Ninja Warrior Night: Teaching Students to Overcome Obstacles…Literally!

I’m always looking for fun ways to motivate my students to develop their athleticism. I’m constantly searching for creative ways to have the students work on setting goals and mapping out plans to achieve them. I want to teach my students how to overcome obstacles and not give up. And I’ve discovered I can literally do just that with a physical education inspired version of TV’s American Ninja Warrior course!

TV shows such as Wipe-Out, American Ninja Warrior, Ninja Warrior Junior Titanare wildly popular among our youth right now. The high intensity, high-risk style of competition is the reason for their popularity. These shows always have my children and I on the edge of our seats, hearts racing, muscles tensing, almost willing the athletes to get through to the next obstacle. These shows are inspiring children, teens, and adults to become more physically active and try new things outside their comfort zones. With this in mind, I decided a school-wide competition would be a great teaching tool to motivate my students to rise up, challenge themselves, and learn what they are capable of.

Every year, the students in my school look forward to our Giant Obstacle Course. Year after year, we set up in class different obstacles that are both fun and crazy while challenging the students’ strength, endurance, and overall fitness. So, this year, my co-worker and I designed the course to resemble the show American Ninja Warrior. We made our version of the quad steps, rope swings, rolling log, warped wall, Tarzan ropes, cargo climb, jumping bars, salmon ladder, unstable bridge, devil steps, rope junction, cliff hanger, monkey pegs, etc. I have to brag for one moment! The course was AWESOME! Everyday you would find my coworker and I playing on the course any free minute we had. Even some of the teachers and staff would come in during their class PE period and play.

At the conclusion of the unit, we held a Lincoln Avenue Ninja Warrior Competition after school on a Friday night. The competition was open to all students from our school which extends from Kindergarten through 5th grade. In order to qualify for the competition, students had to be able to climb up an entire 24-foot climbing rope. We have 6 ropes at my school ranging in difficulty. The students could qualify on ANY of the ropes no matter the difficulty level. The easiest rope to climb was a fully knotted rope where the knots were covering the entire length of the rope and were closely spaced. The next level rope had knots covering the entire length of the rope but the knots were further spaced apart. The intermediate rope only had knots on the bottom half of the rope and the top half had no knots at all. The hardest rope of all was the rope without knots. We have three of these. In order to qualify for the competition, the students must climb ANY rope and touch the metal bar on top.

We had 108 students out of 400 qualify, 3 of whom were kindergarteners. The students who did not qualify were our scorekeepers, judges, announcers, record keepers, timers, interviewers, and D. J’s. Everyone had an important role. I even had past students volunteer to help out at the event!

All students, whether they were competitors, scorekeepers, timers, refs, etc., were instructed to come up with a Ninja Warrior name and avatar. They were encouraged to come to the competition in a costume they were able to compete in. (One of my students loved Cookie Monster and came dressed as him but due to the costume, poor Cookie Monster kept sliding and could not get up the rope!) The students colored their hair, painted their faces, and dressed in costume from head to toe. Music was blasting, lights were glowing, and everyone was cheering for the other competitors. It was so loud in the gym that anyone who was in the building popped in just to see the action. It was easily one of my favorite events to run.

The course started with the rope climb and ended with the dreaded Warped Wall. We even created a buzzer that students were able to press when they beat the Warped Wall.  You should have seen the students all stand on top of the Warped Wall with their arms overhead victoriously! It was truly priceless. These are memories they will never forget and will be able to reflect on later in life when they are challenged.

The piece that was the most meaningful to me was that the competition was not about finding a winner. It was a celebration of the struggle of climbing the rope and for some, the success of it. Students were able to share their “Rope War” stories. How many times it took them to get up, how scared they were, why they continued, and what it meant to them. They were even showing off and proudly comparing their hand calluses.

This event was not just about the physical benefits but the mental benefits as well. I want fitness to be fun and memorable! I want to inspire my students to constantly push themselves to be the best they can be and raise the bar of their own personal expectations. I want to try to give my students as many opportunities to grow and succeed. I want to empower them to increase their drive and performance. And I want to offer my students opportunities where they feel challenged and must learn to work for success.

In order to qualify for our Lincoln Avenue Ninja Warrior Competition, I knew the task had to be challenging. Students learn a great deal through their struggles as well as their achievement. They need to learn to grow through adversity and not having everything so easy or handed to them. Ninja Warrior night was a fantastic way to teach our students how to set goals, how to create a plan to accomplish the goals, the importance of practice, and how to learn from and push past failure.

As parents and teachers, we need to reward the struggle as well as the accomplishment. Most life lessons are learned in the struggle. The greater the struggle the more meaningful the reward. This is important in fostering a growth mindset and not a fixed one. Students need to learn that we all struggle, and that being athletic is not something many of us are born with. It’s a trait we have to work hard to achieve and keep nurturing.

Climbing ropes is a very difficult skill. We want to challenge our students but not always go beyond their ability where they become discouraged and lose self-esteem. Keeping this in mind, every PE class I would run clinics on how to climb the different types of ropes. I would give tips, suggestions, and modify tasks so students could feel some success while gradually giving them greater goals to strive for. If climbing to the top of the rope was not part of the Lincoln Avenue Ninja Warrior Competition, I doubt as many children would have put as much time and practice into it. Sometimes students need a little push, an external reward. By giving the students an opportunity to rise to a goal and succeed, we are helping them reveal personal strengths and qualities they may not have noticed.

Before the competition, my co-worker and I would open our PE doors before school to any student who wanted to practice. So many kids came that we had to give different grades specific clinic times so we could accommodate all students. Kids of all abilities came! Students who were struggling did modified activities to improve strength, such as seated to standing rope climbs, assisted pull-ups, negative pull-ups, etc. For students who could climb up some of the ropes I would teach them climbing techniques such as Brake and Squat or Wrap and Lock. It was wonderful watching the students challenge themselves, asking questions, and increasing their knowledge. I’ve learned that obstacle course races are a fun and fantastic way to inspire all students to live a lifetime full of fitness. Give it a try in your school!


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1 Comment
  1. What a great article and a great way to motivate students. I would love to see the layout of the entire course to get some ideas of how i could do a version of this for my students. Thank you for the inspiration.

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