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Being a Counselor is a Marathon not a Sprint

14.03.16

One of the great things about landing a summer camp counseling job is that you know exactly when the job begins and ends, allowing you to plan other late spring and late summer activities around your summer job schedule. It also gives you a clear idea of when you need to be “on” at camp.

But the deceptive thing is that the chunk of time when you are working can seem so short and sweet that it reads initially like a sprint — a short, fast race run at one constant speed. This vibe is made all the more so since camps are places with a fair share of peppiness. Camp Counselors are employed to, in part, model upbeat, can-do behavior, which some can mistake for being constantly in high octane cheerleader mode.

Even though most summer camps are a set 6-10 weeks of training, camp itself, and a closing day, camp counselors should treat the experience more like a marathon — a long run where pacing matters, and where changes in altitude, speed, road conditions, stamina, and endurance are crucial to running a successful race.

Now, this is an imperfect metaphor because camp is NOT a race to the finish line. It’s more like a pleasant run for fun and enjoyment. Still, the contrast between a sprint and a marathon is apt in that counselors need to be in the right condition for the duration of the run.

Slow and steady wins the race

There’s no doubt that cheerfulness is an essential ingredient of camp counseling. Young people need role models who are optimistic, encouraging, and who approach challenges with willingness and confidence. When campers see this, that’s how they want to be, too, which is great as it helps many tackle a fear, take on a new activity, meet a goal, and just go for it in new situations!

Yet those same campers need a different response if they’re feeling tired, discouraged, or frustrated. Then they need a counselor to adapt that cheery and optimistic tone into something that’s still positive, but connects with their feelings in a real way. But if you’re sprinting through camp in an Up, Up, UP mood it may be more difficult to tune in to various camper needs. And various camper needs are like those unexpected road conditions — something to work with in a new way.

Similarly, some days the weather might hit in a challenging way — a big thunderstorm, high temps, or unexpected chilliness. Counselors might have to adapt a day’s activities into something totally new, thinking quickly on their feet, and helping young campers make an adjustment in expectations. Like a runner climbing a steep incline, that’s when slowing down, keeping pace, and staying focused comes in very handy!

Other times it’s you who might a face a personal challenge. After all, living in tight quarters with a group of young people, and in a larger group all around you, in all weather conditions, with a good amount of 24/7 presence in camp, means that you, too, have to be adaptable, go with the flow, and take care of your own needs during your off time so that you can meet the needs of others. Like a runner in a long race you don’t want the occasional frustrations and unexpected conditions to outweigh the big picture — that the run is beautiful, fun, and full of possibilities. So you breathe deeply, drink some refreshing water, give yourself positive affirmations and encouragement to keep going.

See yourself succeeding on pace

I’m sure that you can imagine situations at camp that are either unexpected, or less than ideal. And you can imagine how you prefer a day to go, and what kind of personal time you enjoy. You have to put this all together as a camp counselor, understanding the demands of the job and being able to adapt along the way.

My main point being that all of the joys and all of the challenges of a camp experience work together for one big picture over time, not one look and tone that remains the same but is over quickly.

Now, camp is SO AWESOME that when it is over we do think it happened too fast. But when you’re in it, days can sometimes be long, and a week ahead can feel daunting from time-to-time.

The great thing about all of these camp staff experiences is that they build resilience in you, a key asset that employers look for in any field, from medicine to law, parenting to sales, teaching to science, and more. And as we’ve written in many of our posts about being a camp counselor, these are benefits that you can use to your advantage when competing for jobs in your future.

By all means enjoy the fact that you know when your summer job begins and ends. And enjoy the fact that you’re there to not only work, but to also have fun, model fun, and encourage fun. But also remember to pace yourself, take care of yourself, and consider the whole arc of the summer broken down by days and not just one bloc.

You’ll love your summer camp counseling job the most if you mix a healthy dose of idealism with an equally sized dose of realism — then your summer will balance out and work to your best advantage. Happy job hunting!

Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls