There was a day when it was thought that being an American and having "gumption" went hand in hand. As Dennis R. Rader writes in Learning Redefined: Changing the Images that Guide the Process, "America used to be a community alive with the unspoken motto: Gumption Grown Here" (p. 274). What is gumption? Gumption is toughness. Not tough in a stereotypical way (e.g. like suggesting attitudes and actions that are hard, cold, insensitive, or even brutal), but tough meaning emotionally, mentally, and physically f lexible, strong, and resilient.

Americans have long understood that these are the very characteristics of citizens that make a democracy possible. As Thomas Jefferson and many others have long maintained, it is only through the sharing of a commonwealth of gumption that a nation becomes and remains capable of building and defending its citizens, its communities, and its democracy.

The History of Gumption

How has gumption been traditionally grown? From American movies and other popular media come many imaginings about the toughening that happens from being a cowboy, a warrior, and an athlete. To grow gumption intentionally has a long history associated with becoming both a warrior and an athlete. America's absorption in sports, highstakes competitive business, and accompanying supersized military and police establishments have ensured that various training arenas for such gumption have been developed and maintained.

Although sports and police/military training arenas have the longest known traditions of being able to grow gumption successfully and dramatically, adventure education camps also have such a tradition (although it is not as well-known, long, or accomplished; more on that shortly). Aboriginals' rites of initiation and visioning could also be seen as being a part of this tradition, but these are approaches to growing gumption that are largely lost to modern understanding.

In our times, the techniques and success of sports and military training arenas are widely observable and understood. Military recruits are regularly graduated who bravely go to war. Young athletes are routinely helped into becoming sports heroes capable of hitting high-stakes free throws in front of large crowds of people.

The sports and military models that are most familiar to us have much in common and offer unique insight into how gumption is grown. They also can help us to understand how gumption is grown in less rigid and less familiar training arenas such as those of adventure education camps. Out of the scope of this essay, but by implication, these models together also offer insight into what is missing in public education.

How Do We "Grow Gumption"?

According to Dr. James E. Loehr, in his book Toughness Training for Life, gumption is grown especially in the most successful sports training arenas by:

  1. Adhering to strict levels of physical fitness (because mental and emotional fitness are closely linked to physical fitness). Physical fitness is recognized in both sports and in the military as leading directly to improved selfconfidence, greater emotional strength, and resiliency under pressure. Sports legend Vince Lombardi understood and summarized this standard in terms of gumption: "Fatigue makes cowards of us all."
  2. Imposing a strict code of acting and thinking under pressure. For instance, athletes in the best programs are taught: 1) never show weakness on the outside, 2) never talk negatively, 3) never whine or complain, 4) think positively, 5) look energetic and confident at all times, 6) follow a precise way of thinking and acting after making mistakes.
  3. Strict adherence to rules regarding sleep, alcohol, drugs, and meals.
  4. Experiencing repeated exposure to progressively increasing levels of competitive stress.
  5. Having an enforced schedule of "trained recovery," which includes (as stated in #3) precise control and regulation of cycles of sleep, eating, drinking, and rest.

Dr. Loehr summarizes his study of the common elements of both military and sport toughening models by observing, "In both training arenas, the importance of a highly disciplined way of acting and thinking under stress is clearly established. Issues of physical fitness, recovery, the outward projection of strength and confidence, and regular exposure to relatively high levels of training stress are fundamental to successful toughening in both worlds" (p. 143).

Camps Can Build Gumption

As stated earlier, many wilderness adventure programs, such as Sheltered Risks Incorporated's equine program, Kamp Kessa, also have common elements with "training arenas" meant to toughen. Such programs in their essence can be thought of as following and flowing out of some of the same traditions of growing gumption that bring into being honorable and effective soldiers, police, championship quality athletes, and number-one teams. For example:

  1. Activities at Kamp Kessa that require strict levels of physical fitness: equine arts of all kinds, rust ic camping and year-round outdoor living, and completing outdoor challenge courses (e.g. orienteering, trail riding, trail running with fitness and educational stations along hiking trails, mountain biking, open-water swimming, backpacking, spelunking, high- and low-ropes courses).
  2. Adhering to a strict code of acting and thinking under pressure. Kamp Kessa's TIPPS system (Teaching Interdependent Principled Problem Solving) is a strict problem-solving code for both staff and youth, which gives a script for how to act under pressure. These scripts are agreed to in principle and in writing in a "peace agreement" before youth are allowed to participate. Giving one's word to this code of acting and thinking and successfully completing one week of its application in a residential camp makes one in the Kamp Kessa tradition a "Kessaner" (or a "Kessa Nerd," as the secret dead poets' society at camp proudly decided).

    Horses also teach a strict code of acting and thinking under pressure on their own. The very characteristics that g reat coaches teach thei r champion players are those that horses teach their attentive riders. If you want the horse to accept you as leader, you must look like a leader; you cannot show weakness on the outside (the same applies to whining and other ways of being negative). The horse will accept you as alpha if you think positive, look energetic, and behave in confident and congruent ways. Learning to keep one's "energy down" when a horse gets scared is a good example of a precise way of thinking and acting that serves one under all types of stress or pressure.

    Horse trainer and Harvard-trained brain surgeon Allan J. Hamilton explains further in Zen Mind/Zen Horse (2011) that horses introduce us to the "Native American concept" of "balanced leadership." Dr. Hamilton writes: "a crowd with a leader is a herd, without one, it's a mob. Horses can't survive long in a mob, they're looking to see who's in charge. Horses seek four qualities in their leader . . . command, control, compassion, communication" (p. 103).

  3. Strict adherence to rules regarding sleep, alcohol, drugs, and meals. At Kamp Kessa residential camps, as in many such camps, early to bed and early to rise is not optional. Strict control of sugar, caffeine, meals, and drug and alcohol consumption (of course) is a priority. Other distractions such as Internet and cell phone access are also routinely limited.
  4. Repeated exposure to progressively increasing levels of stress and recovery cycles. Interventions at Kamp Kessa are intermittent (youth repeat weekly camps and weekends, for example, throughout the year). Intervent ions at Kamp Kessa are intensive (they involve repeated cycles of stress followed by planned recovery). For example, Kessaners traditionally have the opportunity for one weekend a month outdoors with horses, and several complete as many as thirty residential weeks over the years along with these weekends.

    Progressively increasing levels of stress and recovery cycles is the intent of Kamp Kessa's: 1) mentors in training (MIT) program, where youth can attain progressively higher levels of responsibility (and freedoms) within the camp; 2) Kessa's Kids Time Banking program, where self-initiative to pay one's way to camp through exchanges of time ef fectively asks those participants to solicit more of themselves; and 3) adventure trips held in all weather year-round (for instance, one year we took our entire camp and almost thirty horses to the west end of Kentucky for a week during the winter).

  5. An enforced schedule of trained recovery. In general, camps are known more for their restorative fun (picture swimming after falling from a hanging tire, fishing with an old Zebco 33, learning archery, s'mores, and a strict adherence to personal taste in baking marshmallows — "You like 'em burnt?") than they are for growing gumption. However, summer camps and summer vacations are needed for fun, and fun is an irreplaceable ingredient of the development of gumption. Fun recovers energy. Camps can be seen as of fering both a vital schedule of recovery and appropriate, growth-enhancing stressful challenge when seen in the larger context and task of what it takes to grow gumption. We must conclude from our increasing population of generally soft and overweight youth that training arenas in conflict with the growth of toughness and gumption are having the largest share of influence with our young.


If we extend the traditional models of growing gumption to life in general, as Dr. Loehr, Kamp Kessa, and other challenge education programs do, what can children gain from these models?

We must learn, and help our children to learn, to "make waves constantly" with their mental, emotional, and physical energies. As gumption grows, we become emotionally, mentally, and physically flexible, strong, and resilient; we learn how to expend and recover energy in waves that strengthen instead of weaken. Mental, emotional, and physical oscillations strengthen. Linear patterns or ruts weaken.

Nothing is more prevalent in America today than adults and chi ldren who demonstrate ruts of emotion that lack f lexibility, strength, and resilience. In Dr. Loehr's language, we are generally overtrained emotionally (not sufficiently recovering from emotional stress) and undertrained mentally and physically (too little stress to have a strengthening effect). Neither do we generally enforce schedules of trained recovery that foster strength, flexibility, and resilience in ourselves or our youth.

To grow gumption with our children, we need to break such linear paths. As Dr. Loehr writes, we need to "get children moving, get them to be still; get them serious, get them laughing; push them, let them rest; challenge them, let them play; exercise their bodies and let their minds rest; exercise their minds and let their bodies rest; constantly challenge and then recover, challenge and then recover" (p. 238).

Dr. Loehr's words could be easi ly seen as a description of what typifies not just adventure education programs, but many of the best summer camp programs in America. Camps have a long and storied history of their own in growing gumption — and a larger mandate than the widely recognized one of providing recreation through fun.

If we are to survive tough times individually and collectively, we must deepen and strengthened this tradition. Deepen it to the point, in fact, that we are once again in America capable of growing a critical mass of citizens with enough gumption to successfully protect our democracy, our communities, and each other.

Hamilton, A.J. (2011). Zen mind/zen horse. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing.
Loehr, J.E. (1994). Toughness training for life. New York, NY: Plume.
Rader, D. (2010). Learning redefined: Changing the images that guide the process. Frankfort, KY: Building Democracy Press.

"Mr. H." and "Dr. T" are cofounders of Sheltered Risks Incorporated (SRI) / Kamp Kessa and Cedar Fire Farms. SRI is a nonprof it organization dedicated to providing wilderness- and equine-facilitated gumption development exper iences to individuals of all ages. Cedar Fire Farms is a " farmily" cooperative that seeks to further the imaginative combining of local farms, families, forests, and horses in local-, nature-, and neighborhood-welcoming economics.

Photo courtesy of Kamp Kessa, Frankfort, KY.