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We talk a lot about challenge by choice on the challenge course, but why is it so important? Challenge by choice empowers participants, encourages good decision-making, and is dangerous to ignore.

1. Challenge by Choice Empowers

As my understanding of the nuances of choice has grown, so has my awareness become of it, both on and off the challenge course. I see challenge by choice honored and violated wherever I go. In the outdoor education field, I see it pop up most often in rock climbing gyms. These hangouts tend to attract a lot of people with technical skills but only a few with facilitation skills. Over and over, I’ve seen a participant be pressured into climbing higher when they were nervous. The majority of the time, the result of this pressure is to show the climber they are not in control of their experience. Letting go of control is one of the hardest things we do (and to some degree with good reason, rarely do others have the same investment in our well-being as we do). Participants that know they will not be given control of their experience will be less likely to keep trying. However, participants who know they get to choose when they come down will often go farther than you and they expected. Challenge by choice empowers participants on the challenge course to take ownership in their experience.

Empowerment is an oft used term, yet it’s meaning can be difficult to pin down. One of the best definitions I’ve found of empowerment actually came from a Wikipedia subsection on Marginalization. Marginalization is defined by Wikipedia as the exclusion of certain groups from the opportunities offered by larger society. As Wikipedia explains, Marginalized groups “who lack self-sufficiency become … dependent on charity or welfare.” Wikipedia continues to explain that “empowerment is then the process of obtaining these basic opportunities” for groups and individuals who have been marginalized. At any point in our lives, all of us have experienced some degree of marginalization. What this means for those of us who work in the challenge course field is that by using challenge by choice to empower participants, we are helping them escape marginalization.

2. Challenge by Choice Teaches Good Decision-Making

To understand how challenge by choice, it is best to understand the concept of locus of control. Originally coined by psychologist Julian B. Rotter (1966), locus of control refers to the source of motivation in an individual or a team. The locus of control is found either internally or externally. A participant with an internal locus of control will seeking guidance within themselves when making decisions while a participant with an external locus of control will look to others to make their decisions. In other words, locus of control determines whether we give into peer pressure when faced with choices or hold strong to our internal sense of ethics.

So how does this apply to challenge by choice? Pushing participants to go farther acts upon them as an external locus of control: an outside influence is pressuring the participant’s decision-making process. To understand this better, the example of peer pressure is usually best. Do you want teenagers to bend when their friends pressure them to try drugs? Shoplift? Bully others? Instead, empowering participants with the freedom to choose when their experience is over and honoring when that decision is reached leads to an internal locus of control: they will look to their inner strength when making decisions in the future.

3. Ignoring Challenge by Choice is Dangerous

Most of us in the challenge course field are not therapists. And even those of us who are, rarely work with a group long to build the rapport and have the time necessary to handle deep-rooted issues or trauma. Yet placing participants at heights or with groups they may not be entirely comfortable with has the potential to open all kinds of existing psychological wounds. Challenge by choice allows participants to manage their own world in a way that will prevent the kind of break down we do not have the skill or time to process. If that were not motivation enough, violating challenge by choice and pushing someone into something which makes them uncomfortable has the potential not only to open existing traumas, but to create them. I have encounter more than one person who recalls a challenge course experience with fear and trepidation.

Just as doctor’s have an oath to do no harm, so must we strive to help people without opening a can or worms we cannot close again. Especially when a participant is at heights, you have the potential to cause long-term trauma by pushing them into a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable. And beyond that, when people reach a state of panic, their higher order brain begins to shut down, giving way to the instinctual survival-centred parts of our cranium. It is in these moments that mistakes become most frequent. When people are 40 feet up in the air, you want them to be using their higher brain functions to stay safe, not relinquished to their survival instinct alone.

If you think about the goals and objectives for our challenge course activities, what we are really looking for is personal development, not task accomplishment. Accomplishing the task is merely a means to the end. So why do we get so worked up about participants getting up the pole? I think there are two answers to this question. The first is that we want our participants to succeed. We’ve been through these activities and know what succeeding with them feels like and we want our groups to feel that. The second and perhaps more subtle reason is that subconsciously, many of us do not associate failure with learning. We learn as much from failure as we do success. Great inventors knew this and you will hear them say that with a simple Google search of quotes on success and failure. Most facilitators fear that they won’t be able to talk a group from failure to a feeling of accomplishment and learning. Instead, we must remind ourselves that participants not only know what is best for them, but will recover from failure much more quickly than from trauma.

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