Understanding the New Certification Levels

This month CrossFit HQ unveiled a new structure for trainer certification. Here is an outline of how the new certs work.
  • CF-L1 - "The Level 1 is the first step on the path to becoming a competent trainer. CF-L1 trainers have the fundamentals required to responsibly train others through firsthand exposure, and they continue to learn via experience. "
  • CF-L2 - "The Level 2 Certificate Course is an intermediate-level training course meant to provide students with improved skills, a strong sense of their strengths and weaknesses, and actionable ways to improve."
  • Certified CrossFit Trainer (CF-L3) - "Trainers holding the CCFT credential have demonstrated competency across the breadth and depth of CrossFit coaching concepts and skills."  
  • Certified CrossFit Coach (CF-L4) - "The Level 4 Certification is a performance-based evaluation. It is designed to identify and acknowledge coaches who have mastered their craft."

The New World for Level 1 Trainers

If you are a Level 1 trainer, the new certification structure is a mixed bag. In the old world, L1's were co-equal with other CrossFit trainers in a very flat topology. In order to differentiate yourself, you had to hustle, market yourself, and delight clients with spectacular results.
In the new world, you are part of a caste system wherein CrossFit HQ has just branded you as a beginner. Worst of all, by creating specific "Trainer" and "Coach" designations, HQ has made it borderline unethical for you to advertise yourself as a trainer. Even if you have a decade of experience working with clients, if you only hold an L1, you are not, by definition, a CrossFit Trainer or CrossFit Coach. 
What is most remarkable about this change is how HQ created scarcity through a semantical sleight-of-hand. Overnight we went from a world where everybody could claim to be a CrossFit coach to a world where nobody can. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
No doubt, many L1's are feeling pretty bummed right now. The value of their certification was just eviscerated by HQ, and in order to gain credibility in the market, L1's will have to invest thousands of dollars to achieve an L3 designation. Remember that as an L3, you will still only be "competent" according to HQ's rubric.
But there is another way to look at this. CrossFit's brand equity is low, and creeping ever lower, because HQ can't protect itself from the legions of bonehead trainers out there who devalue the brand with crummy programming and coaching. By creating the new cert structure, HQ is insulating itself from rank-and-file trainers while providing a clear path for professional development. The new certs will have a more profound and lasting impact on CrossFit's brand equity because trainers do more to impact public opinion than Reebok or Games athletes.
If you are an L1, remember that the money you spend on a cert is essentially an investment in a brand, and I would make the case that no reasonable person wants to invest in an off-brand cert.

The Landscape for Affiliate Owners

On net, affiliate owners should be pretty pleased with the new cert structure. Like the L1 cert fees, your affiliate fees are an investment in a brand. When a company manages its brand poorly, smart people withdraw their investment by leaving the company. 
Unfortunately the people who leave CrossFit tend to be thought-leaders and innovators. Robb Wolf, for example, is making his own party; he does not need CrossFit. Why would a thought-leader want to be associated with a down-market brand? I am hopeful that the new cert structure will enhance CrossFit's brand and end the brain drain.
The downside of the new cert structure for affiliate owners is that gyms will start to trumpet cert levels in their marketing messages. Eventually a gym in your town will begin to advertise their L3 and L4 trainers. In the ensuing "arms race" you will face enormous pressure to keep up. Unless you have a healthy referral network and a sophisticated marketing apparatus, you're going to have to shell out thousands of dollars just to maintain your market footing.
It's not all bad, though. Many affiliate owners wish that HQ imposed a higher barrier to entry for new gyms. If you're in this camp, then you were surely disappointed to find that L1's can still affiliate. Sadly, a two-day cert still entitles you to open a gym and train others. "The Level 1 alone is required for affiliation," as HQ would have it. 
However, while there is no structural impediment, the new cert structure does discourage L1's from affiliating. You don't need an MBA to grasp the difference between legitimacy and credibility. In the old world, you could be a legitimate affiliate with little effort or investment. In the new world, affiliates will need to demonstrate credibility, over the course of years, by achieving the L3 or L4. This alone will deter many casual and lazy trainers.

The Bad News for Other Trainers and Gyms

Trainers and gyms not associated with CrossFit have had a field day over the past few years taking whacks at CrossFit. Many have found that a cheap and easy marketing tactic is to position their business as "not CrossFit." CrossFit HQ has played along by saturating the market with countless crummy affiliates and inexperienced trainers. What we have today is a target-rich environment where CrossFit haters will run out of stones long before they run out of targets.
The "not CrossFits" should be given pause by this new cert structure, because it shows that HQ is willing to eat its young. The new cert structure by specific design rewards the most committed, most skilled trainers, with the deepest war chests and best business practices. The minnow affiliates will be cannibalized, and when they are gone, only the sharks will remain. If your business is "not CrossFit" you won't be able to clown a bunch of beginners anymore. Prepare yourself for a new level of competition.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.