From Good To Great

By Eric Bailey

What is the difference between a good facilitator and a great facilitator?

Whether on a zip line, in team-building initiatives, throughout a high-ropes course or at a climbing wall, dedicated facilitators are needed to manage the risk and enjoyment of each participant.

Campgrounds, climbing gyms and other recreational facilities often have dedicated staff on hand that are certified to facilitate these events, in addition to their contact list for the part-time help that is scheduled as needed.

But in evaluating these personnel, are they truly meeting high standards, or merely getting the job done?

Although the assistance necessary to keep such programs running is certainly appreciated, instructors and camp managers often recognize that a high-quality team of facilitators is one that goes beyond simply following procedural guidelines and remembering how to tie the proper knots.

Great facilitators practice not only the skills required for certification, but some noteworthy intangible qualities as well.

This characteristic may seem obvious, as it is so often asked of participants. Climbers are told to encourage one another, team-building groups are instructed to keep comments positive, and a high energy level is generally a pleasant goal to set for any event.

Facilitators can usually identify students who need an extra boost of confidence for motivation, or the one member of a corporate group who needs a verbal pick-me-up.

But how often do the facilitators recognize that they, too, are being singled out by their participants? Everyone on the ropes course can likely tell which facilitators are truly passionate about their position, and which are already checking their watches for the next break.

How encouraged can a nervous ropes-course guest feel when noticing that the facilitator is already checking out? Through long days, bad weather and unanticipated difficulties, great facilitators consistently maintain an enthusiasm that not only enhances their day, but often provides an infectious attitude for others to catch.

Camp professionals can be a quirky bunch, with passions that few others may understand and a particular mindset that most may never quite grasp. Sometimes, on the business side of camping, the charm of these idiosyncrasies is lost amid the supposed obligation to exude professionalism at every opportunity. Except, of course, during summer camp, at which point it is perfectly acceptable and even encouraged to put a spotlight on the bizarre quirks and oddities of counselors.

Although a level of seriousness should always be exhibited on the ropes course, there should still be room for creative presentation and facilitator individuality. Whether this is exemplified in the humorous manner in which the introductory explanation is given, the goofy hat that a particular facilitator wears that makes him easily identifiable, or the general conduct of a young woman with a gift for keeping attention spans, great facilitators are unique and know how to use their uniqueness as a strength to garner attention, rapport and respect.

How often does a small group of facilitators cringe in listening to a co-worker fumble through the opening speech of a scheduled program, yet is satisfied with the awkwardness because no one else wants to do it?

On the other end of the spectrum, how often is one particular person always assigned to give the introduction because everyone believes that he or she is best at it, only for bitterness to slowly creep in as each successive repetition gradually becomes listless and uninspired?

Public speaking is a useful skill and one often trumpeted as being vital within the modern-day working world. This is true even on a ropes course and at a climbing wall, where constantly using “uh” and “um” is going to lose the attention of the participants, and mumbling through critical instructions may potentially create a risky situation.

Great facilitators not only can deliver their scripted presentation with punch and pizzazz, but also can improvise effective remarks for any situation.

Camp professionals often value wide-open spaces, the “head space” necessary to conceive visionary ideas, the freedom of the great outdoors and programming that incorporates time for conversation to develop organically, with an open-ended debriefing.

These virtues are extraordinarily valuable and even integral to the preservation of the camping mentality, but should be followed with an attention to detail that allows the trait of organization to be maintained.

Though it may seem that organization is better suited to the corporate world of cubicle farms and marketing consultation, being organized can be a fantastic asset for facilitation as well.

Not only can ropes-course managers attest to the joy found in having a full inventory of gear in the intended storage spaces, but the care given to scheduling can make a significant difference in how a program proceeds.

Veteran facilitators, for example, realize that many groups will arrive late for their session, and the schedule for the day either needs to account for tardiness or have built-in flexibility. Programs that rotate from element to element will especially need to emphasize strong organization, as losing track of groups, timings and transitions can have a negative impact on participant experience.

Great facilitators have their information together, their materials set and their minds sharply honed to potential guest needs.

Perhaps the biggest difference between a good facilitator and a great facilitator is that the latter truly believes that his or her program can have a constructive impact on the lives of participants.

Many facilitators may understand the idea when observed from a distance, but do they really approach their task with a vision of being responsible for conquering fears, improving attitudes, and instilling lessons that can last a lifetime?

Maybe not every facilitator “gets” it, but passionate camp professionals recognize that a successful session on a ropes course, climbing wall or other adventure element can genuinely provide a crucial component to the healthy personal development of the participant.

Just as there is a seemingly vague “drive” that some athletes have more than others and can be easily recognized yet difficult to define, the conviction that marks great facilitators should be taught, encouraged, fostered, and passed on to future trainees.

Many components -- both quantitative and qualitative -- contribute to the perceived success or failure of any event, with a ropes course and climbing wall being no exception. With the asset of great facilitators readily available, a camp or other facility can stand with confidence in its ability to offer a memorable, high-quality, high-impact program for all guests and participants.

Eric Bailey is the Office Coordinator at Camp Manitoqua & Retreat Center in Frankfort, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at