Sunday, June 26, 2011

USAT Coaching: Are Barriers to Entry Lacking?

Flashback to a couple of weeks ago:  My wife Annie and I raced at a  local sprint tri.  Since she had a much later wave start I found myself at the finish area waiting for her with some time to kill.  As I was standing around a guy who was probably a few years older than me walked up with a beautiful black lab puppy on a leash.  Naturally I asked if I could play with his dog and we then began to chat and discovered his wife was in the same wave as mine and he was awaiting her finish as well.

We got to talking and he told me that he and his wife did their first triathlons last summer and they both were hooked on the sport.  From that point on it was the normal conversation between triathletes about races, training, clubs ...etc.  I was only paying partial attention to him as I was secretly thinking of ways to steal his awesome lab pup when I heard him utter the following phrase:
"My wife and I are even Certified USAT Level 1 Coaches!"

Only a few minutes before he was telling me how he and his wife were new to triathlon and now he is saying that they both are Certified USAT Level 1 Coaches. They are self proclaimed newbies so how can they be Certified USAT Level 1 Coaches?  Something just does not seem right?

Flashback to last October:  My buddy Dave and I are doing a large group ride with one of the local Triathlon Clubs on the northern part of the Ironman Texas course.  We are headed east and come across some cyclists who are having mechanical issues and they are stopped along the shoulder.  We stop and offer our assistance as Dave has some tools in his saddle bag.  As they begin working on the bikes I step to the side and start talking to one of the other cyclists.  It turns out she is doing the same 70.3 race as me in November.  She tells me this is her first 70.3 race and that she is very excited and also very nervous.  As with most triathletes the conversation leads to training and we start comparing notes about the weekly volume we are doing for the race. We were talking about the amount of swim volume each of us was doing on a weekly basis. She proceeded to tell me that she felt I was swimming too much and was going to burn out and that she was ...

"... a Certified USAT Level I Coach and I should trust her!"

Only a few minutes before this she was telling me how this was her first 70.3 race and then shortly after is tossing around her credentials as a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach. She had never done a 70.3 nor asked a single question about my swimming background.  Something just does not seem right?

I will be the first to admit that I did not even know what the hell a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach even really meant when I had the conversation with the cyclist.  I had never done any independent research on the subject and the only real knowledge of USAT Coaching I had came from blog posts by Jaime @ Swim Bike Run Live and Joel @ TriMadness.  In hindsight, I never really cared too much about it until more and more triathletes kept telling me they were Certified USAT Level 1 Coaches.

If you are unaware of what the USAT is it is the governing body for Triathlon in the USA.  As the governing body and as an association all US Triathletes pay a $39 yearly membership.  I assumed that the USAT probably had some stringent barriers to entry.  I assumed they required Advanced Degrees in Physiology or Physical Therapy or even a certain number of years successful coaching before someone could even apply to be a  Certified USAT Level I Coach.  Basically I assumed that the USAT would want to have the most qualified group of individuals possible being certified to coach with the USAT Logo as credentials.

I was wrong and once again learned a the valuable lesson that assumption is the mother of all f#$k ups.

Here is what I found straight from the USAT website:

Level I

Prior to certification, candidate must complete and/or submit the following: 

The Level l Clinic is a 2.5 Day classroom based lecture and the Written Examination is an online test that you have three months to complete.   In addition to the Clinic and Exam as long as you are not a hardened criminal, have paid your USAT yearly dues, have gone to a CPR course, and paid USAT  the $525 fee you too can be a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach.

Guess this answers how a nice couple that had been participating in triathlon for less than a year could be Certified USAT Level I Coaches.  Or how someone who had never personally done a 70.3 race was confident enough to give someone who had done several training advice.

It appears that the only barriers to entry are the ability to have 2.5 free days to listen to a lecture and $525 to pay for those days.  Something just does not seem right?

Getting back to my stories above - I asked the guy with the lab puppy if he and his wife were coaching any athletes and he told me that they were coaching a few ladies from his office.  In my opinion, this is irresponsible by both this inexperienced couple and USAT, but mostly USAT.  As stated, this couple was new to triathlon and  I could clearly see from the guy, very passionate about it.  If the governing body of the sport gives you an option to become a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach that is easily obtainable it is hard to blame these people.  That is why I place the vast majority of the blame squarely on the shoulders of the USAT.  They created the certification programs and make it too damn easy to become a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach.

As for the mechanically challenged cyclist I did not ask if she coaches any athletes nor did I ask how long she had been coaching.  She may have just had the accreditation for shits and giggles.  However, she did use the fact that she was a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach to make her point!  Even though she never asked anything about my swimming background, time goals, level of fitness, or even if I liked to swim.  She just asked about my weekly volume. And with just that little bit of information decided it was too much volume?  BTW, I was swimming around 10,000 yards a week - that is not too much volume.  But who am I to challenge her, she is a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach?

Now once this little ditty hits the interwebz I am sure to receive a few pissed off comments and emails.  That is fine and I expect it.  Since mostly triathletes read this blog and most triathletes now seem to be a Certified USAT Level 1 Coaches (kidding)  I expect some backlash!  Have at it.

But just to be clear.  I am not saying that ALL USAT Certified Coaches are under-qualified.  As a matter of fact, it appears that once a coach progresses to Level II and Level III the program becomes quite stringent and it takes a hell of a lot of work and experience to acquire these accreditations.  This is good for both coaches and athletes and hopefully this level of expertise will trickle down to the Level I course.

What I am merely stating is that the barriers to entry (In my opinion) are entirely too lenient as determined by USAT.  This does not mean that there are not some very good coaches with Certified USAT Level I credentials. I just means the our governing body makes it to simple for bad coaches to have the same certification as the good ones.  And if I was a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach (which I am not)  I would be pretty pissed at what a joke the USAT has made of this certification!

If you feel I am wrong and that you learned enough in 2.5 days of lecture to be a coach then I will eat this post (not really).  But if you are a coach and this is the only credential you have on your resume then I am not impressed.  This is not your fault because your governing body set the bar this low but if you are wondering why it is so hard to find clients then maybe you should look elsewhere then the USAT for that answer.

I guess the bottom line is that if you are an athlete in the market for a coach dig deeper than just a USAT Level I Certification because based on what I have found it really does not mean much.  Buyer Beware!

Let's talk this out in the comments.  Have any of you had similar experiences? Do you feel the USAT Barriers to entry are lacking?  Are you a Certified USAT Level 1 Coach and want to come down to Texas and slap me?

Thanks for Reading,



  1. It doesn't help that with USA Cycling, a Level 1 coach is the highest level and level 3 is the lowest. Someone coming from the cycling world may assume a level 1 USAT coach is the best there is.

  2. Great Post. USA swimming coaching certs for level 1 and level 2 are even easier.

    Level 1-it's just a test, background check, and the fees are not that expensive

    Level 2-You have to have 1 year of coaching experience and pass another test (and pay another fee)

    You have to be a level 3+ coach to have any real experience.

  3. As a level 1 coach, I am highly offended... JK, not a coach, but I'm about as experienced as the guy with the lab puppy, so should I sign up? It sounds like a ridiculous money-making venture for USAT. I'd imagine they intended it as the bare minimum standard for entry in the coaching ranks - an apprentice level, if you like - but if the result is anybody with a spare $525 signs up, what is it worth? I'd be especially annoyed at the half-baked training assessment followed by "I'm a USAT level one coach, so..."

    I agree with just about everything you said. My question is, why would anyone get certified? As minimal as the training / qualification is, what's the draw? So you can call yourself "coach"? Why? Especially when you're so new that it's YOU who would benefit most from coaching? I don't get it at all.

  4. I happen to be a USAT L1 certified coach and my USA Cycling L3 cert is pending. I have no plans to actively pursue clients for a while and may not ever. I have coached charity teams in the past but have also declined many offers. I have too much going on personally and conflict of interest issues with my "real" job. I use a coach (I actually use multiple). Some are certified and some are not.

    As with everything in this world, there are good coaches and bad coaches. One of the points of the seminar is "know what you don't know." If you are not a registered dietitian, don't think you are nor act as one. If you are not a doctor, don't give medical advice. It is hard to know enough details of an athlete's background to provide detailed advice so find the details or be quiet. Apparently, those folks were eating snacks when that was covered. Someone always graduates last in their class.

    So, what is the point of the certification? Many coaches I know don't believe there is much value. I feel that it provides opportunities for additional education (which is good) but it has to be taken in context. I try to only offer advice in that context but most of the time my advice is to find a coach that you can connect with personally that can help you achieve your goals. That doesn't have to be (and probably won't be) me and doesn't have to necessarily be a certified coach.

    Does USAT make money on this? I think you need to look at this the other way - What is necessary for the USAT to protect itself in case of being sued by an athlete that uses a USAT certified coach and has an issue. The fee includes insurance policies and such too (just wanted to get you more fired up) and the training is what is necessary for that policy :)

  5. Hmmm...I am a USAT L1 coach as well. I think the points you have made are certainly valid, in many respects. On the other hand, as you mentioned, you don't need any certification to call yourself a coach. Anyone could just up and say, "I'm a triathlon coach."

    I coach at a Y, and they sent me to the certification so I would have more education and have some "credentials" if you will. I learned a lot at the certification, and was very impressed with the amount and quality of the information they included. The exam is no joke either. Yes, you have several months to complete it, but it did require thought and time.

    It's been a little over a year since I completed the course, and I have to say I have learned more from coaching real people than I have from the course. I also have a mentor coach (my own coach) that I can use as a resource, and I find that invaluable.

    Did the course make me a coach? No. Who I am and what I do is what makes me a coach. Did the course give me tools to be a better coach? Definitely.

  6. ...and it does seem both cycling and swimming have even lower barriers to entry. Wonder what the running folks have to do?

    Joe, If I remember correctly you and I emailed about this very subject a few months back? Some one like yourself helps really move this conversation in a positive direction. You are loaded with knowledge about this sport. Heck, I would not consider a PT, Quarq or any other ANT+ technology before I got your input. The fact that you have the cert would make no difference to me and many others to come to you for advice or coaching. Same thing with Kelly, she has a wealth of knowledge and the USAT cert means nothing.

    This sucker is going to get cutoff so new comment ....

  7. ... continued.

    Now let me play my own Devil's advocate. Usually when I put up a post like this I have a solution to make things better. In this case I have no idea what is right? A 5 day course, 10 day, 30 day??? I have not idea? Should past coaching experience be required? Client recommendations? Once again I have no idea.

    The problem/conflict for USAT is that their number one goal is to grow and promote the sport of Triathlon and one way to do this is by having USAT Coaches helping others navigate what can be an intimidating sport to join.

    If they make the Barriers to entry too hard then not a lot of people will get the cert. They will effectively limit the number of coaches and thus negatively impact the reach of the USAT. And do more to hurt growth than effect it!

    So to me I don't even know if a change to the cert program is a good thing as it may hurt triathlon.

    BUT I think the answer is that we (triathletes) need to understand that the USAT has a very basic level 1 certification and to rank this credential towards the bottom of the list of qualifications when we are looking for a coach.

  8. This is a great post. I think this goes to the point that I have been making that you need to interview a coach and make sure there is a fit. Is the cert good? Of course, but if you don't get along who cares if they have twelve certifications?

    I love this topic and I think it will continue to grow.

  9. This is a great post. I think there is a certain amount of "buyer beware", as a customer if you don't do your research on the kind of practical and actual experience your coach has (not paper credentials mind you) then you get what you deserve, so to speak.

  10. Great post. Organizations like USAT are indeed revenue driven, and sadly one way to generate a lot of cash from a growing sport/industry is to offer an exclusive, expensive, albeit easy to obtain training course. However, as you point out, these credentials have suffered from such huge inflation that a USAT Coach's certificate makes you no more of a coach as a $20 state fishing license makes you a fisherman. That is why, for the time being, it seems as though many athletes gauge coaching potential based on a coach's racing resume. This distinguishes our sport from others (basketball, football) where some of the greatest coaches were never star players. The lack of barriers to entry in USAT coaching not only makes it too easy for unqualified "coaches" to inundate the field, it makes it difficult for educated, skilled coaches who don't have a tremendous racing history to stand out as legitimate.

  11. This is a great post and I appreciate your comments. I think you did a great job writing it and it will certainly make me do my research if/when I ever decide to get a coach.

    I do know that the Tri Training class taught at my gym was taught by a swim instructor that had only done 2 sprint tris.

  12. I am with ya 100% of the way. Its like going to the movies and buying really really expensive popcorn. Anyone can do it!

    I don't think my coach is USAT certified. Does he have to be? NOPE! Does he know his shit and can he back it up with performances? YEP! You should have seen him on the bike this past weekend.....still trying to figure out where he plugs himself into the wall cuz he ain't human!

    He also winged an AMAZING prerace and raceday Ironman nutrition speech to 50 people a tad bit buzzed. It was awesome and he did a GREAT job.

  13. As a non Triathlete I have no dog in this fight, but I found the post pretty cool and entertaining. At first I was 100% with you Jeff DTC, but then when I learned that there are Level 2 and 3, then it seems to me that most intelligent people would realize the Level 1 is an obviously an "entry level" status. So, it doesn't seem wildly off to me.

  14. So, I started triathlon a few years ago. Team In Training got me going, and I have several sprint, olympic, and even a few 70.3s. I am not a great racer, and have no super human traits. When TNT had a need for someone to help, I stepped up and became a coach. I have been learning as much as I possibly can since that first race, cause this sport is awesome. Now they are looking at USAT certs as a portion of coach qualification.
    USAT Coaching certs close pretty quickly. It seems that everyone is taking the course, and that makes it tough for me to get into the class. Now i have to figure out how to travel to the class, which makes it cost more. All this to help a non-profit organization introduce people to triathlon, and raise money to cure cancer.
    I guess I am frustrated about the situation, but for different reasons. Maybe there should be some assistant coaching happening before the certification. Maybe a mentoring type thing, or you have to be sponsored by a coach.

  15. Had Thomas Jefferson wanted a triathlon coach, he would have chose the right person for his job in his opinion regardless of what certification they had from whatever governing body.

    Maybe in the end the difference between a USAT coach and someone who knows what they are talking about AND is a good teacher is like the difference between a Realtor(TM) and a Real Estate Agent.

    I might argue that a true beginner would be better off coached (or perhaps mentored) by you or me or any of your other readers. Usually, they just want to cross the finish line alive and uninjured. A mentor can put them there with a lot less overload and stress than I've seen in (some) real coaching situations.

  16. Totally agree with this post. But, like you I don't have a clue as to what the solution is. I even see this problem outside of endurance sports. Take technical certifications (A+ computer certification or even Microsoft certified). Yes, MS certifications take a bit of studying but just because you pass their tests doesn't mean you are going to be a good programmer/sysadmin.

    When it comes down to it, I highly doubt some of these level 1 coaches will be at all successful in the long run. I just feel bad for all the future triathletes they have the potential of injuring or turning away from the sport with bad coaching.

    On a personal note, I had my first experience in mentoring a fellow triathlete. I had a friend from HS (who has already done 2 HIMs) ask me to sit down and just go through a bunch of questions she had about IM training. It was a ton of fun to simply share my experiences. I wouldn't call it coaching because I really wasn't giving her personal advice; just sharing my experiences. She ended up signing up for IMMT! We have another partier - I mean racer :)

  17. You know, at least I waited until after 3 IM finishes to write my book on how to do it on less than one hour per day training..
    I actually thought about getting my USAT certificate to give my book some legs (perceived) then I came to the conclusion I would rather spend the money on another entry fee..

  18. I was looking at my follower thingie and noticed you. Not sure when you joined, but thanks for reading! Don't be afraid to leave a comment.

    The coaching qualifications, or lack thereof don't fuss me. When I talk to someone about coaching, I want to hear about their experiences, their track record, not their paper certifications.

  19. We already talked about this, I am hear to read the comments, kinda exactly how I thought they would be

  20. I will give you a virtual high five and a fist bump right now.

    Love this post. In my area, TOTALLY overwhelmed with "coaches".

    Agree 100% with the way you handled this, much better than I would have haha.

    Great wording and yes, I agree with your stance, its too easy and I think most people are being taken advantage of for money and not for actual growth in the sport.

  21. i think athletes who just go with coaches because they are USAT certified (level 1) and dont do any other research about that coach is making a huge mistake. i dont know if my coach is USAT certified or not, but i did lots of reading up on his philosophy, years coaching/training, etc. in order to make an edumacated decision ;)

  22. Great Post. I've never had a coach in 20+ years and I've done a great job of screwing myself up. After reading this, if either one of those people had been my coach and I learned that, I'd have either laughed or cried then never raced again.

  23. THANK YOU!!! Not going to say anything more for fear it may incriminate me :)

  24. Never had any experience with coaching - this was fascinating!

  25. Great post Jeff - I think some folks get into coaching because they really do want to coach, and others see it as a way to make $$. I have seen both and also seen similar things with "certified" bike fitters and such. I think you have to talk to the person and see if it is a good fit and not blindly go into it based on certification. I would take my coach even if she wasn't certified based on the knowledge/experiance she has.

  26. I agree completely. Beyond even tris, swim and cycling is your personal trainer or class instructors at your local gym. I studied martial arts for 7 years and attained my first degree black belt (there are 10 levels of black belt alone). Later after I left the dojo and occasionally took a kickboxing class, I saw gross negligence with regards to proper form and technique. This used to make me so angry. I could forsee knee injuries, broken fingers, hip injuries, etc.

    When I studied we did hundreds of punches and kicks; basic, basic stuff with constant correction to our form. Without a strong foundation everything else was crap, basically.

    When I hooked up with my coach I knew her history: 15 years of tri experience, 9 IMs, she had been coached herself so understood the relationship, she asked me a ton of questions too that were relevant to where I was and where I wanted to be. I have not been disappointed! (and I'm happy to say she took first in her AG at IMCdA yesterday and top 2% OA women). Like anything else, I think it's buyer beware. You wouldn't buy a high ticket item without doing your research, why should this be any different?

  27. Interesting post - I'm not a triathlete so I have no idea on the background to USAT. But like Ms. Duffy says it does seem like a huge moneymaking venture for them with the $525 application fee.

    As a runner I'm more familiar with the RRCA certfication:

    The steps are actually very similar to getting USAT Level 1:
    Step 1. Attend an Official RRCA Coaching Certification Course (2 day course)

    Step 2. Submit the Online Test (100 questions)

    Step 3. Submit Electronic Copies of First Aid and CPR to the Class Presenters

    Looks like the overall requirements and fees for this are lower than the traithlon level 1. I've seen some runners get RRCA certified, and I bet it does gain you some knowledge. But also simply reading running books and going through race experiences you probably gain just as much knowledge.

    As with anything, you gotta research who your potential coach will be, and what their credentials are - whether they have certified letters after their name or not.

  28. like i said on my tweet. love love love this blog post. everyone and their mother seems to have a silly usat level 1 cert. not impressed at all in my book. i think what means more is a impressive race history and maybe a career in a related science field: pt, nutrition etc..... i guess people should be weary of who they pick as their coach

  29. Jeff - thanks for linking to my series on triathlon coaching!

    I actually touched on this very topic in my series. Just because someone has a certification doesn't make them a "good" or "qualified" coach. On the other hand, just because someone isn't certified doesn't mean they stink, either. The bottom line is that any athlete looking for a coach should thoroughly interview the coach, make certain that their philosophies & approach match their own, and have sufficient background to provide them support.

  30. Great thought-provoking post! I fully agree with the points you make and feel that this is the case in pretty much any sport. When I was a young teenager, I earned my level 1 baseball coach coach t-ball...and believe me, that is the highest level I could coach, because I had never played!
    Always get lots of information before choosing to train under someone's guidance!

  31. I think you used some good wording here. "Irresponsible."

    Maybe I'm a a-hole, but I think everyone involved (athletes, coaches, USAT) is a little irresponsible here.

    You are dealing with people's health and wellbeing. An under qualified coach is put in a situation where they are not only may be giving bad advice, but causing harm or injury to the athlete's body.

    Whether you are the athlete, coach or USAT, not respecting the impact that bad advice can have on someone's health is just what you said. Irresponsible.

  32. I am going to post again, andplay a little devil's advocate here.

    Why does someone HAVE to be successful to be a good coach? I don't think Bela Karolyi was successful in gymnastics..when he was a 13 year old little girl? But he coached several girls and women to Gold medals in the Olympics. There are many examples where the coaches are successful, and they were not successful athletes. The other side of the coin is this, just because I am a successful athlete does NOT make me a good coach. You can't take what successful athletes do and repeat it for everyone, otherwise you could think that melanoma, cancer treatment, and testiclectomy was a requirement to be a great cyclist. Lance Armstrong is probably not a great coach. How do you inspire someone to be great? How do you help someone be better at something? Ok, i will sleep better now. Rant over.

  33. Well said Jeff! I agree with every single item you touched on here. I could probably write a book for this comment but I am going to stop here b/c I'm at work and I really need to do work, ha! I will add to the email you sent back to me this morning. I have lots to say.

  34. Nice to read the post and it gave me much to think about. I'm organizing a tri club in my area and thought about getting the certification so that we could become an official club. I've also found myself in the mentoring role and thought that a clinic would help me to steer people in the right direction. Its been amazing to inspire others to enter the sport...they see me racing (Mom of young kids) and they want to do it too. A level 1 coach seems to be a great place to get your feet wet coaching and then build your knowledge/experience.

  35. Dude- it's a level 1. Who cares? That's like saying "I am an elementary school PE teacher. " Not too impressive right? Come back and say "I started off as an elementary school PE teacher and used my professional and personal experience to coach an elite professional sports team to success." (level 3 coach) I would much rather have Phil Jackson coach me than Kobe Bryant.

  36. Before you go off bashing USAT Level 1 Coaches, I suggest you apply for the qualification, see if you actually get in, and sit through those 2.5 days of learning from the nation's best Level 3 coaches yourself! You make it sound like anyone can get it, but that is not true. You can't just turn that stuff in, you must actually have some coaching experience, and/or degree in a health related field. You must also submit a letter of recommendation from someone you are currently coaching, and supply multiple references who can verify this information. When you do take that test (that you have 3 months to complete), it is because you have to read their approximately 200 page coaching manual, plus write out training plans for specific distances and situations, including leading up to a national championship race. Some can complete that in a week or less, but it is time-consuming, so they allow 3 months, understanding that most people are also trying to work during that time. NOT EVERYONE PASSES. Many are turned away from even starting, because of DUIs or other things that show on their background check. As for the coach who said to swim less distance, yes, more information should be gathered before offering that suggestion. Main point: don't make judgements without knowing all the facts. Would you do this for other professions?