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Lessons From the Woods: Put Your Freakin' Phone Down

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

You learn a lot about life when you step back from it. When I quit my coaching job to work at a camp, my life did a full 180 degrees. I went from being the guy who Tweeted daily, posted on Instagram multiple times a day, and was constantly checking and writing emails. I left my last day at work at 8pm on a Friday, and pulled into the camp at 10pm. From there, it was “lights out.”

Not a cell phone tower in sight.

You start to notice several things about yourself and the others around you when no one has cell service. Conversations turn from “Did you see this?” to actual conversations about life. You build actual friendships with people that aren’t via DM’s and post replies. You learn to articulate your thoughts and reasoning out loud, which is far more vulnerable than most of us realize.

One crazy thing to watch, however, is the change in kids when you strip away the TV and the technology. We had each group of campers for two weeks at a time, and as my brother (one of the leaders for the high school age group) pointed out to me, “Day one campers are not the same as day `14 campers.” In two weeks, you watch kids go from being uncomfortable with being out in the woods and dirt to running around caked in mud as the search the woods for snakes. Especially for kids these days, putting down the phone they’ve grown up with in their hand reveals a whole new world to them.

One instance stood out to me during a conversation with one of the directors at lunch. He had been walking through the camp when he encountered one of the younger boys (around 10) walking through the camp with a big stick that was pointed like a spear and had a bunch of markings on it. The director had asked what the boy was carrying, expecting him to say a walking stick, but instead got an answer that seemed like it was out of a fairytale. The boy called the stick a staff with magical powers, and each marking was a spell that revealed these hidden monsters that he and his cabin mates had to protect their cabin from. Normally, if people were to hear someone say that in a school they’d have the kid checked out for being mentally deranged, when in actuality all he was doing was seeing a world of make believe.

At a boys camp, you get to see this a lot. I saw kids LARP – Live Action Role Play, for those who aren’t familiar with the mock Medieval battles with cardboard weapons – and come up with games that involved mini parkour movements. And for clarity, none of this was coordinated by staff members. A lot of times we just watched and marveled at the uniqueness of games that kids came up with. Kids sharpened sticks with pocketknives, played tag, and got very competitive at the old schoolyard game of Tetherball.

This was of course, after they’d been separated from their phones, iPads, and TV’s for a few days. One of the major realizations that came to me was that so often we think kids are getting dumber or less creative, when really their imaginations and minds are just going along with the flow. Let’s be real, watching hours of YouTube is a mindless activity, as is scrolling through Instagram or checking out stories on Snapchat. Even sport practices are becoming “mindless”, where all you have to do to get the approval of the adults present is to follow the instructions.

It’s not that kids aren’t creative, it’s that they aren’t required to solve the problem of boredom as often.

We adults are likely no different than this. I found myself in this boat when working in the camp kitchen. For the first week or so, my natural reaction was to look at the head cook (who is 4 years younger) and ask him what I was supposed to do. I couldn’t think autonomously. Granted I had been out of food service for 3 years, but my own ability to rely on past experience had been replaced by following the guidelines.

I mention all of this because when looking at our health as coaches, the health of our athletes, or whoever it is that we train we must realize the impact that we let the almighty technology reign. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the programming apps that allow athletes to pull up their training on their phone, of Coaches Eye, force plates, jump mats, and laser timers. Data is cool, and I am all for use of technologies that help aid in training. But creativity is pretty cool to, and largely beneficial to the health of athletes, non-athletes, and coaches alike.

Besides, you can’t see forward when you’re always looking down.
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