Imagine this scenario if you will: you have a long-term goal that you have been working towards for the last year or so.
This goal has been the singular driving force in your training. Because you destroy mediocrity, you jump in full bore. And guess what, you achieve it! You have finally arrived. Now what? Do you examine what’s next, and plan out how to get to your next milestone? Or, do you just sit there in limbo, basking in your victory and going through the motions while wandering aimlessly?
I had this very scenario play out with one of my high school rugby players. Playing and starting varsity rugby was what powered and drove him in his training both on and off the field. By the middle of his sophomore season, because of his diligence and dedication, he obtained this goal and had a stellar season. But, come his junior year, he lost that purpose and ended up sitting in limbo that entire year. Failing to ask himself what was next, he questioned whether he wanted to play at all his senior year.
Over the last few years, I have had to go through a similar journey myself. From the moment I stepped foot into a weight room in high school, my main reason for training was to improve my on-field performance. Two ACL reconstructions later, that reason to train was torn (literally) away from me. For awhile I was simply able to focus on rehab and getting back to full strength. But that only got me so far. Just as my rugby player was stuck in limbo, not knowing what was next, I was left without an answer to the question “what are you training for?” The following formula is not just something I talk about with my players/members. I’ve had to walk the same journey.
Start with Why
When working with in-person clients or remote clients who may have lost their way, the first place I direct the conversation is towards finding their “why.” Author Simon Sinek discusses the importance of this concept in his book “Start with Why.” This idea has gained popularity over the years for good reason. The basic premise is that the majority of people focus on the outcome (aka “the what”), not the purpose (aka the why) behind their goal. This leads to a weak goal that can easily be set off course when adversity is faced. It also doesn’t offer anywhere to go once the goal is achieved. In the case of my rugby player, the foundation of his goal was a “what” (starting varsity). This “what” for another client could mean focusing on slimming down to a certain goal weight or getting wrapped up in lifting a specific weight. As the title suggests, starting with why is key when developing a long-term goal. By starting with why, you help to establish a deeper emotional connection to your goal, beyond just a superficial one. Instead of losing weight, it’s about getting healthier; instead of squatting 405, it’s getting stronger to improve quality of life. I urged him to sit back and reflect on his initial why and from there, I encouraged him to find something that was deep and meaningful to hold on to moving forward.
After you find your why, the next step is to move on to the how. This is when I like to bring up the notion of the Domino Effect. I first heard this idea in 2015 from Andy Stumpf at the very first Power Athlete Symposium, and it has stuck with me to this day. Andy, a former SEAL himself, talked about how the goal for every candidate entering BUD/S was to become a SEAL.
You’re probably thinking, “no duh, Carl. Why else would they be there?” If that’s the case, then why do 60-70% quit? This is the very question Andy had, and through conversations he had as an instructor with those who decided to ring the bell signaling they want to quit, he found that much of the reasoning had to do with how they approached their goal; they focused too much on how far away they were from their goal. BUD/s is 24 weeks long, filled with innumerable physical and mental tests; focusing on the number of tests you have to accomplish while still in the beginning will seem impossible.
This is where the power of small steps is crucial. A single falling domino has the kinetic energy to knock over something 1.5x its size. This may not seem like much at first, but the more you line up the more potential energy you will create. Let’s do a little math to drive this point home. If Domino #1 is two inches tall, domino #10 will be the size of Tom Brady. Domino #18 will be as tall as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, #23 the height of the Eiffel Tower, and #31 the size of Mount Everest. Imagine that your goal is the Mount Everest domino. You can go up to that domino and push with all your might, but you will quickly give up.
You might not even get that far and think to yourself that no one could move that domino. Instead you need to set your first two inch domino in place, and continue to do this day after day, building small successes/energy.
Life’s Tough, Get a Helmet
Now obviously, life doesn’t move in a perfect linear fashion like this model, where we just set up all the dominos and then simply give the first one a push. Life is more chaotic than that. You’re gonna knock over some dominos, gaining momentum, and at some point along the way you are going to hit a roadblock. When this happens, if you skipped step one of establishing your why, this obstacle can be enough to send you into a tailspin, never reaching your Everest.
However, if you know your why, and you’ve established an emotional connection to your goal, you’ll keep plugging along. Your entire outlook for viewing this setback changes; you don’t see it as a failure but as a feedback mechanism to show you how things can be done better. You start knocking down your dominos again, building kinetic energy, and repeating this process until you have reached your summit.
Building a Framework
You might be thinking “this is great Carl, but I have 150 members! How am I going to have these conversations with all of them?” Don’t worry. I’m going to share what I have had success with. First, having a well-educated staff that can assist you is going to go a long way. Here is what my gym has developed, based on collective personal experience, as well as our time gaining knowledge from Chris Cooper as a business mentor.
During our initial onboarding process for a new client, a member of my staff or I will have this same conversation with them, talking about setting goals, how to do it, and helping them set up their dominos. From there, during the first 90 days, we will have monthly check points to see what successes they are having and what struggles they are facing while making sure their dominos continue to fall. In our experience, the first 90 days is where we experience the most attrition.
The next biggest drop-off point for us comes at the six month mark. At this point, we generally see three outcomes:
(1) They have experienced regular success, but the novice effect is starting to slow down (2) they achieved a goal or (3) they have experienced their first major roadblock.
Just as before, we seek to head this off by initiating those conversations. From this point forward, we offer regular open-ended meetings to revisit their goals. These meetings are available to each member, to restart the conversation and reevaluate the goal(s) initially set during the first 90 days of their membership. In the beginning we are initiating the monthly check-ins, from here on our we are empowering them to take ownership and approach us to start the discussion.
Not everyone takes advantage of the system we have in place. We as coaches can fall into the trap of caring too much. We need to demonstrate we care but can’t let that care consume us. There must be an equal exchange of energy.
These types of talks are critical conversations you, Coach, need to be having with your athletes/everyday gym members. The perfect opportunities for these conversations usually follow the natural periodization of sports or gym life: during your onboarding process, after a season ends, when a goal is reached, or when you notice things have become stagnant. This is going to allow you to establish a strong relationship through showing: (1) your pathos, by demonstrating you care enough to take the time to talk with them and are committed to their goals, (2) your logos, through laying out a clear logical guide to take them where they cannot take themselves, and (3) your ethos, by delivering on what you’ve communicated with them is going to be your responsibility in helping knock over their Everest.
If you’re able to genuinely demonstrate all three of these traits, then you will build a relationship where your athletes and members can trust you; allowing you to set them up for success and keeping them around for years to come. This is the ultimate retention strategy.
After an introduction to CrossFit in 2007, Carl became a certified coach in 2009 and co-owner of CrossFit South Bend in 2011. In addition to coaching CrossFit and CrossFit Football classes at the gym, Carl has been coaching high school rugby since 2009. He uses the CrossFit Football and Power Athlete concepts to help his young athletes identify their goals and provides pointed instruction to help achieve those goals.