Education Versus Experience

Yeah….. that’s me in the picture. I’m not bragging. I came across this when looking through some old work photos on my computer. This was taken in the fall of 2010 when Dr. Fletcher and I were creating a new anterior knee pain rehabilitation program at Fort Stewart, GA. At the time this was taken, I was a licensed physical therapist, recently completed a physical therapy doctoral program, and successfully challenged the NSCA’s CSCS exam. For sure I had the education to be a “movement specialist”; unfortunately, I did not have the experience to fortify my education. Basically, I could “talk the talk” but unable to “walk the walk”.

Anyone with some basic movement knowledge and experience can easily identify several issues with the pictured attempt of a TRX single leg squat. The purpose of this post isn’t to discuss single leg squat mechanics, but since we are here let’s quickly point out some poor points of performance: head not in a neutral position, severely rounded spine, forward weight shift with heel coming off the ground. And these are just the obvious ones. Feel free to chime in with other form critiques.

The goal of this article is to discuss the difference and importance of both education and experience. Like I mentioned, at the time of this picture I certainly had a wealth of education with a nice set of letters that looked good on a business card. I was “book smart”, if you will, but I wasn’t “street smart”. Now don’t get me wrong. I am very grateful for my education and believe education should be the foundation that experience builds upon. Unfortunately, in both physical therapy and the fitness industry, education and certifications can easily be obtained without them translating into real world practical knowledge. That is achieved through experience.

Let’s use the NSCA’s CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) as an example. It’s a very challenging exam that requires a significant amount of time with your nose in the book learning a broad range of strength and conditioning topics ranging from physiology to technique. The limitation is in the exam itself where the “practical” part simply required watching videos and answering questions based off those videos. Because one of my few God-given talents is consuming large amounts of information then knowledge vomiting that information onto paper, I successfully passed the exam and “earned” the right to call myself a strength and conditioning specialist. However, I had zero experience being a strength coach. And I failed to implement this education into practice after passing the exam. Basically, I subconsciously got the letters to have others think I knew what I was talking about.

Obtaining my CSCS was definitely not a waste and proved useful when I became a brigade physical therapist for a combat unit of 3,500 soldiers. Part of the job description in that setting was injury prevention and performance optimization. My senior leadership couldn’t care less about my doctorate degree, but my CSCS certification and CrossFit-Level 1 training grabbed their attention and allowed me to have some influence over unit physical training. Unfortunately, my actual inexperience as a strength and conditioning specialist prevented me from giving them the best of my educational knowledge.

As you can tell, I don’t regret getting my CSCS at all. I regret not immediately putting that educational knowledge to practical use. Over a few years of not using the certification, the book knowledge slowly trickled out, and I found myself having to reteach myself some of those concepts and principles I should have already had mastered. Fortunately, over the past two years I have learned from my previous mistakes and use my strength and conditioning knowledge not only for training purposes but in the rehab setting as well. I’m proud to say I can now do some good with my CSCS certification, though I still have a long way to go before I would consider myself an expert strength coach.

My personal experience with the CSCS certification is just an example of how easy it can be to get a certification but not have the practical real world knowledge to implement it. The same holds true for anything only requiring a passed written exam or taking a course. As another example, let us look at personal training. From my understanding, there aren’t any hard criteria needing to be met for someone to label themselves as a “personal trainer”. There are certainly those who go through reputable certification programs and back their knowledge with experience. However, there are a plethora of “personal trainers” who simply do not.

In summary, two things to take away from this post: 1) when searching for a provider or coach, look at both their education (training) as well as their actual experience; and 2) as a provider or coach, seek out educational opportunities to enhance your knowledge AND apply that knowledge through practical experience.

Side note #1: Earlier, I said educational knowledge should serve as the foundation for experience. I strongly believe this but it doesn’t mean having experience prior to education isn’t beneficial. Using physical therapy as an example, I know several individuals (including our own Dr. Fletcher) who were physical therapy techs prior to going to physical therapy school. Additionally, many physical therapists were either 1) previous physical therapy patients themselves, or 2) previous strength coaches/trainers. Any of the above listed “experiences” undoubtedly proved advantageous for them as they went through physical therapy school and could link their newfound knowledge to their experiences.

Side note #2: Educational knowledge does not have to solely come from institutional programs or certifications, as this post may imply. The ability to gain a strong educational foundation today is easy and cheap through books, articles, websites, blogs, and podcasts. We should all take advantage of these resources to strengthen our academic foundations. However, as I learned via my CSCS, achieving a reputable degree and/or certification can prove invaluable.

Thanks for reading.


Bonus Material: Jesus, Education, and Experience

The Bible does not tell us the specifics of Jesus’ education, but it does say he “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom” (Luke 2:40) and he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). From historical context and the Bible, we can conclude that he was well-educated. In that period, education of Jewish history, The Torah, and the law was a basic requirement for Jewish boys. The education likely started with Jesus’ father Joseph and continued with formal schooling. Not only does the Bible imply Jesus could read (Luke 4:16) and write (John 6:6, 8), but he also likely knew mathematics as a carpenter. *

Furthermore, Luke 2:46-47 shows us that young Jesus was well-educated in the Scriptures: “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”*

His education proved valuable during his ministry as he used Scripture to support who he was and refute those who opposed him. The New Testament is full of quotes from Jesus in reference to or in connection with the Old Testament.** His experiences as a preacher and teacher certainly built upon his educational knowledge, and he certainly was to both “talk the talk” and “walk the walk”.




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