Marathon runners sometime experience a sudden loss of energy that they call ‘hitting the wall’, they pass through an invisible barrier and get-up-and-go gets up and leaves.
Youth leaders are especially susceptible to hitting the wall, and most do at some point.
Communication breaks down, nothing seems to work, what seems simple becomes hopelessly complex, frustration and feelings of inadequacy follow.
We can’t avoid the wall, we are all going to hit it, and we’ve seen it happen to others. The good news it that we can all recover and move on!
So how do we react and get things back on track? Here’s some thoughts that you may find helpful:
1. ” Hitting the wall” is almost inevitable.
Forewarned is forearmed. If we know that this is going to happen we’ll be prepared to help. It’s an invisible barrier, so you can’t be sure exactly where it is, but in my experience youth leaders usually hit the wall a couple of months into serving in their position of responsibility.
2. Reactions to “hitting the wall” are predictable.
I’ve found that when they’ve hit the wall the first reaction of most youth leaders is playing possum.
If you are unfamiliar with the idiom the opossum reacts to threatening situations by remaining quiet and still to escape attention or remain undetected.
One of unwritten laws of adolescence forbid them from asking for help, and admitting shortcomings or mistakes. When they’ve “hit the wall” youth leaders usually react by hoping nobody notices.
But we do notice, and how we react is important.
3. Calling to account with cheerfulness and encouragement.
When a normally smiling, happy, engaged youth leader suddenly wants to hide there’s a good reason – they are frustrated and usually at least a little ashamed that things have gone poorly. They may bluster and bluff, they may get angry or morose, they may be afraid of the inevitable confrontation they know is coming.
How we confront the problem is important, and the key is distinguishing the difference between the problem and the person.
Youth are likely to thing that their problems means there is something wrong with them personally.
Do you remember that feeling? I know I do! At that age we are very sensitive to what others think of us and we are pretty sure that everyone is looking at us judgmentally.
I begin the conversation by, (you guessed it!), asking questions that define the issue:
“What’s the plan for the meeting (campout, hike, etc.)?”
The inevitable answer is an on-the-spot smokescreen of an answer:
“Uh, we are going to do this, and then this, and then this…”
“Can I see the plan? You have some notes or something right?”
“Uhhhh, no, not really.”
“Would it be fair to say that you just came up with the plan when I asked you?”
“Ahhhh, yeah, kind of.”
“So tell me what you’ve been doing this past few days to prepare for what we are doing right now.”
“Wellll… not much I guess.”
“Do you think that’s what your Scouts are expecting of you?”
The one syllable answers begin about here!
A more open-ended question encourages them to think a little:
“Tell me what you think we have a right to expect of a Scout who is (a patrol leader, etc.)”
They describe those expectations.
“It seems to me like you are running into difficulties making those things happen. Can you tell me why?”
The conversation goes on from there to pin down the problem and some actions that will help remedy it.
I do my best to be to ask questions from the viewpoint of an impartial observer to differentiate between the Scout and the problem.
Not what you did or didn’t do, but what we’d reasonably expect of anyone. Not personalizing the problem, but looking at it as a problem everyone encounters.
“I know you probably feel bad but I want you to cheer up because this isn’t about you. Every leader, including myself, runs into problems just like this. It’s discouraging, but the best thing to do is get back up and keep on going. Pretty soon you’ll be fine.”
4. Follow up with more cheerful encouragement.
I’ll follow up in a few days and ask how things are going. What I’m looking for is the least little indication of imitative (sometimes I have to look very hard indeed!) But once I see that small step forward I respond with cheerful encouragement and hope for the best.
The wall is out there, nobody is immune from hitting it, but recovery is possible!
That recovery hinges on how we address the issue. Sometimes it takes a few tries, but with encouragement most youth leaders pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start running again.