Tackling Training in 2021


“Wash your hands! Six feet apart y’all! Put your mask back on, I won’t tell you again!” I shout above the din for what feels like the hundredth time. I know it is a lie; I will have to tell them again. Over and over, for the remainder of their time with me, I will be forced to remind this group of eager trainees to follow protocol. The threat of the virus is ever present. Added to the extensive list of other risks that inherently lurk in aerial activities trainings, Covid creates a recipe for headaches and trouble.

Ours is a hands-on industry, based in active participation and direct involvement. Historically, our trainings have mirrored this, with lots of close interaction with gear, course components, and human beings. Then came 2020 and a pandemic.

Concerns about space and surface sharing, time spent in close proximity to others, and the threat of exposure created hurdles that trainers had to navigate with little warning. So, we put on our thinking caps, modified our programs, switched to digital learning platforms (when possible), cleaned gear, and employed giant sock monkeys and wood posts as rescue dummies to address Covid threats.

The 2021 season is fast approaching. Now, to prepare for training in this new normal, we must reflect on what worked this past year and get creative about what could work for 2021.

So, how do we navigate the new and changing currents of training in the time of Covid-19?


One of the key steps in training is setting clear and informed expectations for organizations, trainers, and participants alike. This is now doubly true as we install new protocols to deal with the pandemic.

Convey a consistent message. At West Virginia University’s Outdoor Education Center, assistant director of adventure C.J. Belknap worked with many different parties and organizations to assemble consistent and accurate messaging for students and staff.

Two key steps, “laying out expectations and discussing why it all mattered,” he says, gave his team some much-needed perspective. The training also set the foundation for a culture that views the new restrictions as tools to be used in facilitation and training.

Set expectations early. Professional training vendors noted that setting expectations in pre-programming talks with clients led to smoother operation once trainers and staff were on site. For example, High 5 Adventure Learning Center created two documents around training to share with clients before trainers ever stepped foot on site.

High 5’s portable training element, called the A-Frame, modified with longer control ropes to maintain distancing.

The documents included a Covid-19 strategies outline that listed the responsibilities of the client, the participants, the trainer, the company, and all others involved, plus a detailed description of the modifications to the adventure program and training strategies (which covered the actual Covid-19 protocols).

According to Chris Damboise, director of training and team development at High 5, “These documents gave [everyone]confidence and set expectations for all parties involved. It told them that they could count on us to do it safely and vice versa.”

Model good behavior. In addition, Damboise found that “when trainers model [the protocols], the facilitators feel they have permission to take care of themselves [in their programming]and that gives permission for participants to do the same.”

The ripple effect of responsibility and culture development has been noted by several industry professionals. “We get to have some influence as trainers,” says Kevin Trump, director of programming at Synergo. “We hold some responsibility,” he notes, for how trainees view the pandemic and the safety protocols surrounding it.

Reinforce seriousness. Establishing early the importance and gravity of expectations related to Covid-19 precautions helped create good habits and confidence in future practitioners and guides.

“[We] have to impart the importance of Covid-19 precautions during training—it could save lives,” says Alex Moore, director of training at Synergo. “We require participants to wear harnesses so they don’t die. These [Covid] protocols are for the same reasons.”

Stay current. Organizations are responsible for staying informed about and current with local regulations as Covid cases spike and ebb. Trainers, particularly third-party trainers, also need to know the local regulations and be up to date, Trump notes.

But keep the big picture in mind, too. Tom Leahy of Leahy & Associates, Inc., encourages training professionals to regularly check the national numbers, and to use original source data rather than relying on media outlets and word of mouth. “This is science and a part of our risk management,” he stresses.

WVU Outdoor Education Center’s training dummies.


When considering how to move on in this new landscape, trainers are often unsure about where to start. Damboise says High 5 Adventure began by asking, “What can we do that will allow people to use existing programming?”

Minor modifications. That question led Damboise to a realization: many aspects of training could remain much the same as always. Leahy echoes that. “Lots of games and initiatives can be done at a distance with some modifications,” he says. “People will get into it. With a little bit of adaptation, you can do what you were doing before, with great results.”

These modifications can come in many forms: moving programs outdoors to allow for more space; requiring masks during activities; using prominent markers to establish appropriate physical distancing; quarantining gear and equipment after use; and frequent handwashing and sanitizing.

Damboise uses gamification to incorporate some of these modifications into existing programming. For example, at a verbal cue from the trainer, participants race to sanitize their hands (with small personal bottles kept in their pockets) and avoid being the last one to find their Purell.

Sub-in dummies. The use of rescue dummies is another adaptation to come out of Covid-19 precautions, and it’s been a real boon, say Belknap and Leahy. The dummies require little modification to the program and have several unexpected benefits. “They are faster, since we don’t have to worry about a human getting back up to height, they generally don’t distract the trainee, and they eliminate some of the risk management concerns in the rescue,” says Leahy. His rescue dummy is an old wooden post, sporting a Sharpie-drawn face. Leahy named it Mr. Bill.

Belknap’s dummy is a human-sized sock monkey. “There is a bit of dark humor associated with it that can be fun,” says Belknap, such as when the sock monkey dangling mid-line is asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ during rescue practice.

Think ahead. Modifying programming to suit the Covid training arena takes forethought and careful consideration of any additional risk to all involved parties. That said, creative adaptations of existing programs and structures can allow trainers to maintain individual styles and foster similar staff bonding and group dynamics while respecting the protocols and precautions for the virus.


The digital universe has become a safe haven for information sharing and educating during the pandemic. Platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom have provided us with opportunities to teach and facilitate learning remotely. Applications such as Prezi, Mural, PowerPoint, and Jam Board help educators create tools and presentations to communicate key topics and concepts.

When appropriately applied, digital learning can lessen a trainer’s time spent on site, can accommodate foul weather and trainee’s schedules, and can allow trainees the time to review materials and topics at their own pace. However, Zoom burnout, lack of hands-on time, and overall lack of engagement can prove insufficient, especially when the skills learned have to be applied in real life.

Be selective. Trainers must be discerning when deciding which topics can be moved online. “There’s only so much we can do in the Brady Bunch format,” Belknap from WVU points out.

Keep it engaging. “To make it meaningful, that’s the challenge,” says Belknap. The program at WVU utilizes both in-person and online seminar-style instruction on a bi-weekly basis. In both formats, Belknap says, they “have a great opportunity to be creative.”

Leahy says the integration of technology, like iPads equipped with drawing and shareable whiteboard programs, helps keep trainees engaged and staves off Zoom fatigue. “Having a visual that people can see while you are doing it is very important,” he says. Other engagement strategies involve breakout groups, quizzes, and live lectures with opportunities for trainees to ask questions.

Synergo zip rescue training at Glacier Ziplines, Mont.

Stay connected. Belknap says that his team stayed in “constant contact with staff in order to keep up momentum and create energy” when their program moved online. This contact also enables trainers to troubleshoot difficulties and share strategies amongst peers.

As Leahy says, “we need to be physically distant but socially connected. That relationship is important still.”

Plan and polish. Along with keeping communication lines open, it takes practice to build effective digital training. Leahy encourages his team to “get together and practice before trainings so that you have time to figure it out.”

Practice can also help those that are camera-shy prepare and allow time to identify problem areas early on in the training preparation process.

There is nothing quite like a technical difficulty to start training off on the wrong foot. So, aside from learning how to operate whatever platform you are using, trainers should take the time to figure out what to do when something goes wrong.


Damboise says, moving forward, trainers will have to be strategic with the ways they use equipment and resources. Training modification, he notes, “takes time and needs planning.”

Consider modifications such as breaking into smaller groups; setting up training stations that rotate; cleaning, quarantining, and using schedules for equipment; creating digital materials; mandating hand sanitizing; scheduling additional trainers to accommodate physical distancing, etc.

It’s also important for trainers to “manage and mitigate those things that we can control,” says Belknap.

Control sequencing. One of those things is the sequencing of information. Correctly sequencing skills and topics is key to the success of trainees, says Belknap. Trainers should, as always, be strategic in how they build on the learning of their participants, and adjust their sequencing as needed to accommodate Covid protocols.

Trial runs. Certain protocols may require some getting used to, so teams should “get internal staff together early enough to strategize and make sure that, [for example], they can wear and teach in a mask for 8 hours,” says Damboise. “Start having the conversations with staff early. Start gathering again with them, so that you have the confidence and they have the confidence, before you start incorporating new tools and strategies [into training].”

Ask for help. Belknap says that another vital part of training planning for 2021 is reaching out for help when you get stuck. “Tons of operations have figured this out,” he says. “There are tons of resources. Policies and procedures exist. Work with a vendor or someone else who has gone through this.”


Leahy, Damboise, Moore, and Trump all agree with that. The number of conversations going on within our industry is at an all-time high. Professionals are being more open and vulnerable than ever before. So don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help—it is how we all grow and become better.


As we roll into the new year, our industry will find itself better prepared than it was in 2020. We have had time to rebound, reconsider, and regroup for 2021. We have a better sense of what things have changed, and what things haven’t.

Leahy encourages trainers to “look back into your skill set and focus on what really matters. Focus on interaction and the other risks of training.”

“We can create a new sense of norms,” says Belknap. “We are part of the public health initiative now. We can teach that masks aren’t taboo, we can make social distance just another part of the story, and we can subtly shift the needle for folks to be accepting, understanding, and comfortable with what is being asked of them on a daily basis.”

He also encourages trainers to take a deep breath. “Don’t fret about the difficulties,” says Belknap. “The difficulties are always there; the variables just change a bit from year to year. We can’t predict the future. Worry about the time that is in front of you.”

“Perfect isn’t real,” remind Moore and Trump. “We’re going to plan, and we’re going to mitigate risk. But it won’t always be perfect. And that’s OK.” What works for some will not work for others.

We will try, and sometimes we will succeed. Other times, we will fail. What matters is that we are still here, we are still fighting, and we are working together to find a new way forward.


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