Using the Athletic Skill Levels to Inspire Clients to Make Progress at Your Gym

By Dave Werner and Nancy Meenen
Owners, Level 4 CrossFit Seattle
October 2014

Picture this: Amy and Sarah walk into your gym and each decide they have finally found the place to work out. Great! Here’s the rub – Amy is badly out of shape and is fairly intimidated by the whole process. Still, she really wants to give this a go. Sarah is a former high school gymnast and an excellent athlete who might wind up bored. What to do? How do you keep both Amy and Sarah inspired and sticking around year after year?

Like so many CrossFit gym owners, we’ve been working hard to help and inspire people at all different stages in their athletic abilities since we opened our doors 12 years ago. It’s definitely a challenge. In this article we will share what worked for us – and what didn’t – as we searched for the best ways to serve our clients.

In 2002, when we opened CrossFit North, we became the first CrossFit affiliate in the world. (We have since changed the gym’s name to CrossFit Seattle.) It soon became clear we needed a way to quantify what we were doing. And so in 2006, Dave developed the first version of the Athletic Skill Levels. It was the first measurement tool of its kind for athletic skills and abilities.

But even with this tool, we weren’t quite sure how to implement it at our gym. We figured clients would want to track their progress, so we made up sheets listing all of the skills. Athletes could test themselves on the various skills, then record their stats on the sheets. In order to pass or “own” a Skill Level, an athlete needed to successfully do all of the skills in that level within 30 days.

When we were small, all of our clients had their own folder with their sheet in it. As we grew, we kept these sheets in a notebook at the gym. Some clients used them, some didn’t. When we were small, we had the instructors observe the athlete doing the skill and sign off on it, but as we grew, this became more unwieldy. After we got over ourselves, we realized the honor system made the most sense. It becomes obvious really fast if someone doesn’t own a skill.

The problem was, almost no one was able to complete all the skills in 30 days. The sheets were better than nothing, but it wasn’t the solution we needed to help everyone track their progress.

For a long time, we considered using some sort of database, but we couldn’t find one that would meet our needs. At one point, we hired someone to build one for us. It sort of worked for a while but we found out the hard way that maintaining custom software is expensive and not viable for a small business. Lesson learned!

From early on, Dave realized that separating classes out by Skill Level was the answer – sort of like a belt system at a dojo. Different level classes would allow us to deliver a better service to our clients. It would also inspire folks to advance. However, offering several classes simultaneously takes a good chunk of space. While we were in a small space, we did offer advanced classes, but only once or twice a week.

So which clients got to go into the advanced class? We didn’t have a definitive answer for that. Initially, we just invited our top athletes to participate in our advanced classes since we knew they would be capable. Still, this wasn’t exactly the system we wanted to inspire all of our clients.

After moving into our bigger space in 2011, we finally had the room to offer a full complement of classes for both our beginners and our advanced athletes. But we still didn’t have an efficient way to definitively say which clients should take our Level 1 classes and which should move into Level 2.

We knew from experience that putting every athlete through the entire test for each Skill Level was a flawed approach. Finally, we hit upon an answer. Dave came up with a way to offer a test that encapsulated the essence of a Skill Level, without making an athlete run through the entire list of skills. Even better, it could be completed in a little over an hour. The test would demonstrate to us, and to the client, that they “owned” the essentials of a given Skill Level.

We have come up with 2 tests so far. The Level 1 test is for members in our Level 1 class who are testing to get into a Level 2 class. This test makes sure the member is competent in the Level 1 skills. The Level 2 test measures competency in Skill Level 2.

We offer these tests every 3 months and have our members sign-up in advance. We encourage all of our members to take the test, even before they are truly ready, so they (and we) can use it as an assessment tool. It tells them where they are deficient and what they need to focus on. Clients who had been avoiding things they found difficult would easily see the flaw in cherry-picking workouts – and many worked on their skills and passed the test the second time around.

Even if you have a small space and aren’t able to offer different level classes at the same time, having your clients take level tests will give your clients and you a clear marker for where they are and what they need to work on.

One of the beauties of the recently released second version of the Skill Levels is that it breaks each level into 3 separate parts; A, B & C. This breakout makes setting goals and reaching them clearer. The leaps are not nearly as big, making progress more steady. Once the client finds out what they are deficient in, it is easy for an instructor to give homework, encouraging the client to work on it before or after class or at home so they start making steady gains.

Creating a culture of progress is what we are constantly trying to improve upon at Level 4 CrossFit Seattle. Getting our clients excited about regularly assessing their progress via a test has been really helpful at our gym.