Professionals or expert service providers?

I set up this 10th man blog with the hope that it might appeal to exercise professionals. So, when I contemplate what to write next, I obviously start thinking about exercise professionals which usually takes me off on another tangent – the thing is I’m not really certain what defines an exercise professional! So I thought pondering that question might be a good topic the last 2018 blog, and as a starting point for some professional do we define exercise professional?

how do we define exercise professional?

The ability to call what I do a profession, and by extension, myself a professional is something largely taken for granted in contemporary society. As long as I don’t try to use any ‘protected words’ or infringe directly on the claims of other professions, what I choose to call myself is unlikely to attract any further scrutiny or challenge. Adams (2010) captured this freedom nicely when he suggested that the current ‘knowledge economy’, invites individuals to routinely overrepresent their credentials and expertise by claiming to be professionals. OK, so maybe the prestige and credibility of being a professional has been diluted, but I want to argue that the attributes associated with the term ‘professional’ are still valid and really important for both professions and society. So let’s unpack those a the new knowledge economy people routinely overrepresent their expertise

in the new knowledge economy people routinely overrepresent their expertise

Professions have been defined in numerous ways (e.g. Adams, 2010; Cruess et al, 2009), but most writers seem to agree that professions are based on a tacit bargain between society and professions. Society gives a profession the monopoly to use their core knowledge and skills and to have the freedom to practice and regulate themselves as they see fit. A profession is also granted ‘status’ and the ability to charge for their professional work. For those rights, society expects a profession to regulate the competence of its members. A profession needs to ensure that its members have appropriate training, are honest, act with integrity, and will contribute to public good. Professionals are expected to master specialist knowledge through extended education and training, and have an ongoing commitment to their profession (Lorenz, 2012). By that, Lorenz means that a professional’s commitment doesn’t end with their qualification; a professional has a duty to continue to interact collegially with others in their profession and to contribute to the profession’s ongoing integrity, thus ensuring that the profession is respected and trusted. Belonging to a professional body is in itself an acknowledgement that an organisation exists to help control a profession, protect its members and clients by controlling who is admitted to the profession and by maintaining professional standards (Lorenz, 2012).

And that is right about where I start to run into problems with exercise professionals. When I start to contemplate professional bodies for exercise professionals, I start seeing gaping holes, discrepancies, and contradictions. Neither the fitness industry nor strength and conditioning (or any related exercise professional niches) are regulated in New Zealand; the same applies (as far as I know) for most of the world. What that means is that virtually anyone can undertake work relating to exercise and call themselves an exercise professional. Is that weird? You bet – just try to set yourself up to practice medicine, or to be an occupational therapist or a physiotherapist. You will rapidly fall foul of the respective professional bodies (protecting their professions as they should) and you would be subject to legal repercussions as these professions are regulated and protected under the Health Professionals Competency Act. So where are our professional bodies?

Well…. there’s not really a lot is there? If you work in the fitness industry you might be registered with REPS (Register of Exercise Professionals) but that’s a registration organisation, not a professional body. Without going into the history of REPS it is predominantly the vehicle of owners and management from the fitness industry. Just saying, but I’m hugely skeptical of any industry that accredits or registers it’s own employees. Seems like a major conflict of interest! Imagine if hospitals accredited their own doctors and nurses and managed their professional organisation? If we revisited the previously listed attributes of a profession, REPS misses on just about every count. Although criteria for exercise certifications vary and in some cases seem to require little formal education or experience (Riebe, 2009), the REPS minimal level of education would not meet the criteria of a ‘profession’. The REPs registration process involves no examination or checking of understanding, skills, experience or attributes – one simply needs to have completed a course that they recognise and pay a fee. Those ‘recognised’ courses can range from brief online courses to a 3-year University degree, contributing to fairly puzzling variation in the education, qualifications, and competence of REP registered exercise professionals. Taking our hospital example a step further, this might be akin to a 6-year degree medical practitioner practicing medicine alongside somebody who’d completed an advanced first aid course (you’ve got to love the scope of my ridiculous exaggeration there)! Granted that’s not great, but the biggest issue I have with REPS claiming to be a professional body is that it is not a self organising body of exercise professionals! It arguably represents the interests of the Fitness Industry not the fitness instructors (professionals). I’m thinking that the values of exercise professionals might be very different to the values of employers. Exercise professionals should be dictating what is important in their field and deciding how high the bar should be set to be called an exercise professional – after all exercise professionals are the ones practicing and the ones with a vested interest in the integrity and success of their ‘profession’.

When it comes to other contexts for exercise professionals there are also limited offerings. Although some will seek accreditation with bodies in New Zealand and Australia, those organisations have typically struggled to gain any real recognition or traction with employers. Many in the exercise field will instead default to highly respected international bodies such as ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) and NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), two well-established organisations with international affiliates. While those bodies are excellent, well-structured organisations, offering a wealth of educational opportunities and accreditation systems, I don’t see them as truly representative professional bodies. These organisations are not run by professionals, for professionals. They are run by well-intentioned academics with specific research and educational interests in the exercise professions. Confirm for yourself, and take a look at the web listed boards for both of those organisations. They are filled with career academics, most of who have never worked outside of academia, and most importantly who have not lived, breathed and survived as exercise professionals. So my question is how do these experts know what a strength coach working 50 hours per week on minimum salary with responsibility for a squad of 30 athletes in a shared space, and answering to a coach, actually needs to be an effective professional? These organisations set the accreditation criteria but do they really know the requisite knowledge, skills and attributes for a strength coach to practice effectively? I don’t think they really understand what a strength coach should know so they build their accreditation around the things they believe are important – knowledge, with a major emphasis on scientific knowledge. Any bona fide professional has to have access to a substantive body of knowledge that will be constantly updated and revised. That’s obvious and I think everybody values knowledge. But getting the job done requires other professional competencies that are not talked about or evaluated in these organisations. These are excellent organisations for providing, discussing and evaluating scientific knowledge, but I’m arguing a profession needs much more.…deciding what is important should be informed by practice before theory…

So where does that leave us. Well, hopefully if you’ve been following along I’ve made the case that while we have accrediting bodies for exercise professionals (ranging from dodgy/mediocre to outstanding), we don’t really have a professional body for exercise professionals. Given the emphasis on a profession’s ability to self manage, it would seem important that a professional association is constituted and managed by members with a shared interest in advancing the profession. After all the medical profession and professional organisations for physiotherapists and occupational therapists are owned and managed by those professions. It doesn’t seem right for a professional association to cede control to employers, educators or an external qualifications body with no authentic insight into the profession. A professional organisation should be committed to the ongoing professional development of its members, to mentoring young professionals, fostering communities of practice, and establishing quality control of any credentialing. A professional organisation should be advocating on behalf of its members, ensuring fair pay for professional services and helping to eliminate the ‘cowboys’ and ‘cowgirls’! A professional body should help members develop and adopt an ethical code and code of practice, understand their scope of practice and commit to upholding those codes. A professional body for exercise professionals should be achieving more than accrediting and offering scientific conferences.

…deciding what is important should be informed by practice before theory…

I guess relative to other professions such as law and medicine, exercise as a profession is a very new and evolving concept. In the absence of professional associations, organisations like ACSM and NSCA have filled the void. While I would never want to lose the value that those excellent organisations offer exercise professionals, I wonder whether exercise professionals will ever collaborate to organise and form bona fide professional associations; groups that will offer more and do more for exercise professionals and society. As it stands most exercise professionals would not satisfy the stated criteria for a professional and might be more appropriately described as ‘expert service providers’ (George, 2006). Expert service work according to George (2006) is common in non-standardised industries such as hospitality where a worker’s status is not well defined and the nature of the services that they provide is often ambiguous. Expert service providers have no real ties to professional associations and are often more focused on enhancing their reputations, satisfying clients’ expectations of “good service’ and ensuring that they get repeat business. Sounds awfully familiar doesn’t it? That kind of makes us seem more like ‘exercise technicians’!

I didn’t write this piece to grizzle or complain, or to try and mobilise exercise professionals and take over the world (world domination is next year!). I thought that by thinking about what makes a professional and thinking about our own training and competence, it helps put things into context and perspective. Maybe it can stimulate further thinking about how we could develop as exercise professionals. Maybe we can start demanding that existing organisations start listening to members and make some changes in those directions. Maybe it isn’t all about learning new techniques, following the latest trends, reading the latest articles or gathering more certificates and qualifications. If we really care about our profession (let’s just call it a profession for now) we should be collaborating more, sharing more, mentoring others, and ensuring that the work that we do enhances the reputation and trust of our profession. Maybe we can change how we think about and approach our work. We can start doing most of these things now – it would be a start!
Over and out 

Best, Phil

Selected references

  1. Adams, T.L. (2010) Profession: A Useful Concept for Sociological Analysis? Canadian Review Sociology. 47(1): 49-70
  2. Cruess, R.L., Cruess, S.R., Steinert, X., (Eds) Teaching Medical Professionalism Cambridge University Press, NY 2009
  3. George, M. (2008) Interactions in Expert Service Work: Demonstrating Professionalism in Personal Training. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 37 (1):108-131
  4. Lorenz, C. (2012) If You’re So Smart, Why Are You under Surveillance? Universities, Neoliberalism, and New Public Management. Critical Inquiry, 38(3): 599-629
  5. Riebe, D. (2011) Advancing the Exercise Science Profession. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal. 15(6); 41-42.