Double Vision — The Coach as Lifeguard

December 08, 2011

Can a coach safely do double duty?

Jen Knights
Program Coordinator — Aquatics
University of Western Ontario

It sounded like a watermelon hitting the sidewalk. I knew something was wrong before I even looked up. I was on deck in a supervisory role during a diving practice. The Coach was working with his athletes and there was a Lifeguard guarding the pool as well. I remember being at the lifeguard station tidying up and hearing usual pool sounds including the sound of divers rebounding off the end of the springboards. Then — thunk. I began to move towards the diving boards and saw the Coach in the water and the Lifeguard en route. As I approached the scene for a brief moment I was fuming — wondering why the Coach in the water before the Lifeguard. But then I realized the Coach was in the water because it was his athlete he was supervising, and he knew all too well the sound of a diver in trouble.

Lifeguards use all of their senses while on duty — we observe directly with our eyes, use our hearing to listen for the unusual, employ our sense of smell when people decide to toss eucalyptus (or urinate) onto sauna rocks, and our sense of touch when moving across an uneven or slippery pool deck before entering the water to perform a rescue. Following an emergency situation or rescue it is not uncommon for a Lifeguard to vividly remember a specific sight, or smell, or sound — forever. That memory becomes embedded in your brain and gets tucked away for future reference. The diving Coach knew that sound and the Lifeguard did not, but certainly does now.

Each aquatic environment is unique. The programming offered at a pool takes the facility characteristics and amenities into account as well as user demographics, geographical location, and proximity of other aquatic opportunities. A challenge arises when for budgetary and/or staffing reasons the role of a Lifeguard is blended with the role of the Coach. The result for many is the question — can a Coach perform the dual role of training athletes and keep them all safe? You could ask a dozen Aquatic Programmers for their answer and you’d probably get slightly different responses in every single case. That said, being safe is critical and having trained Lifeguards on deck in addition to coaching staff during practices is the “best practice”.

Why? A good starting point is to examine the term “practice”.

Conducting a practice can be a huge challenge for a Coach. The ability to have a quality practice relies on adequate pool space, and is influenced by other activities programmed into the pool at the same time, noise levels, equipment available, and the age range of the participants being coached. Having the entire facility to themselves is a Coaches’ dream scenario — but not very realistic. The aquatic sports such as swimming, diving, synchronized swimming, and water polo all tend to want to train at similar times during the day. It also happens to be the time when most recreational users prefer to swim lengths or take swimming lessons, and programmers have to deal with competing interests and priorities. That can create a lot of chaos, noise, and distractions.

Coaches may also have to deal with the distraction of parents, providing direct feedback or discipline to an athlete during practice, and often work with participants of varying ages and skill levels. This can compromise the ability of a Coach to offer a well-organized and structured practice, and interfere with their ability to both Coach and Lifeguard.

Facilities that permit and support Coaches as Lifeguards may argue that a practice is an organized and structured activity. That assumes two things — organization and, you guessed it — structure. You need to have a Coach that is talented in the art of organization, and grouping all Coaches into that category is a dangerous thing to do. It definitely relates back to the Coaching and/or Lifeguarding certification courses they are required to possess before assuming that dual role. Requiring certification from a coaching program that embeds aquatic safety supervision components specific to that aquatic sport, developed by aquatic lifeguarding professionals, is a great place to start.

There are also regional differences and inconsistencies. The definition of “Coach” varies just as widely as the supervisory requirement for “Lifeguard” varies across the country. In Ontario a certified Lifeguard can supervise up to 30 bathers at a time. A Coach who meets the requirements in the Ontario Public Pools Regulation can supervise up to 25 participants. In other provinces in Canada the Lifeguard to bather supervisory ratio is determined jointly by facility management and senior aquatic staff. An organization needs to determine their definition of “Coach” and ensure it meets the standards in their area before considering placing them on deck as both Coach and Lifeguard.

Sometimes it is just not possible to have trained Lifeguards on duty during practices. Budgets, departmental philosophies, and scheduling challenges can all play a role and may result in a Coach performing double-duty. If a Coach will be guarding his/her practice there are a number of key components that need to be in place before that Coach steps on deck in that role:

  • Verify that the Coach is current in the Coaching, Lifeguarding, and first aid certifications that are required by law in your region and/or by your organization
  • Have a comprehensive Policy and Procedures Manual that has been read and signed off by the Coach
  • Make sure that the Coach has had a full facility tour and been trained in the operational and emergency procedures of your facility including:
    o Emergency Medical Service activation and their building access points
    o Location of all emergency and first aid equipment
    o How to deal with both major and minor emergencies as well as building evacuation
    o Use of bystanders/athletes during an emergency
    o Opening/closing procedures (if applicable)
  • Have the Coach demonstrate the ability to handle an emergency in the water and in any other areas (dry land training space) that they will be supervising. It is also recommended that the emergency situations include accidents that could occur during their practice (sport specific)
  • Outline expectations in relation to facility access, being in appropriate attire and “rescue ready”, any checklists they may need to complete, and the process in the event that there are concerns about their ability to Coach/Lifeguard at the same time.
  • Document all of the above and review at least annually, if not more often.

Imagine a class of 25 students playing dodge ball in a gym all at the same time. One Coach is on duty trying to keep track of the ball, injuries, noisy spectators, and if any of the players are leaving the area. Then fill that gym with water. Welcome to the pool. Practice being the safest and the best at what you do and with the programs you offer. Follow best practices, plan, and make safe choices when considering using a Coach as a Lifeguard.

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