What circus arts taught me about team-building

Reporter Bek Frith runs off to the circus for a day of team-building fun

“Just take a step down. Just a simple, small step down,” the trainer offered helpfully. The ground (14 feet below) wobbled menacingly, daring me to lift a foot from the platform.

“I can’t,” I choked, screwing my eyes shut, painfully aware of everyone watching. The bar of the trapeze seemed to shake in my hands.

“You can do it!” called one of my teammates from the floor.

“Come on Bek!” yelled another.

Trembling, but with renewed determination, I stepped off the platform and swung.

The National Centre for Circus Arts, based near Old Street, has been offering team-building experiences for the past 15 years. So far hundreds of organisations, including Unilever, Topman, the BBC and EY have given their employees the chance to bond over activities designed to push them outside of their comfort zone.

Philip Nichols, head of marketing and communications at the National Centre for Circus Arts, told HR magazine that the nature of circus skills lends them to team-building exercises. “Circus is a physical activity but it's not competitive,” he said. “It's about teamwork and working together. Challenging activities help to take participants out of their comfort zone, teach people to appreciate one another's strengths, and improve communication and trust.”

As I finally let go of the bar and landed ungracefully in the pile of crash mats, I knew I hadn’t done a very good job. If anyone bought a ticket to watch my acrobatics they would certainly be entitled to a refund. But that didn’t matter to my team. After a flurry of high-fives and backslaps I felt like even PT Barnum would have been impressed with my performance.

There are a number of circus activities on offer, including using stilts and creating human pyramids. “People will find personal strengths that they wouldn't expect. For example, someone might really struggle on the trapeze but be an excellent tightwire walker,” said Nichols.

Juggling turned out to be my secret talent. Despite having never managed to before, by the end of the session I was able to perform a simple three-ball cascade. After that we tried counterbalancing skills; using your body weight to create interesting poses with colleagues. I am, I was told, a good ‘base’ – someone good at holding others up in balancing poses – rather than a ‘flyer’, which is the person on top.

“[The events] absolutely build confidence,” said Nichols. “It's a unique opportunity to work together with your colleagues in a way they wouldn't usually do in the workplace. People have an experience here that they can't get anywhere else and achieve things they didn't think they could do."

While I’m not planning on running off to join the circus any time soon, I did treat myself to a set of juggling balls.