The Psychology of Member Retention: Patterns and Solutions for CrossFit Gyms

Member retention appears a complicated thing.

People leave your gym for dozens of reasons, seemingly at random.  You lose the new guy to changing finances, the seasoned athlete to a job in a new city, your multi-year veteran to a minor injury, a half dozen casual exercisers to the gym across town.  

Every month you lose a few more, hoping that new memberships outpace departures, incredulous at the losses but unaware of the driving factors.  Everyone gives you the same vague answers at the exit interview, some combination of "money" or "time", assuring you that there's nothing wrong with the gym, that it's merely time to move on.

It would be easy to dismiss turnover as an unassailable inconvenience, the price of doing business.  In reality, membership loss follows a consistent pattern, one the smart gym owner can effectively counteract.  In this post, I'm going to teach you how.  

We'll begin by addressing the member departure pattern, then we'll apply the tenets of expectation management, affirmation, and goal setting to create a retention program you can implement immediately.

The Pattern

My insight into membership loss began at an on-site consulting engagement in the Fall of 2014.  While implementing a metrics package for a CrossFit Affiliate, I discovered that they'd lost 102 members in the preceding ten months (a staggering number for a gym with only 137 members in total).

Recognizing the economic havoc this was causing (an annualized loss of over $250k), I immediately began analyzing the membership data, looking for an explanation.  

Categorizing lost members by duration of membership, I pulled start and end dates from the gym's management software and laid out the data in a month-by-month chart (and I recommend you do the same).

Here's the result:

As you can see, nearly half (46.07%) of their membership losses occurred during the first 60 days of membership, with the majority of those losses occurring in the first 30 days.  

Seeking to replicate the finding before acting, I asked another client (a slightly smaller gym on the other side of the country) to perform the same analysis.  Using a 21-month timeframe, we dug up the following:

Here was another (otherwise profitable, successful gym) with tremendous early-stage membership turnover, 59% of their losses occurring within the first two months of membership.

I then turned to an East Coast gym that issues 6- and 12-month contracts, seemingly locking in cash flow.  While the contractual obligation minimized quitting in the first 60 days, we still see a robust "early exit" phenomenon.

Using a one-year timeframe, I found that 41% of losses occurred during or immediately following the first 6-month commitment.  As soon as the first contract was null, the athletes were gone.

The obvious conclusion in all cases: the beginners are quitting.  

Recognizing that the payoff was potentially huge, with a solution generating hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional revenue for my clients, I began examining early-stage retention.  Why is it that a first-time CrossFitter would quit?


Understanding the Beginner's Dilemma

Exit interviews were near useless.  Every time we asked a departee why they were leaving, they cited "money", the hardship of paying for an expensive gym membership given their current financial situation.

If this were true, the pattern should have been different.  Presumably, beginning athletes don't experience economic trouble at a higher frequency than anyone else.  Given the disconnect between wealth and elapsed time spent training, we should see veterans leaving at the same rate as beginners, the economy indiscriminately impacting our population.  

We didn't, and I discarded the self-reports as misleading, the social voodoo of a quitter wanting to justify a decision.  Dollars may have been involved, but they weren't the root cause.

Unsatisfied, I began looking at my own experience.  During ten years of CrossFitting, I'd started and stopped numerous times.  I'd often leave (unwisely) during periods of intense work stress, returning when I felt better able to cope.  The first month back after any break was miserable, a near-constant parade of sore muscles and waning enthusiasm, and if I didn't get through the first few weeks with some obvious success, I was gone again, back to sleeping in and eating poorly.

The same phenomenon impacts every beginning CrossFitter.  Upon initiation, they experience the negative effects of training immediately, with the positive effects coming later.  This temporal disconnect between effort, pain, and reward lies at the center of our problem. Soreness, fatigue, and lack of coordination surface within days, while improved body composition, athleticism, and pride of accomplishment arrive weeks, months, and years later.  

Our new clients are paying now for a benefit they'll receive in the future, a dichotomy that leads to an immediate struggle and potential non-adaptive behavior.  Unless otherwise motivated, they will choose comfort now, the immediate reward.  They will choose to stay home.  

This problem has plagued humankind forever.  We would love to have less body fat next month, but starchy carbs are here right now.  We'd love to save for retirement, but we could use the dollars now.  We'd love to improve as athletes, but it's easier to stay on the couch.    

Given the ever-present option to cease paying (in both dollars and effort), our athlete quits the gym, the allure of staying in bed outweighing the future benefits of consistent training.  The decision is easily rationalized using economic explanations ("I'm saving $200 a month!") while truly motivated by the avoidance of effort ("CrossFit hurts and this bed is warm.")

The gym owner's job is to reverse this paradigm, fighting the Beginner's Dilemma and arming new athletes to deal with its insidious effects.  


Expectation Management

The first tool I put in the hands of my consulting clients: expectation management.  This is a priming process whereby the new athlete is told what will happen in the near future and how to override any maladaptive behavior that arises:  

"Steph, you've just completed your first workout, and you did a hell of a job.  You're going to feel awesome for the next twenty-four hours or so, and then the soreness is going to start.  You did quite a bit of air squatting today, so you'll feel soreness in your quads and your hamstrings beginning tomorrow evening, along with some tightness in your glutes.  It's normal, but it's going to feel irritating, like you don't want to move.

"Come Wednesday, you'll want to stay in bed and let that soreness win.  Don't.  Get up and come here, and I'll teach you how to deal with soreness using a foam roller and a lacrosse ball, which will do a lot to alleviate the irritation and keep you training and on track.  Deal?"

The key to success with this method:

  1. Making the athlete aware of the precise moment they're going to run into a problem ("the cue")

  2. And giving them instructions to deal with the problem, the appropriate response to the cue ("the routine")

  3. That will lead to their desired result ("the outcome")

In the case above, we're teaching Stephanie to respond to "the cue" of soreness in her legs with "the routine" of getting out of bed and showing up to class on Wednesday (to learn to use a foam roller), "the outcome" being that she alleviates her soreness. Implicitly, we're telling her soreness isn't a problem; just something to be dealt with whenever necessary.

Expectation management relies on teaching beginners what's going to happen and what they should do about it.  The more we eliminate the unexpected for our clients, arming them with forewarning and appropriate coping mechanisms, the more likely it is that they'll continue their training and override the Beginner's Dilemma.

The limits of this technique are written only by your imagination.  You can provide beginning athletes with a cue, routine, and outcome for the temptation to skip training, what to do when confronted with bad food options, how to deal with a poor workout result, anything that you believe will derail their success.  

Here is another example:

"During your first three months of training, attendance is critical.  I need to see you here at least three times a week.  I want you here because we're trying to form a habit you don't currently have: training regularly.  More important than nearly any other factor in whether you'll succeed or fail here: you show up.

"In the first few months, you're unlikely to see any huge changes in your body composition.  Don't worry about this.  Understand that we need to form the habit of attendance first.  Just keep coming.  Once we have training as a habit, we'll layer on nutrition education at about the two-month mark.  This is when you'll see huge gains in both body composition and performance."

We're teaching the athlete to deal with the lack of rapid change in body composition ("the cue") by continuing to attend ("the routine"), leading to a habit, nutrition education, and body composition change ("the outcome").

Expectation management is especially critical with beginners, as they are unfamiliar with high-intensity training, and therefore ill-equipped to deal with its effects.  They confuse soreness with injury, load with intensity, lack of motivation with "listening to their body".  Arm them to deal appropriately with the arrival of each of these issues ("the cue"), and you'll have a much higher likelihood of keeping them on the membership rolls.



As a species we need affirmation, others to approve of us and our actions.  We are social animals with a tendency toward hierarchy, needing our leaders (and others) to reinforce our value to the pack.  Tapping into these instincts provides the gym owner with a powerful tool to keep members.  

I teach my consulting clients three techniques to harness the psychology of affirmation:

  1. Maintain a success-oriented environment, celebrating athlete success loudly, publicly, and consistently while criticizing form faults and other issues quietly and one-on-one.  This creates a positive atmosphere that attracts people and keeps them coming back, their value to the pack regularly reinforced.

  2. Begin sessions with positive reinforcement of attendance: greet every client with a physical touch, a smile, and some derivation of "I'm glad you're here."  These seem small things, but they tap into our need for closeness, acceptance, and belonging.  A non-invasive touch on the shoulder or forearm predisposes athletes to friendliness and indicates a social bond, while the verbal reinforcement of attendance assures the athlete that they are accepted, welcome, and doing the right thing.  

  3. End sessions with positive reinforcement of effort: give an appropriate physical touch and tell your clients that you're "proud of them", citing a specific achievement during the session.  Our need for the esteem and admiration of others is very powerful (in a socialized society, perhaps higher than any other non-survival need), doubly so when it comes from our leaders.  Expressing pride in your clients becomes a strong motivator for them to work hard to continue to please you, creating an environment of dedication, attendance, and progress.

Enacting an affirmation culture amongst your training staff requires that every trainer:

  1. Learns the techniques of success-oriented cueing and reinforcement of attendance and effort

  2. Delivers them consistently

  3. Does so in a casual, friendly manner

I recently had a bootcamp owner implement these changes, and subsequently report a sea change in the attitude of his clients: more smiles, a better vibe, increased attendance, and numerous unsolicited "thank you's".  Affirmation is a powerful thing.  Properly utilized, it helps keep athletes in the gym and on the membership rolls.


Goal Setting

Goal setting and monitoring is a critical factor in member retention.  Simply, members must have a reason for training and consistent signals that they are succeeding.  Lacking an overriding rationale and indications of progress, they quickly lose interest, the intense requirements of day-to-day training combining with aimlessness to induce quitting.

I counsel my consulting clients to begin goal setting with new members from first contact to:

  1. Understand why they've joined the gym

  2. Turn their motivation into a concrete goal

  3. Develop a plan to create and monitor progress toward their goals

To drive this process, we start with a goal setting worksheet.  I prefer to deliver it electronically, with responses returning to a spreadsheet.  For this task, I use Google Forms, which allows you to easily create a questionnaire, email it to your clients, and aggregate answers for further discussion.

My goal setting worksheet (.pdf) is below.  Give it a look, and feel free to adopt it as your own: Free Download: AF Project Goal Setting Worksheet

Once you've received a response, schedule a one-on-one meeting with the member in-person or via telephone.  The discussion should result in answers to the following:

  1. The general nature of the goal: is it aesthetic, performance-oriented, or both?

  2. The specificity of the goal: is it defined well enough to be actionable?

  3. Commitment to the goal: does the member currently train often enough (and hard enough) to achieve the goal?

  4. Proper pursuit of the goal: is the member missing key ingredients necessary to achieve the goal, such as mobility, nutrition, and skill practice?

Once you've elucidated the answers, help the member create a specific goal and a plan to achieve that goal:

  1. Clearly state the goal (in writing) and put a timeframe on completion.  "Dropping from 20% body fat to 14% body fat in 60 days" is a solid goal.  "Losing body fat" is not.  "Getting one muscle-up in 30 days" is a solid goal.  "Muscle-ups" is not.

  2. Then, specify the work to be done.  How often should the member attend class?  How often should he practice a specific skill?  Will he need to change his diet?  What changes are necessary, and for how long?

  3. Once the goal is defined and work specified, create a check-in process with waypoints.  If the goal is to lose 6% body fat in 60 days, we'll want to see a 2% decline every twenty days or so.  Create three appointments to perform measurements, altering the plan as necessary based on the results.

When your members have clearly defined and consistently monitored goals, you'll minimize the risk of losing them due to aimlessness or lack of progress.  The goal-setting process is extremely labor intensive, and you'll want to institute solid processes to reduce institutional drag.  Consider:

  1. Adopting an electronic format.  Use Google Forms in conjunction with Google Drive to keep everything paper-free.

  2. Sending the Goal Setting Worksheet out to new clients prior to their first On-Ramp Class, and beginning their membership at the gym with a half-hour lesson in goal setting.

  3. Holding a Goal Setting Workshop for existing clients and teaching them this methodology, thereby tackling dozens of meetings simultaneously (rather than one at a time).

Incidentally, going through the goal setting process also provides a wonderful opportunity to upgrade memberships and increase sales of personal training, raising your ARCM (Average Revenue Per Client Per Month).  Through discussion, you may find your clients are falling short of stated goals due to low training frequency, insufficient time spent on skill development, lack of dietary change, or destructive habits outside the gym.  If so, a gentle suggestion to consider a larger commitment to training at the gym would be both well-received and remunerative.

The pattern is both clear and staggering: the majority of your lost clients are quitting during their first 60 days in the gym.  Solving this problem has huge financial and social benefits, but it won't be solved through business as usual.  We need to understand the psychology of willpower and commitment, the stuff of expectation management, affirmation, and goal setting.  Further, we need to act.  In doing so, we'll keep more of our clients, obviate the "financial difficulty" excuses, and create more cohesive fitness communities.

Next Steps

If you'd like help analyzing your member retention data and developing a strong plan to keep your membership growing, consider a Remote Consulting engagement with the AF Project.  We'll spend two days with you to create a sea change in your business — better systems, solid culture, and a bright line to growth and profitability.  This is super-affordable, and perhaps the best thing you can do to get on the right path.  Click the button below to learn more.

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