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Managing Fun for Young Members

Hiring and retaining the right children's fitness director isn't child's play. Here's how to do it right.

In the U.S., about 10 percent of children ages two to five are overweight, as are about 15 percent of those between six and 19 years old, according to the non-profit Nemours Foundation. As a fitness professional, you know the health effects of childhood obesity: increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, bone and joint problems, depression and low self-esteem. Many fitness centers are doing their part to help curb this national problem by offering children's fitness programming.

As with any program, hiring and retaining the right manager is crucial to its success. Here's how to find an ideal candidate for the job, motivate and retain him or her, and recognize the warning signs of poor managerial performance.

Identify ideal candidates

First, look at candidates' credentials, including college degrees, fitness and/or specialty certifications, experience and skill sets.

Degrees. "For our kids' fitness director positions, we look for a four-year degree in an exercise-related field, such as physical education, kinesiology or exercise science," says Shari Downum, human resources director of Oakwood Athletic Club, Lafayette, Calif., and Club Sport of San Ramon, also in California. The fitness centers offer numerous children's fitness programs, including dance, gymnastics and basketball, as well as summer sports camps.

Jeff Lulla, president of Fun & Fit Gymnastics, with locations in Burbank and Santa Clarita, Calif., also looks for a bachelor's degree in physical education or kinesiology, and he'll consider a candidate with a degree in child development. "These degrees tell me that the prospect went to school with the intention of being a teacher or coach," says Lulla, whose company runs gymnastics clubs and licenses kids' fitness curricula to fitness centers and gymnastics clubs internationally.

Sandy Coffman, president of Programming for Profit, a Bradenton, Fla.-based consultancy, says an ideal candidate should demonstrate professional-level teaching ability. "Even an assistant teaching degree from a community college shows that the candidate is serious about enhancing his or her teaching credentials," says Coffman.

Certifications. Both Downum and Coffman say an ideal candidate will be certified by a reputable fitness certification organization, and have an updated CPR certification. Frank Sahlein, president and owner of Wings Center, a children's fitness facility in Boise, Idaho, looks for sport-specific certifications, such as those offered by gymnastics or cheerleading associations. Lulla agrees, adding that he looks for a certification from USA Gymnastics. The International Youth Conditioning Association (www.iyca.org) and the International Sports Sciences Association (www.issaonline.com) offer courses and certifications in children's fitness and training.

Experience. If your search doesn't turn up candidates who have related experience as a children's fitness director, look for those who have worked with kids in some capacity. For example, Lulla looks for applicants with experience in a leadership role at a daycare or youth camp. Downum looks for candidates with group exercise experience.

Skills. Sahlein, who also owns 3rd Level Consulting & Business Brokerage, a consultancy that specializes in children's activity centers, suggests looking for a candidate with demonstrated ability to compete with other facilities and make money on kids' fitness. Downum looks for leaders who offer fresh ideas about children's programming, and are able to work well with both children and parents.

Coffman supplied her list of skills to look for:

  • Good teaching ability to reach kids.
  • Exceptional organizational skills. "Otherwise, the kids will just run amok," she says.
  • Creative ways to recognize achievement, beyond just the fastest or strongest child in a program. "For example, give recognition to those who have perfect attendance, or who are the happiest in class."
  • Professional-level interpersonal communication skills. "The [director] won't just be communicating with kids, but with parents, too, and [he/she] needs to be effective at both."
  • A good promoter and salesperson. "The goal in any program is retention, so the person has to come up with new programming ideas, be able to get parents to bring their kids to them and then get the kids to participate willingly."
  • Professional-level written and verbal skills. "The director will be the 'face' of your kids' fitness program," says Coffman.
  • A lot of stamina to work with instructors, kids and parents all day.
Personal characteristics. Downum looks for candidates who seem intellectually flexible and willing to try new things. Coffman suggests determining if the candidate seems generally happy, full of energy and enthusiastic by nature, as such characteristics are crucial when working with children. "Children are the most demanding of any niche market a club operator will serve," Coffman says. "Kids won't put up with anything less than a fun program. The experience in and of itself is what they evaluate. You can't, as a rule, rely on why doing something now will benefit them later, an argument that can work with adult populations. ... You have to make children want to come back to the club."

Lulla looks for candidates who have a passion for working with children. "I've seen some well-educated and trained people with the highest credentials struggle and fail in this field if they are not good with kids," he says. "And, I've seen people with little formal education run terrific programs because they have the passion for working with kids." He also looks for an ability to "edutain" - someone who can entertain while educating. "Making the kids laugh and have fun is an important job skill not just for working with kids, but also for mentoring other employees such as instructors," he explains. Lastly, he looks for those who are outgoing and personable.

Make the offer

Salaries. Directors for children's programs recorded an average annual salary of $30,500 per year in 2006, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), Boston, Mass. It's helpful to look at similar job descriptions to discern appropriate pay scales. Median salaries for fitness/program directors in 2006 was $37,500, according to the IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Survey (www.ideafit.com). Those in the Northeast recorded the highest median salary at $40,018. For group fitness coordinators, the national median salary was $30,000 in 2006.

Fitness directors included in IHRSA's 2006 salary survey recorded an average compensation of $47,587 per year. And the American Council on Exercise (ACE), San Diego, Calif., reported that the 2005 average salary for full-time group fitness instructors was $36,000, and $43,000 for fitness directors. Lulla says $15 to $25 per hour, plus benefits, is a good estimate for the role of children's fitness director. Fitness centers in big cities such as Los Angeles and New York, where the cost of living is higher than the national average, generally pay more. Downum says that the going rate in her area of California is $32,000 to $50,000 per year for a full-time director who also teaches kids' classes.

Benefits. If the children's fitness director role in your facility is a full-time position, you should offer the same level of benefits as you do other full-time managers, says Sahlein. Most important is healthcare coverage, because any fitness-related job can be tough on the body. He also recommends offering a bonus structure based on set parameters, such as number of children who participate, profit levels, cost-reduction targets, retention rates, number of new programs launched and the like.

Hold the director accountable

Whoever manages the children's fitness director should explicitly define what constitutes success in that role. That's where an effective review process comes in handy.

How to review. In general, you want to judge this position as you would any other program director: on growth and retention. That said, Coffman suggests that you answer these questions when reviewing a children's fitness director: Have they met your retention goals? Have they kept kids in programs, as well as moved children from program to program? How creative are they with the programs? How effective are they at promoting programs? "Your kids' director could, for example, come up with recognition programs for participants, such as a banquet or party at the end of an eight-week program," says Coffman. "Club kids could invite their friends who can watch them get recognized at the party. The friends then may want to join in. And that's how you use retention to grow membership."

Sports Training for Kids

Chelsea Piers, New York, N.Y., launched a sport-training program in May that takes youth fitness to a whole new level. Children enrolled in the program can use equipment, artificial ice, a turf field, Generation III Super Treadmills, an ice hockey treadmill and sport-specific cord technology. BlueStreak Sports Training is the licensed provider of the training protocols, which were developed by Fargo, N.D.-based Frappier Acceleration Sports Training (FAST), now known as Athletic Republic. Founded in 1990, Athletic Republic provides advanced athletic performance enhancement training for adults and children ages 12 and older.

By mid-July, about 73 kids were participating in the Chelsea Piers BlueStreak program. Parents pay from $1,000 for 20, 75-minute sessions three times per week for six weeks, to $1,450 for 48 hours of total training time during six weeks for intensive training, strength development and sports-specific skills coaching. Training is led by FAST Level III-certified coaches. The program also employs an advisory team of doctors, physical therapists and coaches who provide support for injury prevention, flexibility, recovery and nutrition.

"Chelsea Piers BlueStreak was created to meet the training demands of individual athletes and teams, making the best scientific, motivational and medical protocols available to athletes who are willing to work hard to improve their speed, skills and performance," says Jillian Mastroianni, public relations associate for Chelsea Piers Management. "The kids train with us in hockey, figure skating, soccer and other sports." To view the type of training offered, check out the videos posted at www.chelseapiers.com/bluestreak/video.htm.

Downum says program directors at her fitness centers are reviewed on time-management skills, how many new ideas they've implemented, participation numbers, their openness to new ideas when participation numbers are low, how they conduct themselves among colleagues and members (e.g., do they take suggestions well?), their value as a team member, and their business and administrative skills (e.g., profit-and-loss reports, hiring and retaining instructors, keeping their team up on certifications, touching base regularly with their instructors).

In a broader sense, Downum asks, What is the fitness center's vision, and how does the children's program match or facilitate that vision? "Sometimes a GM must educate his or her managerial staff on how their roles impact the whole business," she says. "Individual managers get so busy with their part of the club that they may fail to see how their work impacts the club as a whole. They must understand that they are part of a management team, not just the manager of their one particular area. And they must be made to feel as if they are part of that team." Some managers just like to know the GM's goals, and then be left alone to achieve them. Others like to report to the GM each week, denoting the steps they've taken to reach stated goals. "In any case, the GM should show interest in the kids' program, and demonstrate support for the manager. A GM shouldn't go to a kids' director - or any manager - with just complaints," Downum says. "Rather, he or she should say to the individual manager, 'I'm here to support what you do. Let's get together and make the club or the program even better.'"

Pay for performance. "Once you decide [how] you will evaluate the director, then you need to factor those things into his or her salary increase or bonus structure," Coffman says.

Retain them

The role of children's fitness director is a tough one to do effectively for prolonged periods of time. Kids can wear out even the most hearty and enthusiastic employee. To keep your director motivated, try the following steps:
  • Treat them the way you want them to treat the children and parents, says Coffman.
  • Recognize them for growing and retaining members.
  • Let them bask in the PR spotlight. Any positive news about kids tends to get the media's attention. So, your local newspaper may want to run a story on a particularly successful children's program that you offer. "Your kids' director definitely should be involved in those stories, either to be interviewed or pictured with the kids," says Coffman.
  • Don't burn them out. The number of classes that directors at Downum's fitness centers are permitted to teach is limited. "We don't want them to get injured. The work is hard on their bodies," she says.
  • Keep them jazzed. To keep directors motivated, give them freedom to create new programs, themes and concepts, as well as provide for their continued growth (e.g., seminars, workshops). Says Lulla, "Give them a modest budget for equipment and materials, and make sure they get enough time off to relax and come back refreshed."

When to dismiss: Nine red flags

The following are warning signs that it may be time to replace your children's fitness director:
  1. The numbers in growth and retention start moving downward. "That's a sure sign," says Coffman, "because the number of kids in need of exercise surely won't be going down any time soon."
  2. The director gets angry often - a signal that he or she is burned out. "When they're not smiling, or they're the antithesis of the person you hired, that really can't be turned around," Coffman says. "Fun is always going to be the No. 1 objective of ... a kids' program. When it stops being fun for the director, that's a sure warning sign."
  3. Kids are not having fun or learning, says Lulla.
  4. Parents are complaining and enrollment is dropping, Lulla says.
  5. The director is defensive when presented with criticism - instead of appreciative of the valuable input.
  6. The director's natural energy is diminished. Before dismissing, ask why this is happening. Says Sahlein, "The reason may have more to do with management expectations than with the employee. Communicate to reinforce or restate your expectations of the director."
  7. He or she is no longer available and/or won't answer voice messages, says Downum.
  8. You're getting a lot of customer conflicts that appear unresolved, Downum says.
  9. The director shows little enthusiasm for the job. "No new ideas are being generated," says Downum. "Rather, the person appears to want to simply maintain the status quo, and doesn't want to participate in the management team anymore."

Program success

To be successful at children's programming, the fitness industry needs to go back to square one, says Coffman: "Make the programs fun, group-oriented and easily accessible." And that, says Lulla, takes the right manager for the job. Use the strategies outlined here to elevate your fitness center, and help children get fit, healthy and strong for the future.
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