Facilitation Skills: Beyond the Challenge Course

Clayton Davidson headshotClayton Davidson is a senior at Syracuse University studying Accounting and Management. Originally from New Jersey, Clayton plans to enter the workforce, possibly in a business consulting role. Clayton was a member of the first group of facilitators hired to work on the outdoor challenge course and has been working programs since his sophomore year. Now, Clayton works as a supervisor for the challenge course, working programs regularly on the weekends as well as assisting with training for new facilitators.


Since I was a kid, I have loved being outdoors and challenging myself both mentally and physically. When I came to Syracuse, although my love of the outdoors was still there, it became increasingly difficult to find ways to feed my passion. At the end of my freshman year, I found my solution: to become a SU Challenge Course Facilitator. Now going into my third year of working at what I consider to be the best job on campus, I realized that I have taken away from my experiences out on the course then just enjoying being outdoors and looking out at the beautiful view of the campus.

One of the aspects of facilitation that really resonates beyond the challenge course is the ability to work in teams. Even though I am not a “participant” in the groups that I am able to lead through activities and elements, I am still a member of the group. That being said, no two groups work, think, or act the same way. This has given me the ability to adapt my facilitation style to not only meet the needs of the group but the dynamics of the group as well. Not only am I a part of the group that is doing the Challenge Course, but I am also part of the facilitators group that all work together to make these programs run. Without all of us working together and managing the “behind-the-scenes” work that the group doesn’t necessarily notice, these programs would not be able to work as well as they so often do.

Communication is one of the biggest takeaways from being a facilitator on the course. From speaking with all of the different groups that come through the course, I can now say that I feel comfortable speaking in front of just about anyone. Leading groups through the different elements has allowed me to hone my communication skills where I can now speak in the most clear and concise way possible.

When I think of the word “facilitation” now, I immediately think of “consulting.” When we are working with these groups, we as facilitators are attempting to help these groups become more effective and efficient, solve problems, think outside the box to come up with new ideas and find better ways to conquer a task. As a business student, I have become more and more interested in the consulting industry and being a facilitator as allowed me to hone the skills that are necessary to work in that field.

What started as just a cool job for me has changed my life in more ways than I can imagine. I have met a whole new groups of people, both current and former students as well as professionals in the industry. My skills in working with teams, communication and feeling confident in uncomfortable situations have made me not only a better facilitator, but a better student and a better future business man.

If you are looking for a job on campus that is different than anything you have experienced before, check out the Syracuse University Challenge Course. Not only will you have a great time doing it, but you will also improve your interpersonal skills and develop a new way of thinking that can be used in any field and situation.


Written by: Clayton Davidson

Teamwork Technology

Challenge Courses are traditionally an outside, hands on learning experience, and because they are outside we tend to turn off our cell phones, walk into the woods, and disconnect from the world for a little while. During this disconnected period, we reflect on the experiences we are having and how we can take our new found knowledge back to the real world.

It is becoming harder and harder to get people “disconnected” from the world during team building programs, especially when those programs are occurring in gyms and classroom settings. So how can you use traditional team building concepts and incorporate technology at the same time? Below are a few ideas:


Picture Debrief:

  • Provide participants with a set of cards with commonly used words in de-briefing (For example: inclusion, trust, planning, communication, etc.) and a wide variety of props.
  • Ask the group to take their phone, a partner, a word card, and some props that describe the answer to a specific question and go take a picture.
  • Allow them to roam to take their pictures and give them a time limit or signal to come back.

Big thanks to Mandy Stewart for this fantastic idea!


Smartphone Sentences:

  • Split the group in half (or have the activity going with multiple groups). Ask each mini group to use their smartphones to take pictures. When they are lined up the pictures should “spell out” a sentence.
  • Once all the groups have their sentence they will share it with the other groups, who must figure out what the sentence is.
  • Think charades with smartphones instead of motions.

Thanks to Ako Johnson for this one!


Communication with texting:

You can use text messaging as a form of communication in many activities. Choose an appropriate activity, such as a structure build activity and split the group in half. Separate our two groups between rooms or far enough distances that they cannot communicate or see each other well. Give group A the materials needed for the build and Group B instructions on how to build the object (or instructions with just enough details for them to figure it out). The two groups can communicate but only via text message (not photos unless appropriate).  The two groups will have to collaborate and learn to use the right wording to help the two sides solve the puzzle / build. Some activities you could do this with:

  • A traditional 50 piece puzzle with large pieces (Group A has the picture Group B the pieces).
  • Scavenger hunt (Group A’s clue sends Group B to clue # 2, Clue # 2 sends Group A to Clue 3 and back and forth. Each group has a designated area in which they               must stay so the groups can’t combine)


A few considerations when using cellphones:

  • Make sure your participants are willing to use their cell phone.
  • If using an activity that requires texting, be aware that while most people have unlimited texting not everyone does.
  • Design activities that require a few  cell phones, not everyone to have their own.

The social chameleon

OutdoorworkSmallIn nature, the chameleon has the ability to blend with its surroundings.  With this ability the chameleon is able to convince other animals that it belongs in that place, they become part of their surroundings and are hard to notice.  If you met me my freshmen year you would probably agree that I was a chameleon that would turn bright yellow when trying to hide in a tree.  I was afraid to interact with my surroundings, especially in a social situation.  I stood out like a sore thumb because I was uncomfortable interacting with people that I didn’t know.  People who meet me now would be surprised to hear that I was ever afraid to interact with someone I didn’t know.

Being an outdoor education facilitator has been a large part of the process which helped me become more of a social chameleon.  As a facilitator your job is to give a group of people, who you likely know no one in, a positive experience and teach them about things like leadership and teamwork.  Through the process of learning to be a facilitator and a leader, and practicing by working with groups consistently, I have become comfortable talking to and leading groups of people that I know little to nothing about.

This skill also transferred into my personal life and my interactions with people around me.  I realized that, in facilitation, people are more likely to go along with what you want them to do and have enthusiasm if you make them feel comfortable around you, if you blend into the group.  My style of making people comfortable and able to trust me is by building a friendly relationship with them.  Facilitation gave me opportunities to work on this skill to the point that I was eventually able to apply it to my personal life.  I used to be nervous leading a group, but I eventually was able to turn my nervousness into enthusiasm which in turn made me look more confident in my job and created a more comfortable environment with the group I was working with.

Recently I was asked to give a presentation to a group of Lockheed Martin employees about some of the work that I had done.  Needless to say I was nervous.  However, after the presentation was over I was complimented on my enthusiasm and ability to interact with the employees that were asking questions.  These skills were cultivated by my experiences through my job as a facilitator.  I not only had the opportunity to develop these lessons and skills, but I was able to do it while working at a job that I was happy to show up to every time. ​

By: Ryan Wiese

Real World Skills

When people hear the words “Challenge Course” and “Goals” everyone has the same first thoughts: Teamwork, Communication, and Leadership. While all of those are important skills they are just a few that participants may learn. In fact there are some skills participants may not even realize they are taking back to the “real world” at the end of the day!

1. How to give helpful feedback

We often don’t realize that communication is more than just talking at each other, it’s about being on the same page. I often find that we, as human beings, are not so great at giving or receiving feedback. Why? Simply put, we are scared. We do not want to be told what’s wrong with us, or what we did wrong, or anything that could be viewed as negative. However, when we do receive feedback we also aren’t sure how to deal with the information or the person giving it to us. During De-briefing experiences on the challenge course we often talk about group feedback. How did we do as a group? What could the group improve on? As we continue to move through the program participants begin to realize that it’s not just about “The Group” it’s about the individuals that make up the group. These participants have to quickly learn how to give and receive feedback to both the group and the individual without pointing fingers, assigning blame, or having hurt feelings.

2. How to “Think Outside the Box”

We all know what the phrase “think outside the box” means. What we don’t know, is how to actually think in this manner. We often give groups activities that involve problem-solving in order to give them a common goal. While some of the “answers” are fairly straight forward, most involve “thinking outside the box.” Most people think you have to be talented, lucky, or have something the rest of us don’t in order to “think outside the box”.  However, all that you need to do is learn to change your perspective, and look at the world a little differently than you’re used to. We all get into our routines (i.e. we wake up, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, etc.) and because of this so does our brain. When you participate in a challenge course program, nothing is a part of your normal routine, and therefore you must learn to change your perspective, and thus you begin “thinking outside the box”

3. Confidence in Others

When I think about helping with confidence on a challenge course, I often think of teaching someone to reach outside their comfort zone, be successful, and gain confidence. However, I often find I am also helping them build confidence in others. For example on our high ropes Odyssey course groups must learn to lean on each other (literally and metaphorically) in order to be successful. As they move through more sections of the course they begin to trust and have confidence in what others of their group say and tell them to do.

These are just a select few of the skills and benefits you can gain from a challenge course program. A list of all skills you could gain would go on, and on, and on, and….well you get the point. In the end what you take away from a program comes down to one thing: What you and your group need.

Summer's Comin' In… and it's goin' outta style!

photo 3May 2014

Summer is finally here (unofficially) and the SU Outdoor Challenge Course is up and running! We started the month of April with trainings, getting both returning facilitators refreshed and new facilitators trained. We hosted one of our favorite trainers, Kevin “Doc” Klein, who showed our facilitation staff the ropes, so to speak, as well as providing his unique style and insight into the processing aspects of challenge course facilitation. May started out slowly, but ended with a bang. On May 17 & 18 we had a blast hosting a weekend training session with community facilitators from the CNY region. During this training we were able to share new ideas, teach old ones, and laugh about ones that didn’t work as well as planned. Because of this training we were able to make connections, build friendships and introduce people to our “Odyssey” style challenge course, as well as the zip-line and triple leap of faith.

The later part of May brought a group that our facilitators won’t forget for quite some time… The Syracuse SWAT team participated in a four hour long, teambuilding, fun, and slightly crazy time. In the end they showed how teams strive, work, and finish… together. We are looking forward to all the groups we’ll be working with over the course of the summer! Hope to see you “On Belay”!


Our New Challenge Course Website

Hey Everyone! I wanted to update you on the location of our new challenge course website, which has all kinds of information regarding the challenge course. You can find the website at the location below:


We will continue to use the blog to show cool things, add photos and videos, and to keep you updated on the latest happenings at the challenge course, but if you are looking for pricing details, group reservation information, etc. the website is the place to be… So come on in, your On Belay!

Entering the Course...
Come on in!

It was a grand opening.. and a beautiful day!

photo 3
Kevin taking the Leap of Faith!

Well, it’s official! We held our grand opening and official dedication ceremony on Tuesday October 8, which means the challenge course is open for business! It was a beautiful morning on the course, and with the Syracuse skyline in the backdrop, we couldn’t have asked for a more picture perfect moment. The metaphor of taking a “leap of faith” was not lost on us, as we opened the ceremony by literally having one of our fellow facilitators jump from the 30 foot “leap of faith” which symbolically opened the new outdoor challenge course! It has been an amazing experience in bringing this program and facility to life, and I cant help but reflect on all of the people who have supported this endeavor from vision to reality. Thank you all for your encouragement and support, we look forward to seeing you “on belay”.

Element Highlight: The Zip line


As our opening date approaches, we will begin to share more details about the challenge course. We hope you’re all as excited as we are! One of the high elements we will have on the course is the zip line. Imagine being high up in the air with only a rope, harness, and pulley to hold you up. You’re soaring past trees and checking out the scenery as the wind whips behind your hair. This is the very nature of the zip line. For many people, the zip line is the highlight of their challenge course experience. It’s a thrilling adventure and one you definitely don’t want to miss out on. We hope all you zip line enthusiasts are excited because we sure are! If you have never experienced the zip line, then look no further! The ‘Cuse Challenge is the perfect place to experience new things.

If you have any questions about the zip line or other elements of the challenge course, please contact Scott Catucci at 315-443-0290 or sacatucc@syr.edu.

Construction Update!

 If a picture says a thousand words, then you can see how the course is taking shape! The top two pictures detail the challenge course and the towers, the third shows the Outdoor Education Center looking down from the path which leads up to the challenge course on top of the hill. One side of the course will house two levels of “static belayed” high elements, allowing up to 6 individuals the capacity to traverse these elements together. The right side of the course will house two levels of more traditional “dynamic belayed” elements, focusing more on the individual and their efforts within a group. More detail on element construction to follow in the next week!







The 'Cuse Challenge interviews Laura Sowalskie

There isn’t much Laura Sowalskie fears. I mean, she’s practically done it all! Coming in as a freshman with knowledge of ropes, knots, and belaying, it was no surprise she turned to the Leadership Outdoor Orientation Program (LOOP) to fulfill her need for adventure. Not only has she climbed the elements of Syracuse University’s Flanagan Gym ropes courses “more times than [she] can count, ” but also she’s braved the challenge courses at Oswegatchie Educational Center and Adirondack Extreme Adventure. A natural leader, Sowalskie became a facilitator for the challenge course as a sophomore and has been working with Recreation Services ever since! Read below to find out how ropes courses have changed her life and the advice she has for those who wish to give it a try:

LS 4Tell us about your experiences on the challenge course. What sort of activities did you do? What was your most memorable activity?

LS: I had my first challenge course experience at the Oswegatchie Educational Center during the Leadership Outdoor Orientation Program (LOOP). I’ve been there 3 times now; twice with LOOP (first as an incoming student, then as a student leader) and once with a group called the Student Leadership Institute. I’ve climbed the elements of Flanagan Gym ropes course here at SU more times than I can count. I’ve also completed Adirondack Extreme Adventure with my family. I’ve done a ton of different elements including giant swings, zip-lines, and lots of climbing-related elements. My favorites are the more complex climbing elements that include traverses and extra challenges up in the air. I attended a few training sessions for the indoor ropes course my freshman year. I came in with knowledge of ropes, knots and belaying from rock climbing with the SU Outing Club. My sophomore year, I enrolled in the Adventure Activities class with Scott Catucci which really solidified my group facilitation and ropes course-specific skills. After completing the class, I started working as a facilitator.

It seems like you’ve done it all! What do you hope to accomplish this semester on the ropes course?

LS: Despite my comfort in the air, there is one element that I have yet to conquer. It involves climbing up a pole, balancing on the top and jumping off to grab a trapeze bar. I can fly up that pole and stand right up, but every time I’ve leapt off, the trapeze bar has remained just out of my grasp. Everyone has their own trapeze bar. It could be a different element. For some, it could be putting their trust in someone else and accepting that they won’t hit the ground if they fall. For others, it could be overcoming their fears and just getting themselves off the ground. For a few, every element on the course may be a breeze, but the idea of opening up to their team members may terrify them. My goal as a facilitator is to help everyone reach for their trapeze bar. Not everyone will grab it, but I want to get them as close as possible.

Why do you think outdoor education is important?

LS: I think outdoor education is awesome because it puts people in a non-traditional learning environment. This is especially important for students because they already spend enough time sitting in classrooms being lectured. Our goal when leading students through challenge course activities, is not to teach a direct lesson, but to encourage them to learn by doing. Different people will take away different lessons from an activity. Many learn that they are capable of more than they thought they were. Others learn to rely on their peers to help them through sticky situations. Just about everyone leaves with a sense of accomplishment.

It is often said that one learns new things about themselves and their teammates when they participate in a challenge course. What new things did you learn about yourself or your team?

LS: Going through a ropes course with a team is an amazing bonding experience. It helps a group really get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned that I naturally try to take charge of situations. When given a problem to solve in a group, I often take the lead and direct others. Going through challenge courses has helped me realize that sometimes I need to take a step back and allow someone else to take the lead.

What sort of professional and/or personal skills did you develop while participating in the challenge course program?

LS: Working on the challenge course has improved my communication skills, and my ability to work with different types of people. Most of all I’ve developed patience and understanding. Personally, I have very little fear of heights or falling. I’m almost as comfortable thirty feet in the air as I am on the ground. Most people do not have that same level of comfort on high ropes elements. My experiences as a participant, and especially as a facilitator have helped me understand how scary the experience can be for other people. Some people need that encouragement and support from others in order to overcome their fears.

What are you most excited about for the ‘Cuse Challenge Course?

LS: I’m excited to work outside! I’m definitely an outdoorsy person. Although I love our indoor challenge course, there’s a real thrill that comes from climbing around in the trees and fresh air that’s not quite there in a gym. I’m also pumped about the new student facilitation team! For a while there were only a few of us certified to work the indoor course. For the past couple weeks I’ve had the privilege of working alongside an awesome group of people who will be among the first to work on the outdoor course.

Any tips or advice for people who have never done a challenge course?

LS: Try everything. Even if you climb five feet up and decide you want to come back down, that’s five feet higher than you would have gotten if you’d stayed on the ground. Don’t compare yourself to other people; your only rival is yourself. If you’re overcoming your fears, you’re succeeding.