The Starting Strength Coach Evaluation Oral Review Board

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | June 12, 2019

nick delgadillo lectures on coaching

Since its inception in 2010, the Starting Strength Coach certification has been a coaching credential. The standard has changed, becoming more rigorous around 2012, and with the introduction of Maintenance of Certification requirements around the same time we have moved toward making the SSC Certification a professional credential. We have launched a Starting Strength Coach Development Program that includes a prep course, coach development camps, and apprenticeships at Starting Strength Gyms. For the first time, we are able to guide future coaches to a coach development pipeline and a career as a Starting Strength Coach by optimizing the learning of the model and methods, along with mentored guidance at a Starting Strength Gym or a Starting Strength Affiliate Gym as coaching experience is gained. For people wanting a career as a strength coach that doesn’t involve a useless credential, unsatisfying work in the commercial gym industry, and amassing student debt, The Starting Strength Coach certification provides the answer. And the way to keep the credential valuable is to maintain a very high standard for certification.

The Coaching Evaluation

The first step in the SSC evaluation is opting in during the Starting Strength Seminar. The main purpose of the seminar is to present the full Starting Strength method and to teach the lifts (sometimes for the first time) to lifters of various abilities and experience levels. The secondary purpose is refinement of the models, the teaching methods, and the explanations of the concepts underlying the models, since interaction with seminar attendees and the experience of seminar staff coaches in their own practices leads to further improvement to the seminar and the method.

To put it simply, the purpose of the seminar is not to develop coaches. The purpose of the seminar is for the seminar staff to teach and coach the method. Because this is the case, the seminar serves as a great way to evaluate Starting Strength Coach candidates. Those who opt in for evaluation at the seminar take on the responsibility of correctly teaching and coaching the lifts to other seminar attendees at the level of a Starting Strength Coach. The seminar staff coaches have to be satisfied that the candidate has coached his lifters effectively according to a set of criteria including 1) good use of the teaching method, 2) sufficient assertiveness and ability to control the lifter, 3) the ability to see deviations from the models of the lifts, and 4) the ability to effectively communicate with the lifter to get him moving closer to the model from rep to rep.

In a typical seminar, 5 of the 25 participants may opt in for evaluation and 1 or 2 out of the 5 will pass the evaluation. The candidates who pass have typically been coaching using the Starting Strength model for at least a year, and have spent hundreds of hours on the platform refining their ability to see and correct deviations from the model in lifters of varying athletic ability, age, shape, and size. Almost universally, candidates who fail the evaluation can adequately teach the lifts using the teaching methods, understand the concepts underlying the models of the lifts, identify form deviations, and have some coaching experience. But the standard is such that on the weekend of the seminar, the candidate must be able to coach at the level of a Starting Strength Coach.

Most fall short in their ability to use effective cues, prioritize them, and time them so that the lifter responds appropriately. The skills required to be able to quickly evaluate movement and effectively communicate with a lifter in real time are what make the SSC exceptional, and they can only be gained through extensive practical experience. The platform evaluation by the cadre of experienced Starting Strength Seminar Staff Coaches at the seminar is the best way currently available to assess this skill in SSC candidates, and passing a coaching evaluation will always be the barrier to entry for the SSC certification. It’s critical that future prospective Starting Strength Coaches spend the majority of their effort gaining experience on the platform teaching the lifts and working through form errors with a wide range of lifters of varying training background, ability, age, and experience.

The Oral Review Board

The second component of the Starting Strength Coach evaluation tests the candidate’s knowledge of the underlying concepts behind the moment model of barbell training, the candidate’s experience in explaining and working with the model, and the candidate’s experience with the programming model. Initially this was done through a 10 question essay test that was typically answered in 15-30 total pages. In the early days of the Starting Strength Seminar, all attendees were evaluated for coaching ability. In 2012, the exam was modified by removing three questions and broadening the scope of the remaining seven. Passing exams ranged from 25-60 pages in length with a few being shorter than 25 and a few exceeding 60 pages. This comprehensive written exam was the culmination of the process of SSC development for nearly 7 years. Initially, Rip was the sole evaluator for written exams. Nick Soleyn took over as evaluator around 2015. Soleyn standardized the scoring process and during his tenure, coaches started turning in longer and more detailed exams as the expectation for complete treatments of the questions became widely known.

Some problems with this approach started to become evident as the quality of SSC candidates opting in at seminars started to improve around early 2017. Prior to that, a large percentage of opt-in candidates were experienced trainers and coaches from other systems who weren’t prepared for the SSC evaluation. In the last few years, there has been a shift in opt-ins to people who have specifically prepared for the goal of becoming a Starting Strength Coach. This is, obviously, a positive development. But along with the increased familiarity of the process for prospective coaches, came an increased familiarity with what was required in the written exam. Candidates knowing the questions on the exams or the length and time requirements aren’t necessarily a problem since the candidate still has to do the work to answer the questions fully, but an unintended consequence of higher quality candidates was that the exams started to become less focused as candidates tried to write down as much as possible rather than make the answers more substantive.

An additional issue became apparent as we finalized the coach development program, developed the Starting Strength Gyms apprenticeship process, expanded the affiliate gym program, and Starting Strength Coach “interns” became more prevalent. Handing out a written assignment to candidates who are working closely with SSCs through one of these channels dangerously co-mingles financial and social incentives for everyone involved. Our approach to handling this potential conflict of interest in the platform evaluation is to make sure all staff coaches evaluate at least one lift for each candidate and then to force a pass/fail unanimous consensus for each candidate. Due to the time-intensive and technical nature of grading writing assignments, a similar process isn’t feasible for the written evaluation.

An oral review board solves these problems while also making the entire process much more efficient. Oral board members are able to ask direct questions and ask follow up questions to gauge a candidate’s understanding of the material in real time. The time from successful completion of the platform evaluation to certification as an SSC can be done in as little as 2 weeks. And oral board members must reach a consensus on each candidate’s result. For the SSC candidate, the time commitment for evaluation purposes is about two and a half hours rather than a writing assignment that took the entirety of two weeks to complete previously. The oral board also follows more closely our requirement that the SSC candidate be fully prepared as an SSC before evaluations begin rather than the more academic exercise of writing an essay over the course of two weeks.

Oral board members are selected from SSCs who have academic or rhetorical experience, are good communicators, and who have shown high standards of integrity. Each oral board member submits three primary questions to ask each candidate prior to the scheduled evaluation, and the meeting is conducted via a recorded online video conference. Any of the oral board examiners may ask follow up questions at any time. The current oral board examiners are Nicholas Soleyn JD, Nicholas Racculia PhD, John Petrizzo DPT, Diego Socolinsky PhD, Brodie Butland JD, Mia Inman PhD, and Jonathon Sullivan MD PhD. Each oral review board consists of three examiners plus a representative of The Aasgaard Company who is tasked with observing the proceedings. The lead examiner is Nicholas Soleyn.

[See oral board FAQ here]

Preparing for the Oral Review Board

In some ways the oral review board can be more difficult than the written exam, especially for candidates who haven’t prepared appropriately. Knowing the concepts – meaning that you are able to follow along at the seminar or with the books, able to write the concepts out, make long forum posts about fundamental concepts, or answer simple questions about them – is different than being able to explain the concepts orally. There are different mental pathways at work when you are forced to talk about something than when you write it down, and the organization of the material needs to be ordered logically when it needs to be spoken rather than accessed for a writing assignment. This is an important distinction, because needing to explain a relatively complex model in response to a client's question is a an important part of an effective coach's job. When a client asks why you are telling him something different than his doctor told him regarding deadlifts, squats, or overhead presses, your answer needs to be accurate, logical, and easily understood by the client.

The best way to prepare for the oral board is to spend time interacting with the material in as many ways as possible – something that’s built into the structure of our SSC Coach Prep Course. Reading assignments, writing assignments, and online discussion are all a part of this, but you have to prepare by practicing answering questions aloud, verbally, in a conversation.

There are no curve balls during the oral exam. If you’ve paid attention at the seminar, have read the books and/or done the SSC Prep Course, you can reasonably infer what will be asked. But just like coaching experience, answering questions verbally is a skill that needs to be practiced. Have someone ask you questions and then follow up questions. It may not even matter whether or not the person asking you the questions knows if you’re right or not, but you have to practice organizing your thoughts and making logical statements. You may catch yourself reaching for an answer you don't know how to explain, and therefore expose ideas or understanding that hasn’t been fully developed by following this approach. Of the oral boards that have been conducted to date, candidates who have not passed had a very good basic understanding of the concepts underlying the Starting Strength Method, but when pressed on a small inaccuracy on some point in their explanation, a lack of depth or logic is revealed.

Overall, the oral review board solves the problem of potential impropriety by using a three member system of examiners, it streamlines the process of certifying new coaches, and it allows us to better judge a coach on real-world skill rather than academic prowess. Those who have gone through the time-intensive process of developing their coaching ability according to the Starting Strength Model to the point that they’ve earned the certification have demonstrated their ability to effectively teach and coach the lifts. There is a market and demand for professional coaches who can teach our methods, and it is quite obvious that learning good, efficient, and safe technique for the barbell lifts coupled with simple and effective programming will always be valuable.

When a person hires a Starting Strength Coach, he can be confident that the coach will get him to move correctly and safely, answer questions about the lifts and the method effectively, and argue for correctly executed barbell lifts as the best way to get strong. The coach who can do this is exceptional – given the current state of the fitness industry – and we intend to remain the authority on certifying coaches who can get anyone strong, who can communicate effectively, and who remain resistant to the waves of popular opinion or authority on strength training, choosing instead to rely on the concept of first principles, useful observation, constant refinement, and experience.

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