The Darkest Fear No One Talks About and This Whole Industry Exploits
by Steven M. Ledbetter
8 minute read
You don’t know enough. You’re not good enough. You’re just guessing half the time that stuff is gonna work and sooner or later, your clients are going to find out. Your peers are going to find out. And everyone is going to know that you’re not a coach. You’re an imposter.
If you’ve had that thought, I’d like to congratulate you. You’re in very good company. With me. With Dan John. With Kelly Starrett. With Josh Hillis, Georgie Fear, Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, and with every coach you’ve ever met or thought was a genius or an idiot on the internet. We’ve all had that fear. And it’s time we talked about it.
When Habitry, Co. started the Motivate Summits in 2014, I designed them to be an open conversation about the problems that coaches have helping clients to change their behavior. We’ve done 3 (the 4th one is September 26th in Salt Lake City) and I’ve conducted interviews with hundreds of coaches since then to learn more about what coaches need and how we can help them help the most people possible. And behind every overt problem we found, behind every follow up question (“can you tell me more about that?”) lurked this common shame that no coach was immune from: that we’re impostors. And our clients (and our peers) are going to find out.
Why is this fear so common? Because the dark side of a dedication to mastery is the fear of never being good enough. We all want to get better at our jobs. We all get that we need to be on a journey of self-education, practice, and mastery. But being a coach also means working alone. Most of us spend our whole career with little-to-no feedback about how we’re doing. So we look anywhere we can for an indication that we’re getting better. We’re finally earning this title called “coach” that the people we look up to have. That we’re worthy of the money we charge. And increasingly, we’re paying extra for that.
At a major fitness conference I was at recently, I watched a Q&A panel with every speaker from the conference on stage. I counted 23 people on stage (21 men and no people of color, but that’s a discussion for another article) and every single one was selling or involved with a certification.
What’s the difference between a “workshop” and a “certification”?” Both offer knowledge. Both offer tips and tricks. But certifications cost 2-5x more than workshops of the same length. So certifications must be selling something else in addition to information. But what is it? What are we paying for when we pay for those letters after our name?
We’re paying for the illusion of legitimacy. And that 2-5x is a tax on our shame. That feeling that we’re not good enough and that we don’t know what we’re talking about half the time.
What’s the problem with that? My problem is personal trainers, nutritionists, and strength coaches are already broke and that’s quite a mark up for something that doesn’t work to fix the real problem. After spending potentially tens of thousands of dollars on letters after your name, you’re still going to feel like you don’t know enough and that there’s people you can’t help. Because there will always people you can’t help and there’s no way to know everything. So let’s have an honest conversation about that fear instead of just perpetuating this myth that “if I only had X cert, then I’d finally feel confident with clients.”
The only way to feel more confident with clients is to put in the hours. You can’t learn a skill in a weekend and you can’t practice a skill in “case studies.” Like Tommy Kono told me, “you get better at lifting in meets by lifting in meets, not in the gym.” Yes, there might be shortcuts to knowledge, but there are no shortcuts to confidence; to mastery. Certifications aren’t it. Certifications can promise information. They can promise tips and tricks. And on that, they can certainly deliver. I was proud of the knowledge I learned in my CSCS and at my RKC, and every certification on that Q&A panel represented a treasure trove of potential information taught by amazing and brilliant coaches. But let’s get real about the value that’s being exchanged.
Has a certification every taken away that sinking feeling in your gut right before you tell a potential client your prices? Can a certification make you feel “worth your rate”? Can letters after your name protect you from getting called out on the internet for not knowing what the hell you’re talking about? Why does just about every coach who’s been doing this job for a while let their certifications lapse? Because they don’t solve the problem they’re being sold to solve.
No matter how many letters are after their name, the best coaches still doubt. They still second-guess and they still have to dig deep for the confidence to look a client in the eye and say, “in my experience and according to all that I know at the moment, I think this is the best next step for you. But regardless, we’ll figure it out together.” That never goes away. Being a coach is hard and the mastery we are all seeking is dealing with the inevitable uncertainty and doubt with confidence and grace. And I’m sorry to break it to you but anyone who is, “100% confident with every client every time” is not a super coach; they’re a sociopath.
And let’s give up the ghost that certifications are for our clients. The information in them might be, but the letters we’re paying 2-5x more for are not. The reality is that the only clients give a shit about our certifications are probably the ones who are thinking about becoming coaches! And the 98% of people we aren’t reaching (only 2% of people hire coaches) care even less about the alphabet of self-delusion we slap on our business cards. They just want a competent, professional person who will listen to them without judgement and help them figure out what to do next. Letters don’t do that. Practice does.
So what’s the way out of this collective shame spiral? What’s the red pill? Well from what we know about research on shame, it’s not learning more things to convince ourselves we’re right. It’s opening up to the fear we might be wrong. According to Brené Brown, “the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out!” The cure for feeling like an imposter is not trying to compensate, it’s dealing with it. It’s being honest and opening up to the other people “in the trenches” so you can become more comfortable about what you know and what you don’t, and not on false hopes that exploit your shame. We started the Motivate Forum to be that safe space for coaches (it’s completely free) and we’ve been having discussions for almost a year about how we deal with the dark side of this pursuit of mastery. And if for any reason our Collective doesn’t appeal to you, please find a place you do feel safe to talk about what what’s on your mind. We’re in the helping profession and we’re not immune from needing help, too.
If you are personally considering a new certification, I’ll ask you the same questions I ask myself now:
On a professional level, I’m here to promise that Habitry, Co. is not in the shame business. We’re in the business of making life better, easier, and more rewarding for coaches by providing them with tools and feedback on using them. Our information is free. Our system is open. Even our Summits are not-for profit. We charge our customers for convenience and expertise. And we don’t make money on our platform until you do.
And at the end of the day, remember that English word “certification” comes from the French verb certifier, “to make certain.” So ask yourself who are you trying to make certain: your clients or yourself?