How an Obstacle Course Built a Team

Written in collaboration with student council members Sammie Addisu, president; Madeline Burkey, co-chair; Sydney Turner, co-chair; and Jazz Duncan, communications

How do you get a group of 30 individuals to work together as a cohesive unit? Pretty tough, right? Let’s add to this dilemma: The group is composed of teenagers who come with all the peer pressures, academic commitments, and social obligations of a typical high school student. As a student council adviser for nearly 20 years, I know firsthand that one of the toughest tasks any adviser faces is figuring out how to get a group of teens to work together.

Each year, several advisers are sitting down with their outgoing seniors planning an upcoming retreat for the newly elected members of their school’s council. Many of us use the tried-and-true method of whisking our students away for an overnight retreat at an offsite location in the hopes that after 24 hours of team building, ice breaking, goal setting, and lots of social time, the tendrils of unity will begin to form among council members. For the most part, this is a very successful event, but the reality is that being a member of a student council is all about on-the-job training.

All advisers know to plan, prepare, and anticipate, but the learning curve can be steep because student councils are ever-evolving as they try to adapt to the fluidity of the middle- and high-school arena. The key to a successful, cohesive, and functioning student council is teamwork, so it comes as no surprise that advisers are always looking for ways to reinforce student council bonds of unity. One early morning in May 2014, a golden opportunity presented itself to me, bringing one of the greatest experiences I have ever had as a student council adviser.

It all began when, after reading an article in the local newspaper, my husband and our 10-year-old daughter decided they wanted to be a part of the inaugural BattleFrog Obstacle Course Race in Conyers, GA, and signed up for the 5K and Tadpole Race, respectively. While David and Bella were involved in the courses, I had the opportunity to stand by several of the obstacles to watch the participants compete in awe-inspiring feats of physicality and mental acuity. Along the way, I met several Navy SEALs who either built or were supervising obstacle events. It was an honor to converse with these men who have sacrificed so much for our country.

What I learned that day from a courageous group of battle-tested warriors is that no matter how extraordinary the feats that U.S. Navy SEALs accomplish in their career, their triumphs come from one very ordinary idea: Teamwork leads to success. Now, I am smart enough to realize that the skill sets and rigorous training schedule of a U.S. Navy SEAL far exceed anything my student council could ever accomplish as a group, but I started thinking—wouldn’t it be great if I could use the BattleFrog Obstacle Course Challenge as a learning experience in teamwork for my student council?

That’s when the bell went off in my head. The morning after the race, I wrote a heartfelt thank-you note to the BattleFrog organization for a wonderful experience and mentioned that if BattleFrog returned to the area, I would be thrilled to have my school be a part of this event. Several months later, BattleFrog informed me that they were returning to Conyers in May 2015 and would like to talk to the Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology (RMSST) student council about being a part of this event. Thus began this incredible journey for our student council.

The RMSST is a specialized STEM high school of about 325 students in grades 9–12. Our student council hosts all the traditional high school events from socials to canned food drives on campus, but we also recognize our STEM roots by having assemblies to cheer on the math, science, robotics, and debate teams, as well as our annual AP Pep Rally. We have members of our student body who are accomplished athletes on a variety of team sports with our main school, Rockdale County High School, but no member of the RMSST student council had ever experienced anything like BattleFrog.

In November 2014 and February 2015, RMSST was honored to have two members of the BattleFrog family meet with our student council. We formed a plan to participate in BattleFrog as both volunteers and race participants. The first and hardest decision for me was to find two co-chairs that would be a good fit to lead this committee. This job entailed several challenging months of getting a group of novice athletes ready for an 8K obstacle race. The planning, coordinating, and communication were going to be a monumental task that would need constant collaboration between the chairs to keep it on track. I selected two newly elected ninth-grade representatives that I thought had potential to be future officers. Upon being informed, Sydney Turner and Madeline Burkey had that slightly dazed look that all young members have when first given the reigns of responsibility. Under the watchful eye of our president, Sammie Addisu, the two ninth graders took RMSST Team BattleFrog all the way to the finish line.

From the first member who crossed the finish line in 90 minutes to the last member at over five hours, I witnessed the incredible sense of triumph in every single member as the BattleFrog medallion was hung proudly around their neck. Physically exhausted and with tear-stained faces, I saw a group of young people transform in front of me into confident young adults who now knew that no obstacle in life could ever prevent them from completing a task. At the end of the day, while sitting next to Sammie on the tailgate of my truck, she looked me in the eye as she tapped the side of her forehead and told me that she now realized obstacles were completely in your mind. Sammie recognized that if she—who initially thought she could not do the course because of a terrifying fear of heights—could finish this course, then she could do anything in the world. She realized that she had to just stop thinking and fearing and just start doing, while trusting that her teammates at the bottom of the vertical wall would be there as she climbed down.

This was one of those rare gifts we get as student council advisers where we actually witness the moment when team unity is achieved at its highest level, in which lives are impacted, and growth occurs to create confidence and courage in young people. The students want to keep this spirit alive and hope to make a spring obstacle course a yearly event for our council. I thank the BattleFrog family wholeheartedly for their service to our country and their willingness to provide us the chance to experience this transformative journey. —

Susan Powell is student council adviser at Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology (RMSST) in Conyers, GA. RMSST has been recognized as a 2012, 2013, and 2014 NASC Council of Excellence.

Sidebar: In Their Own Words…

Here are some of the thoughts and impressions shared by student council members Sydney and Madeline at my request:

“The first obstacle was not actually on the course, but us working together. We found that together we could benefit the team in many departments, because we each had different strengths and talents. The next hurdle was organizing a training regimen suitable for our team of first-time obstacle course runners. We struggled to find a day and place to train that worked for the whole team. As chairs, we stressed the need for team cooperation. If we were to do this race, we had to train. Eventually, the team came together to agree upon the training schedule of ‘Mandatory Mondays,’ which everyone was to attend, and ‘Optional Thursdays,’ which were a make-up training day for those who couldn’t participate on Mondays.

“Our group of about 20 student council members was uncomfortable with each other. We had just been elected into the council in January, so we had only been together about three weeks. Each individual on the team was at a different athletic level and had specific strengths and weaknesses. At first we were all doing the same exercises, but some were moving faster than others. It seemed as though we could not find a team rhythm. As co-chairs, we knew there was only a certain amount of time that we could pretend to not need the support our teammates could offer. We had to start working together in order to accomplish the obstacles on the BattleFrog course. As the race day hovered over our heads and anticipation began to run in our veins, the team bond really began to grow. We stopped training as individuals and started working toward our goal as a team. We encouraged each other inside and outside of training. Students who would never have interacted because of the age difference could now find things they had in common—a goal to finish this race. People who had never spoken before were now joking and laughing every chance they got. As chairs, we were ecstatic. The teamwork that was starting to show up in our training and preparation sessions was thoroughly encouraging.

“Saturday, May 16, 2015, started as smoothly as we could have hoped. Everyone arrived on time at the race site. None of us could keep still because we were all nervous. Necks craned to see the little bit of the course that was visible. When we walked through the gates, we saw a familiar face in one of the BattleFrog members who visited us at school, Mr. Mike, a retired Navy SEAL. He welcomed us to BattleFrog and took us on a quick warm-up around the tadpole course. He got us pumped up and gave us a rally cheer of ‘lock it up.’ The time eventually came for us to approach the starting line for our wave of the course. As we neared, most of the excitement that had been running rampant among the team turned suddenly to fear. However, we didn’t allow our anxiety to stop us. We formed a team huddle, chanting and yelling. We kept on shouting ‘lock it up’ because that was what we were going to do to this course. We were going to lock it up and conquer it.

“The starting gun went off, and our team was jolted into action. Every ounce of anxiety evaporated from our minds, leaving us filled only with determination for the course ahead. We had prepared ourselves physically, and we helped each other prepare mentally. As we approached the first of several obstacles of climbing walls, our team, as expected, had split up into several groups. Each consisted of people of roughly the same athletic level. As each group scaled vertical walls, carried 50-pound sacks up a hill, and splashed into pits of mud, we were there for our teammates with encouragement to keep them going, even though we were physically exhausted. Finally, with nothing left in our bodies to give, we emerged from under the Normandy Jacks, the finish line coming into view. As our feet crossed the line and the BattleFrog medallion was placed around our necks, it was the single most rewarding personal experience any of us have ever had.

“As the whole RMSST BattleFrog team can agree, running BattleFrog was an outstanding experience that was made more fun and beneficial by running the race with a team. Our experiences in training in the months before the race, as well as the bonding that happened on the day of the race, were large factors that contributed to our success as a team; many individuals on our team would likely not have passed the finish line on their own. The race was effective in drawing us closer together, which has enabled us to work more efficiently together in our student council. Although the race pushed every team member both mentally and physically, we were able to accomplish incredible things and find the true definition of teamwork.”