Throughout Joe De Sena's Agoge Kids Camp — aka Camp Spartan — the Spartan founder and CEO has witnessed young kids cry, scream, complain, and completely break down. And yet, despite their constant suffering, he maintains that the kids are never the problem.
The problem is, almost universally, the parents.
In episode 2 of Camp Spartan, an original Spartan series chronicling De Sena's mission to transform kids into warriors at his farm in Vermont, Spartan's chief executive comes face to face with concerned parents who want to rescue their children from "crazy Joe."
These are not strangers, or even acquaintances. These are people that know Joe, people that believe in what he's trying to accomplish and have entrusted him with the well-being of their children.
One such parent was Elena Olin, a neighbor of the De Senas in suburban Boston. Elena's daughter, 12-year-old Elsie, did an earlier iteration of Joe's camp in 2019 and absolutely raved about it. When she returned it was all she talked about, and she wrote about how profound of an experience it was in an essay at school. In 20 years, she wrote, she would still remember what she learned at camp.
A year later, at the Agoge Kids Camp, it was a completely different story.
Three days in, Elsie was, in her mother's words, "a mess." The preteen sent her mom messages that read "SOS!" and "Help!" Elena certainly expected the camp to be difficult, knowing Joe and knowing Spartan's brand of discipline, and she expected that her daughter would struggle. But even for Spartan and De Sena, she reasoned, this was a bit troubling and worrisome.
"I wasn’t expecting her to come asking for help," Elena recalls. "I thought she was going to be up there having fun, and maybe [struggling], but I didn’t think she was going to be in complete distress. She was in distress and she needed help."
Why was Elsie so distressed?
The early wake-up calls, ice-cold water immersion, and strict diet probably were factors, but one incident, in particular, caused her to break down. One morning, Elsie and her fellow campers were forced to lift extremely heavy rocks up a mountain. On the way down, the campers had to carry each other on their backs. Elsie's teammate was much smaller than she was, so she had no choice but to carry her fellow camper on her back the entire way down. Her back aching, she was then required to complete a lengthy hike. She had never experienced anything so difficult and challenging.
Watch episode 1 of Camp Spartan below.
It was around that time that Elena decided she had no choice but to call Joe and express her concerns.
A Concerned Parent Calls Joe. How Does He Respond?
Here is a snippet of their conversation, edited slightly for clarity.
ELENA: So Joe, all I can say is I absolutely love you. I think you guys are amazing, but I was concerned about Elsie...
JOE: I'm just pointing out that last year was just, like, a qualifier camp. Don't forget, they're going for 14 days here, right? This is gonna be the hard-
ELENA: I don't think she was expecting 14 days ... She's going to get through this, and I was just thinking about how awesome she's doing.
JOE: She'll get through it. She'll be fine. And I know you texted me, you were concerned about some long-term psychological damage. I would argue that, actually, it's gonna change the trajectory of these children's lives.
ELENA: I think you're right. I absolutely agree with you. I apologize for ever doubting you, OK? I do. At the same time, she's my child...
JOE: It sounds like you're blinking. You can't blink. We have to hold hands on this. You trust me?
ELENA: I trust you.
Joe isn't just riffing when he explains the method to his madness. There is research to back it up. De Sena has a team of experts on call 24/7, all of whom continually help him hone his approach and methodologies. One of those experts, Dr. Lara Pence, concurs that these experiences prepare you to overcome future obstacles, rather than cause psychological trauma.
"Will doing hard things, and struggling and crying, create long-term psychological damage? No," the Colorado-based licensed clinical psychologist says. "But here’s how it could change the trajectory of a kid’s life. In that moment, when a child who is struggling pushes through, that child creates a data point.
"...This is how the trajectory gets shifted. Because every time they do this — pick the harder path — they keep building up data points, data points that demonstrate that they are capable, that they are resilient, that they are strong. And so the path of their life shifts."
'Come to the Edge'
Every kid at the farm is required to memorize, and fully comprehend, Guillaume Apollinaire's poem, "Come to the Edge." At one critical juncture towards the end of the 14-day session, while discussing the greater meaning of the poem, a lightbulb went off in Elsie's head. It hit her that the point of the poem — and the point of the camp — is that when you're brought to the edge, you learn to fly. At that moment, as 12-year-old Elsie thoughtfully articulated Apollinaire's message and explained that she finally understood what she was doing there, Joe knew that the camp was working. It takes time, and it's far from easy, but the point eventually gets made, and the kids are forever better for it.
“The biggest lesson that I learned was that I could push myself a lot harder," Elsie reflected after successfully completing the 14 days. "I was very capable of things I didn’t know I could do, and afterwards I felt like I could do anything.”