Go With Them

What To Do When They Say, “I’m Opening My Own Gym.”

In 2005, I had my last confrontation with a boss.

Pinned down in the back hallway of his “personal training studio,” he asked point-blank if I was leaving to start my own gym. He was uncharacteristically aggressive, and my back literally brushed up against the wall. I stuttered. “Uh…”

Until that point, opening my own gym had been a murky “maybe.” True, I had spent that afternoon viewing a possible gym location, but it was far too expensive; it was on the second floor; and it was almost directly across the street from my current employer.

I had a full appointment book. I was earning around $23,000 per year, and my wife wanted to leave her career to stay with our nine-month-old daughter. The only way for me to make more money was to work longer than my 14-hour days. I had a client–and future partner–pushing me to go out on my own. But I hadn’t decided to leave.

Until that second.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m leaving.”

I handled it badly. So did he. Neither of us had ever been on either side of this before. For the previous year, most clients coming in the door were asking for me; my articles were being published all over town; and it was me at local track meets and hockey arenas, not him. I was driving the business, and a lot of business was sure to leave with me. Back then, these things simply didn’t happen.

Now they do. Very often. And as a community, we’re STILL handling it badly. Here’s WHY coaches leave, and what to do.

Part I – Why Coaches Leave

Like me, you probably opened a gym because you wanted a career in fitness, and couldn’t see any way to make a living WITHOUT being an owner.

I first wrote about a “lack of horizons” in June 2012.

For many of us, CrossFit created the opportunity to get started as an entrepreneur. But it’s OUR job to turn the gym into a business that sustains our family AND our staff.

If a coach can’t see a way to make a living – own a house and car and pay for their kids’ braces – they’ll leave. And we can’t blame them. Any employee making less than the “Happiness Index” level will pursue more money out of necessity.

But if they’re making enough to afford their lifestyle, the next reason most staff quit their jobs is a DIFFERENT horizon: the opportunity to learn and explore new paths.

If they’re not learning, they’re leaving. What kind of continuing education program do you have in place?

Finally, no one wants to punch a clock and perform the same tasks for the next 30 years. How can your coaches explore their entrepreneurial side without all the risks YOU face? Do you have a model for coaches to build new programs, and directly benefit from their growth?

Part II – How To Prevent It

  1. Every six months or so, ask coaches “What do you want NOW?”
  2. Have them work through the “Perfect Day” exercise.
  3. Ask which coaches want MORE opportunities: personal training, a nutrition specialty, or focused groups like Kids, Weightlifting or Sport-Specific training.
  4. Finally, offer them roles that allow YOU to “level up” and build your business.

Some ideas:

  • A ‘Head Coach’ position, responsible for the oversight of other Coaches; programming for your Box; running monthly training sessions for your Coaches; making decisions on Cert attendance and new programs;
  • A ‘General Manager’ position, to replace you – as owner – when you feel like taking that long-overdue vacation time (or just staying home occasionally);
  • A ‘Case Manager’ position, who oversees individual training plans AND customer retention, client satisfaction, and social media;
  • An ‘Events Coordinator,’ who sets up your events and works for part of the gross;
  • The developer of a brand new part of your business. Here’s how we handled that one.
  • A specialty coaching opportunity, to pursue one are of passion, like coaching Kids or Weightlifting.

Each of these positions should create the revenue – and more – to cover the increased wages that follow increased responsibility.

Not everyone wants to change. Don’t force anyone; let people be happy. If you can’t create a path of development and personal growth, though, don’t expect them to stick around.

Owners in our RampUp program learn how to identify opportunities, help coaches find THEIR “happy,” price specialty programs and get clients to sign up.

Part III – What To Do When They’re Leaving

For many, the siren song of ownership is just too strong. They want to roll the dice and answer to themselves, “Can I do better on my own?”

As my friend and mentor Jay Williams says, “Everyone thinks they want our job. But they don’t actually want our job.”

Of course, if a coach leaves to start their own gym, it’s hard for them to come back…unless you go out of your way to make a return trip possible.

Think about it: how many times in the last three years have you wished for a parachute? We ALL do it. In those moments, if you knew there was a secure coaching job available with a friendly former boss, would you take it? Many would. After talking with hundreds of box owners, I’m 100% certain many would happily give up ownership for a secure position coaching.

They don’t WANT the burden of ownership; they just want security in a coaching position. Many have bought themselves a job instead of a business, and now they regret it.

1. Keep the door open. Sadly, many coaches – and owners – burn bridges HARD when they leave, and then stir the coals afterward. Fear of loss, confusion over emotional decisions and misplaced feelings of “trust” – they make for hard times.

2.  If the coach is open about their intentions, offer to purchase a share of their business. After all, your counsel is very valuable: you can save them hundreds of hours of wasted time and thousands of dollars in wasted income. You know what they need and how to avoid many of the startup pitfalls they’ll face. Why not offer to fund 20% of their box, and then take a monthly retainer as a consulting fee?This will stop client poaching, protect membership rates in the area, and HELP the coach who wants to try it alone. It also gives them an out: if the box doesn’t work, you’ll be there with an escape route.

3. If the coach is cagey about their intentions but leaves quietly, announce their “retirement” and stick to the high road. You have nothing to gain from belittling their memory. Your feelings might be hurt; either get used to it, or stop having feelings (just kidding. It gets easier.) Try not to feel threatened. Amp up the energy in your classes and eliminate ALL reasons for clients to follow.

4. Oh, and during your exit interview, remind the coach of their duties under your non solicitation agreement. You have that, right?
(if you don’t, download a sample contract here and get everyone on it. Now.)

Two-Brain mentoring clients get sample blog posts to help announce retirement and one-on-one guidance to get through the challenging time.

5. If the coach lights the plane on fire before diving out, that’s a different issue. It’s hard to stick to the high road, but consider this: no one can “poach” a client. If one of your members is so attracted by a low price that they’ll quit, they probably weren’t a great member. If they’re more attached to your coach than to your brand, you have the “Icon problem.” And if your service is exactly the same as the coach’s new service, but more expensive…you’re selling a commodity, and people don’t want to pay more for commodities. Move to a prescriptive model. Now.
All of these potential problems are avoidable IF you take action now (this is what our RampUp is built to fix.)

6. Let’s say the worst happens: a coach leaves, it’s a surprise, and they’re messaging your members about lower rates and better service. You realize you could have prevented this problem with all of the above advice, but it’s too late. What THEN?

  • First, find bedrock. Who are the clients who won’t leave, no matter WHAT?
  • Find out what makes them stay. Listen to this podcast with Mike Michalowicz for the process.
  • Start doing Goal Reviews. You’re in the results business, not the sales business; if people are leaving because of a price war, get out of the sales business and start talking to them about their results. Right away.
  • Don’t go public. You can’t win in a social media war, because you’re on the back foot. Win in the face-to-face war. You have a huge advantage: most members are showing up at your gym TODAY. Talk to your seed clients, explain the situation and its impact on your gym family. Let the message trickle down from them (it will have more authority coming from them than from you.)
  • Focus heavily on messages of Family, Tribe and Home. If you’ve read Chialdini’s Pre-Suasion, you’ll already know the value of these powerful terms for retention.

You can’t go back in time. But you CAN take preventive steps to stop the otherwise inevitable:

  1. Create horizons for your staff;
  2. Give them continuing education and opportunities to explore under the safety of your umbrella;
  3. Have every coach on a contract with a non-solicitation clause;
  4. Continually ask coaches about their goals (TwoBrain mentoring clients actually have software set up to help with coach career goal-setting)
  5. If a coach DOES leave, ask how you can be part of their new venture
  6. Use our sample blog posts (TwoBrain mentoring clients only)
  7. Lean on your professional peers for support (I hope you have some).

It’s never going to be a comfortable conversation. It’s an emotional issue. If you stay in front of the problem, you can usually avoid it. But if you can’t, go with them.


One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.