Two days before my sweet 16, I got my first real job as a lifeguard at my local YMCA. Five years and five pools later, I still love it. But it’s not easy. Lifeguarding isn’t just about CPR and a hawk-like vigilance (although that stuff is important too). Here are my steps for doing a good job lifeguarding without letting it suck your soul away.
1. Take it seriously.
This is the most important part of lifeguarding: guarding lives. Sure, sometimes we’re babysitters or janitors, but that’s only a fraction of the job. Rules must be enforced for the safety of the swimmers, and the arbitrary rules must be enforced in case one of your bosses is watching.
2. Don’t take it too seriously.
This job would be wretched if I couldn’t laugh at it. I’ve had to clean up way too many bodily fluids to get upset every time there’s an accident. At my first pool, there were accidents almost once a month. Kids threw up in swimming lessons; open wounds leaked blood onto the pool deck. But one instance was particularly scarring, or hilarious, depending on how you look at it.
To spare you the details and make a long story short, I ended up walking barefoot through some very aqueous fecal matter that had erupted volcano-style from a man’s swimsuit when he sat down to ride the slide. Instead of panicking, a good lifeguard must laugh at such horrors.
3. Be reliable.
Professionalism is a part of every job, but basic traits like punctuality and accountability are more important for lifeguards. Calling in sick affects more of your coworkers and superiors than it does at that call center or fast food joint.
4. Keep an open mind.
Public pools attract a diverse crowd. I’ve met people from Saudi Arabia, England, Belgium, and West Texas. I’ve met quadruple amputees who can swim longer and faster than I can. I’ve met CEOs, welfare recipients, soldiers, peace activists, professors, and kids with Down syndrome. It’s important to embrace and respect difference in your community. Instead of making disparaging comments or judgments about people, I find that celebrating diversity is much more enjoyable.
5. Be friendly.
Every pool, like every hometown diner, has its “regulars.” These usually come in the form of old men, like Jack, the Catholic priest who spends his nightly water-walking time bickering with David, an animal lover who has given each lifeguard a creature alter-ego (I’m a ferret). Charlie likes to chat about movies, even though he thinks they’re all too profane, and ask me about my love life.
Then there are the grandmotherly water aerobics types, the pair of elementary school siblings who like to go off the diving board, and the hardcore fitness freaks who use the sauna or hot tub after a workout. So whether it’s a little kid, a retiree, or a Neo-Nazi, friendliness is key. Get to know your “regulars.” They might have something to teach you, or they might not – but I bet they’ll at least make you laugh.
6. Don’t think twice.
If something gets your attention, don’t hesitate to check it out. Don’t be shy if you see a couple of amorous teens in the steam room. Kick those lovebirds out. If you see someone who appears to be struggling, don’t assume they’re just tired. You could be right, or it could be a heart attack that you just ignored. Trust your gut when watching the pool.
7. Know your coworkers.
This applies to every job. A friendship with fellow guards, swim instructors, trainers, coaches, and supervisors can make a shift fly by, and your job much easier. Establishing trust is crucial to effective lifeguarding.
Lifeguarding can be the most boring godforsaken job on the planet, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. It’s important to recognize aspects of the job that aren’t included in the Red Cross certification course. Happy lifeguarding!