You Can Do It

By Susan Langlois

A great indicator of a successful camp experience is hearing former campers attribute much of the success in their adult lives to their early years at camp. I never tire of hearing, “I think that my summer camp experience had a lot to do with my confidence that I have now, and my drive to be successful.”

Developing camper self-confidence can assist in influencing a student’s success in school, building healthy relationships with family, choosing lifelong friends, and being able to say “no” to drugs and “yes” to accepting help during a personal crisis.

There are several strategies that staff members can use to build camper confidence along with self-efficacy, which is defined as a person’s perception of how successful he or she can be in meeting a specific goal. Whether learning how to survival-float or how to spike a volleyball, campers approach learning a new skill with individual expectations. Camp can be a great place to raise those expectations with the guidance and encouragement of both peers and counselors.


Talk The Talk
Self-efficacy is more specific than the concept of self-esteem, or the perception of one’s self-worth. Most researchers in positive psychology agree that there are four methods to build self-efficacy:

Mastery Experiences
The first and most powerful method is having mastery experiences, in which campers are presented with challenges requiring effort and persistence, but can be mastered eventually with hard work.

Certainly camp skills, such as learning to kayak, making a perfect lanyard, and boxing a compass, do offer very concrete experiences. But we can help campers become their own problem-solvers to experience varying degrees of success. For example, if campers are not happy with the food served in the dining hall, a staff member can cut the complaining short by asking a few simple questions to begin a constructive dialogue:

  • What constitutes a healthy diet?
  • What types of foods do you like, and do they contribute to good nutrition?
  • What would be a good way to ask if food choices could be expanded or substituted? 

Another powerful method for staff members in building relationships is modeling. Asking campers to name their favorite activities, what their hometowns are famous for, who their heroes are, the types of music that they like, etc., are all ways to employ “the power of knowing.” Helping campers to express who they are and helping them to get to know their peers is modeling both respect and enjoyment of each person’s individuality.

Leaders who model respect and engender trust from campers are in a perfect position to encourage and reassure them that they can succeed by reminding them of the talents they already have as well as the skills they will learn.

Managing Psychic Energy
Coping with the ups and downs of life can seem fairly simple to most staff members, primarily because they have experiences of overcoming adversity. However, some campers may need extra encouragement. One camper was given a laptop with an extremely sensitive mouse. She wanted to try a video game but endured several bounces of the cursor across the screen. But after just 15 minutes, the camper was completely at ease, using the new mouse and delighting in the number of points she was scoring. The next day, the same camper tried her first miniature golf hole, putting the ball from one side of the green to the other. All her instructor said was, “Remember the mouse.” She gave a quick smile, and her frustration evaporated. She knew it would be OK if she focused and learned from her mistakes.

Make It Work
The foundation for all of these methods in building self-efficacy is essentially positive self-talk. It is amazing how perception is affected by the inner messages we give ourselves. Turning “I could never be good at …” into “I think that if I try it this way, or ask the instructor to check my grip” can be the difference between frustration and triumph.  

Try It Out
A great way to introduce this concept of positive self-talk is “free writing.” As a morning activity, ask each camper to write nonstop for three minutes about what he or she expects to happen that day. Campers should let their pens have “minds of their own” without stopping to correct spelling or grammar--just a free flow of expectations. Ask for volunteers to read their “free writes” aloud to the group, and identify the “great expectations.” Rewrite the self-doubts into positive self-talk. For example, if a camper writes, “I am afraid if I don’t pass the swim test today, I won’t be able to go on the canoe trip,” ask the group to help reframe the self-talk into a focus that puts energy into passing the swim test. One reframe might be, “I know that I practiced my rhythmic breathing all week, so I can take my time to feel the correct motion of my flutter kick, and cup my hands as they cut through the water. And if I don’t pass the first time, I can sign up for another test until I’m successful.” What a great life-skill to learn at camp!

Susan Langlois has more than 25 years’ experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director, and sports-facilities consultant. She is currently the campus director at Springfield College School of Human Services in Manchester and St. Johnsbury, N.H. She can be reached at