Trust Me, Trust The Kit…
I’ve just been having a short Twitter conversation with someone who is taking their kids for a day out at a ‘Go-Ape” adventure park today. (For those of you who don’t know what Go-Ape is all about – it’s a commercial High-Ropes course built in forests around the UK. Their website sums it up nicely: “We build giant obstacle courses up in the trees using ladders, walkways, bridges and tunnels made of wood, rope and super-strong wire, and top it all off with the country’s best zip lines (including the longest at 426 metres)”.
Now I’ve been to a Go-Ape, as well as to military High-Ropes courses around the country – the RAF use them quite widely as part of their leadership and development training…going on the courses is all about confronting fears personal fears and motivating others when they are faced with theirs. It’s an opportunity to develop team working skills and to improve communication skills.
Ok, ok, I know. This ALL sounds very ‘management bullshit’. But it’s true. In my last job I was a Personal Development instructor and it was fantastic to see how trainees would develop and grow after undertaking such activities – I wasn’t ever a high ropes instructor, but I was a low ropes instructor, and it was interesting to see how people would behave and how they’d work when faced with the challenges that such courses (both high and low ropes) would throw at them.
The first interesting thing was the aspect of fear. And the perception of fear.
A Low Ropes course – is just that. It’s a metal wire that you stand on, strung between trees where there are various obstacles – either as an individual or as a team – to overcome. But these wires are at a low-level – about 18” at most above the ground. So here the perception of fear and injury is very low, but the ACTUAL chance of injury is quite high as people are not strapped into any harnesses.
The only safety equipment they have are boots, gloves and climbing helmets. But the wires are wobbly, and the challenges difficult so people fall off, and when they fall off they can hit the ground quite hard. That said, the worse injury I have had when I’ve been running a session on a low ropes course is a bruised bum. But I have heard some horror stories – broken bones and dislocated joints – from colleagues.
But the thing is people think they are nice and low down and so won’t get hurt when they are using the course. Whereas, the reverse is true on a High Ropes course.
On these you are up to 60′ in the air in the tops of the trees. Obviously there are all sorts of Health and Safety rules that come into play here – the working at height regulations and all sorts of things mean that people are well and truly strapped in. People using the courses always wear a harness – often a full body harness – and they are secured either by another person who belays them whilst they are on the activities or else there is some sort of mechanical system that ensures they should they fall off the wires and platforms they will be totally safe, and whilst they might spend a minute or two dangling around before being rescued – they will NEVER hit the ground from that height.
The height that the wires and platforms are at will instantly put most people out of their comfort zone (which at the end of the day is the whole point of the courses) and will make people nervous. Then when some fella comes around and starts giving out serious safety gear and giving safety instructions – this can only really make the nervousness worse. People become afraid of what they are going to do…and their perception of fear becomes huge – but here’s the rub. Because of all the safety ropes and harnesses and briefings and equipment the actual chance of falling off the wires and hitting the ground is infinitesimally small.
So on a low ropes there is a low perception of fear and a high chance of injury, whilst on a high ropes course there is a high perception of fear but a very low chance of injury.
And it is this perception that makes people go outside their comfort zone as I said. It is by pushing ourselves that we learn about ourselves. We can see our truer self when we are out of out comfort zone. We often try to mask our true selves in normal day-to-day life but when you are 60′ up a tree, and you are thinking about not falling off (despite the fact you are strapped in tightly) you don’t have the spare mental capacity to keep masking your true feelings and behaviours.
If you are wise, you can take these events – the things you did, the words you said and how you said them and take a look at how we can change ourselves in our comfort zones for the better…You can use the fact that you are scared but at the same time totally safe to your advantage and store up those experiences for the future.
Whilst all this is nice – and very developmental – the military also use the high ropes for something much deeper. Going on these high ropes courses are also about trust.
You have to trust the people who have set up and maintained the kit. Like a pilot you have to trust the engineers who have serviced the jets. (When was the last time YOU got onto a civilian airliner for your summer holiday and thought about the people who’d worked on the aircraft by the way?) The pilot can’t be there to watch that the techies service the jet or helicopter correctly – they have to trust them to do their job.
And then there is the kit itself. In the forces you have to trust the kit that you have. You have to put faith into it that it will save you as best as it possibly can do should things go wrong. The easiest metaphor is that the harness is just the same as a set of body armour. It is there to save your life should things go wrong.
So one of the biggest test one can face on a high ropes course is to do a leap of faith. These are often left to the end of the course so that people have built up confidence and they often consist of climbing a pole (like a telegraph pole) and then standing up on top of it – AND THEN LEAPING FOR A TRAPEZE SWING. The aim of the exercise is not actually catching the trapeze – it’s having the trust to do the jumping.
To jump into the unknown but to trust those around you – the team supporting you, the person belaying you, the kit holding you up, and there to keep you alive. In a certain way it’s the closest most people will come to real definite life threatening fear…but then it is totally safe at the same time…but for members of the Armed Forces, well the similarity with going into combat or dangerous situation is quite clear…
So the next time you have the chance to have a go at a high ropes course – take it. Do it. Push yourself. The worst thing you can think of happening just won’t…it can’t; the kit there is just too good for that. But it might give you an idea of how soldiers, sailors and airmen might feel when going away on a deployment.
But of course, how we deal with these experiences is down to the quality of the person taking you on the course – it’s putting the events you’ve just done into context of our normal daily lives that makes the difference.
As I said earlier you can store up your experiences and use them later. The airman working on the helicopter at the Forward Operating Base can use the experience of going on a high ropes course to have trust in those people guarding the perimeter off the camp. To have trust in the kit he has been given to wear to protect him and to allow him to get his job done there. And then the pilot and the crew and the passengers in the chopper can have trust in the mechanic who has just fixed that ‘cab’. It’s trust in the team and the kit. And the two are intertwined and inseparable. And it all starts on the training ground…
Oscar Levant said “Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.” – I think this can be adapted to what we do – ‘Experience isn’t something we have – it’s something we use’.