The Pressure of Camp

Chicka Elloy
May 2015

The positive pressure one experiences at camp is something rare and hypnotizing. Friends at home call what you are doing a summer holiday, but you know the work is tough and comes with daily challenges like any job. However, at camp you have a network of people and systems that make the effort seem less like agony and more like a gem of an experience that will leave you forever changed.

When I worked as a counselor at camp, we used to compare this daily pressure to that required to produce a diamond from carbon. The pressure of the camp counselor position and the stress of learning through new activities at camp is a process. And this process creates a positive transformation within the camp ecosystem.

Look at it from another direction: When systems (in this case, camp, meaning you and the campers) absorb energy they can become unstable. Each new activity loads more energy into the collective camp system until it become so unstable that transformation must take place. This is the process of pressure and what is referred to at camp as a life-changing experience.

This thinking is derived from Belgian physical chemist Ilya Prigogine’s research and discovery of energy systems, called “theory of dissipative structure” (2008). This transformational process can be referred to as perturbation — such as when water is brought to its boiling point it is transformed into steam. When your mind is stretched, loaded with learning, you experience and see things differently. Your mind is transformed in belief, values, and thinking —in a matter of speaking.

This pressure process at camp is irreversible. Once one is transformed by the camp experience, one can’t go back to an old state prior to that experience.

Like Driving a Car

The effects of pressure at camp — even if it’s good pressure — can make you crazy. I have always thought that the ability to handle pressure is the counselor’s opportunity to make his or her mark. Think of it like driving a car — people respond in different ways when they’re overwhelmed by pressure:

  • Hit the gas — they get angry or frantic in response to pressure and become heated, fired up, overly emotional, and unable to sit still.
  • Slam on the brake — they withdraw or quit participating as a response to being pressured. They shut down conversation, space out, or don’t show any energy or emotion.
  • Their foot is on both pedals — they freeze under pressure and, while their mind is still in a frenzy, their body is completely paralyzed.

You will likely see all three of these responses to pressure at camp. Your job as camp staff is to recognize the circumstance and symptoms and rise above the challenge.

Pressure Exposes Potential Leaders

Pressure at camp can expose potential leaders. Camp counselor potential and resourcefulness is always revealed once enough pressure is applied. Only then do we get to see what you can really accomplish.

Under pressure, the brain muscle gets to work and churns through some of its best productivity. So camp is a bit like cramming for a test, only way more fun. Deadlines, needs, and people pleasing are all pressures that can increase productivity and keep you performing at your best. This is emotionally engaging for both you and the campers, and addicting because the camp schedule is always full.

Pressure of Time, Time, Time

Solid counselors feel the weight of time. Working at camp means you only have a limited number of program days to make a positive impact in the lives of the campers. Camp leaders carry an unspoken pressure that is always driving their conversations in team circles — we only have X amount of time to provide quality programming, attention, and opportunities for our campers.

Pressure of Paperwork

If you log any time in the camp office, you know the drill — insurance compliance, accreditation accuracy, background checks, reference checks, candidate interviews, social media policies, child protection, child release forms, camp policies, driver screening, medical check-ins, photo/video releases — the paperwork list is long. And if you work in the camp office, then you are accustomed to these administrative duties. That pressure at camp, however, is not reserved for office staff. We all are responsible for important paperwork, whether we are a cabin counselor or a program counselor. One slip up on a waiver form, meal request, curriculum release, or visitor sign-in, and your camp could face serious consequences.

Pressure of the Mobile Generation

Older staff talk about how the world is changing so fast — like an ever-moving target. The speed of change in teenage culture makes everything else look like it’s standing still. You are part of that tech-savvy generation and should look for relevant ways to connect the content of camp to your campers’ world.

Literally, what was relevant one month may not be relevant the next in your campers’ circles. So you are faced with the need to have a foot in both worlds. Not only do you need to be professionally polished representatives of learning and development in the camp world, but you also need to be students of popular culture. You need to be aware of the next Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus, but don’t feel the need to imitate, emulate, or exalt their success as your goal. The campers need to know that you understand their world but are secure in your own. Your mission as a staff member should be to set a staff standard that models courageous and ethical excellence.

Pressure of Parental Hope

Your campers may be at an age where they are beginning to make life decisions on their own, and their parents, understandably, might feel some anxiety over this. They expect you to provide their children proper guidance while they are at camp. Additionally, campers may come to you from a home dealing with the break up of the parents’ marriage, a financial crisis, or some other challenge to their normal life structure. In that event, parents will rest easier knowing you are providing a sound moral compass for their children while they’re away from home.

Parents exude this obvious but unspoken expectation as they hand their children over to you on the first day of camp: Please, just do it right. And if their child is having issues at home, some parents may be hoping that the right person is there for their child that this person will change the trajectory of their child’s life. So do your very best to meet the parents’ expectations and to be excellent role models and mentors for the campers.

Pressure to Build on a Legacy

If you have ever attended a regional or national camp conference, you understand the depth of wisdom stamped across the multiple generations present and working together. From the lifers to the fresh meat — everyone has a passion and willingness to go all-in to build the legacy of camp. It is unique and enchanting to see our industry in action.

The camp environment is a similar situation on a smaller scale. As camp staff we bond quickly at the beginning of the summer, and as the season progresses so does our love for one another and for our campers. This is positive pressure to leave a powerful, lasting impression at its finest. And many of you who devote your summer (and perhaps your lives) to camp will embrace that pressure and add your mark to the magic of camp.

The stress of the pressures inherent in camp (even the good kind) can challenge our core beliefs, integrity, and character. It tests our resilience and sometimes pushes us to our limits. But if you let it, camp can provide the positive pressure you need to transform into the kind of leader who will, in turn, have a profound impact on the lives of your campers. You may be the catalyst that transforms a diamond-in-the-rough camper into a polished gem that dazzles with a newfound confidence and sense of self.

Photo courtesy of Skyline Camp and Retreat Center, Almont, Michigan.


Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. (2008). Ilya Prigogine. Retrieved from

Chicka Elloy is a student/camper experience expert, staff training consultant, and concierge of change. He is on the American Camp Association’s Board of Directors and his book, Addicted to Camp: An Intervention for Staff and Future Leaders, is available from the ACA Bookstore. Contact him at