4 Life Lessons I Learned as a Lifeguard

I realized at a young age that working as a lifeguard was the best way to get paid while also getting a tan.

I was a responsible teenager and took things seriously. But I didn’t realize how much I had actually learned from that experience until recently.

Here are 4 lessons from my years spent beside the pool:

Be specific about your needs

One of the most important things I remember from first aid training is to point at someone in the crowd and say: “You. I need you to call 911, now. Can you do that?”

Shouting out a vague “someone call 911” or expecting that, of course, someone is already on top of it can be a fatal mistake. Even if it seems obvious to you what needs to be done, it may not be clear to the people around you.

Sometimes people hesitate to take action because they’re unsure what would be helpful or they worry about doing the wrong thing. And other times you notice an issue long before those around you – not due to carelessness or apathy, but because we have different perspectives.

The possibility that no one takes action is high and waiting for someone else to make the first move is a waste of time. 

Whether you’re sending a group email or dividing up household chores, if you want results, be sure that your message is clear.

Rather than hope someone will jump to action, set specific expectations from the start. Speak directly to one person, ask for what you need, and confirm that they’re going to do it. Then leave them to it.

Keeping something second-nature requires practice

To become a lifeguard, you need to take a combination of hands-on and classroom training, pass physical and written tests, and maintain up-to-date first aid credentials through regular re-testing.

On top of this, many pools hold regular drills for their lifeguards to practice emergency rescue scenarios and check the fitness of their equipment.

Why so much practice? Because it’s hard to remember, let alone apply, something that you’ve been taught but haven’t used in real life. Especially when the situation is stressful or unpredictable. 

We have a tendency to fall back on our past experiences when deciding what to in a challenging situation.

Most lifeguards don’t need to perform CPR every day, but it’s essential that all of them feel confident and ready to do it in an emergency. Practice plays a key role in keeping skills sharp and knowledge fresh. Research shows that practice changes the brain – it increases the speed of recall and response.

And this applies to everything from learning an instrument to emotional regulation. It’s why we talk about yoga and mindfulness as a practice.

Whatever you’re working on, showing up for yourself to practice it consistently will make it much easier for you to apply in the moments when you need those skills the most.

Take regular breaks to improve focus

Most lifeguards work on shifts where they rotate to different positions around the pool and take scheduled breaks away from the water. It’s exhausting to pay attention to anything intensely, but the pool environment can make fatigue set in especially fast. Kids are shouting, the sun is hot, the glare is bright, and didn’t you already ask him more than once? – WALK! 

There’s a lot at stake and you can’t afford to daydream behind your sunglasses.

Many lifeguards are required to take a break every hour. Though I had no idea at the time, this in line with a lot of research that suggests people are better at focusing on just about anything if they take more breaks. It can increase productivity as well.

You might want to be available to your family, friends or colleagues at all times. Maybe you even think it’s what you have to do. But that means you’re rarely working on one thing at a time or without interruption.

It’s extremely difficult to get anything done like this! And you’ll probably feel completely drained by midday. The tv is blaring, your inbox is full, the toddler just spilled something, and didn’t you already answer that question? (It turns out working from home with little kids around is not so different from sitting beside a pool mid-summer)

Focus as a lifeguard meant full attention on the pool area. Now my focus is on setting priorities and protecting the time needed to get those tasks done.

Rather than set yourself up for marathon stretches of inconsistent attention, plan short bursts of focus where you turn off all notifications and ask not to be interrupted. Maybe you do 25 minutes “on” with a 5-minute break, or 45 minutes of focus with a 15-minute break.

Make your plan known and hold yourself to it.

Use your breaks to walk around, answer questions or triage your incoming messages. And if your “office mates” are like mine, maybe it’s to distribute snacks before the next episode of Sesame Street.

People rarely shout for help when they need it most

With the exception of someone slipping into the pool with a splash, many people who are about to drown look like they’re doing ok. At first glance, they may even like they’re playing.

Movies give you the idea that someone will flail around, splashing, and screaming for help. Someone making that type of noise might be in trouble, but when you’re really struggling to keep your face above water, you don’t waste precious seconds shouting. You breathe. After a few minutes of bobbing near the surface, you’d get tired and lack the strength to make even a wordless gesture of distress. Because of this, drowning victims tend to be quiet.

The same is true for many people who are struggling at work or in life. Although it happens gradually, the realization that things have gotten overwhelming comes on all at once.

Burnout sneaks up of people, even though it’s often the result of many weeks or months of overexertion. For many people, by the time they’re in trouble, it can feel too late to ask for help. 

We’re naturally more keyed into the people in our lives who draw the most attention, but it’s critical to check in on the quiet folks from time to time as well. 

Swimmers who drown aren’t always the poor swimmers. Sometimes they’re just exhausted. Sometimes they’re someone who has just tiptoed a little too far into the deep end and can’t find their footing. 

The people who generally get on with things and don’t make a fuss are just as likely to get into trouble. With them a superficial chat may not be enough to really understand how confidently they’re keeping their head above water. It may take a deeper conversation for you to really see whether they’ve got the situation under control or need your assistance in getting on solid ground to catch their breath. 


Which of these lessons can you apply today?

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