Some 25 feet in the air, standing on the top of a wooden pole looking down at a few of his Archbishop Spalding rugby teammates, Zach McCloskey is ready to take what Clive Felgate calls "The Leap of Faith."
It has nothing to do with matrimony, or some far-flung business opportunity similar to the one Felgate took when he bought Upward Enterprises from its original owner a little more than five years ago after working as the operations manager since May of 2001.
McCloskey, an 18-year-old senior from Annapolis, seems confident despite an admitted fear of heights. But others who jump with outstretched arms onto a trapeze bar some 6 1/2 feet away — all while being safely hooked to a pulley — are not.
"I've had ex-Marines jump off that pole almost crying like a baby," Felgate said. "The unknown is the scary thing. That's how we can get people out of their comfort zones, having them do something they've never done before."
On 25 acres that he rents from the adjacent Bishop Claggett Center, Felgate incorporates much of what he did during a 27-year career as a physical training instructor with the United Kingdom's Royal Air Force. The 26 different challenges also include a 50-foot climbing wall, a zip line and other activities that test the participants' mental toughness even more than their strength and athleticism.
Because it is geared to team building, trusting those who are helping and watching is a large part of the process.
"To climb 30 feet in the air and stand on a 9-inch platform, that's a challenge in itself, then to jump off it, that's a whole different mental game," Felgate said of what he calls his "signature" challenge station. "Do you trust the people below, do you trust yourself, who do you believe, how much do you believe them, all those things come up. It's very empowering. Why raw emotions are important and how they can make you grow and make you a better person."
Kevin Ruddy, a former college football player at Catholic University in Washington who is in his eighth season as the rugby coach at Archbishop Spalding in Severn, said he was looking for a team-building activity three years ago when several recommendations came in for Felgate's operation.
"We know everyone who is pretty good athletically, we want to find who is good in terms of leadership, and this brings it out the best," Ruddy said. "It also brings them together because everyone is going through the same thing."
Ruddy, who on the advice of his wife decided to forgo participating this year, said that what his players learn climbing walls and helping one another traverse the Mohawk Walk (where they walk hand-in-hand around a set of low-slung wire cables) translates to the rugby field.
"Amazingly, we see with teammates, helping those who need help, I like how they go through a drill and then they will sit back and assess how they could have done it better," Ruddy said. "Rugby is such a new sport for America, and for these kids also.
"When you're standing on top of a pole and you have to jump off, that's a new experience, too. The physicality of the sport is a little intimidating at first but ultimately they get over their fear and the same thing here as well. They get over their fear and progress from there."
McCloskey, who is playing rugby for the first time after giving up lacrosse, said that the team-building exercise last month "brought us closer together" and added that his favorite challenge, "The Leap of Faith," helped him "get over my fear of heights."
Brady McCaffrey, a 17-year-old senior from Crofton, thought that by having fun doing the exercises, "it helped bring us closer together as a team." When the team had a three-hour practice the following day, McCaffrey, one of its captains, said, "a lot of different guys stepped up."
Felgate moved the operation from three separate locations — two in Montgomery County and one in Northern Virginia — shortly after he bought it. Opened in 1996, the business suffered after9/11 and then when the snipers terrorized the region the following fall.
The Claggett Center, a retreat and conference center near Frederick, wanted to incorporate ropes courses into its summer camp program. But Felgate, a hearty 55-year-old who still uses the zip line to get around despite breaking his hand after a spill, makes it clear that his company is not an adventure camp.
Geared to everyone from high school athletes looking to bond to corporate types hoping to build their sales teams to at-risk students trying to learn the value of trust, Upward Enterprises is based on Felgate's philosophies about life.
One has to do with fishing.
"Somebody once said that you give a guy a fish and he'll eat it for supper for a day," Felgate said. "But if he learns how to fish and catch the fish, he eats for life. Let them work it out. Let them find the skills to get away from that frustration."
Felgate said that the activities are done sequentially so that participants are not immediately overwhelmed. Nor are they coddled, with Felgate and his course manager, ex-Marine John Marchelletta who served in Afghanistan, administering encouragement in teaspoons rather than troughs.
"You can't take a nonswimmer and put him in the deep end of the pool," Felgate said. "You have to have a certain sequence and progress up. If you put them on that pole right away and tell them to jump off, it's not going to happen. They're going to put barriers up and they have to learn to build a certain amount of trust."
Felgate said it is often the fault of coaches when their players don't exhibit enough toughness to get through tough situations.
"These coaches who come out with these kids, they want to tell them, they want to see their kids get immediate success. Bad idea," Felgate said. "Don't teach them, don't tell them. Let them figure it out for themselves. It's a huge journey from where they start to where they finish."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun