Missing in Action

Jamie Gumina distinctly remembers being on the bus with her team and about to leave for JAMFest Super Nationals in Indianapolis five years ago. Energy was high, as the team had worked hard to prepare for the event—but that’s when she realized her base was missing. “We called her, and she said she couldn’t come because she was sick,” Gumina recalls. It was a huge setback for the group from Blue Springs, MO-based Gage Center, but cheer director Gumina got to work quickly.

“We reorganized the team in the little aisle of the bus,” she says. “I told the kids to be strong.” Their action plan? Pulling up a girl from another team to fill in for the absentee athlete. They managed to put the setback behind them and come off with flying colors at the event, placing in the top portion of teams and receiving a Worlds bid.

Yet the gravity of the situation didn’t go unrecognized by Gumina. “Missing practices is the single most important item to making or breaking an entire team. If even one person is missing, an entire stunt group stands around and the pyramid can’t go up,” says Gumina.

Dealing with similar attendance issues at your gym? Find out how to deal with the problem head-on:

Form an attendance policy. If your gym doesn’t have an attendance policy, it’s time to form one now. When Gumina set up her business 13 years ago, the gym had no attendance policy—a decision she now questions. “You were just expected to be there, and as one would expect, no one cared about being punctual,” Gumina recalls. She instituted an attendance policy at Gage Center five years ago, and it has made a huge difference in attendance. The specifics: the only excused misses are for mandatory school functions or cases of serious illness. Non-traveling athletes get two excused absences from August through April, as well as pardons for mandatory school functions; Level 5 athletes get three total absences, all of which must be excused.

Be prepared to abide by it. Sometimes you’ve got to be tough on kids who repeatedly defy the rules. Tracy Baker, director of Valley Elite All Stars in Easton, Pa., says the only time athletes are excused is for family emergencies, serious sickness and school grades. “If they miss for any reason apart from these, they’re removed from the program,” Baker says. Similarly, Gumina did not hesitate from removing her best athlete several years ago in light of her missing practice regularly. “It was a tough call, but we had to set an example,” she shares.

Leave no room for excuses. “Well, I didn’t know we had to be there” is a popular excuse many gym owners and coaches hear over and over again. To avoid this, California Flyers All Stars owner Shelly Gramatky puts out her full-year calendar at the beginning of the season. “We include when they have days off, holiday dates, whether we are practicing on school holidays or not (i.e., Veterans Day and Presidents Day). We always post our calendar online and give them a password so they have private access to it 24/7,” says Gramatky. Translation? No excuses for excuses.

Be prepared. Despite your best efforts, athletes will still miss practice at times, so a backup plan is necessary. To that end, Gramatky “keeps rosters of older kids that have moved on but still live in the area to call in case we need them to swoop in and save the day.” Karen Brenner, owner of Egg Harbor Township, NJ-based All Star One has developed a fill-in policy: kids who miss practice have to find someone from another team who can do their job. “So if we have a team of 20 and three kids aren’t attending, we have three fill-ins so we still have a full team,” she explains.

Explain your reasoning. Sometimes simple math can help explain to families how important practice is. Andrea McBride of Denham Springs, LA-based Leaps & Bounds Cheer Energy spells it out like this: “If Susie misses Tuesday’s two-hour practice and Sally misses Thursday’s two-hour practice, then that’s a full week of incomplete practices. That’s four of four total hours of practice busted for the week.” McBride adds that if two more athletes miss practice the following week, then the team then has eight hours of incomplete practice. “So, in four weeks of regular practices totaling 16 hours, only eight were full practices. That is only 50 percent! Who has ever done well at anything with only 50 percent efficiency?” she says.

Make up for what you’ve lost. Some gyms ask kids to do extra burpees or drills if they miss practice, but Gramatky is careful not to make it look like “punishment.” She says, “We try and put a spin on it: when you are late, leave early or miss practice, you lose out on getting stronger with the rest of the team, so adding the extra conditioning into your workout when you miss practices is kind of like a body make-up.” The athletes learn that being able to keep up with their teammates is important to reducing injury. “So we consider it a ‘practice make-up,’” concludes Gramatky.

At the end of the day, Brenner believes that what counts is making your athletes feel valuable: “We tell all our coaches to treat the kids such that they feel irreplaceable. If they believe they’re valued, they’re not going to miss no matter what.”

-Dinsa Sachan