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Learnings and Reflections from 2017, Part I

DSC_6825I had an athlete ask me today about what I’ve learned as a coach and about my experiences this past year running TSS Barbell. The question was from an athlete who started with us not long after we formed the club and who trained with us throughout the summer until family and school were more of a priority. It is an interesting question, one that could be answered from many different angles (athlete, coach, business owner). I started thinking about the last year as a whole and how much growth and change we have experienced as a team since October 2016. Our business model looks nothing like it did when it started, nor do we have many of the initial members who joined our team (more on this later).


We are currently a solid team of sixty to sixty-five members, forty-something of which are registered, competing USAW members. We see some fluctuation because we always have at least three to five people on “Weightcation” in order to focus on other parts of life that are more of a priority than weightlifting. I, Jilly, am still the head coach; Brittany Rucker and Fernie Martinez are our two assistant weightlifting coaches. Richard Pena and Dakota Young, both powerlifters, are still involved with our club and help immensely with running our events, handling, programming and occasionally picking up some personal training hours for Brittany and myself.


Today, our members range from stay-at-home mom to world-level college-age athlete and we have everything in between. When Brittany and I started TSS Barbell, she and two other people were members; we had also two consistent personal training/programming clients. All of members were our friends before they were our clients. It was a very close-knit group of five-ish people who saw each other consistently four to five days a week.


A long time ago, I had a teacher who said “We are a team, not a family, because every family has a degree of dysfunctionality. Families are dysfunctional because you can’t choose your blood.” This has stuck with me for a long time. What I discovered in the first few months of forming the club was how dysfunctional not only small training groups were, but how quickly it can spread to personal relationships as well. Working out with the same five, then seven, then eleven, and then fifteen members resulted in the formation of cliques with friendships that well extended past “training partners.” Having so few athletes, I became heavily invested in some of their lives, not only in the gym, but also outside of the gym, as they did in mine. While this may work for some club owners, what I found was that when we grew to twenty members, thirty members, and then forty and fifty members that the original ten felt they were not receiving enough of my attention, or that I didn’t care about them as people.


Experiencing such rapid growth in a year, we expected some members to leave. What I did not expect was almost all of them to leave: It turned out to be the best thing that could have ever happened to our team. So, to keep from rambling I have come up with some major points of reflection:


Start where you are, work with what you have and do not grow complacent.

When we first moved into Texas Strength Systems, there was very little organization, hardly any rules, no schedule, no systems, no cleaning services; frankly, it was a mess. We formed our “club” within a dysfunctional environment out of a dysfunctional situation. Brittany and I didn’t realize we ourselves as people would have to grow and change dramatically in order to become coaches to lead a “team.” Our club was born out of necessity because I made a living coaching and could no longer coach at the facility I was previously working in. Brittany and I moved into a facility with a TON of potential, but no direction.


When you have to create something out of nothing for the first time, you go through a lot of trial and error. Originally, our members would just show up and train together randomly and I would coach here and there and charge $50 for monthly programming. Our schedule was wide open, we had very few clients and it often felt like a hangout session. Some people came to our facility and liked its “grunge” factor. Others stayed away and wanted something with more training options, set “class” times, and flexibility and we would scoff at them.


We did not try to do everything all at once: We started with five members and we accommodated them excellently, like any coach can with that few of members. Then we had ten members, so we expanded the platforms as well as our coaching services (one-on-one sessions, $70 for one to two hours). When we reached twenty members, we created a team training schedule and implemented our first set of “Team Standards.” I remember the second time we brought up Team Standards, three people quit the team. It’s hard to watch money walking out the door, but it’s important to realize that was really all it was: Those “team members” were not there for the team at all, they were there for themselves and felt entitled to acting or behaving a certain that Brittany and I no believed met our “Team Standards.” Standards became necessary to facilitate the growth of the team and keep it moving forward in a direction we were proud of.


When we hit thirty members, we expanded the platforms again and increased the length of practice time from an hour and a half to two hours. When we hit forty members, we put out a new set of “Team Standards” and moved to a bigger section of the gym. There were many, many emotional days, long nights, arguments, meetings and when it was all said and done, there was growth. Change. Losses. Major wins. When I look at my club today, I see a well-oiled machine: It is large enough where there are only pockets of  friends or people who joined together, new faces are always welcome, and everyone, quite literally everyone, gets along or I just ask them to leave: “Firing” clients was something I was afraid to do when we started: I have learned that some people are so dysfunctional that it’s totally necessary.


There is no such thing as too much growth. There is only supply, demand and adaptation.


The majority of the original ten members, who enjoyed constant one-on-one attention, and accessibility to “free” coaching we very displeased with the growth of the club. We received questions like, “How big is too big? When will you cap the club?” I had always envisioned a “team” not a club, and growing to a “team” status meant we would have to leave the “club” behavior and attitudes behind and welcome new members with open arms. It was necessary to adapt to the large number of our athletes who wanted to train with us.


I have a background in Exercise Physiology and Economics (University of Miami, B.S. 2014): I am very familiar with the concept of supply and demand. Our demand for coaching and programming services increased exponentially since October 2016, so we brought on additional coaches to meet our demand and increased the size of our training area. Our demand kept increasing, so we increased our prices, which didn’t slow growth significantly. I loved the growth and I loved the changes I was seeing in our membership: We saw an increase in educated adults and college kids, small business owners and most interestingly, other coaches who were looking to be coached.


Unfortunately, not everyone loved the changes our business experienced. Some felt that their $50 for programming should include the same coaching experience they had when the club first started. Some members did not want to compete locally twice a year (a requirement they felt we should have “disclosed” when they joined before we had Standards). The truth of the matter is that we knew how inexperienced we were as far as running a business and so our $50 a month pricing reflected our inexperience and the little demand we had for our services.


The more experienced me became, the more some elements of the team improved dramatically (like our training area). Accessibility to free one-on-one coaching became nonexistent. Thus, members who felt like it “wasn’t what they signed up for” or were looking for special treatment left. Our members who loved the new gym additions, who grew with us (we never increased our OG member pricing), stayed.


Our prices today are very fair, and some could say that they are even a little too low (surprise, they will be increasing for new members in 2018). In 2018, we will offer additional ala carte services as well as what our existing members can expect for the prices they currently pay so there is very little confusion going forward. Anyone who feels entitled for a service they are not currently paying for is welcome to go somewhere else: Every other weightlifting team in the San Antonio area is more expensive than we are, though I can not speak to the quality elsewhere.


It’s required to give back. It’s required to be a part of the weightlifting community.


As we began to grown, I understood that we needed to create more opportunities within the weightlifting community. TSS began hosting local USA Weightlifting meets and eventually, our first USAW Level 1 Course. Our meets were maybe my proudest achievements as a business owner this year. Not only did hosting meets demonstrate to our newer members how much support our team had from the Texas weightlifting community, but it required all of our team members to volunteer, pull together and learn new skills in order to host quality events for an affordable price.


Our meets truly show how much our team supports one another when we compete and when we hustle. Truly, no one hustles harder than our athletes and their families. I am the only local club director I know who pays ALL of their volunteers in apparel, services, or cold hard cash. I feel that effort should be rewarded since they are working for myself and their teammates, not themselves. This will not change in 2018. I work tirelessly to make sure our meet winners are awarded prizes and medals for their efforts as well.


There are some weightlifters who do not feel it is important to give back: They do not assistant coach, they do not volunteer for meets, they do not stay after they are done competing to support their teammates or to clean up. These examples are not isolated incidents, they are the same people who happen to be unavailable each and every time I ask for volunteers or put up the meet schedule.


Going forward in 2018, volunteering will be called “voluntolding:” If a member is unable to volunteer for even half a day for a meet they are competing in, (we host four to five meets a year), they will be required to pay for coaching services at that meets ($35 per local meet, $100 for away meets). I know some members will be upset. I also don’t care. Here is why:


You decided not to volunteer after you were done competing. Automatically I, your coach, have not-so-secretly decided that you think today is all about you (unless you have a damn good reason not to volunteer that you discussed with me prior. That is different). You show up, your coach writes your warm-ups (for free). Someone, one of your teammates or their family members, loads your warm up bar (no cost to you). You go out on that platform, you hit massive PR’s, and the announcer says that you qualified for your first national meet. That experience would not have happened for you without those volunteers or coaches helping you: If you disagree with me, you’re delusional.


But what about the forty or fifty dollars you paid to compete? Ten percent of that money went into an account for taxes. Another five percent went to the company we use to sell tickets. Sixty percent of that money went to medals and prizes. The remaining twenty to twenty five percent goes towards microphone rentals, the platform, the food for volunteers and all of the apparel we buy for our volunteers. We have LOST money on every single meet we held last year. Volunteering, giving back to your team and your community, will be a requirement to be a part of TSS Barbell in 2018.


Part II coming in January 2018

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