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The Barefoot Running Coach Certification Alternative

Posted by on Oct 9, 2011 | 23 Comments

The barefoot running coach certification issue has created quite the firestorm of opinions, which I love.  More and more barefoot runners are weighing in on the issue.  Christian’s recent post has been one of the best, and not only because he agreed with some of my issues.  At the end of the post, Christian states that barefoot running coach certification is acceptable because it’s better than the alternative, which is nothing.

If there were no alternative, I would agree.

Fortunately, there IS an alternative!

First, some perspective.  I was a high school teacher for twelve years.  Our system of formal education here in the US and most of the Western World is based on the idea that an all-knowing “teacher” will impart knowledge on inferior “students.”  While we liked to talk about teaching things like critical thinking and logical discourse, we really spent all our time teaching students how to conform and be obedient to authority.

Such is the nature of a meritocracy.

We forced kids to jump through hoops to earn “credentials” like a diploma.  Those that followed the rules like good sheep were rewarded.  Those that rebelled against the system were punished until they fell in line.  If they didn’t fall in line, they were banished for the system (dropouts.)

Creativity and original thought was only allowed if it fell within the acceptable range allowed by the “expert” (the teacher.)  REAL original thought and dissent was ruthlessly crushed.

The Problem With Any Certification Program

What does this have to do with barefoot running coach certification?

Certification is based on the idea that an all-knowing “expert” deems what should be known and professes it to their students.  Students are expected to follow their teachings in order to achieve the certification. The “expert” has determined they know the truth, and are the lone givers of this critical knowledge.  Critical thought is squelched.  The expert has no interest in learning from their pupils since there’s an imbalance in power.  It’s a one-way street.

This system is the exact same bullshit that pervades our education system today.  Shelly and I eventually got sick of swimming against the stream.  My goal was to get students to think, not uncritically accept everything I say as “the truth.”  I have seemingly obvious biases that pervade my teaching.  I wanted my students to recognize that and challenge me.  When that occurred, I knew I was successful in fostering their ability to think critically.

This is also the reason we decided to homeschool or kids… the current state of our education system rewards conformity and deference to authority, not critical thought.  As long as our schools are obsessed with the Procrustus-like system of teaching to a standardized test, (thanks, No Child Left Behind), we’ll keep doing our own thing.

What is the Alternative?

Back to the cert issue.  What is a better alternative?

We need to look at the free school movement, which I think is a far better alternative than our current school systems.

The idea is simple- anybody can teach anything they want to anyone that is interested in learning.  The teachers are doing it as much to learn as they are to teach.  Discourse is welcomed.  Ideas are shared.  The formal “expert” and “subservient pupil” dynamic is eliminated.  Ideas are democratized, not monopolized.

What would this look like?  Imagine an organization like the Natural Running Center as the organizing body.  All of the members of the NRC could offer classes, either in-person or virtually.  They would talk about their specific areas of expertise.  Some would be research-based.  others would give practical barefoot tips.  Still others would talk about coaching best practices.  Non-NRC members could also hold these classes.  The idea would be to share as much divergent information as possible.

Information collectives always trump top-down authoritarian programs.  Take the Run Smiley Collective as an example.  It is a group of people dedicated to sharing the idea of celebrating the intrinsic joy of running.  The group wouldn’t have as much impact if it were a single person acting as a Run Smiley Czar.

The NRC would also force a shift away from “barefoot running” toward the more inclusive “natural running” idea, which is something that needs to be done.  Many of us have noted that barefoot running is a GREAT way to learn good form, but it’s not the only way.  Focusing on natural running would include those that have already been doing similar work like the ChiRunning, POSE, Good Form, and Evolution Running folks.

Equal Opportunity

When I attended the NYC Barefoot Run, there were two well-defined groups- the “A” list Kudus (of which I was one), and the “B” list Merrell round-table members (of which I was also a member.)   The implicit message was clear- the first group had more valid information to share.  Pretty much everyone that was written a report noted the same thing.

I can unequivocally say every single member of the “B” team was just as qualified to share their own unique barefoot running knowledge as the “A” team.  People like Josh Sutcliffe, Kate Kift, Pete Larson, Tucker Goodrich, Christian Peterson, Mark Cucuzzella, Justin Owing, etc.  have just as much to contribute as Ken Bob Saxton, Ted MacDonald, Michael Sandler, and me.

The fact that we’re moving toward a model that marginalizes the thoughts and opinions of the B-list group is bullshit.  Certification only reinforces the idea that some people are more qualified than others, which is clearly not the case.  All of us, from the most well-known A-lister to the most obscure D-list blogger or forum participant to someone just starting the transition can provide valuable information to the community.  Furthermore, several of  the  A-listers seemed to be the least likely to want to learn from others, which is the kiss of death for any teacher.

The highest compliment I received in a long time came from Patrick Sweeney’s report of the weekend.  When holding my clinic in Battery Park, he noted I seemed to be just as interested in learning from the people that gathered around me as I was to teach them.  It’s arrogant to assume others don’t have anything to teach me, even if they are my “students.”

Anyway, the people that would attend the NRC classes would be free to engage in discussion as they saw fit.  Pupils are seen as equals with valued thoughts and opinions.  Teachers would be learners as much as teachers.  Through this method, anyone that has a novel idea about barefoot running would have the opportunity to share their ideas, get feedback, and stimulate intelligent discussion.  THIS is the way ideas are shared and advanced.

If someone were interested in becoming a coach, they could list the classes they’ve “attended”, ideas they’ve shared, and their general philosophy on running and coaching.  In practice, it would be similar to Christian’s idea of obtaining multiple certifications, then using that knowledge to choose the best method for each individual client (GREAT idea, BTW, but horribly expensive.)  Based on the cost idea, this concept would open the coaching realm to those that cannot afford single certifications, let alone multiple certifications.  Socio-economic status should NOT be a barrier to coaching.

Cost

One issue that has arisen is the cost of the current certifications.  This is tricky as cost is an obvious problem for some people.   I am a firm believer in the free sharing of information and ideas.   However, I also recognize the need for people to be fairly compensated for the work they do.  Vivobarefoot’s cert is expensive, but it also requires a ton of work on the part of the instructors.  I don’t have a problem with that, especially since they also give away a ton of quality information. I don’t expect everybody to get rid of their belongings and move into a travel trailer to be able to afford to spread knowledge (though I would recommend it.)  ;-)

In my free barefoot school, the instructors could charge a nominal fee if they so desired, or they could offer their classes free of charge.  If the class attendees were allowed to rate the class, the market would dictate appropriate fees.  Ideally, everything would be free of charge, but that would require a larger battle with our capitalist society.  Capitalism isn’t inherently bad, though it does tend to create financial barriers which can inhibit progress.  Besides, there are enough of us willing to spread the word for free to keep the market prices very low.

[Edit- I'm not against the idea of charging fees in exchange for knowledge, it's just that we have to understand there's a trade-off.  As soon as we charge money, we set up a barrier for entry.  That can be an acceptable tradeoff as long as we acknowledge it exists.  Furthermore, I am definitely not opposed to people making money off actual coaching.  If people are spending time and effort on anything, they should be duly compensated.]

How to Assure Quality

What about quality assurance of coaches?  After all, this is usually the first line touted in defense of any type of certification.  The assumption is certification assures a minimum level of competence.  Having been involved in all types of assessment development and deployment, I can safely say a test, whether it is objective or subjective, is one of the least valid measures of competence.  Anybody can learn to pass a test if they understand the variables that go into making and grading the test.

There’s a more reliable solution to measuring and filtering competence:  Community grading.

TJ Gerken, the founder of the Barefoot Runners Society, came up with a brilliant solution.  She created a “barefoot coach locator” map which can be found here.  Anybody that identifies themselves as a coach and offers services can add their names to the map which includes biographical information.

This idea could be taken a step farther by including the ability for clients to rate and add coach reviews.  It would be a system much like what Amazon, IMDB, and Reddit uses to rank quality.  Great coaches would get the highest marks.  Shitty coaches wouldn’t.  Want to measure competence?  There’s no better method.

In Conclusion

If we’re genuinely interested in spreading ideas, we cannot support systems that act as gate-keepers to prevent any and all interested parties from participating.  Certification-based systems do just that- they act as gatekeepers that prevent democratic participation.

The free school model of barefoot coach training an out-of-the-box solution, but I sincerely believe our old way of doing things is flat-out stupid.  The more voices we have in the conversation, the more progress we make.  There is a better alternative to antiquated certification systems, and this is it.

All of us, regardless of our pedigree, degrees, or past experiences, have the potential to be ground-breaking contributors.  A certification system marginalizes people; it assumes only a select few have the capability to contribute.  We need a system that’s based on the idea that all of us are valuable contributors.  We need a system where we believe in each other.  The free school idea does just that.

What do you think?  Do you agree that everyone should have a voice in the barefoot community?  Share your thoughts in the comments section!

Also, if you think this is a idea worth sharing, please share this post (Twitter, Facebook, Google+, forums, your blog, etc.)  The more steam this idea generates, the more people we’ll get to participate, which will make it more successful.

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23 Comments

  1. Erik Lee Skjon
    October 11, 2011

    Nice post and I really dig your attitude. My sense also is that only 10% would really need a coach. For the rest of us, just reading up and paying attention to what our feet/bodies are telling us is sufficient.

  2. Phil
    October 10, 2011

    In the context of a world with barefoot or form certifications, be they VIVOBarefoot or Chi or Evolution etc., how valid are other credentials? Formal education? Running experience? Competitiveness as a runner? I think the informed consumer will have to consider all these things when evaluating a running coach. Example: How about Dr. Mark Cucuzella, who practices family medicine but openly admits that he learned hardly anything about sports medicine in medical school or residency, but is now widely touted as a natural running expert because of his own running experience? Is his medical degree tricking runners into thinking he’s more of an expert than he really is? Another example: personal trainers who give medical advice based on their own experience, not on any data or formal training. Or any of the multitudes of barefoot running forum posters who’ve read the Lieberman paper and believe they can offer meaningful advice to injured runners. There is a huge disconnect between formal training and experience. Formal training keeps consumers safe, and experience makes formal training useful. One usually needs both to be competent.

    The reason I make all these points is because I’m a podiatric medical student, but I’m also a minimalist runner, and I’m a competitive ultramarathon runner. My aspirations are to run a general podiatric practice, with an emphasis on solving chronic running injuries with better form. I chose podiatry because I can expose myself to more athletes than in other medical fields, and I feel my decade of running and winning ultramarathons will further establish credibility with patients.

    My point is that any coach should ideally (emphasis on ideally) have formal training so as to be well-versed in the scientific literature and standards of practice(if for no other reason than to communicate well with peers), but must also have extensive personal experience with what he or she teaches.

  3. The certification debate…if barefoot nerds can have one, so can us Functional Fitness geeks « Kemme Fitness
    October 10, 2011

    [...] saga continued on October 9th with Jason’s response to MGBG. Jason wrote about the certification alternative with his post. Personally, I’m not sure where I fall in on this. They both have good points [...]

  4. mark lofquist
    October 10, 2011

    it’s like an open-source OS. ‘the open-src barefoot academy’

  5. Jamoosh
    October 10, 2011

    If someone were to tell me that what I learned from Barefoot Ted was invalid because he didn’t have a coaching certificate I would punch them.

  6. Paul
    October 10, 2011

    Verity is the spice of life. Who have been my teachers in terms of running, I suspect I could come up with a hundred names. All had something to offer. Which ones were most affective, the ones that inspired, the ones that opened doors to new ideas.

    If someday all running coaches need to be certified to teach bfr running that would be a measure of success for the movement.

    There will always be some bad ass who finds a new way and writes a book about it.

  7. Ivan Olarte
    October 10, 2011

    Hey Jason, nice post.

    It’s funny I was at NYC, and while very interested in becoming a certified coach it is simply beyond my means.

    However after meeting you and the rest of the folks, I felt validated in most of what I already know, do, and practice.

    And so I came back home very motivated to spread the word, and teach what I know.

    Part of my own credentials, are my personal reasons for running, my history, and even the fact that within a week of coming back from NYC I successfully ran a full Marathon all barefoot.

    And now having found the great venue over at BRS, I plan to teach what I know, share and learn from others in my area that are interested in BFR.

    While I wish I had an official certification etc, I value the experience and knowledge that I have received from the BRF leaders, to the folks like me who gave me tips and encouragement at NYC.

    Aside from the personal encounters, it is the collective will of this community, from lee Saxby’s great writeup on propioception, to Ken Bobs blog, you founding BRS, and all the great and important books that have been written, that has given me the education and knowledge, and has enabled to accomplish goals beyond my wildest dreams.

    And those are my credentials to teach, my motivation, my experience, and the vast amount of ideas, and information that I have absorbed from the collective minds of the BFR community.

    Maybe one day I will have a piece of paper on the wall, but for now, it’s my drive, and my willingness to share what I kwow that is important.

  8. Pablo L
    October 10, 2011

    Jason,

    Great thoughts, the first problem i see, is that if the certified barefoot running coaches charge for teaching, they should GUARANTEE 0 injuries; thats a must for me, if im paying for something ill be expecting better results, and the commitment of the coach t avoid 100% injuries.
    The second problem i see, is that if the certification is given by a running shoes brand… how deep will be the brand marketing in the lessons? (they have a business to run right? and the main reason they are teaching this certification is to make some profit, as far as i understand).
    So my final thoughts, im far from being a “pro” barefoot runner, but i think it would be AWESOME if some people get certified, and you know that they can properly teach you barefoot running. I also think, the people investing time to get certified should get something back, but this should be payed by the people whos making money with this, VIVOBAREFOT, if they have more “barefoot runners” they have more potential clients. I think VIVO should pay the coaches, and the first year, or something like that, ask them for a quota of “students”.
    I think this way every one gets what it deserves, the caoches get paid for the time they invest, the company have to pay in order to have more potential clients, and the “students” receive the propper barfoot running teaching.

    Sorry about my bad english, is not my mother language.

  9. krista
    October 9, 2011

    I love and totally embrace the idea of free and open communication and information exchange. It kind of parallels the “open source” community in software.

    That being said, I thought I would look at the other side of the coin. There are some audiences that NEED to have a certified coach teach them. I’m definitely not one of those people (I hired a coach to help me with barefoot running/strength training who is half my age and not certified, but I trust him and he totally knows his shit!) But, doesn’t the certification cast a wider net? Even if they offer their services for a fee or provide just as much information as a collective or another non-certified individual they are reaching people that otherwise might not seek the information because it is not “official”.

    I guess, though, in an ideal world certified trainers wouldn’t really need to exist due to the open exchange of information. But the reality of it is some people want and need that. Barefoot Running Certification is just another way to flag those people down and help them. Once those “students” have that knowledge there’s potential for them to pay it forward and (maybe) eventually become part of that broader collective of open exchange.

    • Jason
      October 10, 2011

      In my utopia, we won’t have a need for certification. You’re right, though. In reality, the certs aren’t going to disappear.

      First, there will always be an audience that feels they need a certification to validate their abilities even if they already had the requisite skills to be an excellent coach.

      Second, there’s a profit motive. Not that it’s a bad thing, but it will keep that mechanism rolling.

      Third, you’re right, it DOES cast a wider net. That is a good thing. I’m happy we’re at a point where we’re having this debate instead of talking about how we’re the only person in minimalist shoes in a 10,000 person race. This is a good problem to have. :-)

  10. Shacky
    October 9, 2011

    I’ve attended BFR clinics from 3 different “coaches” so far and can honestly say that I learned the least from the one that I actually had to pay to attend. Just saying.
    Its not that difficult and the majority of people trying to do this just need a little confidence and a nudge in the right direction. Does this really require certification to do?

    • Jason
      October 10, 2011

      Shacky, I think you’re right… most people don’t need coaching. HOWEVER, I have encountered some that benefit greatly from one-on-one coaching. I’d guess about 10% of the people I encounter simply aren’t able to learn good form via the methods we used. Do those coaches need to be “certified?”

      As long as they have three basic skills (taken from Gordo on the Huaraches Google Group), there’s no need for certification. The three:

      -Being able to execute the movement well.
      -Understanding the underlying theory.
      -Being able to communicate with people who vary wildly in learning style

      The first is a function of experience. The second requires some research. The third can be taught, but I find some people innately have this skill. Empathy is usually correlated with differentiated instruction.

  11. aaron nicholas
    October 9, 2011

    great post.

    good thoughts.

  12. Ken Barefoot Ng
    October 9, 2011

    Ah, beginner’s mind. We are all an experiment of one and the many. Runners without borders. Free, open, shared. Information for all. Aloha.

  13. Janice Nicholls
    October 9, 2011

    I think that shoe companies recognize they are going to lose money if barefoot running becomes completely mainstream. That’s why it’s shoe companies certifying coaches. It’s a way for them to still make money.

    I don’t buy running shoes anymore, but I love to support my local running store. The owner is very barefoot friendly. She sponsors our local run/walk clinic & that helps her sell shoes. She always talks a bit about me and my bare feet too & I lead a group…barefoot, of course. I make sure I buy lots of other stuff from her store as a result — clothes, food, hydration belts, etc.

    I don’t care about certification or non-certification. I just want to run in my bare feet whenever I can. I’m happy to share how running barefoot has changed my whole world. When I wore shoes, I never tried to convince other runners to get the same ones. I don’t try and convince people to run barefoot. That being said, several of my fellow runners are trying out minimalist shoes. My own daughters wear Vibrams and my youngest has started running barefoot. I’m going to lead by example:)

    • Jason
      October 10, 2011

      Leading by example is the best way to influence others, Janice. Good job! ;-)

      I really don’t think the shoe companies are offering certification for profit or because they’re worried about barefoot runners killing sales. The two I’m aware of (VB and Newton) have a culture that fully supports the ideas behind barefoot running. I think they’re doing what they do out of genuine concern to help people run better. I fully support their efforts to educate; it’s just the issue of a certification that rubs me the wrong way.

      Now if Brooks suddenly starts offering a cert, I may change my mind…

  14. Andrew Klein
    October 9, 2011

    Great post Jason. I spend a fair amount of time reading and participating on the Barefoot Runners Society forum. I think the exchange of ideas there has been invaluable to my own progress and I help others out as much as possible. I needed a lot of different perspectives to really understand what I was doing (and sometimes doing wrong and injuring myself). I love spreading my own experiences in the hopes of helping others. I wish more of my blog readers would leave their own thoughts to get some discussion going. That being said, I think it is more than fine for people to charge for their time in teaching classes or one on one sessions. If the value is there they should be rewarded. If not, people will stop hiring them.

    • Jason
      October 10, 2011

      Andrew- I agree, people should be paid for the time spent coaching others. If some want to do it for free, that’s great. However, professional coaches ARE needed to help those that cannot learn via bodily feedback, forum discussions, or other means.

  15. Chris Moffett
    October 9, 2011

    Nice. I always like when things turn to solutions!
    I’ve actually been thinking about doing a kind of Barefoot Lab, here in New York, that would provide a place for rigorous collaboration, and that would really take advantage of peoples different levels of experience. I think you were right on, in a previous post, about how little we all know.
    In a way Dan Lieberman provides us with a good model for learning. Keep testing hypotheses.
    My experience in teaching movement is that if you think you can just pass on what you know it is never as powerful as posing a movement context for everyone to learn at the highest level, out beyond what you “know” as a teacher.
    Onward.
    Chris

    • Jason
      October 10, 2011

      I like the Barefoot Lab idea, Chris. We’ll be back in NYC in about 2-3 weeks, any chance you’d have something set up by then? ;-)

      I also agree- testing hypotheses, even if it is only in the context of self-experimentation, is the key to learning and improving.

      • Chris Moffett
        October 10, 2011

        Right, I’ll order the beakers. But seriously, I can put together a series of initial lessons/experiments to get things started anytime. I think the trick is to find a context that a group of people with different experience levels can form around over a longer term.
        Holler if you want to talk, or let me know when you’re in the hood.

  16. Janice Nicholls
    October 9, 2011

    I have only just skimmed your blog this morning and will come back to it. I want to say that as a principal in the western education system I ABSOLUTELY agree with your thoughts about education. As a leader in the system, I have had the same tactics applied to me — forced conformity and rewards upon compliance. We need to keep challenging the system and current thought!

    • Jason
      October 10, 2011

      Thanks Janice! It’s clear our education system has some serious flaws. Hopefully we can avoid these same pitfalls in the natural running world.