Aquatic Staffing: In-Service in Real Time

Lifeguard Training Through Daily Relationships

By Richard Rabold


f you have a typical summer lifeguard staff, they are probably 15 to 19 years old, students, seasonal, with less than 12 months experience and in their first real job. They have so much to learn in a summer of so little time.

To get these staffs up-to-speed, well-organized aquatic facilities have routinely produced a curriculum of in-services to provide the necessary training to help lifeguards perform their duties responsibly and skillfully. But, let's face it, traditional in-services have their problems. After putting together a meaningful series of one- to two-hour in-services to cover a prescribed agenda, you still have the challenge of finding times when all can attend. There are just too many things competing for their time with summer school, internships, second jobs, vacations, concerts and even friends. Realizing that your training goals fall short for each employee who can't attend, how about giving them their training during their regularly scheduled shifts?

Two important factors have an impact on lifeguard performance: the amount of supervision time spent monitoring and interacting with the guard staff, and that staff's ability to meet outside their scheduled work hours for training. An article, "Every 30 Minutes" by Tom Griffiths, director of aquatics at Penn State University, emphasized the importance of making sure lifeguards are on duty, properly dressed, positioned correctly and vigilantly scanning the water. He goes on to stress that this should be the role of management, supervisors, office staff, parent volunteers—some mature adult making the rounds. How about using that goal to significantly reduce the traditional, before and after work, training time?

Spending quality time with your lifeguards is about providing guidance when they are already "on the clock" and performing their duties. This communication becomes their education in a relevant, real environment. Management should invest time every day to observe staff, monitor scanning techniques, rotations, proper uniform and the use of rescue tubes. Without compromising proper scanning of any area, lifeguards should perform necessary skill checks as called upon, also within their regular schedule. Impromptu learning opportunities should be capitalized on immediately instead of waiting to be put on a future in-service agenda.

Eventually, well-done training while on-shift leaves little that requires traditional in-service meetings before and after work. As management and staff interact more within their regular work schedule, you will find your lifeguards doing their job better, patrons feeling more secure, and all enjoying their time at the pool more.

The Worthington Pools in Worthington, Ohio, is a complex of one indoor and three outdoor pools with a full-time seasonal lifeguard staff of 24. We have included in our daily routine the responsibility of managers, supervisors and adults to monitor, chart and provide feedback on all lifeguards' performances. We also structured weekly skill performances and educational goals required of our lifeguard staff, all done during their regular work schedule as part of that interaction with those supervisors. To our surprise, this was so successful that we were able to almost entirely eliminate traditional training sessions held at extra times before and after work.

How Can You Turn Daily Interactions Into Real Training?

  • Embrace the belief that training is an ongoing, educational process and part of management's daily responsibility.
  • Find ways to measure a lifeguard's performance.
  • Realize that information will continually be disseminated over a long period of time.
  • Be systematic about presenting material so that over time all predetermined information is covered. But be flexible enough to adapt to spontaneous situations.
  • Good record-keeping must be established to document which guards have received the prescribed training.
  • Some training will involve staffing a stand-in guard to take over "the watch" at post after post while the on-shift guards perform their skills.
  • Spend time with your guards at various times of the day and week to observe and measure their performance.
  • Communicate with positive, constructive interactions.
  • Provide for timely posting of information and group e-mail to keep your staff in tune with the latest information about your facility and the industry.

Advantages of On-Shift Training

Through the daily monitoring of lifeguards' performance, management will become more aware of the staff's strengths and weaknesses, lifeguards will understand their job better, and patrons will recognize a well-guarded facility. By merging important training into your lifeguards' regular work schedules, you will experience a preferred educational reality for all, and in a more efficient approach.

Relevance & Realism: Much of what you incorporate into on-shift training is automatically relevant because of the authentic environment you are doing it in. They don't have to imagine reality; they are in it.

Reassuring to Patrons: Training is visible to patrons, reassuring them of their personal safety. Patrons benefit from observing and possibly participating in the training.

Mental Focus: On-shift training helps keep lifeguards mentally engaged in their skills and responsibilities while performing their duties day-by-day. Impromptu learning opportunities should be capitalized on immediately instead of waiting for a future in-service agenda.

Instruction Matches Attention Span: On-shift training is delivered in five- to 15-minute bursts, ideal for maximizing their attention. And in most cases, guards are immediately sent back into their guarding responsibilities with ample opportunity to reflect on and apply exactly what they just covered.

Improved Retention: Routine and frequent training improves retention. On-shift training is constantly occurring, especially from the perspective of the lifeguards as they think every day is potentially a training day.

Cost Savings: Off-shift training involves extra hours for the entire lifeguard staff, approximately three to five times a summer for one or two hours each session. The extra hours required for on-shift training are limited to paying stand-in lifeguards a limited number of days.

No More "Be There or Else": Reduce or eliminate punitive consequences by management for lifeguards not attending traditional off-shift training.

Improved Management Presence: Management is more thoroughly involved in monitoring lifeguards' daily performance, thus continually developing good habits with persistent, encouraging feedback. The real concept that managers should be embracing is that "training" is an ongoing process of continuous education. It is not isolated to special sessions, nor does it have an end or final summit.

Lifeguards want to do their jobs well, and they appreciate training. Putting each and every one of your lifeguards in a better position to receive that training is the focus of this article. It is not my intention to suggest that traditional off-shift training does not have its place. Pre-season orientation for summer operations, group bonding exercises and problem-solving still seem like good off-shift training opportunities. However, as you merge important training into your lifeguards' work schedules, it should turn out to be a preferred educational experience for both management and staff.

Sharing time on deck with the lifeguards improves everyone's experience.

It improves the relationships between management and staff; improves the understanding of performing all of our jobs better; improves consistency and thoroughness; improves the staffs' attitude towards training; improves your patrons' perception of the quality of your staff; improves the delivery and retention of their education; and improves the safety of your aquatic facility.


Richard Rabold is general manager of The Worthington Pools in Worthington, Ohio, and has been a public pool manager for 30 years of seasonal work and seven years full-time. He was also a public school teacher at Worthington City Schools for 30 years.

© Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.