Feature Article - April 2006
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Tips from the Top

Bringing in business for challenge courses and climbing walls

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Challenge as Treatment

Sure, they're useful for helping groups of people work together more effectively or conquering your fear of heights, but ropes and challenge courses can be used by therapists to help patients handle problems much more significant than these.

This sort of treatment is "catching on," says Kristy Pounds, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist (CTRS) with the San Marcos Treatment Center, a residential facility for adolescents in San Marcos, Texas. "It's good for eating disorders because of body image, it deals with trust and abandonment issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia—anything you can think of you can use ropes for, you just ask different questions as you do the activity."

And why are ropes courses so effective?

"Their emphasis is on action and experience," explains Mack Wigley, clinical services coordinator at the San Marcos Treatment Center. "It dilutes talking your way through things...The mind doesn't allow you to see that you're not really that high up, so you go back to what you usually do when you get uncomfortable."

Challenge courses also may work for patients on a more basic level.

"I routinely recommend exercise for my depressed patients because it tends to increase their sense of self-efficacy," notes Chadd Herrmann, M.D., a New York City psychiatrist. "Getting out there and doing something gives them a sense of accomplishment, and that can translate into other areas of their life."

Now, no one is suggesting that just because you have a ropes course you hang out your shingle as a therapist, but this is another potential use for your facility. Many juvenile justice centers and residential treatment facilities have their own ropes courses, but contact local social workers and mental-health professionals and see if you can collaborate on programming for their patients. You could provide the facility and technical assistance, while they could provide the substance of the exercises.

Key Peninsula, Washington

In spring, fall and summer, YMCA Camp Colman is a mecca for student campers. Fifth and sixth graders, as well as assorted middle- and high-school students, come for two-night, three-day environmental-education visits during the school year, and campers come for a week in the warmer months. This focus on students makes team-building, communication and respect the most common goals for sessions on the camp's ropes course, which has been in place for about 20 years.

However, they've had corporations,

Y groups, Americorps and other public groups as well, explains Amy Hale, outdoor environmental-education and conference retreat director for the camp.

"We do a series of programming: We start on the ground, then move to the low-ropes course and build up to the high," she says. "It's a series of events that build on previous accomplishments—you get to a more united, better communicating group."

Because the challenge course is not a stand-alone item, it's able to benefit from the YMCA's marketing and the steady stream of campers coming through.

"Most of our marketing is word of mouth," Hale explains. "Having good facilitators really makes a huge difference. Make sure people get a good experience, and that's the best marketing you can have."