About eight years ago, a new prospective client—Dan—showed up all bright-eyed and bushy tailed decked in his brand new Reebok Nanos.
“How did you find us? What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Well, I just watched the CrossFit Games on the weekend, and I’m turning 40 this year, so I’d like to start training to compete there as a masters athlete,” he said.
Taking one look at this man told me there was next to no chance he would ever compete at the CrossFit Games, a theory that was solidified after asking about his training history and by putting him through a push, pull, squat and hinge test.
Alas, I was a fairly new, inexperienced coach at the time. I saw just how excited he was about starting CrossFit, I wanted to pick up a new client and make a sale, and I didn’t have the heart to crush his cute little dream.
What happened next: Dan paid for 15 personal training sessions up front and then joined group classes. He stuck with it for a couple months, but slowly started to fade. After four months, he quit because he was discouraged he wasn’t progressing as quickly as he hoped (i.e. he realized he wasn’t going to the Games) and was ready to start dabbling with cycling.
While I’d like to think I have acquired the skills to be more honest with my clients now than eight years ago, even after 11 years of coaching I still find myself struggling to explain to my clients that a lot of the things they believe about fitness and about their capabilities are false, or at least that their expectations are unrealistic.
Case in point: I have a client who has been with me for 10 years. She just turned 50. Her shoulders just don’t work that well, yet she has been chasing a muscle-up for the last five years, and I have never tried to knock her off that ledge. After my aha moment this week, I realize this is exactly what I need to do. For her sake.
“Fitness is full of fantasy” said OPEX Founder James FitzGerald in my OPEX Coaching Certificate Program (CCP) cohort call last week—largely because people have been told they can achieve this or that in three to six weeks. And they believe it!
The aha moment: It’s our job as fitness professionals to start selling a realistic, and WAY MORE BORING, approach to fitness. It’s not going to be sexy and filled with Instagram-worthy videos, but it’s what’s going to actually lead to long term success.
Sidenote: How do we measure long term success?
I think we can all agree, the easiest way is through keeping track of client retention. If a client is sticking around for 5 to 10 years, you’re doing something right. And right now, client retention is dire. This is no exception in functional fitness, CrossFit, HIT, or Orange Theory-type gyms, to name a few.
Recently, I interviewed a couple dozen gym owners and business mentors in the industry on the topic of client retention and other business metrics. While their answers varied, all agreed client retention isn’t great. Wodify data, for example, suggests most people stick around for well under two years, while Zen Planner said annual client churn is 36 percent. Others, still, say it’s worse than that—that annual churn rates at most gyms are between 60 and 80 percent. Either way, the inability to keep clients for multiple years means we’re not doing a good job of selling long-term, sustainable fitness for life.
The problem: Sustainable fitness for most people isn’t exciting, but everyone wants it to be.
“It needs to look good on Instagram,” FitzGerald said of the problem we’re up against. So when you tell someone the truth—that all they need to do is “slow down and walk,” they’d be like, “Wait a minute. I can’t tell my friends about that.”
The solution: More and more of us need to start telling the truth.
The boring truth for most people: “It’s sunshine and broccoli and lunges and aerobic (work),” FitzGerald said.
And if you want to do the sexier stuff, “you have to earn the right,” he added.
Makes sense: You don’t do a Master’s degree, or take 400-level courses before a 100-level course. You don’t put a roof on a house before laying the foundation. Yet, when it comes to fitness, people are running before they can walk and are snatching before they can put their hands over their head while maintaining a neutral spine. And there’s just no long-term win there.
Final thoughts: The more the industry—we coaches—can push a realistic message about fitness, the more likely we’ll be to shed the wild fantasies so many have. When we do that—when we lay out a realistic, long term path to greater health and fitness—we’ll have a better chance at helping our clients, not just for six months before they quit because they realize they’re never going to get a muscle-up, but for life.
Interested in health and fitness coaching? Sign up for our free coaching course today and learn how you can start pushing a realistic message about fitness.