Choosing the Right Coach or Personal Trainer: Does Formal Education Matter?

In Part 1 of my discussion on degrees and certifications, we’ll cover institutional education and whether or not it’s necessary to become an outstanding coach or personal trainer. I’ll explain what degrees and letters actually mean and deliver my own subjective opinion.

The topic has come up in recent discussions with some of my FSP Fitness Bootcamp clients. They asked me what the letters after a coach’s name represent and if some letters mean more than others and if more letters means a better coach. Coach A will tell you that it matters. Coach B will respond that it doesn’t. This is a tough question to field as a coach so I’ll begin by explaining how the degree lettering system works.

The first letters after a coach’s name usually represent the highest degree held from an accredited college or university by said coach, i.e. Johnny Coach, MS. These letters mean that Mr. Coach holds a Master of Science degree. This can all look very impressive and in many cases, it is. However, what the letters fail to represent is the field Mr. Coach was studying while he was earning his degree. People can enroll in the same university, educate themselves in very different majors, and graduate with the same letters after their names. For example, a Biology major and an Exercise Science major might both earn the letters BS after their name for their Bachelor of Science degree. In another instance, people enrolled in the same program at the same university might receive different letters. For example, one student will earn the letters, MEd for Master of Education and the other will earn the letters, MS. This typically occurs in graduate schools where both students had the opportunity to either complete a thesis or enroll in an internship/apprenticeship program. If we’re assuming formal education matters, the takeaway here is that, while letters look impressive, what’s more important is to determine if your prospective Strength & Conditioning Coach or Personal Trainer graduated with a degree in an exercise science-related field or not.

Now that we know what the first letters represent, we now arrive at the question, “Does it all really matter?”

I’m going to sound like I’m riding the fence here, but yes and no. I’ll explain why it DOESN’T matter first.

Education doesn’t know any sheet of paper. Any motivated coach is a lifelong learner and works diligently to keep up with the ever-evolving science of our field. I have known and worked with a handful of coaches who held no formal education in exercise science but somehow still managed to be outstanding coaches. How is this? They poured themselves into books, scientific journals, and other peer-reviewed literature to better themselves. They studied training theory into the wee hours of the morning. One was as educated on metabolic pathways as anyone I met in graduate school. On the other end of the spectrum, there are people with a Bachelor’s degree that probably shouldn’t have graduated. Many highly-respected coaches view colleges as nothing more than a scheme. The schools manufacture necessity for the degree by promoting it’s artificial worth. Job recruiters buy in, increasing the value of the degree by only hiring those with one. It’s hard to argue with that kind of logic and frankly, I tend to lean that way as well when considering the topic from an idealogical standpoint.

That said, I’ll now explain why having a degree in an exercise science-related field DOES matter.

Enrolling in an institution and earning a degree demonstrates that this student has shown at least the minimum requirement for knowledge of exercise physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, and other related topics. In other words, looking at college like a filter into the real world, they proved that they were knowledgable enough in these topics to pass and can now display that proof to you, the consumer/ potential client, as proof that they probably won’t do undue damage to your body. Someone without a degree cannot make that claim. Another benefit to holding this piece of paper is that it shows a certain level of motivation to enroll in a program–knowing you won’t be able to do anything with it for at least 4 years–and seeing it through to completion. Furthermore, some certifications can only be held by those with a Bachelor’s degree in an exercise science-related field (but we’ll get into that in Part 2). Again, it’s hard to argue with logic, and I lean toward this line of thinking when I think more pragmatically as a coach and business owner. These 3 main reasons are why we at FSP require that a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree be held by prospective coaching candidates. They must at least be in the process of earning one.

Like I said before, the answer is murky at best. My business practices aside, I firmly believe that a great coach is made by how hard he/she works and the amount of knowledge that he/she is able to apply to practical situations that arise in everyday coaching, not necessarily by the varying standards of higher education across the country. Some coaches might not agree with the need for a degree, and others will applaud my standards for coaching candidates. At the end of the day, your trainer should impress upon you that he/she has acquired a solid foundation of knowledge in our field, is a critical thinker, can produce a detailed plan for you, and can help you improve and produce results safely. Take advantage of “try before you buy” offers and free training sessions to see if that trainer is a good fit for you.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where we’ll tackle the efficacy of certifications!

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