7 Team Building Lessons I Learned from White Water Rafting

Group retreat events - river rafting

Last week, while on vacation, I went on a whitewater rafting adventure with some of my family.  We were on a Class IV (advanced) section of the Clear Creek river outside of Idaho Springs, Colorado.  The company we went with was Liquid Descent, and our guide was Alan (he was awesome!)

It was a great thrill and a rush of adrenaline.  We got through the whole half-day without anyone falling out and having a blast. Here are the team building lessons I learned from our experience.

Lesson #1: You have to work in sync.

When you’re rafting and paddling, your paddle strokes must be in sync.  If not, it does the guide no good (nor the group in the boat). In the beginning of a trip, the person in the front left is designated as the lead paddler.  That was my honor during this whitewater rafting trip.

In order to paddle in sync, you must pay attention to each other.  The rafters behind me had to watch me, as well as the front person on the right side of the boat.  I had to get his attention a couple of times because he was just focused on trying to do what the guide says.

In the work world, we also have to pay attention to several things going on around us at once. We must pay attention to not only what we are working on, but also notice others and how we can help them, how we can build relationships, how we can be a more effective team.  Are you paying attention to others or merely focused on your own work?

Lesson #2: Listen to your guide.

The guide knows the river and what to do.  In order to navigate the river effectively, we had to listen to the guide.  The guide must be heard over the noise of the river, and we must be ready to paddle forward or backwards at a moment’s notice. Refusing to listen to the guide would have resulted in a potentially dangerous situation, not to mention a very wet one!

Do you trust your leader?  Do you listen to them?  Or do you get distracted by the “noise” in the office:

– The gossip about other people.

– Backbiting or divisiveness against the boss or other coworkers?

– Arrogance or an “I can do it better” attitude?

– Undermining the leader’s authority?

 Lesson #3: Communicate expectations (and refine as you go).

Alan was an awesome guide and demonstrated some great leadership qualities.  Before we went on the river, he taught us how to paddle, commands he would give (forward one, left-forward, right-back, back two, and so on), as well as what to do if someone fell out (how to rescue).  Before we got on the river, we practiced.

When we got out into the river, he continued to coach us so that we would be “perfect”.  Not for perfection sake, but because he wanted us to have the best experience we could.  And we did!  He would correct us here and there, and even taught us what a correct paddle stroke “felt” like (You can actually feel the boat surge forward when done correctly).

Lesson #4: Work hard, but enjoy the ride.

The advanced section was a lot of work, and it was quite the adrenaline rush.  There was little down time, but there was also moments that we got to rest and enjoy the ride.  We paddled into a couple of eddies (slower water next to the river bank), and had the opportunity to do some river swimming (I passed on that – the water was 38 degrees, and I had done it before).

We didn’t paddle the entire time, so I took some moments to just enjoy the ride (even while paddling), and our guide also said that because we listened to his instruction, it was a fun time for him too.

As a team, you work hard, and you have goals that you are going after.  Even among the challenges, enjoy the journey.  Leadership is not simply about a destination or position, but about the experiences and challenges you will face along the way.  Take time to enjoy them with your team.

Lesson #5: Celebrate your wins.

Even though our adventure was a lot of work, it was also a lot of fun.  I can’t help but wonder if our guide helped make our trip extra special.  As we did what he asked, there were times we would paddle straight into a rapid, and get the boat to speed into the wave almost as if we were trying to jump it.

I would hear our guide let out a “Whoo!” at these times.  He would also praise us and encourage us when things were going right.  There were several things he said to encourage us:

  • You guys are doing great!
  • Most boats can’t get in this eddy, great job!
  • You guys are the bomb!
  • You’re the best lead paddler I’ve ever seen (okay, maybe that was just wishful thinking.)

What are you doing to celebrate your wins for your team?  Do you ever encourage your group?  Do you celebrate birthdays and personal victories?  Do you stop to encourage individuals?  What can you do to begin celebrating your victories – small and great?

Lesson #6: Carry your weight.

Team members must communicate to paddle in sync, but they also must paddle.  No one is exempt from paddling while on the river.  Everyone gets a paddle, and all are expected to carry their weight on the boat.  There were times when the rapids would knock us down, or get in our face (I came up out of one rapid coughing and sputtering), but even if we had fallen out of the boat, the expectation was to get back in and get to paddling asap.

What happens in your organization when people don’t carry their weight?  Are they just left alone?  What repercussions does that have to your team and morale?  Have you clearly set expectations and goals for everyone?  Or is there a lot of guessing going on?

Lesson #7: Rescue your team mates.

When you’re rushing down a river, chances are you will hit things: rocks, branches, and even other boats.  Your guide will do what he can, but there are times that you will run head on into obstacles. When that happens, you have to hang on and lean in so you don’t get thrown out; however, there is a chance someone will fall out of the boat.

In rafting, you are responsible for rescuing the person right next to you.  You get them back in as fast as you can and keep rowing.  Everyone else’s job is to continuing rowing.  If more than one person stops rowing and tries to help in the rescue, the results could be disastrous and then everyone might need rescuing.

In your organization, do you have a plan to help people who are struggling?  Do you have a mentor or buddy system to help people learn the ropes and be “rescued” if needed?  What can you do to set up a system for those who need help?

What other team building lessons could you learn from rafting?  What other adventures have you been on?  Let me know in the comments below.  

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