Members are Here for the Friends

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I don’t know who needs to hear this, but it’s not about you. 

As owners, we do so many jobs around the gym it’s easy to believe we’re the secret sauce that makes the business successful. We handle sales, coaching, marketing, cleaning, etc. Yes, that stuff needs to be done, but the one thing that will determine whether your gym is profitable or worthless is recurring membership. If you don’t have long-term customers you won’t be able to stay in business. The cost of constantly acquiring new members is just too expensive and labor-intensive.

There are many ways we can make our members feel cared for: coaching cues, personal attention and birthday cards are great, but no one truly wants to be the teacher’s pet. They need to feel connected to their peers. 

That’s the “community” we’re always talking about, right?

I’ve heard some owners say this happens organically, that just putting two people who have a common interest in the same room will create a bond. I chuckled at this. In reality, we’ve all seen how cliquey and intimidating gyms can be, even CrossFit gyms. 

Besides, ask most people who have moved to a new city and they’ll tell you it’s hard to make new friends as a grown-up. 

Once we acknowledge that, we can see as owners/Coaches we have a responsibility to create opportunities for our members to make deep connections with each other. We can’t force friendships, but we can certainly encourage and nurture them. 

At CrossFit Stamford, we initiated new members into this system immediately. We offered a beginners course, but this same principle could be applied during a friends and family free workout, during regular class on the first day of every month, etc.

On the first day of On-Ramp/beginners course after demonstrating, practicing and correcting technique, we would assign everyone a partner and complete the following WOD in two heats: 

3 Rounds For Time
5 burpees
10 sit-ups
15 air squats

Pro tip: Don’t just say, “Everybody get a partner” when nobody knows each other. It’s awkward and a room full of adults don’t want to be reminded of being picked last for kickball. Do your best to match up who you think would get along well based on first impressions.

One member would go first while their partner was expected to do three things:

  1. Count reps out loud and “no rep” movements that didn’t adhere to the standards. We wanted them to get used to this concept right off the bat;,that this was a game and it had rules. Setting the tone on the first day is important to establishing the culture of the gym.
  2. Encourage your partner. We always cheer everyone until the last person finishes. Most class workouts are not partner-oriented, but ultimately, we are all on the same team — CrossFit Stamford — and we pull for one another.
  3. High-five your partner and record their score on the whiteboard. Writing a score on the whiteboard was a standard practice for class workouts that would be re-tested in the future and we wanted everyone to get used to this from the start. 

Without fail, everyone would leave that first workout with the endorphins flowing and at least one new buddy.

Three weeks later, it was time for the retest. All of the scores from Day One were listed on the whiteboard and everyone paired with the same partner they had on the very first night.

The goal is obviously to score better than you did on the first day. A faster score demonstrates progress and gives the new members a boost of self-confidence. In addition to the desire to beat your initial score, the retest served two purposes: 

  1. The people who may have taken a longer time to finish the workout weren’t focused on competing with the most fit members. They concentrated on their own improvement. 
  2. Sometimes there would be one or two studs in On Ramp who would benefit from competition. We let them know that finishing the WOD in less than three minutes was a big accomplishment and shared that the best time on record was 2 minutes and 43 seconds.

True Story

Watching the new members smash their old scores and pat each other on the back was a highlight of On Ramp every month. But one group in particular stands out in my memory: Two fit 20-somethings who had never met before; let’s call them Steve and Helen. 

Steve was gunning for the best all-time score (2:43) and had a good shot at breaking the record. As he got closer to finishing, his partner, Helen, was cheering and screaming encouragement. When Steve finished his last air squat at 2:42, Helen jumped in the air and the two of them literally embraced. Helen was so happy and proud of her teammate. In that moment the two of them made a genuine personal connection.

They both went on to become keystone members of the gym, and, no kidding, years later they began dating, moved out of state, got married and had a baby.

Of course, we can’t take any credit for their relationship. We are just grateful they continued to treat new members with the same kindness and enthusiasm they showed each other when they were strangers. 

So, before you spend more time designing the latest and greatest new workout, think of ways you can create more opportunities to make member-to-member connections. The long-term success of your business depends on it, and it’s something even the best programming and coaching can’t do.   

Andy Parker and his wife Kristie opened CrossFit Stamford in 2006. They were also business consultants, hired to assist launching Solace in New York City. In 2018 they sold their Affiliate and moved to Tampa, Florida. Since then Andy has founded Next Level Affiliates, a website dedicated to helping small gym owners and Coaches improve all aspects of their business. He’s also created the Business WOD, an affordable online business course created specifically to teach owners how to open, grow and eventually sell their gyms. For more details and to connect with Andy, please visit