I failed the SFG Level II strength test. That’s how my Level II Certification weekend started, so I might as well start this article that way, too. For those who are unfamiliar, the Level II strength test is a one-arm press with a half-bodyweight kettlebell. For me, that was the 48kg bell.
On my first attempt, I barely made it up halfway. The Master Instructor who was running the Level II, told me, “Go get your head right.” I stalked around for a bit, tried again—and failed again.
I’d come to Level II to pick up the Beast and put it over my head. I came to demonstrate what I’d learned and practiced and get that coveted Level II Certificate. I came to show that I was technically sound and deserving of the title I sought.
These were the wrong reasons.
I had succeeded at the press previously, and my training had been on point all the way up until the Certification in Chicago. What was going on? What was I missing?
It wasn’t my training. It wasn’t even my mindset. I was strong, capable, determined, and confident. Some nerves, maybe, but no more than caused by the excitement of any StrongFirst event.
What I was missing was a sincere and deeply personal reason—a worthy why. Technical know-how and strength are not enough. Nor is mindset, even. What I was to learn was that I needed to give my training a little space to breathe, and more than likely so do you.
Experiencing the SFG Level II as a Student
Over the course of the weekend, I made seven total press attempts. Each one got further than the last. Number seven was as close to lockout as a person can get without actually getting it. I held the bell there for close to thirty seconds, and then failed again. I knew I would succeed on number eight. But then we did a deliciously awful ten-minute clean and jerk workout, and after that there was no gas left in the tank. All other skills and tests went fine, but the press was not to be.
All weekend, I had been listening intently, trying to find the trick—that “magic bullet”—that would help me get this press. It never came. I was listening too closely. I was caught up in the details of technicality and couldn’t see the forest for the trees.
At Level I, I was made dizzy by the detail of so many movements. In contrast, at Level II, I kept hearing, “It depends.” Especially in regards to the bent press. Which, although it has become one of my favorite movements to perform, can be a rascal to coach. Obviously I’m not saying that Level II is without technical merit. Instead, I would say it is plenty technical, but with smoother edges.
I couldn’t reconcile what that meant while I was actually immersed in the Level II Certification weekend. There was something more nuanced about the coaching. Something creative. Our Master Instructor would go on to tell us, “I am so not a science person. If I assert anything scientific, it’s only as a way to express an art form.”
Indeed, SFG II was all about taking coaching to the next level—rendering it into an art form. And this is a way harder thing than the technical stuff.
Experiencing the SFG Level I as an Assistant Coach
A few weeks after my Level II experience, I got my first opportunity to assist at an SFG Level I Certification. This was as amazing, if not more so, than actually attending as a student. There’s simply nothing like being surrounded by so many strong, intelligent, and talented people. It raises you higher just sharing the same space. Not to mention that your fellow coaches and the students are of course looking to you to be better, stronger, sharper than you were the last time.
Of my StrongFirst experiences thus far, assisting was by far the most cerebral. Lots of good questions came from the candidates, and all my hard work up to that point paid off in my confidence that I belonged there to answer them. But one thing in particular really stood out: the obsessive level of detail in many of those questions from the candidates.
Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of detail. But my Level II experience was still nagging me—that there’s something more to all this than technical detail or strength. And it wasn’t until the end of my weekend of assisting that I figured out what it was.
The students who performed the best on the Level I tests were not necessarily the strongest. Nor were they the most technical. Sure, they had some of both of those things. But the main thing was that they were automatic. They had practiced relentlessly. Mindset didn’t even seem to matter anymore, because it was already a done deal in their heads. There was no question. No chance to worry.
The most successful students knew why they had come, and it was not to pass the Level I snatch test. It was something more. Something that made the snatch test and skill tests cake for them. This was an added nuance to the positive attitude I’m always preaching. Even if you have a clear endpoint and a positive attitude during your journey, you still need to know where you are starting from and what your core motivation really is. Success begins with a purpose. And a question. “Why am I here?”
So, Why Are You Here?
I entered my Level I with no particular expectations. StrongFirst was entirely new to me, and though I practiced hard, I did not know the organization well enough to be deeply invested in it. I knew I wanted to be there, and I knew I wanted to learn. I was prepared and open minded, and so it went well.
At my Level II, I was mostly prepared. But I was anxious. I was overthinking everything. Checking my phone on breaks and fussing over the weird rubber turf of the venue. Wondering if I was going to look tough in any of the photos they took (not so much). And my unstated but definite goal was to pass that press test.
It was a poorly chosen goal. I should have come in with something loftier. Specifically, to learn to coach like the masters who were all over the place at this event. I should have slowed down enough to ask why I was there, and made sure the answer I gave myself was the right reason.
At Level I, they told us we would be practicing and refining the basics for the rest of our career, but the truth of it is that I and many others had approached it looking for the step-by-step instructions that made us worthy of the title “Coach.” We came for our checklists and expected to leave with a certificate. But it doesn’t work like that. Because no amount of technical know-how can substitute for a seasoned coach’s eye. That’s what I was missing at my Level II: I was aiming too low.
The details of it all—the technicality and the positioning and everything—this stuff is all in your manual. It’s a treasure trove like no other document or book out there. The StrongFirst manuals are as straightforward, clean, and concise as it gets. If you want details, they’re there.
But you do not attend StrongFirst events primarily to pass the tests. You’re there to build yourself into a better athlete and better coach. Ask all the questions you want, but the answers that will help you in the long term, as both a coach and athlete, are not the testing standards.
In case you missed the byline on this article, I did end up getting the press only three days after I returned from assisting. I hadn’t really pressed much in the weeks since attending my Level II. I hadn’t become significantly stronger. Standing around in a black shirt and long pants in the San Diego sun while assisting at the Level I had not imbued me with super powers.
All that changed was that I got out of my own way. I felt more confident from coaching at the Level I. And something I had heard at every single StrongFirst event finally clicked. You’re not picking up the kettlebell and running through a checklist. “Shoulders even, eyes fixed, glutes tight…” Even if your attitude is on point, you’re not going to analyze a 48kg bell over your head.
In my case, that press was not going up if I was inspecting every aspect of my position before starting. It was not going up if I was thinking of passing my SFG Level II or what that certificate would look like on my wall. And it most definitely wasn’t going up if I was trying to look good while doing it.
It only went up because I stepped up and said, “Time to press this here weight.” The weight never mattered. What mattered was what was on the other side.