Conflicts of interest in strength & conditioning…

This week- much to the entertainment of my social and professional circle- I appeared to set the internet on fire by stating publicly my opinion that there is a conflict of interest at the heart of the primary accrediting body for Strength & Conditioning within the United Kingdom. The usual well reasoned and civil twitter debate ensued, culminating in me being labelled a liar and a money grabber as someone who makes a big portion of their living by selling education and mentorship to strength & conditioning professionals.

Rather than attempt to lay out my position on Twitter, which is famed for its nuanced discourse that absolutely never leads to misinterpretation ;) I decided to do it here. Remember that the opinions I express are just that, and that I am criticising ideas not people or their ideas or intentions. Nor is this limited to the United Kingdom. There are numerous examples elsewhere within the world.

To begin with: everyone’s favourite, Wikipedia, defines a conflict of interest as:

“…a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, and serving one interest could involve working against another.”

further…

“An “interest” is a commitment, obligation, duty or goal associated with a particular social role or practice. By definition, a “conflict of interest” occurs if, within a particular decision-making context, an individual is subject to two coexisting interests that are in direct conflict with each other.

First things first, who do the accrediting bodies serve? The answer to this should of course be “whoever is being coached”. In the same way that a driving test serves other public road users and financial regulation exists to protect borrowers rather than lenders, accreditation erects a barrier to entry that protects the interest of the consumer of the product or service. This is necessary and good, otherwise we would still be in the wild west of coaching, where anyone could label themselves as they wished, train people as they wished, and ultimately cause injury or worse to clients. Accrediting bodies serve the athlete.

The natural response to accreditation is products or services to help individuals navigate the accreditation process. Driving schools didn’t exist before the driving test. Financial regulation preceded licensure, not the other way around. And in both of these areas, individuals within the marketplace compete for business. The natural consequence of the free market is a general trend towards higher quality offerings to consumers at lower prices. Good companies grow, bad companies go extinct. If you’re a driving school or a company preparing someone for their Series 7 stockbroker exam, it’s obvious: you serve the person taking the exam.

Nassim Taleb has written extensively about the concept of symmetry i.e. good systems are built upon the alignment of interests of all parties. What is good for the seller is good for the buyer, and vice versa. The less aligned the two become, specifically when the buyer losers but the seller still wins, the more wary of the system an individual should be before entering.

In the simple accreditation example the interests of the consumer and the professional body are aligned. Stringent accreditation standards serve the consumer by only ensuring highly qualified and accomplished coaches get in front of the athlete. Likewise, strict standards serve the accreditor by increasing the perceived value of the accreditation through scarcity. This can obviously go too far, where the standards are so stringent that nobody qualifies and the market goes underserved, but it serves both to err on the side of stricter standards, and the interests are aligned.

In the simple education example the interests of the consumer (this time the coach) and the educator are aligned. Providing higher quality education means a higher proportion of your clients pass the accreditation process (which they want), they tell their colleagues, which brings more business through the door, which means more people pass etc. etc. Conversely bad businesses lose business and go extinct.

The waters are muddied when a professional body acts as both accreditor and educator. From the perspective of the coach, a “win” (“I passed my accreditation”) is a win for the professional body. The coach now gets absorbed into a system which requires them to pay membership dues if they want to retain their new title.

A “loss” for the coach (you failed the test) is also win for the professional body because it perpetuates the scarcity and value of the qualification. Add another win for the professional body when more revenue is generated for a re-test, and potentially further revenue still for educational materials to better prepare next time (did I mention we set the test?!). If you’re playing a game where one side benefits in some capacity win, lose or draw, the interests are not aligned.

The reply may be “but we’re a non profit”, and I’ll concede that is the case, but we need to be honest that all institutions at their most basic level exist to perpetuate their own existence. You can’t fulfil your stated mission if the cupboard is bare, and you earn the right to do so by bringing revenue through the door. If you’re the only game in town, you want to stay that way, because every new arrival to the marketplace is a potential threat to survival. Losing money hand over fist is a great way to not exist and lose your status as an industry standard.

And just because a profit isn’t made, does not mean that large volumes of money are not turning over. The University of Alabama football team with their private jet is nominally non-profit as a state institution- an extreme example but you get the idea.

Another critique I receive is that accreditation is just a set of professional standards and that anyone is welcome to provide education to help coaches clear that bar. But when you write the test, you know the answers, and you’re at an inherent advantage to reverse engineer them into educational products and services compared to other individuals within the marketplace. So what masquerades as competition really is not, and the consumer suffers as a consequence through reduced pressure to innovate or compete on price.

So how do we fix this problem? In short there has to be an uncoupling of accreditation and education. Right now we have professional bodies that simultaneously generate a need within the coaching market by acting as gatekeepers, then fulfill that same need by offering education. It’s like cranking up the thermostat, then selling chilled water. Act as a gatekeeper and serve the athletes, or act as an educator and serve the coaches, but don’t do both.

There should be clear alignment between parties doing business. When it sucks for the athlete, it should suck for the accreditor. When it sucks for the coach, it should suck for the educator.

Those setting the barrier to entry should operate independently. Outline the expected professional standards, then let the market have at it. If the educators do too good of a job getting coaches qualified and the accreditor feels the prestige of the title has been watered down, they are welcome to raise the bar even higher. Then educators will be forced to raise their game even more, and the arms race repeats ad infinitum. But at no time has any party benefited from anything other than their counterpart getting what it is they want, and vice versa.

So yes, I do sell education and materials to strength & conditioning professionals. I serve coaches. If it’s good shit, they tell their friends, and I make more money. If it’s bad shit, they tell their friends, and I make progressively less money until I go broke.

Sport professional, writer and coach educator