Craig Patterson: The Sky is Falling, and I’m Selling Umbrellas

A Group Class at CrossFit NYC.

A Group Class at CrossFit NYC.

In a previous article, guest author Jason Darr critically analyzed many of the claims made by Craig Patterson in promotional articles for his company, the MadLab Group. I’d like to turn our attention to another article of Patterson’s that deserves a response. Also published on Breaking Muscle (which apparently has no issue publishing blatant advertisements), the title of Patterson’s article claims, “The Group X Business Model is Failing the Fitness Industry.” Specifically, Patterson is claiming that the group fitness model used by the vast majority of CrossFit affiliates is failing them.

I don’t know Craig Patterson personally, and while it is clear this article is at least partly motivated by financial interest (he’s selling the solution to your problem), Patterson also claims that he feels “a responsibility to share what I have learned with the community that has helped me live a better life, in the hopes of helping, not hurting, the CrossFit community.” This may be true, but good intentions don’t negate poor arguments and inaccurate claims. I also feel a responsibility to share what I’ve learned with the community, and to help them discern between fact and fiction when listening to self-proclaimed business experts.

Patterson’s narrative is pretty simple to summarize:

  1. Group training (the “Group X”model) leads to poor client movement and the inability of coaches to evaluate improvements to fitness.
  2. Group training leads to underpaid coaches and overworked owners who make no profit, and excludes clients with physical limitations.
  3. Give us your money and we will fix this problem and turn your coaches into a money-making sales force.

I’m not here to argue with point 3. My concern is whether points 1 and 2 are true. Are all affiliates running group training classes facing a serious problem? Are CrossFit HQ and Greg Glassman responsible for leading our affiliates down a road of financial ruin?

To start, Patterson claims, “The Group X business model is an import of a system widely used by martial arts and boot camp businesses, introduced to the CrossFit community between 2006-2007.” Patterson seems to be arguing that group training is a historically late practice, one not tied to the core CrossFit principals developed by Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California. But a simple fact-check shows this claim to be completely false. In his article, “Scaling Professional Training,” Glassman states, “At the same time we started converting our practice from one-on-one to group classes we launched CrossFit.com.”

In case you were wondering, CrossFit.com was launched in 2001. The group method was not only a core part of the early spread of CrossFit, but Glassman considered it highly beneficial.

“We had used group classes to train some of our athletic teams and everyone loved them, trainers and athletes alike. The social dynamic of group classes is extremely powerful. Run correctly, they motivate an athletic output that is only rarely matched in one-on-one training… Group classes also dramatically increase training revenues!” (my emphasis).

In describing the failures of group training, Patterson makes a bold claim: “Glassman has already told us why it doesn’t work.” He defends this claim by citing two of Glassman’s early articles, “What is Fitness?” and “Foundations.” Neither of these articles mentions anything related to class structure. They were also both published in 2002, a year after Glassman began implementing the group-training method in Santa Cruz with great success. This begs the question: What on earth is Patterson talking about?

Craig Patterson, 2008

Craig Patterson, 2008

Let’s assume these are honest mistakes and get to the meat of Patterson’s narrative. His primary concern seems to be the havoc group training wreaks on affiliate operations and coaching. On this subject he makes the following claims:

“And in terms of the clients, they receive little to no fundamentals training, which means there is little quality control. Clients are shuttled straight into a group class before they reach benchmarks or fitness standards. They are subsequently trained by many different trainers…” 

“Proper client evaluation in Group X is impossible. Assessing and tracking mobility, strength, movement, weaknesses, or nutrition in a group class is ludicrous…”

“Teaching complex movements like gymnastics, sprinting, rowing, and Olympic weightlifting to newbies in a group class is ineffective and exhausting for coaches…”

Patterson’s problem is that he is universalizing his personal experience and assuming his problems as an affiliate must be the same as everyone else’s. Unfortunately, Patterson’s experience is not my experience, nor is it the experience of countless affiliate owners I have spoken to on the topic. Perhaps Patterson did allow his group classes to get too big; does that mean all trainers with group classes do? Of course not. Perhaps Patterson didn’t keep closely connected with his members; does that mean this is impossible with group classes? No. Perhaps Patterson lacked the ability to adequately scale and modify for individuals within a group context; does that mean all group coaches are equally inept? Far from it.

This is not to say there aren’t difficulties inherent to group training. On the contrary, Glassman has noted that the superiority of group training comes with increased demand on trainer competence:

“To run group classes without compromising our hallmark laser focus and commitment to the athlete, the trainer has to learn to give each member of the group the impression that he is getting all the attention that he could get in one-on-one training, and that requires tremendous training skill.” (“Scaling Professional Training”)

What’s the magic formula for producing this skill? Gradually expanding your one-on-one training to a small group, then a large group, based on your abilities. This is an essential but simple truth.

In another bold claim, Patterson states, “This training model excludes the majority of potential clients. The only people getting by in this model are the ones with few physical limitations. They are young, relatively fit to begin with, and broke.” This is simply not true, as any coach worth his or her salt can learn to scale and modify in a group setting to accommodate those with physical limitations. Also, if every gym adopted Patterson’s approach and required lengthy and expensive one-on-one training prior to group classes, this would financially exclude a huge population of potential clients.

Patterson’s MadLab model is ultimately just another option for affiliate owners looking for business guidance. I believe Patterson, like myself, appreciates the freedom CrossFit HQ gives affiliates in choosing how to organize and operate their businesses. But Patterson’s representation of group classes as a systemic problem facing our community is disingenuous and sloppy.

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