By Chris Thurber
Young people have more energy than old people. Their reaction times are quicker, their metabolism is higher, their vision and hearing are better, and their inclination for rough-and-tumble play is greater. Most camp staff members are in high school, college, or university, so they are not old, but they have already begun to slow down, relative to campers. Keeping up with kids’ boundless energy takes effort. Knowing the best ways to bank and tap energy is a critical youth-leadership skill.
Gradual = Good But Lazy = Lousy
The fact that young adult leaders are a bit slower than their juvenile charges has some advantages. Staff members are more thoughtful, measured, deliberate, and reflective than their campers. That maturity tempers the impulsivity that can lead to accidents and injuries. The wise lifeguard who cautions a group of boys and girls running on the dock to slow down has just averted a classic slip and fall. The grown-up archery instructor who instructs the line of campers not to touch their bows until she has given the command, “Pick up your bows and nock your first arrow,” may have prevented an errant arrow from whizzing out of the range.
So slowing down is often helpful. Children without leaders quickly outpace their own nascent judgment, sometimes leading to trouble or even tragedy. However, slowing down is also a source of consternation. Youth leaders without pep are problematic for two reasons:
(1) Leaders who fail to literally keep up with their campers will not be present to interact, coach, praise, and discipline.
(2) Leaders with empty tanks are perceived by campers to be boring, lazy, or uninterested.
Sources Of Vim And Vigor
Where does adult energy come from? The most obvious source is also the most elusive: sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high school students (your youngest staff members) get about nine hours of sleep each night, and that college students (most of the rest of your staff) get about eight. People vary widely in how much sleep they need, but those are the average, optimal amounts for your leaders. Anyone getting less is likely to feel tired sometime during the day; others may visibly drag. Do everything you can to create a schedule and culture at your camp or summer youth program that encourages a solid night’s sleep for all.
Next is a healthy diet, with a balance of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, not too much refined sugar, and ample hydration. Most camps have nutritionally sound menus, but many campers and staff members leave the healthiest foods behind. Encourage staff members to consume healthy meals, both because their example will get campers to eat healthy and also because it’s great for energy. And for after-hours, off-duty snacks, you can always provide bars, nuts, fruit, sandwiches, and other healthy alternatives to compete with the chips, candy, soda, and sweets that staff members love to munch on. Regarding hydration, water is best overall, but sports drinks with a little sugar and salt (also called electrolytes) can provide ready-to-use energy and replace what’s been sweated out to keep the body cool.
Exercise is a paradoxical source of energy because it also expends energy. People probably feel more energetic after 30 or more minutes of physical activity because their blood is flowing, along with some adrenaline, and—if it’s been rigorous exercise—endorphins. The human body was designed for movement, of course, but a technology-rich society is becoming increasingly sedentary. Fortunately for camp staff, the environment is expressly tech-free and the programs decidedly physical. Actual participation in many of the fun, physical activities is often possible for staff, even as they fulfill their supervisory responsibilities. Obvious exceptions include lifeguarding, target sports, and climbing or ropes. All staff should use some of their time off for the kind of personal exercise they most enjoy.
Next on the list is caffeine, but it’s not really a source of energy. It is, instead, a mask for exhaustion. Caffeine has its place, but it’s not a substitute for sleep. Nothing is, and here is why: When the body needs energy—which is all the time, but sometimes more than at other times—it’s burning a molecule called adenosine triphosphate. You probably remember discussions of ATP from an introductory biology class. One of the metabolites or byproducts of ATP is adenosine. If ATP is the body’s fuel, adenosine is like the exhaust. So, the longer a person has been awake, and the more energy he or she has been burning, the more adenosine is circulating in the bloodstream.
The brain has receptor sites for adenosine. When adenosine molecules bind to these sites, people automatically detect the need for sleep. Have you ever had your eyelids start to flutter during a boring lecture? You can thank your pons—a small protrusion on the upper part of the brainstem that is sensitive to the concentration of circulating adenosine. Do you want to wake up? Ingest caffeine, which blocks adenosine receptors, thereby tricking the body into believing that you are less tired than you actually are. And while it’s fine to have some caffeine in coffee, tea, or an energy drink, remember that you’re not imparting energy as much as veiling fatigue.
The staff member who eats a protein bar and drinks a small bottle of concentrated caffeine from the convenience store check-out counter may stay more alert during the drive home from that field trip or mountain day, but a good night’s sleep before the trip began is a more robust source of actual energy. (And in case you were thinking of a vente frappe that is more milkshake than coffee, think again. The plentiful fat and carbs therein will not only mask what little caffeine exists in those vats of liquid candy, but they will also cause a post-sugar-rush crash.)
Nicotine is worth a brief mention because it does, for some people, temporarily increase relaxation and the ability to focus. But it is so addictive and unhealthy that smart staff members don’t dip, chew, smoke, or vape. It’s worth mentioning that nicotine use is sometimes a form of self-medicating for symptoms of anxiety or depression. Staff members who have quit using nicotine just before the start of camp may be anxious, irritable, or blue. Be sure they know where to get psychological support as well as medical assistance to curb nicotine cravings. And offer lots of praise for their commitment to health.
Stimulant medications may be prescribed to staff with attention deficits, but may never be shared with others. Of note, many staff members come to camp from academic settings where widespread sharing of prescription stimulant medications—such as Adderall, Ritalin, and Vivanse—is commonplace. Directors will need to explain that sharing prescription medication is potentially dangerous and strictly forbidden by camp policy. Accreditation standards require that all prescription medications be kept at the health center and be dispensed one dosage at a time by a licensed clinician.
Slow And Steady
All staff must learn how to pace themselves. Day and resident camps have frenetic schedules that cater to young people and their boundless energy and inquisitiveness. Keeping up with them for eight to 10 weeks requires a sane tempo. Take care not to sprint too fast out of the blocks on opening day, unless you believe you can keep up that pace all summer long. The concept of pacing is admittedly more about conserving energy than creating it, but the benefits are nearly identical.
Time off is a blessing in any demanding job. However, the temptation for camp staff is to party rather than rest. And while time off should be fun, it should also be a chance to recharge. If staff members return to camp relaxed, recharged, and ready to take care of kids, then they have spent their time off wisely. Sleep helps a great deal, as noted above, but two other things make time off a source of energy: commiseration and environmental shift. The chance to talk about camp—which all staff members do during their time off—and the welcome change of scenery are both refreshing. Plus, a little perspective and geographic separation help everyone return to the intensity of being a youth-development professional with a positive attitude.
Finally, staff members need to adopt a positive attitude about their job. Seeing the important set of responsibilities as a welcome challenge, as a team effort, as an opportunity to learn, and as an indelible contribution to the lives of children will carry the day. For many staff, prayer, meditation, or journaling help to shape and maintain a positive attitude.
Of course, those staff members who return to camp for a second summer or more have already discovered the most reliable source of positive energy, which is, ironically, also the biggest consumer of that same energy: the campers themselves. Children and adolescents make us laugh, nurture our strengths, identify our weaknesses, and remember what’s really important in life. Hop to it!
Dr. Christopher Thurber is the Strategy Director at Camp Belknap. He is a psychologist, author, and professional educator who co-authored The Summer Camp Handbook and co-founded ExpertOnlineTraining.com. Reach him via his website, CampSpirit.com.