In the Swim

Creativity & Variety Boost Aquatic Success

By Deborah L. Vence

Aquatic programs offer a variety of lessons and classes, many of them geared toward helping people improve their cardiovascular fitness level, muscular strength and endurance. To make such programs effective and continue to attract new interest, creativity and variety are key.

"Aquatic programs have the potential to benefit all ages and all ability levels, and while the water is 'an equalizer' for many different levels of ability and experience, it is generally more effective to have a variety of class formats and intensity levels," said Julie See, director of education at the Aquatic Exercise Association, a Brunswick, Ga.-based nonprofit organization that specializes in the advancement of aquatic fitness, health and wellness worldwide.

"If everyone participates in the same class structure, there will likely be dropout from both ends of the spectrum because the class will not meet the needs of these individuals," See said, adding that even with modifications provided by a well-trained and experienced instructor, some aquatic workouts may be too vigorous for some, and not challenging enough for others.

Effective Programming

To make aquatic programming successful, basic programs are needed, such as learn-to-swim classes and the like, but also some variety, too.

"If a facility already has a strong aquatic following from a certain population, simply adding more of the same class will simply keep those same people attending. To gain new interest, new programs are needed," See said.

Additionally, class names and descriptions are key to attracting more people, and the intended population, to the pool. "For example, if you are a 20-something, fit male, which class would you want to give a try—aquacise or aquatic sports training?" she said.

Not only that, education is key to success—starting with front-desk staff members who sign up people for memberships or direct new members to classes.

"They need to know what the classes are about, who the classes are designed toward, and basically what is to be expected (water depth, swim skills, impact levels, etc.)," See said.

The education should expand to include all the fitness staff, who should be recommending cross-training strategies for member success. This especially means "… aquatic fitness professionals, who should be certified, or preparing to be certified (e.g., team teaching), and trained in the formats they are leading, as well as the equipment they are using."

Finally, your education should extend to members to be sure they are aware of and understand what programs are available.

For example, to make aquatic programs more effective at the Mizzou Aquatic Center in Columbia, Mo., "we really push our programming out through our staff to their peers," said Chris Seris, director of the Mizzou Aquatic Center, MizzouRec Services & Facilities.

"We have a student staff in aquatics of over 120, and we find that when they are using the facilities and programming, they are great promoters to their friends. As a department, we are also active in social media and marketing campaigns," Seris said.

"Also, one of the great things about the MU Student Recreation Complex is that in many spaces you can observe what is happening in the pools through windows or observation areas," he said.

"This allows participants to view aquatic activities they might not have been aware were available. We have found that interests have changed through the years, and we attempt to not only provide the best, most well-maintained facilities, where our students and members want to be, but to also provide exciting and popular programming and events that they want to try," he added.

In another example, the Lisle Park District in Illinois gives each participant individual attention while they are there for group classes, which are held at Sea Lion Aquatic Park.

"This is especially important for the children's swim classes since we, as park districts, are competing with many private swim schools in the area," said Laura Cavazos, CPO, aquatic and fitness manager at the Lisle Park District. "The other important thing we do to make our programming effective is ask for feedback from participants and do what we can to accommodate the changes or requests that we receive from participant feedback.

"While it is not always feasible to accommodate a participant's requests, we are here to make sure each participant is getting the most out of our programming," she added. "The best advertisement for aquatic programming is word-of-mouth, so our goal is for each participant to have a positive experience so they will share their experience and help grow our program."

Aquatic programming at Sea Lion Aquatic Park runs from June through the beginning of August, roughly nine weeks. "For us, as an outdoor facility, once we get into early August we start to lose staff who are heading back to college, as well as families that don't have as much time for aquatic programs, since they are trying to prepare to head back to school and take their last-minute family vacations," Cavazos said.

"The aquatic fitness classes that we offer go June through mid-August so there is not as much of a gap between summer programming and when the regular fall fitness programs begin," she said, adding that a variety of aquatic programs are offered, from parent-tot water orientation classes to adult swim lessons.

"This includes private and semi-private swim lessons, as well as aquacise, deep water aquacise and Aqua Zumba for the aquatic fitness classes," she added.

Offering variety in aquatic class formats is just as important as offering variety in land-based group exercise. The aquatic class schedule, See said, should reflect a similar structure as classes in the aerobic and cycling studios:

  • "Options for each day of the week and various times of the day to accommodate time preferences and work schedules. It should not be assumed that all aquatic participants are retired. Even those who are retired have preferred exercise schedules."
  • "Unique formats to attract participants with various fitness interests and backgrounds. For example, consider including gentler programs designed to meet the needs of individuals with arthritis and related musculoskeletal conditions, but also include classes that target high intensity, possibly equipment-based, training as well."

For example, besides offering group and private lessons for children and adults, and standard types of aquatic programming, such as learn-to-swim, the Mizzou Aquatic Center also offers stand-up paddle board yoga through its TigerX group exercise program, as well as battleship tournaments that are held regularly through its RecSports program.

"We have also hosted special Tiger Tower Plunge events when we give participants the opportunity to conquer their fear and jump from the various levels of the diving tower, after some instruction," Seris said.

In early fall, the Mizzou Aquatic Center became one of the host sites for the first ever Key Log Rolling Collegiate Tournament Series, which was expected to bring participants from schools around the Midwest.

What's more, masters swimming classes are offered at Mizzou Aquatic Center, with open recreation and leisure time in the center's four pools. The 50-meter swimming pool and diving well is for competitive training and lap swimming, water walking and jogging. The Tiger Grotto is the aquatic center's indoor, warm-water leisure pool, which features, a lazy river, and vortex, which are great for resistance work, as well as sauna and steam rooms.

"We also provide tables, chairs in this area, and Wi-Fi throughout the facility, which makes it a popular area for study or relaxing," he said.

The center's outdoor leisure pool, Truman's Pond, is a place to get some sun and relax while laying out or floating around on deck chairs, which can be taken out in the pool as a floating lounger.

"We have also added stand-up paddle boards, which are available all day for open use, and log rolling with two Key Logs during specific nights of the week, and outdoors during the summer, as well as some special events," he added. "We have special nights for water volleyball in the Tiger Grotto, and we also change the feel of that space with special lighting and music selection changes at different times of the day."

Though not part of Mizzou Aquatic Center's programming, there also is a large club sports program at Mizzou.

"We have several aquatic clubs which we schedule. Triathlon Club, Swim Club, Water Polo Club, and the Canoe and Kayak Club all practice several times per week in the Mizzou Aquatic Center pools," Seris said, adding that other programming offered includes American Red Cross classes through the Mizzou Aquatic Institute.

"We conduct Lifeguarding, CPR, First Aid, AED and WSI classes throughout the year, which are open to the Mizzou community as well as the greater Columbia community and beyond," he said.

Kevin Post, principal at Counsilman-Hunsaker, an aquatic engineering and design firm, noted that the biggest challenge with pool programming is the direct cost of offering the program.

"The main area is the staffing involved with offering a quality program," Post said. "One creative method is to go with a 'personal training method.' With personal trainers, they will work one-on-one with an individual to teach technique and provide motivations, but they expect the participant to do some work on their own between sessions.

"Traditionally, a pool may offer water aerobics on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and staff an instructor there each day. The personal training method would be where the instructor is there on Monday, but leaves the participants with self-guided exercises to be completed on Wednesday and Friday," he said.

"Then," he added, "everyone meets back up the following week to review progress and get the next level of training. This is both beneficial for the facility since they don't have to staff someone the entire week, but also for the user since they can come on their own time after the initial instruction."

The other change is in how billing is done.

"The traditional way is to have participants sign up for a session, that has a start and end date. To be more efficient and help with budgeting, some operators are switching to a membership-based program," Post said.

"The idea is that people become members of your program. Then you advance them through class as the participant progresses," he said. "This way the users stay continually challenged, and the facility has a regular/plannable revenue stream to balance costs."

Boosting Interest

Following industry trends and offering programs that are innovative and exciting are great ways to boost interest in your pool.

"Be aware of new equipment that is available. Budgets are often limited (but should not be set any differently for the pool than the budget for land-based group exercise), yet purchasing one to two pieces of a variety of equipment options would allow for a circuit program to be offered," See said.

Also, consider what is working at the pool right now and expand upon that. "For example, if there is a big interest in lap swimming, possibly consider offering Horizontal-Vertical Cross Training that blends swim skills (horizontal) with traditional water exercise (vertical)," she said. "If the facility primarily focuses on children's swim lessons, then consider offering a simultaneous water exercise class (if space allows) for the parents. They will appreciate having a time-efficient option for their personal health goals."

Again, education is key—this time for facility management. "It is imperative to provide a safe, effective and enjoyable pool experience for the participants and the instructors," See said. "Pools need teaching microphones—the pool environment is challenging for instructors due to generally poor acoustics."

When participants cannot hear the instructions, they can become disenchanted with the program. "Have teaching mats for the instructor on deck to prevent slips and falls, as well as impact injuries. Showing concern for the instructors' well-being is a good reflection on the facility overall," she said.

Post suggested that "To boost interest in the pool, operators need to add creative and unique programs based on their market. This could include in-water 'boot camp' style training for young adults. This could be in-water obstacle course challenges for kids. This could be a variety of group exercise classes like yoga or Zumba, but offered in the water for aging adults who can't do high-impact activities.

"The basic idea," he said, "is to look at who isn't coming to your pool and see if there is a program that you could offer that they would be interested in. You shouldn't limit pool programming to the traditional swim lessons and water aerobics."

Some of the best examples of effective and efficient programming can be found in new swim schools and swim school franchises that are opening up. "Some use the membership-based approach to maintain a constant revenue stream, but also use a perpetual lesson model so kids are always improving and wanting to come back," Post said.

At the Lisle Park District's Sea Lion Aquatic Park, over the past few summers a wider variety of classes and times for each class have been offered. "Offering more class times for our swim lesson classes has shown to be the most effective," Cavazos said. "We have limited pool space, but by offering some of our smaller classes such as private and semi-private lessons as well as our parent-tot classes in the early evening, we have gained quite a few new participants," she said.

"Since everyone has a busy schedule, the more we can offer, as far as times for classes that are convenient for families, the more popular our classes will become," she said. "I also try to keep up with what is trending in the fitness world for our aquatic fitness classes. Not all fitness trends translate to the water, but Aqua Zumba, for example, is an easy transition and it was a very popular class for us this summer."

At the Mizzou Aquatic Center, its largest expansion in programming recently was focused around Key Log Rolling and stand-up paddle board use. "These are activities really growing in popularity as exposure grows, and we have been able to provide those opportunities to our students and members," Seris said. "After identifying a need, we have also begun offering small group adult lessons, which have been popular with our university community."

Special Programs

Another important part of aquatic programming is what it offers for individuals with disabilities.

"Improving services provided for individuals with disabilities starts from the first initial contact of the facility to the families. Families often report that fear of judgment and lack of training are one reason that they do not participate in community activities with their child with a disability," said Josephine Blagrave, assistant professor, Autism Clinic Director, Department of Kinesiology at California State University in Chico.

"Having one or more staff members with a general knowledge of disabilities and programming considerations is key to making families feel welcome," she said. "Knowledgeable staffing is just part of the equation. Having a space that is welcoming both physically and socially is important to including this population."

This could include some of the following strategies:

  • Showing advertising that includes individuals with disabilities.
  • Having a family changing room or space where parents with older children with a disability can go to help change their child, teen or young adult.
  • Using instructional strategies to help communicate with individuals who may have limited receptive or expressive language including pictures, sign language and visual schedules.
  • Using adapted swim equipment for instruction.
  • Being flexible about what is allowed on the swim deck. Sometimes individuals with disabilities may need to bring something with them to transition.
  • Allowing transition time between activities and between instruction for processing the information.
  • Providing parent trainings so that parents could teach their child both with the staff if needed and practice skills at home.

In terms of how aquatic facilities can expand their aquatic programming and include more programs for those with disabilities, Blagrave said, "Partnering with existing programs that already serve individuals with disabilities such as special day programs, Special Olympics, and other nonprofit organizations in your area are some ways to expand your aquatic program."

By working with community partners, each side brings much needed resources and ideas to the discussion to build a program.

"Aquatic facilities may have the space, but not the training or support staff needed to run a highly successful program—this is where the partner organizations can offer support," she said. "Additionally, there may be funding available to pay for the individuals with disabilities attending the program through these organizations to help cover costs. There are also national programs that facilities could apply for including organizations like Autism Speaks Swimming and Water Safety Scholarship Fund."

Local junior college and college faculty, students and staff are an often-underutilized resource.

"So, reaching out to faculty members not just in the parks and recreation departments, but also kinesiology and adapted physical education," she added, "are a great way to connect with students that are training in physical activity, may know about programming specific for individuals with disabilities and who can be used to staff programs, volunteer in special events and help facilitate activities."



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