I was the preschool director at a gym in an amazing college town, where I enjoyed the bliss of being the only gym in town. A few years into my tenure there, however, we got word that a new tumbling gym was opening up. In our town. Just down the road.
I got nervous (and a little sweaty) but I knew I had to start thinking about how to get gymnasts to stick with our more seasoned (but not as shiny and new) program.
For the first time ever, I had to think explicitly about retention.
Even then, I knew that retention is one of the most important factors in building a thriving preschool gym program. It can be a challenge, even for more experienced gyms, to keep gymnasts enrolled while marketing toward new students at the same time.
It becomes more challenging when you—as a director or owner— are pulled in SO. MANY. DIRECTIONS. You can’t possibly market to new people... and existing families...and wrangle all of your coaches...and lesson plan...and coach….and...and...and. It’s just too much.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Boosting your retention numbers boils down to three key factors, what I call PTC. It stands for “Progression, Tippy Toes & Community.”
The ‘ah-ha’ around designing retention strategies is that you’ve got to let your program do some of the work for you. In short, you’ve got to have the PTC retention factors baked into your program. Here’s how:
Have a Clear Progression Path to Success
Having a progression path rooted in skill sets as the basis of your program—a clear path to success for all gymnasts—gives them a crystal clear way to move forward without graduating from the program before they’d like to. Think:I like to use the phrase “growth, not graduation.”
Karate is one sport that has a clear progression path. Almost everyone is familiar with the belt system and the clear requirements to successfully graduate from one belt to another.
Parents need to understand your gym’s the progression path, as well. Timely feedback about where their gymnast is on that path can help parents unfamiliar with gymnastics skills see how their child is progressing. It can be easy to forget that parents simply don’t know what’s typical in gymnastics and they can become disheartened by seeing their child in the same class for a long period of time.
For preschool, in particular, the path to success can be challenging because we keep the age groups together. But don’t let age groups deter you in setting up your gymnast’s progression path; I’ve seen plenty of programs with multiple steps of progression in preschool!
Using age-based groups is what’s best for kids, but it can be super challenging to keep your gymnast’s skill progression for an entire year. Support parents (and, subsequently, their children) by educating them about how long it takes to complete each level of gymnastics at your gym. Explain that when children are very young, it’s best for them to stay with their age group for developmental and safety reasons.
This is where superstar advanced preschool classes come in handy! There should always be a path for gymnasts that excel (about 10% of your gymnasts), and a path for your ‘general population’ (90% of your gymnasts).
Tying Progression Paths to Retention
Whether your progression path is short or you’ve got a ton of steps along the way, show parents and gymnasts their growth on an ongoing basis.
One way to do this is through progress reports/skill sheets. These simple, age-appropriate lists of the ‘must have’ skills for each age level can be used as a type of “progress report” for parents and gymnasts.
Using skill sheets as the start of having a clear path to success for families in your program and will incentivize them to stick with your gym. They help let parents know what skills their child is working on, and what they’ll work on next. The conversation becomes “look how much your gymnast has learned” rather than “when can they move up?” (and away from their age group).
2. Keep Them On Their Tippy Toes
Preschool can be really tricky because of age-based classes, but that is where your energetic and knowledgeable rockstar coaches come into play!
To keep your gymnasts happily enrolled, you’ve got to keep them excited, challenged, and hungry for more, while keeping them with their age group. Train and empower your coaches to ask themselves “what comes next?” for each gymnast, even if that means one gymnast is performing different skills than the other gymnasts in class. After they’ve used progress reports to get feedback about what skills gymnasts need work on and what skills they’ve mastered, use them to help create lesson plans.
It gets boring for both gymnasts and coaches to have the same old thing each session. And we’ve all experienced what happens when we’ve got a not so hot lesson plan and our 3 year olds get bored: behavior problems pop up like a game of whack a mole. This kiddo here, that kiddo there, it gets crazy when kids are not engaged in their work. Keeping it funky and fresh with new ideas (guided by the question of ‘what comes next?’) puts the kibosh on bad behavior, draws in and holds your little gymnast’s attention.
Tying Individual Challenges to Retention
To meet the needs of each of your gymnasts, use the information you got from your progress report/skills sheets to guide your lesson planning. Start with your whole group instruction, then after your gymnasts have gotten to work, tailor certain skills to the gymnasts who need them. After all, gymnastics is a custom sport built to serve the needs of individual gymnasts (even at the highest level, each gymnast’s routine is different from the next after compulsory levels).
In order to retain your gymnasts from session to session, you’ve got to keep them on their tippy toes, excited and anticipating what cool trick they’ll get to learn next. Keeping track of progressions to create personalized challenges is the best way to make that happen.
3. Connection, Community, Crew
Without connection, even the best programs fall flat. But you have to intentionally build that time into your classes or you risk missing it.
When I was teaching Kindergarten, our “crew time” was one of our most important morning rituals. The time we took to connect with one another and start our day on a positive note created our rich kindergarten class community.
Building community in your program and within your classes is vital to keeping your gymnasts and families invested (both emotionally and financially) in your program. When people feel they are apart of something, they’re less likely to leave (and why would you want them to, your families are awesome!). And the best part of building community is that it’s pretty simple and it is totally customizable to what your gym’s goals.
This is even more important in our modern, connection-starved world. Building your gym’s community is as simple as knowing people’s names and greeting them as they walk in—both kids and adults. You can add to it by celebrating the milestones in their lives—things like new babies, new houses, and other exciting developments in their lives.
One way to build this connection is by being explicit about who we are. In my three-year-old three year old classes, we often talk about falling off of beam. At the beginning of the session, I explain that “gymnasts get back on. And because we are gymnasts, we get back on the beam and try again.”
This is a tiny thing that helps me set up what ‘our’ community, or ‘crew’, does in my class. “We” get back on beam. Gymnasts who are a part of something where they matter feel so much more connected to the gym and their work in it. They want to stay working and get better. That personal buy-in will lead to retention—they want to be there!
Creating a mini-community, or ‘crew’, in class can feel challenging with the time constraints we all have, but with quick things like an opening circle greeting with each gymnast and a closing circle with a goodbye song to each student, you can begin to create a meaningful connection with all your gymnasts, helping support your overall gym community. (For more ideas on a closing circle, read (read this post!)
Tying Community-Building to Retention
Because people want to connect be a part of something, you’ve got to focus on creating something they want to be a part of in the first place. That’s why retention begins with your staff and, your facility, and then gets embedded in your classes. Clearly defining your community by asking, “What do “we” do as a gym community?” and making sure everyone can articulate it is the first step in improving retention.
One other important aspect of connection is clearly and calmly handling...friction. If a parent has a problem and you’ve created a strong community in your gym as a whole, the parent is more likely to come to you to discuss their situation, and less likely to leave or find other ways to feel heard (like Yelp, social media, or their friends).
Is That It?
Every aspect of an effective retention strategy can be filed under one of the three umbrellas I’ve outlined here. The best part is, once you’ve baked these three factors into your program, they will run themselves, all supporting your retention numbers.
Some people think you need so many other things to have a viable retention strategy.
What about energetic, reliable coaches? Yes! You need them for sure, but you need them to be a part of your community and create little crews in their classes. How about lesson plans? You bet, but they’re under the progression and tippy toes umbrellas.
As for the preschool program in the college town gym, turns out there were more than enough kiddos to go around. Our numbers remained strong, while their program had a healthy start and grew from there. We leaned into the PTC retention strategies to make our program work for us.
If you make retention part of your everyday class culture and practice, you will have an ongoing retention machine working each time you hold classes. And if you start implementing these TODAY, you’ll feel the difference almost immediately.
No need to go back to the drawing board. Just take a few minutes to see where your core practices fall and if you can’t fit them into these three pillars, rework them until you can. It will make all the difference in the world!