By Andreas Stamatis, Ph.D.
The Oregon incident
In January 2017, after strenuous and military-style workouts, three Pac-12 football athletes were hospitalized with rhabdomyolysis*. Although all the details have not been fully disclosed, we do know that the affected student-athletes were under the direct supervision of a strength and conditioning coach (SCC). The SCC was certified after a 21-hour course through the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA). That revived the debate about the effectiveness of the several SCC certifications.
The exact cause is likely multifactorial and possibly unique to each athlete. However, the backlash to the profession as a whole was evident and serious. Videos and articles were published and posted in several popular media outlets, such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, Forbes, New York Times, CNN, and ABC. Several of these authors called for the NCAA to take action and enforce stricter rules “before we have more death during offseason”. The authors of one report described the situation in strength and conditioning similar to athletic training 30 years ago! Are things that bad? Let’s take it a step back.
Benefits vs. Risks of exercise
Both the benefits and the risks of exercise are well established. The “dose-response relationship” between exercise and health benefits states in simple words that “some is better than none” and “more -up to a point- is better than less”. Where is that point though? Can we find it for each individual athlete? Even if we identify it, can we apply it in team settings?
Safe and effective protocols in a highly-competitive collegiate athletics world
The ultimate goal of a coach is to create safe and effective protocols so his/her players reach the level of optimal performance. A regimen can be safe without being effective (way below that point), but it cannot be effective if it’s not safe (way above that point). Safety is a prerequisite of effectiveness and the top priority. There is no such thing as an unsafe but effective workout. Can we all agree on that? If so, did the Oregon coach obviously cross that point and fail to design a safe and therefore by default effective protocol?
Coaches are hired to win games. Under that pressure and in a highly competitive world, it should be expected that they will often design protocols as close as possible to that point while trying not to cross it. For instance, it is proven that athletes with high levels of aerobic capacity (something very common in Division I schools) need to exercise at 95-100 percent of their VO2max . In theory, that sounds simple, right? Now, let’s re-examine the Oregon incident.
What does the NCAA say?
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) requires only a nationally-accredited strength and conditioning certification program. USTFCCCA is one of them. So, technically, the institution has done nothing wrong concerning the hiring process.
What does “nationally-accredited program” mean?
The program has to fulfill four requirements:
- Accredited by a third party;
- Requires an undergraduate degree college;
- Requires a continuing education component; and
- Requires current First Aid, CPR, and AED certifications.
Which are those… “third parties”?
There are several third parties/accreditation agencies. Here are the most important accompanied with examples of members:
- The Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DETC): ISSA
- Council of Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA): AFAA
- National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE): AFAA
- American National Standards Institute (ANSI): CrossFit
- National Council for Accreditation of Coaching Education (NCACE) : USTFCCCA
- National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA): CSCCa, ACSM, NSCA, NASM, CI
Which third party is the best?
The answer may not be that simple, but let’s make a comparison between the most popular (i.e., NCCA) and the one that accredited USTFCCCA (i.e., NCACE).
A comparison of NCACE and NCCA
The program support and accreditation arm of the US Center for Coaching Excellence (USCCE)
|Formerly known as NOCA
The accreditation arm of ICE (accredited by ANSI)
|Forty standards of the National Standards for Sport Coaches (NASPE)||NCCA’s own standards (developed in 1970, last updated in 2014)|
1. Philosophy and Ethics,
2. Safety and Injury Prevention,
3. Physical Conditioning,
4. Growth and Development,
5. Teaching and Communication,
6. Sport Skills and Tactics,
7. Organization and Administration, and
|Apart from the process and products, do they go over the actual content?||Yes||No|
|Types of Accreditation||Comprehensive (all 8 domains)
Domain specific: One single domain*
Certification programs (this is what the above members possess)
|Four-person Review Panel (including one coordinator)
|Two commissioners first; then, full commission. meets.|
|Accredited programs||USA Football
USA Track & Field
National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS)
Special Olympics North America
|7 years||5 years|
1. Non-Profit: $3,200-4,000 and
2. For-Profit: $4,600-6,000
3. Non-Profit: $400-500/domain and
4. For-Profit: $600-750/domain
The most notable difference is that NCACE does go over the actual subject matter and does not stop with processes and products. Based on the above, there are indications that the third party (i.e., NCACE) does not seem to be the source of the problem. Let’s dig a little deeper…
Which SCC certification is best for collegiate sports?
Again, although the answer to that question is not that simple to answer, let’s make another comparison. Let’s compare USTFCCCA (due to the incident) to CSCCa (due to the fact that they claim to be the only organization developed to meeting the unique needs of the collegiate SCC).
Comparison of the certification processes of USTFCCCA and CSCCa
|Emphasis||Track and Field||Collegiate level|
|Levels||Basic certification: Course 310
Advanced endorsement: Course 399 (after completing 310)
MSCC (already SCCC, plus 12-year valid employment history)
|Practical exam||No||Yes (two parts)|
|Prerequisites||1. Basic: None (two years of coaching experience is recommended)
2. Advanced: Basic, CPR/AED/First Aid, Bachelor’s Degree (not necessarily exercise-related)
|1. Internship (640 h.)
2. CPR/AED/First Aid
3. Bachelor’s Degree (not necessarily exercise-related)
4. Full SCC in collegiate or pro level or student
|Maintenance||5 years||3 years|
|Continuing Education Program||Yes||Yes|
|Pass rate||No response had been received from the USTFCCA at the time of this article’s publishing.||74% (data from 2012-2017)|
Additional $40 for Advanced
As we can observe, the main differences lie in the prerequisites, the duration, and the practical. In addition, it is noteworthy that out of these two, only CSCCa has endorsed the “The Inter-Association Task force for Preventing Sudden Death in Collegiate Conditioning Sessions: Best-Practices Recommendations.”
Are 21 hours enough?
The “weekend structure” is not uncommon in the world of certifications. For instance, USAW (several of us have been certified through that organization) and USAT&F follow that design. Personally though, after receiving my Level 1 USAW certification, I didn’t expect to know everything about the technique of Olympic Lifting movements. That takes a lifetime to master. Similarly, I never believed that I could go out and coach pole vault after receiving my Level 1 USAT&F certification. I still had no idea about it!
Does the USATFCCCA strength and conditioning certification process lead to effective SCCs? In other words, the big question here is: are 21 hours of training enough for somebody to be in charge of a collegiate strength and conditioning program? If not, is there a process that is proven to deliver that?
Looking for more proof about the most effective collegiate SCCs
Triggered by the Oregon incident and in our effort to find hard evidence concerning which certified collegiate SCCs are the most efficient, we conducted a study, which was presented last month at the Greater New York ACSM Fall meeting. Our purpose was to investigate retrospectively the relationship between NCAA championship data and CSCCa-certified SCCs.
Championship data were retrieved from the 2016-17 NCAA archives. All SCCs, who have won national championships in any sport within the past year/season, were recruited via email/phone in order to acquire information regarding certification. The response rate was 60%. First, we identified the number of CSCCa-certified coaches who last season/year worked for NCAA programs who did not win a championship. Then, we discovered the amount of CSCCa-certified coaches who were employed by NCAA championship teams for the same period of time. Last, using z-score for proportion (one-tailed hypothesis, significance level at 0.05), we tested for statistical significance.
Our results revealed that last season/year, CSCCa-certified coaches worked for 2.7% of NCAA non-championship teams and for 15.5% of championship teams.
The z-score is 5.9979. The p-value is 0.0001. The result is significant at p<0.05.
Comparison of the CSCCa coaches who last year/season worked for Championship and Non-Championship teams
|Non 2016-17 Championsa||2016-17Championsb|
|# of CSCCa Coaches||523||9|
|# of NCAA Teams||19,442||58|
Note: There are 19,500 programs in all three NCAA divisions and 532 CSCCa-certified SCCs.
What does this mean though? Well, the practical implication of this result is the following: Without taking into consideration other variables (e.g., available resources in each institution), but with a very high z-score, the presence of a CSCCa coach in the coaching staff seems to be an indication of a collegiate championship team, and therefore, of coaching effectiveness!
The SCC is an integral part of the majority of NCAA teams. In fact, in Division I programs, compared to other coaches, the SCC spends the most “countable hours” with student-athletes. Therefore, we need to be sure that our 450,000 NCAA student-athletes are in good hands.
Analogous incidents have happened before (e.g., Iowa). Will incidents similar to Oregon happen again? Unfortunately, there is no doubt about it. No matter how much prescreening participation we conduct and how safe our protocols are designed to be, there are factors that cannot be changed or prevented (e.g., primordial). But what about the factors that can be prevented?
So, can we do anything to help prevent similar events?
Concerning the factors we can control, we can absolutely take several measures (e.g., implementation of more intensive cardiovascular screening than just History and Physical for all student-athletes and especially for the highest risk athlete group, men’s basketball). Among them, the “regulation” of the strength and conditioning world is also crucial in order to prevent future incidents similar to the Oregon case. The process of obtaining a CSCCa certification (the only organization that includes a two-part practical) appears to be a potential solution for the increase of the effectiveness of SCCs and for the shifting of the public opinion about our profession to the positive side once and for all.
Disclaimer: The author has no affiliation to CSCCa. However, as a former professional SCC, he is extremely interested in creating a forum for the exchange of opinions and the advancement of the field. Please, direct questions to the following email address: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Mrs. Becky Stiggins, Ms. Hannah Briscoe, Ms. Jordynne Ales, and Mr. Forrest Scott for their contributions to the aforementioned research.
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