Over the past three years, as I've worked on various outdoor ed programs, I’ve seen a pattern repeating itself over and over again. With a new group every few weeks, I've found the same kind of engrained beliefs the students have about themselves presenting again and again at the start of each program.
When the students arrive, I run a session on goal setting. In this, we outline why we set goals, how we go about achieving goals and why we should be setting goals outside our comfort zone! Despite this, it’s not until we actually get out into field and start doing some challenging activities that students get the opportunity to field-test their skill level and resilience.
Often we’ll be running an activity where the students have little previous experience. As a result, they’re hesitant or even fearful of the activity. The feeling of pushing outside one’s comfort zone starts to solidify in the students’ minds. However, I've noticed an increasing number of students shy away from activities that involve any form or risk, or perceived risk of failure.
Some of this feeling of fear is perhaps due to lack of experience. Other fears however, are often inherited from external sources such as parents and family who may have misguidedly told their children to always ‘Be Safe!’ ‘Don't take risks!’ and because their children are so perfect, they can't possibly fail… at anything!
One of the problems this creates is an irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist and the fear of failure to the point that it's better not to try, than to risk being seen as less than perfect. The number of ‘perfect’ children I now find who have such low self esteem and lack of self belief is astounding!
When setting up activities we run, especially when we’re looking at abseiling, surfing, high ropes courses and even riding a bike, I say to the students beforehand, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think!’
I usually get blank stares, ‘What’s he talking about?’ I leave it at that.! I don’t go into any other details before starting the activity.
Whatever the activity may be, I make sure that it's designed to push the comfort zone and boundaries for each and every student.
Because of their pre-existing self-beliefs and low-levels of resilience, more often than not the students will go into an activity thinking, ‘I can’t do it!’ It's really just their first line of defence to avoid their fear of failure.
Whenever they tell me, ‘I can’t do it,’ I generally respond, ‘Why not?’
In return I usually get ‘Because…. Blah, blah, blah!’
By this time, I've tuned out as they’ll throw up every possible excuse to avoid trying. These excuses tend to come out in rapid-fire succession, just in case the first one doesn't sound believable enough, they've got the next one ready to go!
What they're basically saying is, ‘What excuse can I make up to protect myself from possibly failing?’ and it's this fear of failure that's increasingly driving behaviours in students.
However, unless there’s some pre-existing medical condition, or some real reason as to why they can’t participate, I ignore their complaints about not being able to do it and instead encourage them to give it a go!
Whatever the activity, we’ll graduate it throughout the day to increase the level of challenge. For example, in mountain biking, we’d start with simple biking skills, how to set your seat height, how to pedal, how to change gears, how to brake, a very important aspect. We move on to how to go over an obstacle, how to go over an obstacle when moving at speed, how to go over multiple obstacles in succession and how to negotiate around berms, downhill at speed. The activity is therefore getting harder and harder, but it's graduating at a pace with which the students can manage.
Suddenly, without realising it, the students are riding on relatively steep terrain covered with some serious obstacles. A couple of hours ago they were telling me, or more to the point, themselves, that they couldn't do it!
With a ropes course, we start with low ropes, which are literally one step off the ground. They're simple stable challenges. However, after this, we ramp it up to a high ropes course where there's an increased perception of risk.
We often have students who are afraid of heights and this is a great activity to seriously push them outside their comfort zone. It makes them feel fear, it allows them to confront their fears head on and I work closely with these students to pushing them through that fear and enable them to truly challenge themselves and their firmly held beliefs. Once you can get them to punch through those self doubts, then their attitudes change, their confidence growth with it.
The same is true with surfing because a lot of students have never surfed before. Some are afraid of the water. Some are afraid of the surf. Some are afraid of getting eaten by sharks. The reality is though, you’re more likely to get killed by a vending machine falling on top of you than you are getting eaten by a shark. But people are still afraid.
No matter what the activity, the biggest challenge for students always comes down to all of the irrational fears that run through their minds telling them they can't do it.
However, once you get them involved and engaged in an activity, the fears disappear from their mind. They forget about all the excuses they made up as to why they couldn’t do something because their minds are now focused on the here and now and before they know it, they’re actually doing the thing they told you they couldn't.
I love to see this when it happens and I use this to positively reinforce those affirmative risk-taking behaviours that the students have pushed themselves to do.
In debriefing the activity, I revisit the issue of facing fears, happily saying to the student, ‘You’ve just achieved something that you told me you couldn’t do. Two hours ago you told me, “I can’t do it,” but what’s happened?’
I encourage all the students to respond individually. Invariably they’ll say, ‘I did it!’ And they’re really excited about it too. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles. They’re excited to have conquered their fear. They’re excited to have done something they’ve never done before.
To conclude the debrief, I’ll do a summation then reinforce my original statement, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think.’
Suddenly, I see lights going on! Some students are having an aha moment! What I said at the start is now making sense. Whilst they mightn’t remember it at the start of the next challenging activity, I’ll remind them of it and consequently they start to further process how to better approach challenging situations.
When students begin to realise their thoughts can shape so much of their lives in both positive and negative ways, this can become a powerful tool to help them master their approach to new challenges and experiences. Instead of telling themselves they can't do something, they've now got a power reference point of how and why they can do something they never thought they could.
Using briefing and debriefing frameworks to provide relatable learning moments, is vital when working with teenagers who might not always feel comfortable nor confident in everything they’re doing, even if they pretend to be.
Whilst life’s not all high ropes, mountain biking and shark dodging, when students can use these more challenging experiences and relate their success in these back to every day life, they start to become more resilient and realise they can push through other challenges they face.
Relating outdoor activities back to a wider context in this way, can be extremely effective in helping teenagers to push themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. It helps them to adopt a better mind-set for the way they should approach the next activity, or the next family matter or the next big decision they need to make in their lives. Chances are if you do the same, it could help you to push through some of your own long-held fears and apprehensions.
So remember, Don’t always believe everything you think!