Why You Should Complete an Obstacle Course Race This Year


During one of the 4 Rugged Maniacs I have completed

When we are young, we get bigger, stronger, faster and better as we grow.  But let’s face it.  At some point in our lives, the relationship between age and physical abilities reverses.  As the first goes up…the second goes down.  My goal is to push that point off as far into my future as possible and, when that day comes, my new goal will be to prevent the gap between age and physical limitations from growing as slowly as possible. At nearly 48 years of age, I know that day could easily be tomorrow.  But, it’s not today.  Today I ran 4.5 hilly miles.

None of that is the reason why YOU should run an obstacle course race this year.  At least not the only reason.  You should run one because you are trying to reach the point of self-actualization.  According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this is our innate human striving to achieve our full potential.  It’s our natural state of being.  If we don’t have this drive, it’s usually because a lower level need (such as accomplishment, prestige, belonging or safety) is not being met.  Of course, not all of those needs will be fully met all the time and you can still find that drive to be the best version of yourself.  


My Mudder Sucker Teammates and I at our first Tough Mudder, April 2012 in PA…34 degrees

In his book Wild at Heart; Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul, John Eldredge says  “Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue.”  While I believe this is mostly true for men, I think that many women also long for the challenge, or, as Eldridge puts it, “a battle to fight” as well as “an adventure to live.”  In the absence of a true legitimate challenge in our lives, we may create less health challenges for ourselves.  For example, many of the kids I work with find their challenges and adventure on the streets in ways that are often illegal and dangerous or deadly.  How many people do you know that seem to just stir up drama just to get their (and other people’s) adrenaline flowing?


Under the icicle covered barbed wire, Tough Mudder PA 2012

There are those of us who simply try to meet the need to be challenged by aligning with someone else’s challenge.  I think this is why many of us are so passionate about our sports teams.  Their challenge becomes our challenge.  We align ourselves so closely with these teams that we refer to them as “We” and “Us.”  I’m certainly guilty of this as well.  Right after jumping up and down on my couch after the Patriots pulled of one of the greatest comebacks in sports history in this year’s Superbowl, I am sure I turned to my friends and said, “I can’t believe WE just did that!”  We?  There’s not a single person on that team who knows who I am and none of them would consider me part of their “WE!”  


My brothers-in-law and I half-way through Tough Mudder at Gunstock NH in 2013…94 degrees!

I am not advocating giving up these other challenges by alignment.  I like watching my teams way too much to do that.  But maybe you need a new challenge in your life?  Who doesn’t feel like they can lose a few pounds or need to get in better shape?  Getting ready for an obstacle course race certainly meets that goal.   And, believe me, fear is an amazing motivator!  Joe De Sena, founder of Spartan Race and author of Spartan Up!: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life says “Once you sign up for a Spartan Race, once you tell all of your friends about it, you, too, are committed. To back out is to admit failure not only to yourself but also to others. This should motivate you to honor your commitment and show up at the starting line ready to race.”  That commitment and the fear you feel as the race approaches are your motivators: and they work very well!


Chris and I at the start of the Spartan Beast in NJ, April 2016

If you are now saying to yourself, “Ok, I can see y0ur point, but I think I can accomplish all of these things without doing an obstacle race.”  I understand.  But, Joe De Sena also points out that “When you participate in purposeful suffering, your happiness level actually rises.”  In addition to the inverse relationship between age and physical limitations, there’s another even more important inverse relationship in life.  As Moliere puts it, “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”  When you cross the finish line of your first obstacle race, your mind and body will thank you!  There is no words that can describe that feeling.

Oh yeah.  I almost forgot that most common excuse.  You’re not in nearly good enough shape to do this.  These races and, more importantly, the preparation for these races are all about mental grit, not necessarily physical prowess.  I read this quote on the web: “Fitness is 100% mental. Your body won’t go where your mind won’t push it.”  True.  In addition, there are a million programs online to literally get you from the “Couch to a 5K” and more!


My oldest daughter Devin and I before she too became a Tough Mudder in July 2016

So, if defying the aging process, becoming the best version of you physically and mentally, finding challenge and adventure and committing to something that will forever change your life aren’t enough, here’s my last pitch.  This morning as I ran, as if divinely delivered, two song played out just as I needed them to, which pushed me on through the toughest hills.  First was “Rebel to Rebel” by 38 Special, a song that Donnie Van Zant penned as a tribute to his brother, the late great Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd.  It reminded me of my brother Eric who passed last March and how 17 of us ran the Long Island Tough Mudder in his honor last summer.  The next song was Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, my father’s favorite.  I thought of him and realized that he and my brother were there with me, pushing me on that hill.  Since they can’t be here in our time and space doing these races, I will do it to honor their memories.  Maybe you have someone you can run for, too.


My brother Eric, my father Ted and dog Bruiser…all pushing me from above….

So, if you are ready to take that step, let me know! If you are around here, come join me on one of the 6 races I am doing this year.  If you are somewhere else and just want ideas and inspiration as to how to start, let me know.  Right now, I am training a group of kids at my school (who have spent their lives backing away from legitimate challenges and engaging in unhealthy behaviors) to do their first obstacle race in May.  If they can do it, so can you!


Sevens: Dealing with Success and Failure



This activity is originally written up as a fun time-filler as Bing-Bang-Buzz in Quicksilver by Karl Rohnke and Steve Butler in 1995. The variation presented here takes this activity from time-filler/icebreaker status to jumping off point to some great conversations!


No props for the actual activity but it is important to have a large writing space (i.e. whiteboard or flip chart) and marker, especially for the debrief.

 The Set Up:

Have the group seated and arranged in a circle (squares and other closed shapes are good too!).  Inform the group that they will be attempting to count to 100 or as close to 100 as they can get within a given time limit (I usually use 3 to 5 minutes).  Easy enough, right? There are a few caveats. The counting is done sequentially.  One person begins with “one” and the next person will say “two,” the next “three” and so on.  When the number is either 7, any number containing a 7 (17, 27, 37…)  or a multiple of 7 (i.e. 21, 28, 35…), the person whose turn it is must clap once instead of saying the number.

 Inform the group that you will be watching for three things:

1. How they react to success

2. How they react to messing up

3. How they react to other participants messing up

 The Action:

Once the rules are explained, get your timer ready! Start!  Any errors within the time limit result in starting over again at “one.”  I have the person who made the error restart.  Continue until the time limit is up.  Note the highest number the group counted to.


The debrief process for this activity can take several different (yet somewhat interconnected) directions.

  • Have the group discuss their observations in response to: response to success, messing up and others’ messing up.

  • Explain that this activity may be seen as a “challenging situation” which could result in stress.  How do we respond to challenges or stress in our lives?  Write responses on the board.  Depending on the brainstormed list, you may want to help the group identify which of the responses they listed are: Emotions, Behaviors or Physiological Responses and write an E, B or P next to them.  You could engage in a discussion about how our emotions, behaviors and physiological responses are connected.

  • Identify that the behaviors listed are part of what is called Coping Strategies.  Discuss positive and negative coping strategies and list these on the board.

  • Relate this to Defense Mechanisms.  You can click HERE to access an article I wrote about this topic.  Reading this article can be a follow up to this activity.

  • A great follow up to this is the TEDx talk by John Foppe found HERE


1  For lower functioning groups, instead of beginning with the number 7, start with 5.

2. For groups who may struggle with multiplication facts, you can post the multiples of 7 on a board.

Forget Rules…Create Your Classroom Community with a Full Value Commitment (FVC)!

Ready or not, here they come!  If you work in a school, you are quite aware of what’s headed your way: kids…many who had their last real structure in a classroom back in June!  When that panic sets in, many of us follow our instinct to focus on creating a highly structured environment with clear rules that must be strictly enforced…it’s time to create order out of chaos!  While this is completely understandable (and sometimes necessary), I have a better idea.  Instead of Rules this year, create a Full Value Commitment (FVC).  The Full Value Commitment was originally created by Project Adventure as the Full Value Contract.  My book (Experiential Activities for Enhancing Emotional Intelligence, 2014) describes the FVC in more detail.  Click HERE to view the contents of my book or purchase.

While there are many similarities between rules and FVCs, there are some important differences.


Like rules or laws, FVCs lay out a set of behavioral expectations for a group of people. When expectations are broken, as with rules, there are consequences.  Here are some differences:

  1. Unlike most rules and laws, the FVC is not created by a single leader (such as a classroom teacher) or administrators.  The FVC is created by the group (the class in this case).
  2. While rules are generally monitored and enforced by an authority figure, the FVC is meant to be enforced by the group members themselves. This may take some time.  During that adjustment period, the teacher must enforce the FVC. For the many of us who are focusing on Restorative Justice practices as an alternative to traditional discipline, the FVC is a great tool (click HERE for an overview of Restorative Practices in schools)
  3. While the FVC is essentially a set of behavioral expectations, it is also a set of group goals.  The students may not always actually meet the expectations, but should continually strive towards doing so.
  4. While we tend to only refer to rules when we “make em or break em,” the FVC is referred to often to help the group monitor itself as well as work through Restorative Justice processes.

While the specifics of a FVC will vary from group to group, all FVC’s seek to create an environment where each person is fully valued and has equal say about the creation and monitoring of the FVC.  All FVC’s should incorporate expectations for interacting in a physically and emotionally safe way (i.e. Respect Each Other).

Creating the Commitment

The process for creating the FVC is often as important as the end result.  The fact that the participants are engaged in creating the expectations that will guide behavior in their community creates a higher sense of “buy-in” and ownership than traditionally created sets of rules.  The participants will utilize many important skills such as communication, debating, compromise and group decision-making.  While my book offers numerous activities to create a FVC, I will give you one of my favorites here (adapted from Character Card FVC, p. 67, Experiential Activities for Enhancing Emotional Intelligence, Goldsmith).  The process below may take more than one day. I would not have the group create their FVC right away.  Start the year with a basic set of rules for your students as you normally would.  This gives the group structure while they are getting to know each other.

  1. Engage in purposeful activities aimed at helping the students get to know each other and feel somewhat comfortable in the classroom.  My book contains over 150 of these activities. There are also others available for FREE on my site HERE.  As I create new activities, I often add them to the site and BLOG about them on this BLOG.
  2. When you have determined the group’s readiness, begin by having them brainstorm characteristics or behaviors that they feel would be important to create a safe environment where everyone can learn and be happy.Colorado NCCPS 2010 462
  3. Once this list is created, divide the group into several smaller groups of four or five.  Each group should work in their own space and decide which of the five (or four or six…it’s up to you) characteristics on the list are the most important for creating their safe environment.  This can be a quick process or it may take some time to allow group members to debate their ideas.
  4. Once each group has their top five, have them prepare to present their rationale to the other groups.  I often have each group lay out the cards in their groups’ designated area and have the other groups come “visit” while they present their rationale.  Do this with each group.  You will likely notice that while there may be some overlap between groups, there are also many differences in the characteristics and behaviors each group prioritizes.
  5. Once each group has presented, inform the class that, as an entire group, they need to determine which are the most important five (or six or seven, again, you decide) to become the basis of the group’s FVC.  Often, the students have become quite attached to the ones they chose in the smaller group so some conflict may arise due to these connections.  That’s OK.  Help them work through it.  While it’s tempting to allow the group to keep more behaviors than you asked for, don’t do it!  The struggle to narrow it down to those final ones is extremely important in creating that high level of “buy-in.”  Also, resist the temptation to allow the students to use a “majority rules” method.  In the end, EVERYONE has to be in agreement.  This supports the “Full Value” piece.  Attaining consensus may require a significant amount of discussion, debate and compromise: all essential life skills.
  6. Once the group has decided on the behaviors to include in the FVC, they must be written down and everyone, staff included, must sign off.  You can get creative with this part.  I often require the group to determine a design that has an inside and outside.  The included behaviors are written inside the design.  I have had groups draw fish tanks with each behavior written on a big fish with their signatures on smaller fish, a tree with leaves where the trunk was the most important behavior and the branches coming off were the other behaviors (kids signed on leaves) and a volcano with the behaviors spraying out the top while the names were all written on the volcano itself. IMG_3816
  7. Display the FVC prominently.  At any time, you can refer back to it.  For example, at the end of week 1, ask the kids “How are we doing on our FVC?”  “What things are we doing well? What needs to improve?  What can each one of you work on for next week?”

While this may seem like a great deal of work up front, it will almost definitely pay dividends down the line.  My friend Chris Cavert of FunDoing once told me a story about his days as a teacher.  For the first few weeks of school, he worked on creating a true community by focusing on activities and games that helped the students become more comfortable with each other and get to know each other better.  They also developed their FVC.  Many of the veteran teachers warned him that he was getting behind in the curriculum and should get moving.  By mid year, he had caught up, and soon actually passed the others as his class experienced far less behavioral difficulties than his colleagues!  Feel free to contact me with questions. I would love to hear how it goes if you give this a try!



Choose Wisely

Decision bags


I co-facilitated this activity with Pam Hall, a Substance Abuse Counselor who works throughout our school district.  The activity focuses on decision-making steps and dealing with the outcomes of our choices.


Decision-making step cards (see below), paper lunch bags filled with candy and other assorted items such as lip balm, pencils, little toys, etc…

Set Up:

Place several items in each of the lunch bags.  Make sure to vary the contents of each bag.  There should be bags that are more desirable and others that are less desirable in terms of amount and type of contents. Fold over the tops of the bags so that participants can not tell what is in them.  Place the bags in plain view on a table (see picture above). Create cards (or strips of paper)  with each of the decision-making steps on separate pieces of paper (using the attached template). Place the decision-making step cards in blank envelopes.  Make several sets.

When you gather your group, divide the participants into several smaller groups of no more than three or four.

The Action:

Open up the session by asking if any of the group members have ever decided to get arrested or suspended from school.  How about fail a class or get in trouble?  While they may not have made decisions to have these things happen, they may have made a series of seemingly small poor decisions that led to a disastrous outcome.  Discuss any decisions your group members choose to share and ask why they think they made those decisions and what the outcomes were.  Have your participants reflect on the fact that they are constantly making decisions.  Point out that they all have made many decisions already today!  For example, they all chose to get out of bed and come to school (or wherever you are working).  Decision steps

Next, hand each small group an envelope with the decision-making steps and have the participants attempt to put them in the correct order.  Once the groups are done, check for accuracy and review the steps with participants.

Direct the participants’ attention to the bags.  Ask for one volunteer to come to the front and take one bag. He or she can not feel the bag or lift it up before choosing. Once the bag has been selected, ask the volunteer to explore it without actually opening it and seeing the contents.  Then offer them the option of trading it in for a different bag or keeping it. Be sure to tell your volunteer that they will only be offered one trade. If they trade their bag in, they must keep the one they take. As they go through this process, have the group determine what decision-making steps the volunteer is taking.  Once the volunteer makes their final choice, invite the rest of the group members to choose one bag without touching any other bags first. Once everyone has a bag, encourage them to explore it without opening it. Ask if anyone would like to trade in their bag, again, pointing out the steps in the decision-making process they are engaged in.  Remind them that their choice will be final.  Once everyone has their final bag, they may open them and keep the contents.

Have members reflect on their choice. Do they feel that they made a good or bad choice?


Do you regret your choice to keep the bag (or trade it in)?  Why or why not?

How do you feel about your choice?  What emotions are you experiencing?

Have you ever made a choice that you later regretted?  How did that feel?

Decision Making Steps

Pam This activity was shared with me by Pam Hall.  Pam is a substance abuse counselor that works district-wide in the Manchester Public Schools.  She has been using this activity as the second session in a three-part series about substance abuse, although, it stands on it’s own well!  With this activity, Pam cleverly steers away from directly discussing substance abuse, rather focusing on decision making.

I Have a Goose Story


I have a goose story. It is not that nice story about how geese fly in a V formation so that each goose benefits from the updraft created by the goose flying in front of it or how when the lead goose tires, another flies to the point to take its place. You can see an inspirational video of that story HERE. My goose story is different. However, it solidifies the claims made in the other story. This is also a story about one of my “personal flaws.”

It was just after sunrise on Sunday, August 2. The glorious morning colors were just giving way to clear blue skies. My brother-in-law John and I had just trekked over a half-mile down Craigville Beach in Hyannis (Cape Cod, MA) to fish off a jetty. It was the first fishing excursion of our vacation and visions of huge striped bass splashed on the edge of my imagination. Anything could happen!

jettyWhile it was near low tide, the wind was strong and steady, forcing the waves into a chop of small white caps. At the end of the jetty, I cast my line out as far as I could and set my brand new surf-casting rod firmly into the rocks. I loosened the drag on the line so that if a big fish hit, the line would pour off the reel instead of the rod flying into the water. Two minutes after setting my line, my rod went flying into the water.

Without thinking (my aforementioned personal flaw), I launched myself off the jetty into the water. In the brief moments between leaving the rocks and hitting the water, time slowed and I had several distinct thoughts, in this order:

  1. That rod cost me $80 and I will NOT lose it on its first cast!
  2. The fish on the other end MUST be worth this if it was big enough to yank the rod into the water!
  3. I hope I don’t hit the jetty rocks.
  4. I hope I can stand.
  5. My phone is in my pocket.
  6. It will cost $100 to replace the phone.  That’s more than the rod cost.

Splash! Feet on the sandy bottom, the waves were almost at chest level. A few quick strokes and I was able to grab the fishing rod as it was torpedoing towards open-ocean. I pulled back on the rod and felt the resistance on the other end. I tightened the drag and began to reel. About 50 yards out, I saw a group of geese, one appearing to be in distress, trying unsuccessfully to fly, honking madly. Then, the rest of the geese joined in its distress, creating a cocophonus chorus. I realized that the huge fish of my dreams was, in fact, a goose. I handed my sea-soaked phone up to John and began to reel the goose in without any specific plan.

As I reeled, John and I shouted back and forth over the surf as to how to handle the situation. The goose was clearly in distress and his five buddies appeared to be equally upset.   All of them refused to leave the goose that was on my line. As they got closer, I started to realize that while the geese were smaller than me and that while a single goose would provide me with a respectable opponent in hand to beak combat, a group of five angry geese with me chest deep in the water wasn’t going to end well for this human. But again, logical thinking is not necessarily my strong point.  I kept reeling.

Being an emergency room physician, John always came equipped for fishing excursions with several surgical tools. Why these tools came fishing with us, I had no idea. But on this day, it was clear that they might be useful. John handed me some sort of tool to cut the line when the goose was close enough. I think it was a knife…or a scalpel.

As the goose approached and his buddies began making direct verbal threats to me (it becomes very easy to understand goose language in this situation), I saw that the goose was not actually hooked but had simply gotten caught in my line. I pulled the two ends of the line together and moments before they executed their all-out attack, I cut the line leaving a piece of about 6 feet on the goose. Luckily, the goose was not actually tangled in it so it fell away with a few shakes.

The goose, completely exhausted, tried helplessly to fly. When it couldn’t, it began to slowly swim towards shore. I watched as the other five geese surrounded their tired friend and swam with him/her all the way back to the beach. Once they arrived, the goose who had been caught on my line sat down on the sand. The other five stood in a circle around him like the secret service guarding the president.

I climbed out of the water and inspected the wounds on my foot from scrapping against the rocks when I jumped. The phone was toast, but I had the rod. I looked toward the beach, worried about the goose but amazed by the camaraderie shown by its friends.

The gaggle stayed for about twenty minutes before re-entering the water and swimming off together. Eventually, the six geese took to the sky again. I couldn’t believe the level of dedication and self-sacrifice the other geese were willing to put forth. They put themselves in harm’s way, risking their own lives. They were like our soldiers living their creed “no man left behind.” If you haven’t watched that video above yet, this is a good time.goose flying

In our world, we see many examples of heroes selflessly risking their own safety to help others. We also see the opposite, by-standers who refuse to get involved or those who only care about themselves. Which will you be? I’d like to think that If I see someone who needs help I would jump in without thinking twice. Wait…didn’t I point that out as a personal flaw? Maybe I need to reconsider that.

How’s Your Trend Line? A New Group Activity

Dow jones graph nasdaq-historical-chart-adjusted-for-inflation-2015-09-08-macrotrends

Introduction: Have you ever seen the graph showing the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the course of its existence (over 100 years!)?  How about the NASDQ?  These stock exchange graphs provide great examples of a “Trend Line.”  If you look at the graphs, you see dozens of peaks and valleys (ups and downs), however, the overall trend over the course of time is upwards.  In our own lives, we also experience “ups and downs” and have a personal “trend line.”  The hope is, that despite all the ups and downs in our lives, we can have a positive, upward-moving trend line.

Props: Stock market graphs above, markers and paper (or, alternatively, pieces of rope or raccoon circles)

The Action: With your group, review what the stock market is (a market in which small, of companies are exchanged.  These parts of companies are known as shares.  The price of these shares goes up and down.  If you buy cheap and sell shares at a higher price, you make money. If you sell your shares at a lower price, you lose money).  Show the group the graphs above and discuss how the stock market has had many ups and downs over the course of its existence but the “Trend Line” is positive.  You may want to point out some areas when the trend line was flat (1934-1949) or even trending downward (Dow Jones 1965-1982).  I am sure, if you lived during those years, it seemed like things would never turn around.  But as you back up and take a more long-term look, things ALWAYS got better.

Have your group participants think about their lives.  You can have them look at their lives birth to present or choose a certain period of time (i.e. the last five years).  Consider all the ups and downs.  Have participants draw their own graph/trend line with all its ups and downs.   Have participants share their graphs with others.

 trendlineDebrief: The Debrief for this activity takes place as participants share their graphs.  Note the direction of the trend line.  If the trend line is negative or flat, what would help get it moving upwards?  Be aware that you may very well get some intense, deep and emotional sharing during this activity.  Be prepared.  You also may counter resistance as the activity demands a great deal of reflection and sharing.  Encourage participants to only share what they are comfortable sharing. 

Variation: Instead of having students draw their graph, use pieces of rope or raccoon circles (15 foot sections of nylon webbing) to create their graph on the ground.

National Day Project Days 1 & 2

Hello! Please check out the fun we’re having on our first two days of our National Day Project: National No Rhyme Day and National Blueberry Popsicle Day.  It’s not too late to join in the fun and post your own celebratory creations.  Tomorrow is National Welsh Rarebit Day…what’s that?  Check out our page and find out!!!!


Use #NationalDayProject

Scott I. Goldsmith, M.S., LPC

Owner, Outside the Box Experiential, LLC



Twitter: @scottigoldsmith

Instagram: OutsideTheBoxExp