Prison Escapes and Hard Conversations

I don’t do powerlifting meets in prisons anymore.
Picture this: 4000 men, and all of them innocent (just ask them). All incarcerated for life. All bored to tears, with nothing to do except lift weights and smoke.
Every year, inmates in this prison [name withheld] used to get one present at Christmas: me, and a couple of buddies, who would come in and lift weights with them. We had an annual Powerlifting Meet, with judges and everything. My friends had massive lifts, and the inmates looked forward to our visits all year.
Then one year, some of them tried to escape.
They dug a tunnel sixteen feet down to pass below the electrified fence that was buried in the ground. They used homemade shovels. They carted sand out in their pockets and spread it around the yard. They worked through the night, and rigged up lights. They kept it a secret for years while they dug, hoping to end up in a forest on the other side of the fence.
Then, on the night before their escape, with only feet left to go, they were caught.
One of them got cold feet, and blew the whistle on the others.
These guys were CLOSE. The pickup car was ready. Guards later found a pile of dirt next to their escape hole, ready to fill it in. I mean, they were GONE. But one guy couldn’t do it. He gave up, and buried the rest.
Why? Because he wasn’t sure if the others were going to take him along. They wouldn’t answer his questions about it. They avoided a hard conversation with him. And now they’re all stuck for many more years, and all perks–including powerlifting meets–are canceled for everyone. The gym is full of bunk beds now.
Most gym owners, like these inmates, are one hard conversation away from freedom.
That conversation might start with:
“I need to raise rates.”
“I can’t pay you this much to do this little anymore.”
Or even
“I don’t think we’re a perfect fit for you.”
I’ve had all of these conversations. They were hard. But they ended–usually pretty quickly–and my gym became better for them.
It’s easy, after 13 years, to take a long view; to say “Yes, I’m going to lose 24 people if I cancel the morning Open Gym time, but we’ll replace those people and I won’t have to staff the gym during that time.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Early in my days of ownership, I was slogging through 15-hour days with one coach beside me. He was working the same hours I was. We were using the 4/9 model even then, but most of my share was being eaten up by overhead (I wasn’t very good at the 2/9 part yet.) We were both tired.
One day, I heard from a client that my coach was leaving to start his own gym. He’d seen me do it–we coached together before Catalyst opened–and I immediately panicked. If he left, I’d be alone to cover the costs and train all the clients. My family would be paid even less–probably too little to survive. And my week would get even longer. I imagined the worst-case scenario: Would his clients follow him? Would mine trail away too? Would I be able to escape my lease if I couldn’t pay the rent? Who would open up on Sundays?
I called my partners. I said, “If he leaves, I don’t know what I’ll do. Can I force his contract somehow?” Everyone knows that forcing someone to work is a great idea. But this is how desperate I was.
One partner said, “Ask him.”
I asked him. He said, “No.”
I got back to work. He still coaches for me twelve years later.
We avoid tough conversations because we want to avoid possible pain. But here’s the thing you and I both know about pain: the only way around it is through it. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible: to rip off the band-aid, bear the sting, and then be done.
The best way to break up with your husband is to say, “I want to break up.”
The best way to raise your rates is to say “Here are our 2018 rates.”
The best way to fire a coach is to say, “I don’t want you to coach anymore.”
There are more tactful ways to say each, of course, and a mentor can help you do it in the least painful way. But the point is to SAY IT. To have the tough conversations, minimize the damage, and keep on truckin’. Because waiting kills gyms, just like waiting kills bodies.
WHEN do you start a conversation? Right now. Anticipation is worse than the actual event.
HOW do you make yourself start? I tell myself that it’s my duty as a leader to do what’s best for the majority of my flock. If a coach is turning people away, it’s my duty to remove them even if they were best man at my wedding. If a client is distracting to me, it’s my duty to remove them so I can provide the best possible service to everyone else. Even if it costs me money, and even if–especially if–the conversation will be painful.


One more thing!

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