To Be a Great Camp Counselor, Act Like One!

James Schwabach, MS
May 2015

You’re the head of baseball and softball at a prestigious summer camp in New England. It’s week four of the seven-week session and one of your counselors, Jason, is still struggling to connect with the campers. That’s not to say he’s not a great employee: He’s your first staff member to show up at the baseball fields every day, he doesn’t complain about the heat, and as far as you know he has been in bed well before curfew almost every night. He even plays baseball for a Division II school, so you know his technical baseball knowledge is second to none at camp. And yet, if you needed to rank your counselors in order of their effectiveness (their ability to connect with campers and help them learn) Jason would be well behind everyone including Jessica, who before showing up to camp had put on a softball glove only a handful of times. In fact, you realize that if you needed someone to take charge of a session while you organized equipment for an upcoming baseball inter-camp, you would choose Jessica. You start to sense that, despite his potential to bring something special to the camp community, Jason might not make it through the rest of the summer.

A few days later, as the typically challenging seven- to 10-year-old girls’ period begins, you notice today things are different. As girls walk toward the fields, Jason is the first to greet them and begins to joke with them about how big his hat looks on one of them. The period continues this way for the entire hour, with Jason joking, laughing, and promising to attempt one cartwheel at the end of the period for every ball the girls catch in the air during a skill station. You think to yourself, “OK, who is this guy and what has he done with Jason?” It’s like a switch turned on within him and he’s become an energized, enthusiastic counselor overnight. You make sure to point out that this was his best session of the summer so far, and ask him how he managed to connect so much more with the campers. His answer is simple: “Well, I just told myself to act like Jessica.”

This true story took place during my second summer as the director of baseball/softball at a summer camp in Maine, but I wouldn’t recognize the significance of Jason’s transformation until I began my professional career in performance psychology. After learning about the theories of elite performance and getting opportunities to work with Olympians, professional athletes, corporate executives, and students, I realized that Jason’s choice to “act like Jessica” fell right in line with how I help my clients. Now, I’m well aware of what you’re probably thinking, because it’s probably the same thing I was thinking when Jason first revealed his secret of success. Just act more like the great counselor? This is not exactly revolutionary. You might as well say, “To be a great camp counselor, act like one.” That’s exactly what I’m saying, and it’s one of the most powerful ways to achieve greatness in anything you do.

Great Camp Counselors Are Like Elite Athletes

I’ve been lucky enough in my career to work with a lot of elite athletes, from Olympians to NFL players, and the best ones share a lot of characteristics and habits. Great performers not only know what it takes to work toward greatness, but they actually work toward it! They do something that moves them toward a particular goal.

Two foundational processes have been found to have a significant effect on performance: performance profiling (Butler & Hardy, 1992) and behavioral checklists (Van Raalte, Brewer, Rivera, & Petitpas, 1994). Of course, there is certainly some natural talent involved in achieving what someone like Tom Brady has achieved, but to move in that direction, it starts with some controllable habits, like watching game film for three hours at a time. To excel at something, you need to establish a profile for what you’re trying to achieve (for example, how a great NFL quarterback acts), and then break down that profile into a checklist of behaviors that match up with the standard (for example, watch three hours of film per day). The more you check off the desired behaviors, the better you become. Sounds an awful lot like “to be a great performer, act like one,” doesn’t it?

A few years ago, a professor at Stanford University named Amy Cuddy decided to test the theory that acting like a winner improved performance (Cuddy, Wilmuth, & Carney, 2012). Specifically, she wanted to know if just looking like a confident, powerful person helped performance. To do this, Cuddy and her team had participants stand in either a powerful, confident position (head held high and shoulders back) or a reserved, cowering position (arms folded and closed off) just before completing a mock-interview. As predicted, those who “power posed” were rated significantly higher by the interviewers than those who posed nervously. But here’s the thing: The researchers only told participants to stand in a specific position, saying nothing about confidence and nervousness. That means that standing like a person who’s ready to ace an interview actually helped people ace an interview, without them even being conscious of how it was helping. Cuddy explained that most people think about how our thoughts determine our behavior but don’t realize our behavior can determine our thoughts. Noticing a theme yet? “To be a great performer, act like one!”

So maybe it’s the first day of orientation and you have no idea how a great counselor acts. You want to be the best counselor you can be but don’t yet have a performance profile or a checklist of behaviors. You might even be thinking, “I got four hours of sleep last night, I don’t remember where the dining hall is, and I forgot to pack a single pair of pants for the entire summer! I can’t worry about any of this right now.” I can relate, because I didn’t pack any pants my first summer working at camp. (Thanks for shipping my jeans, Mom!) Unfortunately, there is no universal set of behaviors that I can list here that will guarantee you success as a counselor. What I can provide you is a formula for development throughout the summer.

The A3 Formula for Excellence

Elite performance, whether that involves trying to throw a game-winning touchdown pass or helping a camper learn to swim, involves three major factors: awareness, adjustment, and action. The greater a performer’s ability to be aware of what’s currently happening, realize an adjustment that needs to be made, and take action, the more elite his or her performance becomes. Rather than worry about whether you have the perfect profile of camp counseling from the start, use the more fluid formula of Awareness + Adjustment + Action = Excellence to help guide you throughout the summer.

Awareness

You can’t change your behavior before you know what your behavior is. What does your body language look like when you’re in front of a group of campers? When you feel tired at the end of a long day in the sun, how does that affect your interaction with campers? What’s the best time of day for you in terms of your teaching enthusiasm? You don’t need to answer these questions right now, and probably aren’t able to, but ask the questions. Develop your awareness.

Adjustment

It is not the campers’ job to change how they behave based on you, but I feel like the opposite should be the number-one requirement on the top of every camp counselor application: “Must be flexible.” For example, if you have never entertained children indoors on a rainy day, be ready to figure out how to do that. It doesn’t do you any good to know that you’re unskilled in a specific area and not look for specific ways to improve. I don’t know how exactly you’ll have to adjust this summer, but be ready to change on the fly. Once you’re aware of what could be working better, find out what specific behaviors you need to adjust to make that improvement happen.

Action

Goals and aspirations can sound amazing in your head, but at the end of the day, you need to do something to make you a great counselor. The more deliberate your goal-oriented actions, the better. Develop your awareness to realize what adjustments need to be made, and then take action.

Jason, our counselor from before, actually followed the A3 Formula for Excellence and experienced huge success. He became aware that he displayed little outward energy, he used Jessica as a model for making adjustments to his body language and energy levels, and then took actions that moved him toward being the great counselor he wanted to be all summer. Of course, just because he became more energized and outgoing on the baseball fields doesn’t mean Jason was naturally an outgoing, extroverted person, but he deliberately acted that way when working with the campers for the rest of the summer. He made the choice to act like an enthusiastic counselor even if he didn’t feel like one. However, in acting like an enthusiastic counselor day after day, Jason not only turned into a genuinely energetic, effective coach, but also became a better communicator away from the fields with both campers and staff. His actions preceded his change in attitude, rather than the other way around.

Now, I will never suggest someone change who they are or alter their personality for the sake of any job. Your uniqueness is what makes the camp atmosphere so amazing. However, if you find yourself faced with the thought that you just can’t be a great camp counselor, remember that you don’t need to be a great camp counselor right now; you just need to act like one.

Note: Names of people used in this article have been changed to maintain anonymity.

Photo ourtesy of Eagle’s Landing Day Camp, North Brunswick, New Jersey.

References

Butler, R.J., & Hardy, L. (1992). The performance profile: Theory and application. The Sport Psychologist, 6. 

Cuddy, A.J., Wilmuth, C.A., & Carney, D.R. (2012). The benefit of power posing before a high-stakes social evaluation. Harvard Business School Working Paper, 13.

Van Raalte, J.L., Brewer, B.W., Rivera, P.M., & Petitpas, A.J. (1994). The relationship between observable self-talk and competitive junior tennis players’ match performances. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 4.

James Schwabach, MS, is a mental skills and performance coach who has worked with elite performers from over 25 countries on three continents. He completed his Master’s degree in Performance Psychology at Ithaca College. He utilizes his knowledge of bringing out the best in some of the world’s best athletes to bring out the best in campers and camp staff throughout the U.S. He can be reached at Jamesschwabach810@gmail.com.