Ropes Course – Team Building or Something Else

Last week I joined 20 of our Sales and Operations team members at a Ropes Course.

Many Organizational Development consultants tout Ropes courses as a great way to build a better more cohesive team of professionals. After participating in this event I believe that these self professed experts are on to something.

The team building started as we left our offices heading to the course. There are 2 paths to the course. One via the back roads the other on the highway. We actually broke up into two groups following a leader of the pack on each of these paths. I believe the back roads guy lives in the country while the highway leader lives in the city. I am not sure what this means to our team, or if has any meaning at all.

Once to the course we had to hang around waiting for a straggler who possibly decided to find a third path. While waiting the team building activities continued, this time somewhat subconsciously. As we stood in the parking lot, casually chatting, we started to form a circle. The instructor did not ask us to do this and no one else suggested it. I noticed that the instructor had a clip board in his hand and he appeared to be eager to talk to us. I believe that these visuals were picked up on by my fellow team members and each of us on our own decided that a circle would be the best formation to accommodate the instructor.

Once the straggler showed up we listened to the instructor tell us that we would enjoy the activities as long as we did as instructed and followed all of the rules. He also assured us that death was not necessarily eminent if we failed to follow the rules, but at a minimum pain and suffering was sure to occur. Laughter was the way we handled these words even if we knew these instructions were not meant to be humorous.

Only one of us had ever been on this ropes course before, so the rest of us had no real idea what to expect. Our individual imaginations either helped us to overcome any fears or build our self-esteem to higher levels, at least until we saw the actual ropes course.

After the instructions we walked together down thru the woods and along a small pond and as we exited the woods, there it was. From a distance of a few thousand yards it appeared to loom up into the clouds. Three poles appearing to be thousands of feet in the air and equally as far apart. Stretched between the poles were ropes and horizontal poles in various formations. The poles were set in a triangle shape with a fourth pole set away from one of the three with another serious of ropes stretched between the two. Later we learned that they were only about 25 feet in the air and 30 feet apart. 25 feet or 1000 feet – the appearance was still quite scary.

The tones of our voices were significantly affected as the excess testosterone drained from our bodies. I’m not saying we were overcome by fear, but I am sure that most of us had to dig deeper into our inner selves to find additional sources of strength and fear fighting neurons. The change in our laughter and banter was clearly a sign that all of us now knew this was not going to be a cake walk for any of us.

Team building – I’m sure. There were none of us who thought that they were better than any of the others at this point, at least in regards to the rope course monster that we were about to challenge as a team.

The instructors again reminded us of the important instructions and rules that would help us to be able to leave the course in our own personal vehicles rather than an ambulance. He assured us that the ropes had been tested and could safely handle thousands of pounds of weight. One memorable quote from the instructor – “The ropes are very safe. They always work properly – unlike people.”

This quote caused me to wonder to myself – Where can I hire ropes? Or do I want to work with a bunch of ropes? Forget the rope employees. I like people, even if they don’t always work properly.

The instructor took us thru a series of activities while we were still on the ground. These included catching people falling vertically and horizontally. This also included practicing jumping off of logs. He told us that these activities are part of the team building. I believe that they were just what they appeared to be – the safest way of catching people and falling off of logs. I am not proud of what I thought at this point – If one of my buddies was falling off of the mile high poles I was not going to try to catch him. No need for both of us to die.

He showed us how to put on our safety harness and gave us clear instructions on how to use the safety hooks. Each of us were to have a member of our team track us as we traversed the ropes above. We were being asked to trust the people we worked with. Not just the ropes. We should be able to do this – right?

The instructor offered to show us in real time and height how to go thru the course. We all boldly declined the offer. We were sure our level of intelligence would get us thru the actual task. Besides, we had each other to support us. We only needed to see the instructions before hand if we had no idea what we were doing. None of us felt this way. Was this a mistake? We were yet to determine this.

So off we went. One of the guys went first and then one of the ladies followed. Behind her were three more guys.

The first guy jumped onto the ladder, up the pole and quickly climbed thru the first series of ropes to the first of three poles in the triangle. He clumsily climbed onto the pole and sat on the platform watching the first lady try to chase behind him.

She did pretty good as her laughter covered up any fear she had.

The first guy did pretty well thru the next series of ropes to the second of three poles. He then easily walked to the third pole on a series of horizontal poles. Here is where the real team activities started.

The first woman who was somewhat shorter than the first guy had serious problems reaching her feet to the various ropes that we needed to “walk” across. Fear started to set in and this fed her vocal cords to enable her mild laughter of fear to turn into fear for your life screams of help. Her real challenge at this point was to block out our chanting below so that she could listen to the instructor who was perched on the first pole in the triangle. Over our noise we could hear her begging him to come “save” her. He told her to ignore us and listen to him as he guided her thru her situation. I truly believe it was the combination of real instructions and encouragement from below that got her thru to the next pole.

We continued to support the instructor with our loud, jolly words of encouragement and after about 30 minutes our first woman completed the ropes course to the end.

Oh, yeah – the end. This was a rope swing off of the back side of the first pole to the ground.

The first guy did OK with this. The first woman looked like she was going to snap her back on the swing. When the rest of us saw this, we again dug deeper into ourselves looking for more testosterone.

The next few hours most of us took on the ropes and poles and successfully completed them with no serious injury, broken bones or death. All of us used different techniques, showed different levels of belief and or fear and managed to complete the course in different time frames. Just the same, all of us who took the challenge completed the course our own way.

I am sure that the combination of repeated instructions from the expert and constant encouragement of different types from the fellow team mates is what got all of us thru this activity.

There were a few of us who decided not to take on the challenge directly. These folks participated in the encouragement and support activities just as much as the rest of us.

We took some pictures of the team and ended the activities with words of praise all around.

Now let me try to find the real meaning of Team building in all of this.

My mind wants to conjure up words like building self-esteem, encouragement, caring, believing in yourself and believing in others, trusting yourself and trusting others, supporting each others, friends, peers, just-like-me, overcome fear and laughing with each other as well as politely at each other. These are some of the different ideas, feelings and benefits that the experts expect us to get out of team building activities.

I think they are right.