Athlete Poaching: Should You Be Worried?
“If you switch to our gym, we’ll make you a flyer.”
“If you switch to our gym, we’ll give you free tuition.”
If these promises sound familiar, you’re not alone—many gym owners have lost athletes to other gyms practicing questionable recruiting techniques. Some people will say anything to convince an athlete to switch to their program, and the offers can be hard to resist. Though healthy competition among businesses is normal, the desire to attract new athletes by any means possible can sometimes cross the line into inappropriate behavior. Just ask Kentucky Reign owner Jessica Bugg Smith, who says, “I had a program where they literally lined their kids on the floor while my kids were competing and yelled for a particular athlete, and then invited them to their gym.”
According to Leslie Pledger-Griffin, owner of Calhoun, GA-based Renegade Athletics, dirty recruiting isn’t always directed at the athlete, but often the parents (aka the financial decision-makers). “For the most part, whenever they’re approached, it’s a very flattering thing. ‘Your child’s too good to be on that team. They might not have their tuck, but we can get them their tuck before Thanksgiving.’ And then the child is put on that team, and they never get the tuck during that season—it’s just something that they were told to get them to join,” says Pledger- Griffin.
Athlete poaching is certainly an ongoing problem in the all-star industry, but is it worth worrying about? CheerProfessional talked to gym owners who’ve experienced the problem and got them to weigh in.
If an athlete is considering leaving, is there anything you can do?
Surrendering control may be the easiest way to stay sane in this scenario—and that sometimes means setting athletes free. “I’ve had the philosophy [that] I don’t beg kids to stay. The reason is because then they’re never 100% committed the rest of the season,” explains Pledger-Griffin. “They think they’re doing you a favor by being on your team, and in reality you probably don’t need them anyway.”
Stefanie Nelson, owner of Starke, FL-based North Florida Elite, agrees. “Though we pour our hearts and souls into these athletes, they are not personal property and we have to as an industry remember that. Yes, it hurts when an athlete leaves for whatever reason, but at the end of the day they are humans, not our personal belongings.”
When an athlete does leave, Pledger-Griffin sees it as an opportunity to analyze her own program’s strengths and weaknesses. Is there a missing link morale-wise? Do the gym’s offerings need to be expanded? Or is it an isolated case of an unhappy athlete? “When it does happen, I try to make sure that we’re doing our best and that we don’t have a reason for them to leave,” she shares. “But if you let it consume you, you’re just going to turn out to be bitter about a situation you can’t control. You just have to let it go and move on.”
Bugg Smith agrees, and she’s confident enough in her own program that she doesn’t worry about poaching. “I feel like if owners would focus more on addressing problems within their walls instead of worrying about the predators that lurk outside the walls, they wouldn’t be as afraid.”
That said, there are many documented cases in which gyms go too far in recruiting—and shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. Rather than spending your own energy and time fighting the situation, Nelson suggests taking action through USASF. “If you have hard evidence that poaching or general shady business practice is going on, I would report the individual and the gym to USASF and allow them to decide on how to handle it,” advises Nelson. “Getting into a war of words with the other person or gym never works —all it does is cause more problems than solutions.”
How can a gym prevent athlete poaching in the first place?
Make sure your gym shows the same integrity you expect from others. Bugg Smith of Kentucky Reign teaches her staff that poaching isn’t acceptable behavior. “Our coaches are instructed that if there’s a coach or athlete or parent that they’re speaking with who’s already affiliated with another program, they are not allowed to solicit them until the season is over, when we go into tryout season. As an owner, that’s how I want to run my program.”
Bugg Smith also recommends establishing community ties where your gym is. Her coaches attend school plays and football games to be more involved in their athletes’ everyday lives. “Be a part of their lives, more than just in practice – and make it authentic. It’s got to be real.”
Being honest with yourself about what your program has to offer can also help. If you are losing athletes because the competitor is doing a better job, do whatever it takes to change that. “If you don’t have as good of a training product as the gym down the road, then you need to get to conferences. You need to reach out to people. 90% of them are willing to help you, and a lot of them will help for free especially if it’s a small program, because they were a small program once, too,” Bugg Smith recommends.
For North Florida Elite’s Nelson, it’s ultimately about building a program athletes don’t want to leave, no matter how good the offer looks from the other gym. “If they still choose to leave, be positive and don’t burn that bridge with the existing athlete,” she says. “I have seen many times where an athlete leaves a program only to return the following season after they realize that it’s not always better on the other side of the fence.”