In the cheer business, “gym hopping” is considered a four-letter word. Whether it’s an athlete that wants to trade up to a larger gym or a parent who wants her child to be a featured flyer, families make the switch for a variety of reasons—but often find that the grass isn’t any greener on the other side. And for gym owners, it can result in loss of income, bad blood with clients and issues preparing for competition.
So how can gym owners recognize the signs early on and improve retention? Get some ideas from gym owners at Rockstar Cheer, Myrtle Beach All-Stars and Power All Stars.
Reason #1: Position
Sometimes athletes are unhappy with their position on a team, especially if they feel they’ve been “demoted” from flyer to base, for example. Frequently, it’s the parent, not the child, who feels slighted. Carlos Realpe, head coach at Naples, FL-based Rockstar Cheer explains: “The parents who drill it in their kid’s head that flying is the only position available for them, those [kids] are the ones that we see fail in this sport.”
Solution: Speak to your clients and try to change their mindset. “It’s not about your own performance—it’s about the team’s performance and how you contribute to it,” Realpe says. Debunk the idea that flyers are the stars of cheerleading, and stress the value of all the positions, whether bases, tumblers or front spots. Unlike other sports, there are no alternates; every athlete is invaluable. They must love the sport itself, not their position in it.
Reason #2: Placement
Similarly, athletes may be disappointed when they think they’re on a team that’s beneath their abilities, but again, it’s usually because of the parents’ persuasion. “Very rarely do you have an athlete go, ‘I want to leave because I feel I’m higher than this level,’” Realpe says. “And [when that does happen], usually those are the athletes that really are higher level.”
Solution: Realpe’s philosophy is “program first, team second, individual last,” and he works to maintain that philosophy. Know what your program can offer, and stay within it. “From a safety standpoint, putting kids in teams [where] they don’t belong automatically increases your injury rate,” he says.
If the athlete is truly advanced and you don’t offer a team that suits their skills, it’s best to let them go. They’re bettering themselves, and it’s better for your program to maintain its structure.
Reason #3: Other Gyms
Cindy Cumbo’s all-star program is based in the high-tourist area of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Entrepreneurs make assumptions based on the lucrative activity during tourist season and don’t consider the reality of the rest of the year. As a result, shiny new gyms with assumed reputations pop up frequently, attracting Cumbo’s athletes—but many can’t maintain their business. At four years old, Cumbo’s Myrtle Beach All-Stars is the oldest program in the area.
Solution: Cumbo says simply, “You have to find your niche.” Keep your focus, whether it’s all-star prep, Worlds teams or tumbling classes. Speak honestly with clients about your program and what you provide, and they can choose what’s best for them. “Everybody has a cheer gym DNA,” she says, “and my gym DNA may not fit with yours.”
Whether established or new, it’s important not to make promises you can’t keep. “When you’re giving people unrealistic expectations, that’s when you have loyalty issues,” adds Cumbo.
Reason #4: Unhappy Parents
As mentioned, it’s often the parents, not the child, who want to switch gyms, because they feel their child deserves more. While children are resilient and bounce back quickly from setbacks, tenacious parents make emotionally-based decisions about their cheer future.
Tori Ballard, assistant head coach of Bowling Green, KY-based Power All-Stars, lost two athletes on their parents’ insistence. The fathers were close friends, so though the idea to leave initiated with one, the other followed suit. He was disappointed that his daughter didn’t have a full yet, and no explanation or comforting from Ballard would pacify him. “I think they were made promises from another program that their daughter would fly and have a full,” Ballard says. “And now she’s on a lower-level team than she was with us, and they both front spot.”
The father’s irritation rubbed off on the daughter, who grew impatient with her own deficiency. When a presumed rival teammate achieved the skill before she did, she stormed out.
Solution: In cases like this, it’s best to let them go. “I feel gym-hopping is a petty thing to do, and people who can do that shouldn’t be with us,” Ballard says. “We’re very family-oriented, and those people are like poison.”
No matter what reason for jumping ship, all three coaches say cheer parents feel entitled to more. Ballard suspects that parents no longer teach the values she grew up with: commitment, loyalty, stick-to-itiveness. The problematic gym-hoppers go from gym to gym until they get what they want, sometimes bringing your program down in the process. When in doubt, it’s often better to let them go.
As Realpe says, “If you’re going to contribute to me disliking the sport I’ve been successful at my whole life, then I probably don’t want you here.”
Money, Money, Money
Missed or delayed payments can be hints that something is wrong and signal a potential gym-hopper. Be sure to have a clear contract, dictating specifically what’s owed, how much and when. That way, if delayed payments lead to a collection agency or to small claims court, your gym is protected. “If you have a clear written contract, you’ll be set for getting your money one way or another,” says Realpe.
Consider including a quit fee, and be firm about consequences: no payment equals no class. “If someone is financially invested, then they’re less likely to leave,” Cumbo says.
And gym owners can also have each others’ back when it comes to preventing this type of behavior. For instance, Realpe has an agreement with other local gyms for when new athletes come calling. “If they leave other gyms with a balance, I don’t take them,” he says.