Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Rec Sports brings team building skills to Japanese university

Representatives of the university's Challenge Program in Recreational Sports recently traveled to Tokyo to provide team-building training to graduate students from St. Luke's College of Nursing.

  St. Luke's students particpate in an exercise called "toxic waste" in which they try to pour ping pong balls into a coffee can using ropes as handles. (Photo by Elizabeth Zollweg)

John Swerdlow, senior assistant director of Recreational Sports, and Elizabeth Zollweg, director of operations of the Challenge Program, attended the three-day seminar hosted at a resort in Karuizawa, a town located two-and-a-half hours outside of Tokyo at the foot of Mountain Asama-yama.

The trip marked the sixth time Swerdlow has traveled to Japan to provide team-building training. He previously visited the country several times between 2001-06 through an agreement with the Turner Geriatric Clinic at U-M.

"A representative from St. Luke's, who participated in our programs in previous years, reached out to us with the invitation to come host our team-building exercises with the students of St. Luke's," Swerdlow said. "We were thrilled to continue to share our practices for building the skills for strong, effective teams."

The purpose of the Challenge Program is to exercise three key skill sets identified by Rec Sports as characteristics of an effective team: communication, problem solving and trust. The activity-based philosophy challenges the existing skills of groups throughout the duration of the program, and provides an opportunity for groups to analyze their performance to determine areas of strengths and areas where improvement is needed.

Located in a nature area on the east side of campus off Dixboro Road, the Challenge Program specifically designs each program to cater to a group's goals and objectives. Exercises can range from simple activities (ball toss and the transfer of objects with limited props) to complex activities (high rope courses with zip lines or a 45-foot team tower to climb).

To take the program overseas, Swerdlow and Zollweg took duffle bags with props and utilized the resort's outdoor area to conduct the activities. St Luke's also contributed to the course with a few built elements to add elevation to the activities to offer a different type of challenge to the groups.

After the activities, the students attended lectures by their professors in the College of Nursing program on the topic of building a team approach for caring for others.

A first time seeing the program applied in Japan, Zollweg's biggest takeaway was observing the difference in working with the Japanese culture and students compared to American students.

"Working with the Japanese students was such a unique experience," Zollweg said. "We had to transform our program to work with interpreters to translate instructions into the Japanese language, and to frame activities to meet how teamwork is valued in this culture and how it is applied in their workplace."

Zollweg noted the experience has built a positive relationship for Rec Sports and St. Luke's, already with plans to return to Japan for more team building seminars next year.

Established in 1990, the program challenges groups to work together to find solutions to real issues. It has been used by various campus units in the past, including varsity sports teams, as well as outside corporations and organizations including: Pepsico, global supplier of highly recognized food and beverages; Denso Corp., worldwide automobile parts supplier; and Compuware AAA Hockey Team.

Units interested in exploring the Challenge Program are invited to contact Rec Sports for details, or go to