Certifications are DOA
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.”
-Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Before moving to Brooklyn in 2011, I lived in Astoria, Queens. I was a member of a local gym where I discovered an inspiring “bootcamp” teacher (previously a Navy Seal), and attended his classes religiously for about two years. I found his classes challenging, unique, and satisfying, and as a teacher he embodied both charisma and empathy. Outside of his three days a week of classes I would repeat on my own, what he’d taught in previous classes. Not long after his tenure ended at the gym I relocated to Brooklyn and brought the ideas he taught with me.
Upon moving I immediately joined a local gym. My new roommate, who’d never trained and was slightly overweight, asked if he could join me. Of course! So, we started training together, and I showed him everything I had learned from the bootcamp classes. Over time he evolved; he lost weight and became stronger and more resilient. I was proud of what he had achieved under my watch. During this period I was pursuing stand-up comedy, and dog walking to pay my bills. As much as I enjoyed picking up feces for pennies, I was always looking for a change. It occurred to me that perhaps I could teach classes at this new gym similar to the ones I’d taken. It’s what I’d been doing with my roommate, and we’d been successful, so why not? I approached the gym manager and asked what I’d need to do to be a class instructor. He’d seen me training, and the progress my roommate had made, and said that if I got a group fitness certification, he would allow me to substitute classes.
As a devout problem solver, I proceeded to search for the quickest solution to the certification puzzle. Fortunately, it was as simple as a Google search to discover the American Sports and Fitness Association (ASFA). They offered an insurable “group fitness” certification that I could obtain for $149 and a short online test. Many of the test questions were true or false, and all answers were easily searchable online. I aced the test and had my certification on the same day that I had spoken to the manager. I even paid $199 more for their “personal trainer” certification. The next day I walked into the gym with my brand-new certifications. That same week I was offered to sub my first class, and my new journey began…
For a number of years, I was embarrassed and insecure about my limited fitness knowledge. I learned nothing to achieve two certifications, however my success in the field was growing by the week. In short order I went from subbing classes to teaching over ten classes a week. Some of the classes became so popular that people had to arrive early and wait in line to guarantee a spot. I leaned on the information I’d experienced from taking class and repackaged that material into my own classes. With each class I taught I received more feedback through trial and error. However, it is only though reflection that I can now see what was happening. I felt like an imposter because I didn’t know the language, science, or rationale. As a result, I had my students do only what I’d done and continued to do in my own training, and never asked anyone to do anything outside of that.
Soon though, I came to the conclusion that if I was going to make this my career, I MUST learn more. I couldn’t go on feeling this insecurity. So, I signed up to take a test for a more respected certification through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). After receiving the study materials, I began reading and making flash cards to prep for the test. Meanwhile, I was teaching classes and had begun personal training due to the success of the classes. During this time two things occurred to me; 1. The material I was studying was not improving or changing my teaching. 2. In preparation for the test, I wasn’t learning anything. I was just memorizing.
On a continuing quest to fill the void, I also signed up for a TRX certification course hoping that the hands-on, face to face, class setting would give me applicable information and clarity. In reality, the instructor seemed to know less than me. She simply demonstrated a list of exercises that could be performed with the apparatus. There was no What, Why, or How. I left that day with a certification in TRX (a methodology I had never practiced until that day) and a discount code to purchase the strapparatus.
I wanted to learn, and I wanted to feel confident in my teaching. This all felt like a sham. I decided to switch gears entirely. Learning through experience rather than a McCertification model made more sense to me, so I sought out a teacher. Fortunately, I didn’t have to look too far to find one. I came across Matt Bernstein, a coach working out of CrossFit Virtuosity, a block away from the gym I taught at. He was teaching CrossFit and had recently begun studying and training Movement under Ido Portal. The skills he was teaching, and the methodology he was following, was unlike anything I’d seen (especially in the fitness-sphere). I decided to invest in private coaching with him twice a week. This was an expensive investment for me ($250 a week), and quite a lot more than I could afford, but it felt like an exponentially more valuable experience than seeking out quick and dirty certifications. Once we got rolling, my practice was not confined to our two hours of work together each week. I practiced the new material on my own, and when Matt saw my commitment, he provided homework for me to follow. What started out as a coach/client relationship evolved into a mentor/apprentice relationship. Matt later guided me into a year-long coaching program at CrossFit Virtuosity. When he began teaching movement-based classes, I assisted. And, when he moved to Boulder, Colorado for his next chapter, I inherited his classes and students. For all of this, there was no certification; just time served.
This did not end my certification experiences. I did a number of CrossFit certifications to satisfy my standing as a coach within that world. However, a weekend certification gave me, a person who had completed a year-long uncertified coaching program, the same Level 1 designation as the person who showed up for two days and passed a multiple-choice test. And, I was also given the same CrossFit Gymnastics certification status as someone with no gymnastics experience, other than the two-day workshop; while I had been training gymnastics, through movement practice, with Matt for two years.
This is when I decided never to take a certification workshop ever again. It also led to my skepticism of any program or methodology that certifies instructors, and of teachers who lead with their list of certifications. The certification model is about making money, not making teachers. The education ends as soon as the proof of completion arrives. Certifications are dead on arrival. The best material I’ve learned has been through long term study with teachers, experience and training, and non-certification workshops, camps, and seminars. With these types of learning experiences, the responsibility is on me to apply what I’ve learned to my practice before passing it on to my students. The value lies in being a practitioner of material before being a teacher of material. Would you hire a surf instructor who couldn’t surf, but had a certification from a weekend workshop? Would you take classes from a BJJ teacher who’d never rolled, but got a certified 200-hour teacher training? So, why would you want to study any other physical modality from someone who doesn’t practice what they preach? I know certified yoga instructors who don’t practice yoga, and I know weightlifting coaches who don’t weightlift. These are the imposters, charlatans, and sellers of snake oil. How great can something be if the teacher doesn’t do it themselves? Certifications deliver linear and scaled models; however, nature is not linear, and scale doesn’t capture nuance. This deeper understanding comes from practice and experience, and that can’t be captured in a single weekend, week, or month.
The teachers I have valued the most do not lead with certifications. Frankly, they probably don’t have any certifications. They lead with their own practice and with their students. They are people who have been students and apprentices, and continue to practice what they preach. Real certifications aren’t on paper, they’re time served.