While the sport of swimming has seen tremendous growth within the last 30 years due to better training methods, coaching techniques, and above all else better aquatic venues, the question is whether or not swim team safety really is keeping up with society’s expectations.
The last several years there have been plenty of fatal and non-fatal drowning incidents at swim practices that illustrate the need for the swimming community to pick up the pace when it comes to safety in and around the water. We not only have an obligation to promote safety around the pools, but also to keep our swimmers safe through better training of aquatic and coaching staffs, having professional lifeguards or other certified professionals, and by taking steps to promote water safety for the community.
Is your facility staff ready for any and all aquatic emergencies? Moreover, does your swim club or team promote and model safe swimming practices? If water safety is important, then you must have a plan, have a good training program, and employ certified professionals.
Do you have an Emergency Response Plan? Being prepared to handle an emergency is the key step to having a safe facility. An Emergency Response Plan is both on paper and practiced by all staff that would be involved in an emergency at a specific facility. This includes constant familiarity and practice with all team members.
Is your staff appropriately trained for aquatic emergencies? An industry standard for lifeguards is at least 60 minutes per week of dedicated training. While lifeguards are certified and knowledgeable in aquatic emergencies, they still require continual practice to keep their skills sharp and prepared for anything. So it would stand to reason that other staff members, serving in a safety capacity of their swimmers, would need that kind of training and practice to insure a truly safe environment.
The industry wants to shy away from the issue of should a lifeguard be on surveillance duty during a swim team workout. But we must ask ourselves, is the safety of your swimmers compromised when it comes to swim teams and other aquatic sports not using lifeguards? To answer that, we must discuss the role of a lifeguard vs others that may be responsible on the pool decks.
The term lifeguard reminds us of those mid-to-late teenagers who sit around looking at the water, and the term swimmer reminds us that these athletes are experienced swimmers. So no one is surprised when we have not seen trending growth in swim clubs and teams having lifeguards at all times, as well as more safety training for coaching staffs. And to be fair, professional teams may have lifeguards or the facility from which they rent already has lifeguards.
No professional can argue that training is not necessary and important for aquatic and coaching staffs. But what does that really mean? Do they know the latest science in hydrodynamics or the trending stroke development in the industry? Part of having a safe environment for swimmers and water sports is not only knowing all the potential dangers, but also being able to recognize and respond to them quickly. Knowing the swimmers’ abilities and not putting them at risk is part of the problem. The number of swimmers per lane, their specific needs and abilities, or the pressure to push their limits can result in unsafe situations. How is the staff trained to handle emergencies?
So what makes them professional? As a supervisor of lifeguards for most of my career, I will tell you that certification alone does not cut it. Neither does being on stand or looking good. It takes constant training from management. Not only does the management have to be well trained in emergency procedures, but they must require the safety team train hard, they must ensure constant evaluation of the team, and they must promote an atmosphere of positive development with these certified professionals.
To achieve these goals, lifeguards must be training constantly, with an industry standard of at least 60 minutes per week of dedicated training. They should also be evaluated routinely to ensure that the training is adequate for the environment. Using third-party organizations to come and evaluate the staff can identify areas needing improvement and also demonstrate the staff’s training success. But, without these key training concepts, the safety team will not be prepared for emergencies. Unfortunately, as our industry has shown, we have been too reactionary, waiting until after an incident to implement what we know as safety.
Promoting and modeling safe swimming practices must also be strictly enforced. Back when I was on swim team and the master of my lane, we thought we were tough. We could dive in the shallow end without incident, we could swim underwater farther than most others, and many other limits were pushed way too hard. But as we now know with science and safety as our guide, we have the responsibility to make sure that everyone is safe.
Teams must incorporate safe swimming practices for all. We can do this through public awareness events and swim lessons for sure. But all certified professionals must also model this behavior everyday. Being safe is respectable and demonstrates to the community, to parents, and to the swimmers that our programs are not only professional, but also fun with safety in mind.
It is up to all of us to mandate that these safety requirements be upheld.