Blazing a trail

Teambuilding is a dangerous pursuit these days. Not content with sit-down
training sessions and role playing, staff take to white-water rafting,
paintballing and firewalking in an attempt to aid office communication.

When City recruitment consultancy Guardian Group recently restructured its
sales team, it was looking for a way to develop and enhance the existing team
spirit. The company has no HR department, but John Jones, group sales director,
decided to offer staff the firewalk, among other teambuilding exercises, as a
means of bonding and self-development.

"We wanted to encourage team work and, having attended a Starfire
seminar by Simon Treselyan, I felt this would be the ideal medium to discover
the potential we all hold and have some real fun," he says.

Walking across hot coals might seem a strange choice for building team
spirit, but it has become a popular means of breaking down barriers in recent

Firewalk leader Simon Treselyan of Starfire training explains, "The
idea of firewalking is very emotive, so people have to overcome the illogical
fears they have before they can walk across coals.

"The walk provides a controlled environment where people can make a
dramatic change in their lives by moving from ‘can’t do’ to having achieved
something they thought was impossible within an incredibly short

Once they’ve done it, they realise they can take that energy and way of
thinking and use it to transform other areas of their life, so they can
translate the process directly to whatever they want to change.

The danger of firewalking was highlighted in 1998 when seven insurance
salesmen from Eagle Star needed hospital treatment, two of them at a special
burns unit, after attempting a firewalk at the end of a motivational training
day. In that instance, hot coals were put into a metal tray which produced
extreme heat, like a barbecue. Wood trays are used most commonly. Wood is a
poor conductor of heat and so long as one walks quickly and is not in contact
with the surface for very long, there is not enough time for skin to burn, says

The psyching-up before the walk also helps suppress any pain, according to
John Humberston, Professor of Physics at University College London, helping
people get into a "mind over matter" state when they take that first
step beyond their natural boundaries.

But once the firewalk has been done and the feet are being nursed, how
useful is the exercise seen in relation to work life?

For the Guardian team, there were mixed reactions. Views ranged from seeing
it as a pointless, painful task to a life-changing exercise.

Treselyan says the art of positive thinking that firewalkers acquire can be
applied elsewhere. "A firewalk gets people’s whole attention – not just on
the walk, but on every detail of the planning. People’s emotions are engaged;
they take charge of their mental state, their energy levels and the
goal-setting techniques around performing a firewalk.

"Basically, people are here to learn how to get from one place to
another by moving through difficult circumstances. The skill, once learned, is
transferable to other areas of their lives – including work – should they
choose to use it."

Roy Stewart, 24, Sales consultant

"I know a lot of people in the
team felt dubious and said they wouldn’t do the firewalk. It was great the way
the trainer got everyone on his side by demonstrating to us the power of the
mind and explaining that by changing your approach you can do things you didn’t
think you could. After that I was really looking forward to the course.

"From the point of stepping off from grass into the fire I
just thought, ‘Walk across the coals, walk across the coals’. It felt like
putting your foot in hot water and then coming out again. I could feel the heat
and I knew that if I stopped walking I would get burnt.

"When I realised I was through it the first time, it was a
bit of an anti-climax – I was excited, but I just wanted to do it again. I felt
the actual walk was a little too short. I thought, ‘Oh right, is that it? Have
I done it now? Is it as simple as that?’

"The point of the course was to show people that there are
no boundaries. If you can walk across hot coals, what’s so hard about picking
up the phone and calling somebody?

"I don’t think it is going to make me a better sales
consultant, but it’s given me the right energy. It’s been two weeks now and
everyone’s still pumped up and giving each other little neck massages, as they
were taught, to release tension.

"It was a fantastic course and I enjoyed every minute of

Tony Massenhove, 28, Senior

"My outlook has changed since
doing the firewalk. I was very cynical beforehand and had decided I wasn’t
going to do it and that I didn’t need to do it to prove myself.

"The thing that swayed me was the ‘mind over matter’
exercises. They were weird, but I saw them work, and at that point I had to
open my mind up a little bit and start listening. Then I found myself believing
and wanting to do the firewalk.

"I think it was trusting in the trainer that made me
change my mind.

"The walk itself was a very emotional experience and I
have changed some of my beliefs because of it. Before the training, I strongly
believed that if you were angry you were more determined. But I’ve learned that
if you are positive and happy you will do so much better.

"It’s all about confidence – I am a salesman, and for me
it’s all about taking those knocks. Often when you phone someone up, they will
say, ‘Oh it’s just another recruitment consultant’, which can get you down, but
I don’t let it now. I look at the space just beyond it.

"I feel there is a better bond between people in the
office. I never used to speak to people in the IT department, but I’m
socialising with them now, so in that sense the exercise worked."

Gemma Sheldon, 21, (The only
person not to get involved in the exercises)

"I knew from the start that
there was no way on earth I was going to do the firewalk. I couldn’t see
anything I was going to get from it other than pain.

"I didn’t feel pressurised into doing it – if I don’t want
to do something then 25 people encouraging me is not going to change my mind. I
just thought that if other people want to do it, it’s up to them. I don’t come
to work to walk across fire – I come to work to work.

"A lot of the other things the trainer said, however, were
very helpful in terms of motivation. If you’re having a bad day, and you’re
feeling tired, a lot of the training was about coming into work at those times
and feeling positive. I took all that on board, so a lot of positive things did
come out of the training."

Francis, 27, Temp controller

"I was hesitant to start with
and thought the firewalk might be something I’d choose to opt out of. But when
we did an exercise where I broke a board with my hand I suddenly felt empowered
to do a lot more.

"I didn’t think the firewalk was dangerous at all.
Immediately afterwards I felt on a high. It didn’t seem macho to me. I think
the whole point of the training was that it doesn’t matter who you are, or what
sex you are, you are capable of doing as much as you want to.

"I call on that experience now if I’m in a tricky
situation, because if I could achieve something that was seemingly impossible,
then I can go on to bigger and better things.

"I think the firewalk gives you positive energy and it’s a
positive experience to have had. I have definitely benefited from it and would
recommend it to anyone else.

"It’s not specific to work, but it is specific to frame of
mind and that impacts all of us here – you need to be assertive and reassured,
and it helped with that."

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