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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