The Ins And Outs Of Challenge Course Training

Learning a new skill can be a daunting task--remember learning to tie your shoelaces? I do, it was something I had to concentrate on for a long time. Now, multiply that by a factor of about 100 or more--learning to be a challenge course facilitator!

We often speak of challenge course skills as being either technical skills--sometimes called hard skills--or facilitation skills--sometimes called soft skills. One is much more concrete than the other, but both are essential to providing a group with a meaningful challenge course experience.

Acquiring these skills is a multi-faceted experience. Some skills are concrete, such as learning how to put on a specific kind of harness. Others are more abstract, such as assessing a group’s readiness to move to the high course. How does a person best move through this process, and how does a manager ensure that the staff is well-trained?

Start At The Top

A facilitator should be trained by a professional trainer. As costly as this is for programs and individuals, it is clearly the best place to begin. A professional trainer has many resources, including personal experience in facilitating, the backing of a professional training organization and connections to the greater field of challenge course professionals in order to keep up with the latest developments.

Training also needs to be refreshed periodically. People only learn a portion of the materials that they are exposed to in a class. If the same class is taken a second time, they will pick up many of the things missed the first time, building on the first level of knowledge acquired.

Learning does not stop after the training--a good course setup will include learning from other staff members, particularly in the area of facilitation skills. What do I do with the reluctant participant? What do I do with the participant who is hesitant about sharing his/her experience? How do I get this group to look at its behavior when the members could not cooperate enough to make it through the task they were given? Is completion of the task really the goal? Make it a habit to have regular meetings with your facilitators to discuss issues, and get ideas for solutions from fellow facilitators. Networking with other local facilitators and, of course, attending conferences are also wonderful ways to expand your knowledge and skills as a facilitator.

Additional Details

A site-specific orientation is also critical. No matter how much experience or training someone has, a facilitator also needs specific knowledge about the particular course, the location of emergency phone numbers, emergency plans, and so on. Don’t forget the location of the bathrooms and water supplies, and point out anything on the course that is unique, that someone might not have encountered before.

Some programs look to save money by sending one person from a staff to training, and then have that person share what was learned with the rest of the staff. This is a fine model if it pertains to continuing education, such as a class on processing. However, when you take in to account that the person sent to the class will not get everything that is presented, then water that down again by knowing that the second group will not get everything presented to them--there is a lot of information lost in that transition. This is sometimes referred to as second- or third-generation training, and it is not recommended as a training method for core challenge course skills.

Minimizing Risk

Many more insurance companies are focused on ensuring that the staff on a course is adequately trained. Why? There are only a few studies of accidents and incidents in the challenge course industry, but what we know anecdotally is that equipment, when properly used, rarely fails. Human error accounts for most incidents, and training is the best way to address that issue.

Every challenge course should have a training plan as part of its risk-management plan. If you do not have such a plan, it is not too late--do it now! You can get help in formulating a plan for your specific program from the vendor who inspects your course and trains your staff. Conference presentations also often address this type of plan.

Protect yourself and your participants by ensuring that your staff is properly trained.

Sylvia Dresser serves as the Executive Director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology. She can be reached at (847) 945-0829, or For more information about ACCT, visit