Off the Deep End

Aquatic Programming, Tried, True & New

Innovation, adjustments, communication and dogged consistency are just some of the essentials that aquatic directors, managers and coaches credit for exiting 2020 with their heads above water. Many have even found that COVID-19's forced restrictions and changes to the status quo were actually the catalysts for positive change responsible for doubling growth for programs and facilities once considered lackluster and waning.


Of course, there are always the new programming kids in town and the shiny new toys that help attract new patrons or keep current patrons curious, wanting to come back for more. Listing off just some of the programming that is currently popular, CEO and Executive Director of the Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP), Juliene Hefter, said they are certainly seeing lots of new programming trends that are targeting all demographics to get people back and more involved than ever in their local pools.

"New and innovative facility equipment/programming such as key log rolling, SUP yoga, surfing and new additions such as [ninja] courses, climbing walls and zip lines, just to mention a few," Hefter explained, "are new and innovative ways to make aquatic facilities more intriguing to those that may not utilize your facilities to just swim, but are looking for more active opportunities."

That has definitely been the experience for aquatics in the city of Irvine, Calif. "We have a group continuing to grow by the week, the Underwater Torpedo League," said Cory Hilderbrand, community services manager for the city about this rapidly expanding program. "Underwater hockey also continues to grow. Both of these are attracting a more diverse population from a CrossFit group to our facility we did not previously see."

Underwater Torpedo is a posterchild for the latest in aquatic fitness. Combining fitness training with the adrenaline rush of a high-paced team sport (minus breathing support systems because—hey, why not?), it boasts the ability to improve mental strength, endurance and lung capacity that, together, cross over into confidence-building life skills both in and out of the water. It is ideal for both beginners and advanced swimmers alike, with a star-studded cadre of fans ranging from NFL players to Olympic swimmers, advanced military units, as well as surfers and ocean lifeguards.

Even before last year, however, many aquatic facilities were expanding their programming beyond the traditional bread-and-butter mainstay of swim lessons. Water exercise, fitness and therapy were already gaining momentum and introduced popular options like aerobics, paddle boarding, aqua yoga, water walking, dance-focus formats and balance-focused classes to pool patrons. However, with the closing of many gymnasiums last year, the interest in aquatic options for fitness grew even more. The current belief is that this crossover may be here to stay.


"Our lap swim and water exercise programs have exploded in popularity since the beginning of the pandemic," said Gwen Willcox, community services manager for the City of Temecula, Calif. "Patrons who used to exercise at gyms have now found swimming and water exercise as a great workout opportunity. I foresee that these programs will continue to experience growth as people start to look outside the four walls of their gyms to find workout alternatives."

Even for pools where swimming continues to be the core, like Sunrise Pool in Peoria, Ariz., adding aquatic fitness programming has filled them beyond capacity to make a good thing even better. "We are sticking with swim lessons. Arizona is landlocked, and we have a high drowning rate as a result, so swim lessons are the main core," emphasized Christian Peck, the facility's aquatic coordinator about their continued commitment to swim lessons.

"But last year we did water aerobics and it was extremely popular. I don't know if it was because we are outdoors and an open place for people to work out when most gyms closed but water aerobics exploded. We have wait lists for that. So this year we are adding more of those classes even though gyms are open now. Given that it also appeals to a varied demographic—adults, seniors and even young adults and middle-aged—we are hoping it stays."

Get Small

One trend in programming that was already gaining attention pre-COVID but sealed the deal for those who applied it in 2020 is the switched focus from group to individual or small group swim lessons. While both kinds of teaching have their pros and cons, smaller group lessons have a lot of advantages. During 2020 when maximizing use of space became a matter of fiscal life or death, and the ability to micromanage social distancing of children could often feel like herding cats, small group or individual lessons became an easy solution whose time had come.

"A trend we were already seeing in 2020 was a move away from group to individual lesson programs, and that has certainly strengthened," Hilderbrand said. "That's a better use of space to scatter lessons throughout the day when the typical learn-to-swim is usually 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at night. Private lessons can be more flexible."

Peck agreed, citing COVID-19's smaller class requirement to accommodate social distancing mandates as a blessing in disguise. Staff, in particular, discovered that smaller class sizes resulted in a more manageable teaching experience.

Online & On Point

Probably the single most noteworthy programming trend is not a program at all but a tool in the programming tool belt, the internet, which enabled online registration, COVID-19 screening and improved staff communication and training.


More than just a time-saver, the shift to online communication with the public and staff alike has created more flexibility, freedom of choice and efficiency, making new programs and old more accessible, more appealing and more successful. Online registration for programs, lane reservations and protocol communication has increased public engagement with the local pool more than just about anything else.

Online lane reservations, initially designed to mitigate human contact, is credited by many as one of the biggest reasons their pool use has doubled since they started it.

"I think we have learned a lot through this pandemic. One of the best things to come out of our modified operations is the success of the reservation system for our lap and public swims," said Willcox. "Our patrons enjoy knowing that there will be a reserved space for them when they arrive at the pool. And our lap swimmers especially love to reserve the specific lane they want to swim in."

Willcox admitted that modifying their reservation system initially came with challenges, but now it is something that they plan to keep well after the COVID-19 pandemic. "Through this system, we made more revenue for lap swimming in 2020 than we did in 2019. The pandemic forced us for the first time to look at our systems in place and how we can modify them. We had to completely change our swim lesson program, which had been conducted in the same basic format for 20 years." This included a move to individual, not shared lanes.

Allowing patrons to choose the lane they want in addition to the time slot, has been a win-win according to Hilderbrand. "We really went after the individual aspect—not shared lanes, not group activities—as we once did. We wanted to better utilize the space and had never used the shallow pool for lap swim. It had been used just for group aerobics."

The large aquatic facility, which boasts two 50-meter pools and a large shallow pool, saw an impressive uptick in usage when the shallow pool was opened up to lap swim and patrons were allowed to select their own lanes.


"Shallow lap swimming took off and kept us busy all hours of the morning to evening. It has become a keeper," Hilderbrand said, adding that it also appealed to a diverse crowd like Iron Man athletes. "Because it's warmer water (87 degrees instead of 80), we are attracting an interesting mix of people including kids reserving it, too, who never would have before."

One of the most important online advantages Willcox identified was communication with patrons about safety measures and protocols using videos during 2020. "Patrons knew what to expect, and that put our staff and patrons at ease knowing we had strict rules and followed them," she said. Clear, consistent messaging resulted in an appreciative community, grateful for the extra effort and willing to make sacrifices—including the loss of locker rooms for the sake of social distancing in some cases. Good programming starts before people walk through the door.

Remote learning has also become a new feature that is likely here to stay. In partnership with their scientific advisory council, the Red Cross developed operational guidance for aquatic facilities and lifeguarding as well as guidance for instructors managing classes.

"We adapted many of our lesson plans to allow instructors to teach and evaluate skills using our virtual skills training courses for First Aid/CPR/AED, Basic Life Support, CPR for Professional Rescuers, and Lifeguarding," said Stephanie Shook, senior manager of Aquatics and Instructor Product Management for the American Red Cross. "One of our immediate goals was to try and remove the consequences of not being able to train in person. So many aquatic facilities just were not open and were at immediate jeopardy of losing staff whose certifications were set to expire. So, we were able to offer a 120-day certificate extension to lifeguards."


Similarly, online communication made transfer of information to and from staff and managers easier, resulting, for many, in more frequent virtual meetings with shorter meeting times.

"We really learned to use technology to our benefit," Hilderbrand said. "Before, we would never hold staff training via Zoom but now it's the norm and it's amazing to have 100 staff on call at once. It's so easy to jump on and converse."

She admits there are cons, as well, but one takeaway from their learning curve is to limit meetings to 30 minutes. "We do half-hour meetings now, not one-hour. We get to the point and focus. We've all learned and evolved over what we've had to do and will make us way more efficient, and we'll be better at what we do because of it."

Major in Communication


But whether it's coming up with that perfect new program idea, tweaking it to fit just right or perfecting it to become a main attraction, there is really only one weapon in your management arsenal that matters. It may not be exciting—it certainly isn't anything new—but it's also nothing short of essential: communication.

Communicating clearly, consistently and receptively (both speaking to and listening to patrons and all of your staff) is as much a key element of successful programming as having the latest programming attraction. In fact, you can't really have a successful program without it.

"Feedback and input from the team," was Craig Merke's response to the question about programming's frequently overlooked essential ingredient. The Associate Director of Recreation and Aquatics at Penn State Harrisburg in Middletown, Pa., Merke admitted, "I can write a great plan, however if it doesn't make sense to those working on the team it is still a failure. I could not have developed something that has run so smoothly from the start by myself. The team really made our fall and spring semester a success in the fitness center because they had the buy-in from the start. "

Making yourself accessible to feedback and input means engaging all levels of your team, listening to them as well as using them to be your eyes and ears. "We lose focus, the more removed we are from that," Hilderbrand explained, saying that COVID changed the way they and many others do things to work together better and create better buy-in.


Showing up at the facilities, talking to staff on weekends, bi-weekly meetings and encouraging managers to communicate with their staff and to hold bi-weekly meetings of their own were just some of the ways Hilderbrand fosters improved communication with his team.

"Investing in your lead/senior staff is a critical part of the entire team's success," said Willcox, about her secret to ultimate programming success. "You can't be there every minute of the day so invest in them and include them in decisions made."

The better you know your team, the better you also know what they are and aren't capable of doing. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses, according to Willcox, enables you to program for your strengths while working on weaknesses. "It's very important." RM

Kelli Ra Anderson