There is a unique tension in the world of CrossFit. The glee with which CrossFitters talk about growth versus the backstabbing, disloyal coaches that leave you to start their own affiliates.


A Tale of CrossFit Growth

Here’s how it usually goes. You start an affiliate. It gains traction. Membership steadily increases, and you hire couple of solid trainers. Usually, these are people from within your facility who started with you, learned from you, and have become good at coaching others. Perhaps you even paid for their Level 1 certification. You have mentored them and raised them as your own.


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28 Day Meditation Challenge

One day, two of these coaches announce that they are leaving to start their own affiliate, a half mile up the road. You have two choices:


  1. Celebrate their goals and achievements, sad that you will be losing two solid coaches, but proud as hell that you raised two strong “children” who are about to leave the nest. You offer your assistance in any way you can and look forward to having a sister box that you can team up with for events like Murph, Hope, and other community functions.
  2. Grouse because you have been stabbed in the back, betrayed by the coaches you trained, who are now going to poach your client list, steal your programming ideas, and encroach on your territory.


When one of your children leaves the nest, it can be a blow to your ego, to be sure. You invested a lot of time and money in this person. Is this how he thanks you, by competing with you?


The Reality of the CrossFit Business Landscape

Let’s start with the realities:


  1. Your coaches are going to leave you to start their own affiliates.
  2. Clients are going to leave with them.
  3. Patience rewards quality.
  4. Poaching clients and methodology is neveracceptable.


Let’s face it - this is how we’ve gone from 500 affiliates to 10,000 worldwide, right? Are there really any new affiliates opening these days that are being started by some curious non-CrossFitter getting his L1? No. Every single box is growing out of a relationship with CrossFit that began at another box, whether that person was a trainer or just a member. In Cincinnati alone, it’s possible to trace nearly an entire lineage of boxes back to Cincinnati Strength and Conditioning.


So while you may look at your current staff and members as a perfect community, and your coaches as blood-oath family, in reality, your current situation is just a snapshot of a moment in time. It wasn’t like this a year ago, and it won’t be like this a year from now. There are a million more iterations of your perfect community yet to be created.


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And, while it makes good business sense to protect what is yours - your business plan, your clients, your methods - it’s also worthwhile to note that change is inevitable. You can fight it, but the boxes that thrive are the boxes that innovate with change, rather than struggle against it.


With that in mind, let’s examine how it’s possible to soften the blow of coaches branching out and leaving you.


Coaches Are Going to Leave to Start Their Own Affiliates

This is a universal reality. This is how the sport and the community grow. Perhaps the best way to protect yourself as a business owner is to recognize this fact from the outset. While it is possible to have a high employee retention rate with great leadership, good pay, a great facility, and the best work environment around, you can’t prevent entrepreneurship from blossoming within your coaching staff. One or two people may have been dreaming of their own box from the day they discovered CrossFit.


Perhaps hedging your bets by openly acknowledging this fact from the beginning is the best protection you can give yourself. You can protect yourself via non-competes, non-disclosures, and so on, or by recognizing the inevitability of this kind of competition and embracing it with communication. I have heard from several box owners whose approach is “how can I help you achieve your dream?” as opposed to “you’d better not screw me, so sign here,” and who continue to thrive in the business.


Clients Are Going to Leave, Too

When you have a few favorite coaches who leave to chase their own dreams of owning a box, a good number of your clients will leave with them. Again, this is a reality. You can hope that it never happens, or you can hedge your bets and do what is necessary to engage in ongoing new business development.


You should never be satisfied that you’ve grown to capacity or that you have hit the sweet spot in membership. You should have a plan as to how you will continue to attract new clients. Yes, you will lose some favorites to ship-jumping, but losing clients should never be devastating. If you are always forward focused, you will grow.


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Patience Rewards Quality

Quality wins out, period. If your box is patient and offers quality coaching, training, goal achievement, and community, you will weather any possible storm of coaches leaving. What you may see is a “grass is greener” race out the door to the newest, latest thing, but usually fads flame out. Be the box that offers the best, no ifs, ands, or butts.


My own box, Cincinnati Strength and Conditioning, has weathered some interesting storms in the past two years - high-level, fad-based ship-jumping and territory encroachment from Groupon boxes. And guess what? The growth within our box is exploding. Why? Because it’s quite simply the best strength and conditioning facility in the Tri State area, bar none.


Poaching Clients Is Never Acceptable

There are no circumstances by which it’s okay for your departing coaches to take your clients. Either overtly or with a wink. Yes, they will announce they are leaving, and yes, people will follow them. But future box owners, you are setting yourself up for a lawsuit if you so much as whisper in these people’s ears.


The client list at a CrossFit box is, by its nature, a confidential non-disclosable trade secret owned exclusively by the current box. To solicit clients to leave with you is to possibly be in violation of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Announce your new box in the newspaper, on your Facebook page, and to the general public. But to solicit clients to follow you, especially if you offer some incentive like discounts, is a big no-no. Just don’t do it.


Photos courtesy of David Paterson.