Monitoring Group Dynamics While Belaying


Episode 167: Today’s VPP episode explores the art of balancing group dynamics and safety when belaying on a ropes course while also respecting the participant’s awareness of tasks that are purely for behavior management. Lisa Hunt, Manager of Team Development Programs, and Senior Trainer at High 5 shares an experience from 2001 about group dynamics while belaying and Fake versus Real jobs for students on the challenge course.

Notes from High 5 Trainer Lisa Hunt.  This exchange happened somewhere back around 2001, and I wrote it up shortly thereafter with Ken’s input:

The question of how to engage the most number of students at a time on a challenge course is one that is often raised in workshops.  A common approach is involving people (students) in the tasks of operations to “keep them busy.”  Years ago, my co-leader during a workshop differentiated these tasks as “real jobs” and “fake jobs,” and challenged participants to consider the implications of both on student behavior and growth, as well as program quality overall.   

That co-leader is Ken Demas, a veteran Physical Education teacher, former Project Adventure Trainer, coach, Board Chair at NYSAHPERD, Coordinator of Adventure, and an Associate Professor at Hofstra University  – an important mentor to me.  That conversation has come with me to so many subsequent workshops, and I wanted to go back to the source to hear more about Ken’s experience and thoughts.  He has generously expanded this question here: 

Fake Job versus Real Jobs:

As you may recall, one of the things I did for about 16-17 years, was to act as a consultant for NY Insurance Reciprocal.  One of the adventure cases I reviewed involved too many spotters, not too few. In an effort to involve more students at low elements, teachers would over-involve students in spotting jobs.  One case, in particular, occurred at the rear of the “Wall”. The teacher used it as the culminating activity for the low-element portion of the adventure unit. Because the entire class was involved, the teacher had placed 6 spotters at the ladder at the rear of the Wall.  When a student started to descend, she missed the step and fell backward. Everyone was responsible and at the same time, no one was responsible. No one moved. Too crowded?? Not engaged?? Not important enough??

Too many involved and therefore not a REAL JOB.  Students need to be invested in the job. See a real need for it.  Understand that what they are doing is important to the success and safety of the individual or individuals involved.  Too many spotters diminishes the significance of what they are doing.  

With this concept in mind, we fall into the same problem when we assemble a belay team.  A belayer, a back-up and when needed, an anchor should be more than adequate to manage a climber.  My least favorite bogus job is that of rope tender. I fully understand that it might look like a real job, but the kids know it is not.  Has anyone taught the rope handler how to coil the rope or flake it out so that when the climber descends it does not foul in the hands of the belayer?  Probably not. Couldn’t the backup do this job if taught properly?

The use of the Australian Back-up Belay involves kids in Real Jobs.  The facilitator as a ropes course manager can engage more students in a meaningful way.  Properly trained belayers can determine whether or not they need an anchor. What weight differential is needed?  How does their position, whether near or far, alter the shear on the belay system and therefore alter resistance?  Make the job more than that of a counterweight. When the manager has competently trained belayers, they have the opportunity to open more activities and thus engage more students. 

A good technique I used, required that students to make journal entries right after completing a climb.  Belayers were also encouraged to make entries during class.

Course design should be considered.  I mixed Australian with traditional belays.  Grigri set up with competent kids and teams and I would belay Pamper pole events.  I was always positioned to see and control whichever elements were being used. Some folks might find this overwhelming.  But, my department at the middle school found that it worked.

Note from Lisa Hunt:

Ken Demas passed away in May 2017.  He was a “once in a lifetime” kind of mentor.  At his memorial service, I met so many people who saw him in that same light.  He is deeply missed, and his adventuresome spirit and his questions of me continue to help me grow.