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Meet 4 Coaches Who Saw a Better Way Than an Hourly Wage or Salary. Especially During a Pandemic

May 8, 2020 by

Shanna Guzman wanted to become a full-time, professional coach who could earn a professional wage without working 35 to 40 on-floor coaching hours each week. She wanted to be able to pursue coaching as a lifelong career, and definitely wanted the ability to take the odd paid vacation.

No Future in Hourly Compensation

But after getting paid an hourly wage to coach group classes for a number of years, Guzman realized there was no future in that compensation model.

Kayla Smith had the same revelation. So did Chris Spigner. And Connor Martin. Each of them experienced what it was like to be paid $20 to $30 an hour, or getting paid a salary, but in both cases quickly found themselves having to work way too many on-floor coaching hours each week, and yet they were still unable to earn a professional wage.

“There were days I was coaching five or six classes a day, coaching the same stuff over and over and repeating myself over and over,” said Smith, who used to manage a CrossFit affiliate. “At one point a couple years in, I would be there from 5 a.m. until 9 o’clock at night. I coached every single class.”

Not only was she spending too much time on the floor, but Smith knew she wouldn’t ever be able to become a full-time, career coach in that business model.

  • “(It) doesn’t set the coaches up to win…It’s fine as a part-time job, or maybe a college student just starting out, but there’s no long-term win,” she said.

Guzman had a similar experience. She wasn’t able to make a living, and paid vacations were never going to happen.

  • “When I was coaching at a (traditional) CrossFit gym, if I left for two weeks, I wasn’t getting paid because I wasn’t teaching a class or (wasn’t) on the floor with a PT client, so no income was coming in,” said Guzman, who now works at OPEX Revival in San Rafael, CA owned by CrossFit Games athlete Marcus Filly.

A Different Way Forward 

Spigner is another coach who realized there was a better way than a set salary. When he first started coaching at CrossFit 7 Mile in Grand Cayman in 2013, he was paid a salary of $3,000CID (Cayman Island Dollar) a month. This sort of worked for a while, he said, but he soon found himself unable to afford the island life, all the while working long days that had him coaching both in the early mornings and late evenings.

Spigner sat down with owner Carl Brenton, and when the two got to talking it became obvious that paying the coaches on a purely percentage of revenue basis made more sense for the coach and the business. The clients, too, would be better off, as coaches would then be incentivized to ensure their clients are serviced properly and stick around the gym, Spigner explained.

“When I was paid a salary and the gym made more money, I wouldn’t make more money, but if the gym lost money, the gym still had to pay me. So if we got 50 new members, the gym would benefit but the coach wouldn’t, and if we lost 50 members, the gym would suffer and I would still get paid. It seemed really weird,” Spigner said.

Another coach who had a similar realization is Connor Martin, the son of CrossFit Kids developers Jeff and Mikki Martin. Though Martin has nothing but positive things to say about the various gym owners he worked for in the past, he thought there was a better way to make a living.

  • “I used (to have) to work split shifts, and when I was paid a salary, I was usually expected to work well beyond the regular hours,” said the 28-year-old Martin and father of two. It got to the point where he felt he wasn’t spending enough time with his family.
Photo Courtesy of Connor Martin

And while Guzman, Smith, Spigner and Martin didn’t start coaching for the money, living a healthy, balanced life demands a certain financial threshold. So, like many other coaches, their options were: leave the fitness industry or find a better compensation model.

Today, each of them work at gyms where coaches are paid between 40 and 50 percent of the revenue they generate, not just as a one-time payment, but on a recurring basis. This means, they’re compensated each month for each of their clients for as long as their clients continue to pay for their coaching.

“Being on an incentive-based service means the more clients (coaches) have, the more money they make, so you’re setting them up to be a professional coach,” Smith said.

When Martin switched to a percentage of revenue model at P3 CrossFit in Houston, Texas, he managed to increase his monthly gross revenue from $7,000 to $11,000 in just four months, which benefited both Martin and the business.

His job satisfaction has also increased now that he works with his own book of clients, he explained.

  • “It allows you to have a much more one-on-one impact with your clients because you’re doing much more individualized coaching, which in my opinion is the way everyone should be pursuing fitness,” he said. “This is by far and away my preference (of system to work under) from a lifestyle standpoint.”

Enter COVID-19

All four agree this compensation model is still the best system for the business and the coach.

  • “I think now more than ever, as an employee of a gym, (percentage of revenue compensation) creates some semblance of security. I think if you’re an hourly paid coach right now, there is a lot of uncertainty, and it also makes it hard to justify why an owner should continue to pay you,” Martin said.

He added: “I also think that from an ownership perspective, this is exactly the model you would hope to have going into a pandemic like this. The reason being that you want coaches who have not only relationships, but are invested in retaining members through whatever length of time the doors are shut.”

Smith, who owns her gym, concurs.

“My coaches have not been affected from a monetary standpoint during this pandemic, as many other small gyms and coaches have suffered severely. Our model thrives on the relationships we have with clients…,” she said. “Our client retention remains high, and we actually gained a few clients during this unfortunate time. Since our compensation for coaches is based off a percentage per client, coaches remained getting paid as they normally would.”

Photo Courtesy of Kayla Smith

As for Guzman, she has 60-plus of her own clients, each of whom pays between US$235 and $300 a month. Guzman earns 50 percent of this revenue.

“(And) I can go on a two-week vacation and still get paid,” said the 43-year-old Guzman, adding, “I’m not an ageist, but if you’re a 22 or 23 year-old, sure, coach 20 classes a week with all the energy in the world. But that’s just not sustainable long-term. So yeah, it’s great that I make more money this way, too, but what’s of even more value to me is that I can still be doing this job at 55 years old.”

Though Guzman has had a handful of clients put their memberships on hold since the pandemic forced them to shut their doors, she said she is still in touch with them all the time and knows they’ll be back once the pandemic is over. This has also led her to really focus on her relationships with her current clients, and to become more entrepreneurial.

  • “For us, coaching compensation has not changed through COVID, but it has inspired me to find ways to bring in clients through my own avenues, instead of relying completely on the business,” she said.

Since the pandemic hit Grand Cayman, Spigner has continued to service his 70-plus of his own clients, each of whom pays $199 to $400CID a month for a combination of group classes and personal training. He also runs a corrective movement program, which earns him 55 percent of the revenue they generate. All of this remains intact today, albeit virtually, and it’s the reason he and the business are still thriving today, he said.

  • “More than ever, the model we implemented has saved our business. The relationships that are built from having to be responsible for people…to learn about who they are as people outside of the gym really resonates with people in times of need like now,” Spigner said, adding that many clients are even buying additional personal training sessions right now.

If Spigner were still getting paid a salary, he said he wouldn’t still be in Grand Cayman. “I probably wouldn’t be coaching at all, to be honest,” he said.

Not only does it allow him to make a professional wage, but being responsible for his own tribe of people adds to the job fulfillment, in a way coaching a group class for an hourly wage never could, he said.

“You feel a responsibility to do well by these people who are trying to take care of you because you’re trying to take care of them. It becomes a beautiful circle of people giving a shit about one another in more ways than just a payment, or how many burpees you can do. I think this has got to be the most fulfilling way to run a fitness business,” he said.

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