Setting our box standards – The Broken Windows

17th December 2017

I thought I would share this document I wrote for the staff here at CFN, it underpins our vision for our community, and environment within the gym. You might find it interesting, and I hope it will further promote the theory, to you as members.


I first came across the broken windows theory via an interesting article in the CrossFit Journal in May 2015, it basically said;

“hey CF affiliate owners, wake up, (and they are starting to) do not think you will have a successful business if you don’t become more commercial with the appearance of your gym! Successful fitness community…… yes, but this matters not when you have to close because you can’t afford the rent”

That’s a rudimentary summary of the 3 pages. However I have read into the theory quite a bit, and I like the relationship and similarities of running a CrossFit gym that can be found within.

The Broken Windows Theory

James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling first introduced the broken windows theory in an article titled Broken Windows, in the March 1982 The Atlantic Monthly.

The title comes from the following example:

  1. Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired?
  2. The tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.


  1. Consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates.
  2. The tendency here will be for more litter to accumulate. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.

These are the examples used by Wilson and Kelling and are specific to the criminological theory, the theory states that maintaining and monitoring urban environments to prevent small crimes such as vandalism, public drinking, and toll-jumping helps to create an atmosphere of order and lawfulness, thereby preventing more serious crimes from happening.

So how does this translate to the CrossFit gym?

Let’s swap Wilson and Kelling’s examples for some more familiar ones of our own;

  1. Consider a gym with a dirty carpet as you walk in, as you walk to the toilets, there is no toilet roll, towels are wet screwed up on the floor. As you step through the entrance to the gym itself. No one smiles at you or says hello
  2. The tendency here is for the member to leave empty toilet rolls on the floor, not bother to fold a towel or clean the pan after use, not to talk to a new face, if one is seen looking lost. Maybe even after time, they throw gum in the toilets and start to wear i-pods, because its more comfortable than no one speaking to each other


  1. Or consider a gym floor with used tape and bottles left to accumulate for several days, equipment sort of put back, but looking untidy, grime and dust left to build up
  2. The tendency here could be for members to leave more equipment out, start moving blocks of chalk where ever the want them and rarely if ever put their own waste in the bin

If we as owners and staff decided to let the above actions spiral for just 3 months, where would we be? What would we look like? And let me assure you if we let it happen, it would happen! This theory is proved a little later on, albeit from the criminology side, but humans are humans.

Take 10 seconds and picture the gym in your head, 3 months later!



While Wilson and Kellings theory is centred on a different subject, they also state;

Similar events can occur in any community when communal barriers, the sense of mutual regard and obligations of civility—are lowered by actions that suggest apathy” (lack of interest)

As members of staff we are the ones who are responsible for having an interest and preventing small crimes, or reversing them if they are committed, either by self-rectifying them (E.g. picking up some tape) or education of another;

“Hey Dave do you mind wiping up your sweat please, someone else is about to lie on that floor”.

This education piece is vital in developing more internal policing of the theory. By asking a member of the community to complete the task, he or she is investing time in the upkeep of the physical aspects, and therefore starts to take some ownership of their surroundings, thus begins the cycle to police others in something they have personally invested in. Ask yourself if you have seen a member give another member grief for not putting something away? I have, and it only comes because we as staff once enforced it, the more we do, the more others will.

Oscar Newman, in his 1972 book, Defensible Space writesPeople in the community help with crime (take out crime, replace with breaking rules) prevention. Newman proposes that people care for and protect spaces they feel invested in, arguing that an area is eventually safer (take out safer replace with better) if the people feel a sense of ownership and responsibility towards the area”.

In 1969 Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford psychologist conducted an experiment in two neighbourhoods, one where the theory was in full swing and deep rooted, and one where the greatest efforts had been made, to not allow the theory to develop at all, you tell me where you want to live?

Zimbardo arranged for an automobile with no license plates and the bonnet up to be parked idle in a Bronx neighbourhood and a second automobile in the same condition to be set up in Palo Alto, California. The car in the Bronx was attacked within minutes. Within twenty-four hours of its abandonment, everything of value had been stripped from the vehicle. After that, the car’s windows were smashed in, parts torn, upholstery ripped, and children were using the car as a playground.

At the same time, the vehicle sitting idle in Palo Alto sat untouched for more than a week, until Zimbardo himself went up to the vehicle and deliberately smashed it with a sledgehammer, to illicit further response. Soon after, people joined in for the destruction

I want to live (train) in California! The key take away for us here is that even in a nice neighbourhood / gym, once you let the broken window take a small foothold (the sledgehammer to the window), I’m afraid to say, it will spiral via human nature

A successful strategy for prevention, according to Kellings book “Fixing Broken windows”,

“Is to address the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time, say, a day. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be much less). Problems are less likely to escalate”.

Our gym broken window theory is twofold, and revolves not only around setting the physical standards of the gym, but also the social standards. Wilson and Kellings theory also touches on social controls, citing that;

They are an effective strategy to reduce unruly behaviour”

We have to promote mutual respect, discipline via rules that apply to all, friendliness, equality and fairness to name but a few. The lack of these social standards has the same effect as the lack of physical standards and is equally, if not more important to the complete success of the gym.

  1. Consider our gym if cheating was always overlooked and normal, where coaches were not willing to help others and belittled the weaker members, where no high fives existed and PBs went unnoticed, social rules did not really exist
  2. The tendency here is for the member to cheat themselves, atmosphere to become tense and unfriendly, arguments to take place and ill feelings arise between social groups, people start to leave and eventually the doors would close

*Note – The above is not us at CFN, we have all created a great community

One of these sides of the broken window theory (physical/social) is more important than the other! One can survive without the other in the CrossFit gym, but not the reverse. If you’re social rules are in place and the gym has a good strong community then the gym may survive regardless of your physical broken windows, I have seen this in many CF gyms, kit everywhere, filthy but full of nice people, these gyms are generally small, not city centre locations and surviving!. We are NOT looking for survival, been there done that! We want success in both areas, dare I say perfection! Or as close to it as possible.

In order for a large, city centre CrossFit gym, that is multi staffed, with a full spectrum of society as members, to be successful, we need to ensure the highest physical and social standards are in place, upheld and enforced by all.

Looking inward and forward

Application, and buy in of the information in this document is as important, if not more so than the deliverable of coaching a class. If the look, the flow, and feel of the gym, is one of carelessness and awkwardness, then great coaching will not hold up the business. For these reasons we have to understand the intrinsic link between ignoring an untidy corner of the gym has, to delivering a poorly coached class, the net effect is the same!

The action of positive change, and reaction of member satisfaction is intrinsically linked. The gym will never just fill itself with members, (though many would think otherwise) it increases when we focus on all the elements required to build a successful gym, from coaching to cleaning, dusting to dancing, and behaviour and burpees, all these things matter in the commercially successful world.

As we look forward, we are still thinking of new ways to develop our community and in turn our business. We as owners still stand by Coach Glassmans theory that if you focus on what’s best for your members as a complete fitness community, and not making money per say, then the business will grow, and I think that’s what we have done, and continue to do.

Never chased the pound, rather we chase the improvement and advancement of our facility and standards.

Coach Andy Ward

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