Student reprising audition for ‘American Ninja Warrior’ relieves law school stress through training

I first heard of the television show, “American Ninja Warrior” (ANW), when one of my classmates confessed that he could not stop watching it. I stifled a laugh as I thought of “Wipeout,” a television show intended to produce comedy rather than competition—but ANW is no laughing matter. Consisting of an obstacle course that demands agility, endurance and grip strength, only three competitors in 34 seasons of the show have ever touched the final buzzer.
ANW intrigued me immediately. The course plays well to my strengths, and I am always on the lookout for a physical challenge to shake off the psychological distress that so often accompanies law school.

KU Law student Zen Mayhugh

Exercise as a tool to combat stress and elevate mood is well documented. The researchers of one study reported that participation in any form of daily activity was associated with reduced risk for all types of psychological distress, even when controlling for factors, such as age, gender, SES, marital status, BMI, chronic illness, and smoking.1 Research has also consistently shown that exercise alone can significantly reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.2It has even been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medication in the treatment of clinical depression,3 which may not come as a surprise, given that exercise acts on the same pathways in the brain that antidepressant medications target.4
I have always been active, but during law school I have made a concerted effort to capture the stress reducing and mood enhancing effects of exercise. One method I have used is to commit myself to demanding activities. During my first semester I trained for a winter backpacking trip to a mountain cabin that sits at 12,000 feet. During my second semester I trained for and completed a triathlon. Many law students put aside their personal life and health in their efforts to become a lawyer.5 Research shows the incidence of clinical depression among law students to be as high as 40 percent.6Incidence of other symptoms such as clinically elevated anxiety and hostility among law students have been measured at 15 times the general population.7This significantly exceeds the emotional distress of medical students, and even approaches that of psychiatric populations.8 Most troubling is that these problems seem to carry over into professional practice. In a Johns Hopkins study, practicing lawyers ranked highest in major depressive disorder among 104 occupational groups.9
At the beginning of my 2L year, I was in need of a new physical challenge. So when I discovered ANW I thought, why not audition? I organized a training regimen around the obstacles on the ANW course: rock climbing, strength training, agility drills, and mobility work. This was certainly a time commitment, but intense training took my mind completely away from law school, and soreness was something to feel good about—especially when I was stuck in a chair for most of the day.
When I got the announcement that auditions videos were being accepted, I recruited some of my cinematographer friends to capture my best ANW moves, and a little personality, on film. Along with 7,000 other ANW hopefuls, I submitted an audition tape and waited.10
I got the call during finals. I had taken three tests, had two to go, and, at that point, had forgotten what ANW was. Still, I was awarded one of 400 slots to compete on ANW. The competition would happen in Denver 10 days after I was scheduled to take my last final. All I could do at the moment was make a note to buy a flight to Denver, and I went back to my study carrel.
Check in for the competition was at Denver’s Civic Center Park. The obstacle course constructed there took 10 semi-trailers to transport and a staff of 130 to assemble.11Security staff was on hand to keep the public—and competitors—outside of the gates surrounding it. They bristled as other competitors and I loitered at the gates, peering in at the obstacles and running through them in our heads.
The competitors were divided into two groups. The start times for the obstacle course was an obstacle in itself, with the first group running the course between sunset and 1 a.m., and the second group running between 1 a.m. and sunrise. I was assigned to the first group, and we were finally allowed inside the gates surrounding the course but only for a demonstration of each obstacle. We were not permitted to attempt or otherwise touch any of the obstacles.
After the sun went down, the temperature dropped into the mid-40s. The challenge quickly became to stay warm and loose. The designated warm-up area was equipped with pull-up bars and a vault trampoline; not ideal equipment to stay warm for hours on end. Sleeping bags appeared all around, and many competitors disappeared into them.
My turn to run the course came just after 11 p.m. To see how I did, you will have to watch the show, but I can say I was awarded the “Warrior Wipeout of the Day.” Not exactly what I had in mind, but being featured on the show, especially in slow motion, bodes well for making a repeat attempt at the course, which I’m training for now. After all, I have another year of law school, and I need a little competition to get my mind outside the walls of Green Hall.
Zen Mayhugh is a third-year law student at the University of Kansas. He hopes to practice in recreation risk management. You can watch his audition video and the ANW episode in which he was featured on his blog at This article first appeared in the November/December issue of the Journal of the Kansas Bar Association.
1. Mark Hamer, Emmanuel Stamatakis, & Andrew Steptoe, Dose response relationship between physical activity and mental health: The Scottish health survey, 42 Brit. J. Sports Med. 238 (2008).
2. Stuart J.H. Biddle & Nanette Mutrie Psychology of Phsycial Activity: Determinants, Well-Being and Interventions(2007); Lynette L. Craft & Daniel M. Landers, The effect of exercise on clinical depression and depression resulting from mental illness: A meta-analysis, 20 J. Sport & Exercise Psychol. 339 (1998); Bonita C. Long & Rosemary van Stavel, Effects of exercise training on anxiety: A meta-analysis, 7 J. Applied Sport Psychol. 167 (1995).
3. James A. Blumenthal, et al., Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression, 159 Archives of Internal Med. 2349 (1999).
4. C.P. Ransford, A role for amines in the antidepressant effect of exercise, 14 Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 1 (1982).
5. Lawrence S. Krieger, Institutional Denial About the Dark Side of Law School, and Fresh Empirical guidance for Constructively Breaking the Silence, 52 J. Legal Educ. 112 (2002).
6. Id., at 114.
7. Id.
8. Kennon M. Sheldon & Lawrence S. Krieger, Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, 33 Personality Soc. Psychol. Bull. 883 (2007).
9. Krieger, supra note 5, at 114.
10. Alexandra Cheney, How to Beat the “American Ninja Warrior”Obstacle Course, The Wall Street Journal (June 29, 2013),


11. Id.