The Big Green Circle of Community

They just reopened my Starbucks. They unexpectedly closed for renovations about 3 months ago and they just turned the lights back on this week with an equal lack of fanfare. I was shocked when I walked by, saw some people walking around in aprons and the doors were unlocked.

Notice I say my Starbucks and not the Starbucks. In New York City there are tons of Starbucks. You can pretty much see one shop from the other. But my Starbucks is the one I’ve been going to for almost 10 years, when I first started working in the neighborhood. The first one I went to when I started drinking coffee in the first place.

In the meantime I had been going to the other Starbucks, which is no less convenient or any further from the facility. I only drink drip coffee and the brew at both are pretty much identical. Prices, menu, uniforms all, as you would expect, were also the same.

But I hated going to the other Starbucks. Every morning while I was waiting for my coffee I’d find another thing about it that I didn’t like. I was racking up such a list at one point that I was considering starting a Twitter account called @angrystarbucks where I’d document it all. And while I could recall a bunch of the trivial things that bothered me I think the real problem was actually quite simple – it wasn’t my Starbucks.

So you can imagine the joy I felt on Friday walking into my freshly redesigned Starbucks. The old crew was there and they seemed so glad to see me. We talked a little about what they’d been doing and where they had been reassigned the last couple of months. Everyone was so happy to be back. One barista actually hugged me as I walked out and we bumped into each other on the sidewalk. I may have even gotten a little teary-eyed as I carried my Grande down the street towards the gym.

You don’t need to be a sociologist or have a degree in psychology to see what’s going on here. Even though the product was essentially identical, I felt a connection with my Starbucks and the people in there feel connected to me. We identify with each other. We are a community. The other Starbucks was just another place to satisfy my addiction to overpriced coffee.

As always, Dan, WHAT IS YOUR POINT?!?

I’m glad you asked. And I’m also appreciative of the fact that you stick through my banal and almost seemingly unrelated introductions each week until I get to the actual topic at hand. The point here is quite simple. Every gym has barbells, weights, a rubber tile floor and dumbbells. And with the popularization of CrossFit, functional training, athletic-based training, strength and conditioning and whatever other labels you want to put on the trend of returning to traditional training methods it’s not very difficult to find a gym with bumper plates, kettlebells, weightlifting platforms, powerlifting clubs, self-powered treadmills and sleds. And with the abundance of information on the internet, the countless number of training books and the seemingly non-stop stream of weekend seminars coming to a town near you, finding a good training program and learning proper technique is easier than it ever was back in the days were we did 3 sets of 10 reps on the bench press every time we walked into the gym. Sometimes I shake my head at how spoiled we are now.

Now that so many facilities are tuned into how to set up, equip and lay out a good training floor, what makes a gym your gym? For most people who are enthusiastic about training it’s the same thing that makes my Starbucks my Starbucks. It’s the community. It’s the people who’ve help you endure grueling workouts, who came in that day solely because you were going to PR your bench and you needed a spot, who gave you that tip about your squat set up that instantly added twenty pounds on your next set. And, maybe most importantly, they are the people who lifted you up when you needed it, whether it had to do with your training or not.

I’ll give you a great example. One of our clients came in on a Monday with wet eyes. Among a few other things that weren’t going her way, she confessed that she was (rightfully!) upset that her kids had neglected to get her anything for Mother’s Day. Just as she was about to leave after her session one of our trainers came bolting through the door, out of breath. He had overheard why she was upset and went out to get her a Mother’s Day card. He ran back to make sure she got it before she left. That is community.

We have a few built-in factors that drive up the community aspect of the gym. The first is that we train in small groups. When training is important to you (and if you are making the financial and physical investment to train here it is for our clientele) there is little as valuable as a good training partner. So our model allows you to have a training partner every time you walk into the gym. We think this is so critical to success that if we have a client training in a session alone someone from the staff will almost always jump into all or some part of the session so that client doesn’t feel like they are in it alone.

We also record the weights used, times, rounds, distance or whatever other objective factors that are part of the workout on our walls every day. I’ll be honest, we were worried about doing this at first. What if someone was embarrassed of what they could accomplish? What if things got really competitive and people were pitted against each other? I’m not gonna lie. Some people have picked out an ‘arch nemesis’ on the wall – someone who’s performance they are trying to match or beat. But it’s never been mean spirited or super competitive. And more often than not people are in awe of the great scores or, more importantly, really impressed when they see people improving. It’s another way of bringing everyone together.

There are probably 30 other things we do to drive up that feeling of community but I want to mention one more – probably the biggest factor- our staff. As evidenced by the Mother’s Day story above, our staff goes above and beyond to try to make all our members feel valued, important and at home. It’s a given that we all know all our client’s names. But we also try to know their kids names, we try to remember that their husband is a massive Star Wars fan, we remember their injury histories and the little idiosyncrasies about their lifting so we can pay attention to them during their sessions. We ask them how the job interview went. How their ailing Mom is feeling. How the college applications are coming along.

You can say this is quite a great business tactic, getting people personally invested in the brand, and I would agree. But, quite honestly, that has nothing to with why we do it. We do it because we care about our members. We feel they’ve given us a lot by deciding to train with us. When you truly give a shit about training, where you decide to train is a big deal. No one understands this better than we do – we give a shit about our training more than anyone. So we never take for granted our clients trusting us with what is important to them.

I’d love to say this all simply comes from the top. That Kyle and I drill this into our staff as part of some well-formed orientation process but we don’t even talk about it with our trainers. I think partly it happens because they see us doing it, sure. But mostly it happens because we are very, very particular about who we allow to represent us and these are people who simply do this naturally. To say we are fortunate in this regard would be the biggest understatement of this entire post.

If you don’t train with us due to proximity or scheduling or any other reasons I highly encourage you to try to bring that sense of community to your gym, whether it’s a group fitness boutique or a big box commercial facility or a boxing gym. Get to know the people you are training with. Offer a spot if someone needs it. Help someone out with their technique if you actually know what you are talking about and they are struggling. Rally around them when they are about to PR a lift. It will make for an awesome training atmosphere. I promise you.

I went into my Starbucks this morning and, even though I ordered a Grande the barista gave me the bigger Venti at no extra charge. So when I got to the little fixings bar you’ll find in the front of any and every Starbucks and noticed they were out of stirrers, I reached down into the cabinet where I know they store them and refilled them myself.

These are, after all, my people. And I take care of my people.