When I first started CrossFit in September 2011, it had not yet emerged as the global phenomenon that it is today. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon to meet CrossFitters who had been participating in the regimen for years in an old garage or warehouse. In fact, the first CrossFit gym that I went to was in a converted warehouse that was ice cold on winter mornings.
There were some indicators of the explosive growth that CrossFit was about to undergo. The contract between CrossFit, Inc. and Reebok was about a year old, the CrossFit Games had just been aired on ESPN networks for the first time, and the number of affiliate gyms had exploded from 1 in 2005 to over 3000 by the end of 2011.
Still, many CrossFit gyms clung to their gritty roots. This grittiness, in my case, extended to my introduction to the gym that I happened to drop in to for my first class—by which I mean, there was no introduction. Instead, I was thrown into a full-bore workout with those who had much more experience than I did.
Fortunately, I came from an athletic background and had spent the previous 5 years working as a personal trainer while I was in college. And luckily, I fell in love with the beating that I went through in that first seven-minute workout and came back for more the next day.
The assumption at that gym and many others was that first-timers would be prepared for the class experience. They simply went about their normal routine without much consideration for the needs of new participants among them. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared. And over the course of the last 4 years, I have watched and heard about many people who, despite their apparently sufficient athletic background, got floored by their first workout (or worse, injured) and never returned.
The Importance of Onboarding
Eventually that gym began to implement an intro course for those without CrossFit experience. But, for the year that I was a member of this gym, it was never formalized or standardized. There were some definite pros to this ad hoc approach to introducing people to CrossFit. It was easier to customize the curriculum to each individual and take more or less time depending on the clients’ needs.
There were also some cons that outweighed the pros. There was no list of movements/topics that coaches were required to cover with athletes, and no indicator of how complex movements were supposed to be broken down for explanation. So, while the new members of the gym did get the benefit of an intro course, the experience wasn’t consistent for all new members.
There were certainly gyms that in 2011 had created standard syllabi for their introductory courses. But other gyms continued to operate on their own islands with only their own experience informing their procedures. Had more affiliates adopted formal and standardized introductory courses earlier on, perhaps CrossFit as a whole could have avoided some of the media rumors about it being dangerous.
Today CrossFit has become a global phenomenon that has reshaped the fitness industry in almost all corners. While warehouse gyms still exist, they are becoming increasingly rare. Or, like RhinoCo has done with their family of gyms, have traded their gritty roots for custom-made spaces.
At the same time, it has become almost unheard of for a CrossFit gym to onboard new members without some sort of intro course. In most instances, gyms that have been in business for several years have formalized their introductory courses and created syllabi of topics that must be covered. Often, these include step-by-step instructions of how complex movements should be taught.
These standardized onboarding processes have sacrificed customization in the name of consistency and safety across the members of a given gym. And for those with CrossFit or other relevant fitness experience, many gyms are now offering individual assessments—often working one-on-one with a coach to demonstrate those movements that require adequate knowledge, skill, mobility and strength to be able to perform them in the open environment of the general class.
So what are the lessons that your business can learn from the evolution of CrossFit’s onboarding processes?
It’s important to realize that your onboarding process sets the tone for the entire new employee experience. They might feel welcomed into your culture through the process, or they might feel unsupported, undervalued or even ostracized from the rest of your team.
Formalize processes for onboarding new employees to your policies, procedures, and company culture early. Then standardize those processes across all new hires, while paying careful attention to what works and what doesn’t work. Be willing to adjust your approach with each iteration.
At the same time, seek out the advice of those who have built similar companies, sought to create similar cultures, or have similar employee skill needs. Think outside of your own island and continually work to improve your onboarding. If done well, your employees will come back to work, day after day, feeling welcomed, valued, and supported.