High Wired

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The Independent Online

Now, I'm not normally the sort of person to shy away from challenges; but when I'm asked to walk along a wire suspended 30 feet above the ground, I make an exception. If this is somehow supposed to make me a better, happier person, I would rather be the weak, miserable (but definitely alive) specimen that I evidently am.

Now, I'm not normally the sort of person to shy away from challenges; but when I'm asked to walk along a wire suspended 30 feet above the ground, I make an exception. If this is somehow supposed to make me a better, happier person, I would rather be the weak, miserable (but definitely alive) specimen that I evidently am.

I am standing in a wood near Southampton with a group of rope-course trainers, who are encouraging me to take part in all sorts of challenges – which would be fine if they didn't happen to involve putting a gulp-worthy distance between myself and terra firma. "Ropes courses aren't there to frighten you, they're there to help you challenge yourself, to make you feel stronger and more confident," says Martin Hughes, the owner of Adventure Rope, a company he set up in the mid-Nineties to cater for the burgeoning market in management training.

"They differ from other management- training days because nobody is made to do anything – it's all about you, the participant, making the choice to take challenges and control your environment. Being frightened is a choice you make, but one that could be a necessary step towards achieving something bigger."

But don't let the goal-oriented motivational spiel put you off – there is plenty of old-fashioned thrill-seeking to be had out on the ropes. During my two-hour session, I am forced to take leaps of faith off ledges, balance precariously on logs (with the option of wearing a blindfold) and clamber up a giant ladder of long poles. Although I am loath to admit it, and despite being petrified by the heights involved, I do feel a calming sense of achievement after conquering what at first seemed absurdly difficult tasks.

It is reassuring, then, to hear that I am joined in my initial disbelief by England and Lions rugby union hard man Lawrence Dallaglio. As one of the Lions squad selected to go to Australia last summer, Dallaglio took part in a week-long ropes course designed to build confidence prior to the tour.

"There's one test called 'High All Aboard' where a team have to get four of their members up a 30ft telegraph pole on to a 34cm x 34cm platform," explains Kathy-Ann Fell, the marketing director for Vision, a Reading-based company pioneering the use of ropes courses to help bolster teamwork in sports. "Lawrence gave it one look and walked away, saying it was impossible. But by getting them actually to confront the challenge, against all their first instincts they managed to do it. Half of any battle is having the confidence to believe you can win, and this is what they learned.

"We sit down with a group beforehand and work out what they want from a day and design a bespoke course around those goals. We do the exercise, and then we sit down and discuss at length how people felt. It's as much the process as the end goal that counts."

The British bobsleigh team, who won our only medal at the Nagano Winter Olympics four years ago (despite being the only nation without a domestic track), did one such ropes course with Vision on the eve of their departure, and have a similar day plannedbefore heading off to Salt Lake City in February.

"This work really gives us an edge ahead of other teams, especially as far as integrating our sportsmen and support team," explains Tony Wallington, performance director for the team. "You learn to value each other."

Although increasing in popularity, ropes courses are still seen by most as something of a foreign concept, despite the fact that they originated in this country. In the 1870s, ship rigging was erected in trees on land to provide practice for merchant seamen. Then Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound, erected a similar system for trainee seamen at Gordonstoun school in 1941. However, while courses have flourished in the US and mainland Europe for the past 30 years, only in the last few years has the technique re-emerged strongly in the UK.

"Over the past six years the number of rope-course manufacturers in the UK has grown from one or two to at least 10, with the actual number of courses growing by the same sort of factor to 2,500," says James Kantor, who has been running a ropes-course operation in Normandy for the past decade. "It's really picking up in Britain for the first time, with all sorts of people realising the benefits aren't just limited to kids in hard hats and company managers on a free day out."

One of the reasons the courses have taken off during the past 12 months in particular is the restrictions imposed by the foot and mouth crisis, which hampered access to the countryside and forced residential activity centres to rethink their schedules. You can erect a ropes course in a five-metre square area, so it's a perfect way of fostering team-building in a group without sending them yomping across the countryside.

The range and depth of the courses is not merely limited to training days for national sports teams and blue-chip management, though. Over the past few years they have also been used effectively in Northern Ireland by the prison service to aid the rehabilitation of drug addicts, and have helped to foster links between Catholic and Protestant children.

One typical exercise used to help people realise the value of teamwork and community is an indoor endeavour called "Raising The Stakes". A group is split into two lines, facing each other and holding their hands out, palms down. A light cane is placed on top of each team's set of hands with the instruction that they should try to lower it to the floor as quickly as possible, but without any hands losing contact with the cane.

"Almost every single time, both canes rise straight away," Kathy-Ann Fell explains. "Everyone's so frightened of letting the side down by losing contact that they all push up. After a discussion they soon learn to work together, and the effect you see on the way they work in subsequent games is startling.

"It's not just about people getting over their fear of heights, it's about helping people emotionally, psychologically, in fact in almost any way possible. It's just one more tool in your bag you can keep for the future.

"If you ask anyone who's done a course whether they think it's of benefit, be prepared for a long, enthusiastic answer."

For more information about adventure roping in the UK contact the following organisations.

Vision Development Training: 01929 480 999, www.vision-dt.co.uk.

Adventure Rope: 01939 261 122, www.adventurerope.co.uk

Trapeze Two participants climb a 25ft pole and stand on top of a 34cm x 34cm platform. A static 4ft-wide trapeze hangs 5ft in front of them. Both have to jump at the trapeze at the same time and catch it, without the psychological comfort of seeing a safety blanket beneath them (although they are held up from behind by safety ropes). 'It's a great exercise to get people to work as a team and place trust in others, which translates directly to the outside world,' explains Martin Hughes.

Jacob's Ladder Large wooden poles are arranged like the rungs of a ladder, suspended by vertical wires. The space between each rung increases by around 10cm each time. Teams have to climb up the rungs without using the end wires but are allowed to use any part of each other. 'As they rise, they find they have to use each other's bodies to get up,' Kathy-Ann Fell says. 'The more you rely on your team-mates, the better you do.'

Mohawk Walk A low-ropes course (around 2ft off the ground), this involves splitting a group into two teams and asking one half to go one way around a circular course, and the other half to go around the other way, both aiming to get back to the starting position. 'The amazing thing is that the loudest in the group assume it's a competition and won't let the other team past, while it's the quietest ones who are able to really think about the task and understand what's going on,' says Fell. 'It's a great exercise for making over-confident people rethink their initial perceptions.'