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Coaching Through the Outdoors

Posted by Knight Campbell | November 9, 2018 | Comments (4)

My client grasps wildly for options, finding each insufficient. I stand back holding space, ready to support and willing to encourage. Amazingly, she reached this state about half an hour into our first coaching session! After some deep breaths, she tries again. She reaches a small foothold she had not noticed in her frustration and makes an improbable move. Elation overcomes fear. She celebrates at the top of the climb. Then, lowering back to the ground, she does not want to let go of the rope. She hates the feeling of being lowered by someone else, without control. Where to begin?

In the book On Becoming a Leadership Coach, Jennifer Sinek points out that in a “breakdown,” discomfort coupled with vision often leads to the energy necessary for change. As a National Outdoor Leadership School instructor on expeditions, I witness the natural world building great leaders. In fact, research shows that students continue to gain self-esteem and confidence four years after a course! Even the students I teach in REI outdoor skills courses experience a wide range of emotions as they confront challenges. I notice them finding mindfulness, gratitude and self-awareness in only a couple of hours—with no coaching.

Outdoor professionals and guides know the transformative nature of the space in which we work. Yet, guides don’t have the distinctions and competencies in their tool box to capitalize on outdoor experiences for leadership development. Coaches may not always have the technical skills to guide, and still we have become increasingly aware of the power of nature. Many coaches spend time walking or meditating outdoors to reap these benefits. Florence Williams outlines current research showing that time spent in nature reduces stress markers like blood pressure in Nature Fix. More than health benefits, though, people need adventure. People crave exploration!

The Perfect Combination

Outdoor leadership coaching combines adventures provided by guides with conversations fostered by coaches trained in International Coach Federation Core Competencies. During an outdoor adventure, a coach helps translate the client’s experiential learning, emerging emotions and new distinctions into meaningful growth. Specific benefits include the following.

Awareness and Clarity

Being outdoors and experiencing a new adventure often requires putting away electronic devices. Experiencing true solitude on a mountain pass allows us to tap into our intuition as our hourly worries ebb. The real consequences associated with rock climbing or mountaineering also force a level of investment and attention that cannot be replicated in a conference room—clients cannot successfully scale a rock wall without finding mindfulness.

Improved Decision-Making Skills

Adventure and experience provide real consequence. We have put leaders in blizzard conditions to allow them to notice themselves withdrawing due to stress. Leaders open and close their aperture of options as they experience fear even on a short rock climb. Coaches can tap into this real-time decision making to help develop awareness of how leaders make decisions and identify leaders’ preferred mental shortcuts.


Learning new skills in a new environment allows leaders to increase divergent thinking—gaining new ways of looking at an old problem. We have all experienced times when our best idea materializes effortlessly on a walk in nature, and research increasingly supports the idea that nature sparks creativity. The clarity from a quieter mind along with divergent thinking can help leaders solve complex problems quickly.

Emotional Intelligence

Being on an adventure outside creates a wide range of emotions, and the shared experience quickly builds trust in the coaching relationship. Fear, joy, apprehension, triumph, frustration, anger, contentment and awe, to name a few, all ignite a transformative conversation. Coaches can help leaders become aware of these emotions in real time and shift into a positive mindset. Additionally, the heightened emotional experience outdoors reinforces learning from each coaching session by engaging neural pathways in multiple parts of the brain.

Presence and Awe

Researchers define the emotion of awe as feeling vastness and a need to accommodate. Coaching in nature inherently takes leaders to awesome places. When leaders experience awe, they are forced to accommodate a larger reality. This helps them gain a healthy perspective on their priorities and can force a healthy reckoning with ego. Awe also pulls clients into the present, allowing an opportunity for coaches to explore what being present feels like with clients.

Outdoor coaching provides all the benefits of traditional coaching amplified through adventure and experiential learning. The experience is like having two great coaches working in tandem for one client. Wild environments automatically create increased presence and clarity for leaders. Real consequences of adventures stimulate leaders to grapple with their decision making. Real-time access to emotions generates greater self-awareness. Having a skilled leadership coach present for this experience creates more meaningful results more quickly by making sense of purposeful adventures!

knight campbell headshot

Knight Campbell

Knight Campbell believes growth through adventure should be accessible to all leaders. He combines 16 years of leadership experience in the U.S. Navy with his passion for mountain guiding and rock climbing to offer unique experiential coaching. He often takes leaders outside to coach and explore with his company, Cairn Leadership Strategies, LLC. He also works summers as a National Outdoor Leadership School mountaineering instructor in Alaska. Check out Adventure with a Purpose at

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (4)

  1. Gerald Vance says:

    This article is extremely inspiring. I am a life coach who wants to combine coaching and the outdoors. This gave me hope that my coaching practice is meaningful and doable. Thank you

  2. Thank you for articulating and sharing this! I just started my coaching practice this year and am midway through training with the Academy for Coaching Excellence. Outside of coaching, my life revolves mostly around rock climbing and various forms of social change work. I’ve been dreaming about the many ways to combine coaching and climbing, so I’m inspired to learn that you’re doing it with CairnLeadership!

  3. Cilia says:

    Congratulations about this inspiring article! This is my type of Coaching and I admire it! Thank you!

  4. says:

    We often think of the coaching space as an internal journey. When there is a synchronous physical journey, I think progress toward a physical destination reinforces progress in mind journey at a systemic or neurosystem level. Another place I see that synergy occuring is in the WIAL action learning process. It integrates the intentional skill development alongside the practical problem solving activity. At times they seem to compete (focus of attention) but together the outcome is stronger and deeper than the two addressed in isolation. I love coaching in the outdoors.

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