Where Have All The Lifeguards Gone?

By Jeffery Krieger

As a long time pool rat, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend—fewer and fewer teen-agers show any interest, let alone demonstrate a serious approach, to becoming lifeguards and swim instructors.

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A quarter of a century ago, if my aging memory serves me correctly, teens could not wait to enroll in a life guarding class and spend their summer sitting atop a lifeguard chair, twirling their whistles and accepting the tremendous responsibility of guarding people’s lives. After all, where else could a person in their middle to late teens command such a degree of responsibility and respect?

The job was prestigious and in short supply. And, it offered a seriously competitive bonus—the best tan around!

Cool Summer Work
“Back in the day”, (I can’t believe I find myself saying that now) no self-respecting competitive swimmer, or jock of any other sport for that matter, would choose another line of summer work. There was a lineage, a rite of passage among teenagers. First year guards would look for acceptance and guidance from senior guards and water safety instructors (WSI’S) and, along the way, a genuine camaraderie would develop, one which not only endorsed having fun on the job, but also promoted the need to perform this job diligently and professionally.

There was a clear developmental process. Veteran guards took joy in helping rookie guards adapt to their jobs and nurture the unique swagger that identified elder aqua men. This camaraderie, this teamwork was important because, although lifeguarding requires individual attention and focus, it is a team effort.

Which presents another interesting aspect of the job. In most cases, the age of a guard does not necessarily dictate when and where they will get the opportunity to save a life or at least make a significant impact on someone. The first year guard watching a kiddy pool has the same responsibility as a veteran waterfront guard. I find it difficult to think of another profession where you can make such a statement. All lifeguards are trained and responsible for ensuring the safety of the population they are assigned to watch, protect and help in emergencies.

The more experienced a guard became, the more confident he or she became, the more their self-esteem grew. I can still remember the pride and sense of accomplishment I felt the first time a mother approached me and thanked me for keeping such a close eye on their child and asked me if I could teach her child how to swim.

Wow! An adult was actually responding to my expertise and experience. It just didn’t get any better then that. One can mature very quickly when they realize they have a purpose.

Valuable Life Lessons
As fun as lifeguarding is, it’s a serious business, very serious business, no matter what type of venue is involved.

At the tender age of 15, 16 or 17, it’s hard to truly understand just how vulnerable we are and how quickly the finger of fate can tap us on the shoulder dramatically changing our lives. I’m not suggesting lifeguards will have a great appreciation for life by simply passing a lifesaving certification course and finding work as a lifeguard. But, if they participate in a lifesaving event or program or find themselves actively helping to prevent an accident or save a life, they will develop a great awareness and respect for their own vulnerability. It definitely provides perspective.

Sitting atop a lifeguard chair or walking the perimeter of a pool or shoreline, one can see the whole world before them and watch how people interact with those they know, complete strangers and their environment. The position helps one learn how to be assertive and decisive and, in the end, teaches each lifeguard a lot about themselves and the world they live in. It’s a valuable experience.

Changing Values/Interests
So, with all the positive attributes and benefits associated with being a lifeguard, why does there seem to be such a lack of interest in this most noble of jobs? I’m sure the allure of our increasingly techno driven world has a lot to do with it. Young people are “plugged in” so if it doesn’t involve electricity, it isn’t as appealing.

Watching swimmers is very different from watching the barrage of micro second images flash before our very eyes on a computer, the television or in the movies. Scanning the water requires concentration, above average memory and the ability to pay attention to the smallest of details while maintaining a clear view of the big picture. While on duty, this job does not allow an employee to put their work on hold, pause or save, but rather demands your constant attention. The very nature of the job puts it at odds with values and skills society is currently teaching our kids.

As a result, it’s not surprising many kids would rather work in the local mall or tap away at a keyboard for eight hours a day. And, of course, there are many more opportunities for young people to find summer jobs today than years ago.

Other forces seem to be at work as well. The athletes who used to flock to life guarding jobs now spend their time at sports camps working out and following the expert direction of parents and coaches who demand these youngsters dedicate their lives to the pursuit of athletic perfection (and possibly a future paycheck). The last place a current or former competitive swimmer who has been pushed to swim laps since age six wants to be working is at a pool.

Or, there just isn’t enough time to fit it all in. Many high schoolers maintain a complex schedule of academics, athletics and social activities making it difficult to even attend the life saving class much less prepare for its physical and academic demands.

And then there’s the ever-increasing gap between the physically fit and unfit among that population. More and more youngsters, who are not involved in some type of organized sports are physically unfit, many fighting obesity. I don’t know of too many of those teenagers who would consider putting on a swimsuit and becoming a lifeguard, or for that matter, who would be able to fulfill the requirements. This is a troubling thought.

Hope Springs Eternal
I hope these observations give you food for thought and, as camping professionals, you find ways to encourage your staff to consider the situation. Here’s what I’ve been doing, whenever I have a teenager approach me for a counselor position at my day camp. I always ask about their interest and experience in and around water. Inevitably, I find they’ve never even considered being a lifeguard.

I explain how the waterfront is the highlight of the camp experience and just how important staffing is in that area. I work to enthusiastically stir their interest and prep them for their role. It usually works.

In fact, some of my proudest moments in this profession have come as the result of this program. To me, watching a lifeguard whom I recruited perform their job professionally and with enthusiasm is a real joy. I enjoy watching our campers come to attention as my new lifeguard blows his or her whistle and starts teaching them how to swim.

It puts a smile on my face. Maybe it’ll make you smile too.

Jeff Krieger is the director of Camp Or Hashemesh, Clearwater, Fla. He can be reached at campathleticgmkjc@verizon.net.