10 Aquatic Safety Inspirations from the World of Football

As I am sitting here writing this, it is the beginning of a season….football season. For those who don’t know me, I love the game of football, but I don’t have a particular team that I follow. I just love the sport in general. I started to think about parallels between aquatics operations and lessons or takeaways we can all use or remind ourselves of as we prepare for another season (or day of operation) at our facilities. Sometimes all we need is a little bit of a different perspective or a different way of relating to the grind of what we do in aquatics operations. I was inspired, and I hope you are too.

#1 – Self-Scouting is Powerful

Self-scouting is a technique used by players in the NFL. It is focused around self-evaluation, self-awareness, and self-improvement. After a game, players are provided with their “films” or video footage of the plays they were involved in. Their assignment is to evaluate their own performance, good and bad, and then with the assistance of their coaches, create a strategy around what they need to focus on at practice before the next game.

I decided to try this concept with my lifeguards. I took a quick minute or two video of their performance on stand, and then at their next rotation or next available time, I had them watch the video. I asked them to look at their performance both for highlights and any areas that may need improvement. The guards loved it! They loved the immediate feedback and the different perspective it gave to them. Guards could see where a rule enforcement had taken too long, or where they looked like they were fixated for a bit, or where their head movement made it look like they were missing a section of their zone. Lifeguards began to ask for self-scouting more and more. They wanted to improve, they wanted to see their performance. These exercises focused on allowing guards to be more self-aware and more deliberate with their surveillance development, and they were able to gain a greater appreciation for the outside feedback I was giving to them. Spark a little fire with a focus on personal improvement, and watch out!

#2 – Little Moments are the Big Moments

I once heard a quote that said, “There are no big moments, only little ones”…and we only have one moment at a time. I’ve heard many football coaches interviewed and talk about their focus is on the current game or current play, not on their next championship or the Super Bowl. Teams have to win many games before they get to the Super Bowl and to do that they have to win many small individual plays. If a team or players don’t show up for the small plays, they won’t even survive to the playoffs, let along the Super Bowl.

In aquatics, I sometimes get the feeling that operators are preparing for the “Super Bowl” instead of preparing for the next play. Sometimes we get caught in the trap of just mentally waiting for the big event, or the 2 long whistles, instead of focusing on the smaller plays that lead up to those moments. The small plays and little moments are critical in a safe aquatics operation. It is the power of those little moments, and how well executed those moments are, that can even prevent a big moment or injury or event occurring. Manage the little moments!

#3 – Different Opponents = Different Game Plan

Coaches are often interviewed about their approach to an upcoming game or team. They are asked to define their strategy or how they will handle a stronger running team or a more physical defense. In football, they study their opponents. They know the strengths and weaknesses and then they devise a game plan around what they think will be most successful in that meeting.

As operators, we are faced with many different opponents…normal operation, lap swim, swim lessons, camp visits, night events, private rentals…and I think sometimes our game plan needs to change. I started to look at different elements of my operation, different guests, different activity levels and think about how I could more effectively and defensively approach that time. As I thought about each one of these times differently, I was able to layer different or additional levels of risk prevention during those times, or adjust to create a better game plan for what our team was facing. Camps visits are a different beast than normal operation, different opponents = different game plan!

#4 – The Role of the Coach

Let’s start by addressing the number of coaches before the role of the coach. In the NFL, teams have anywhere from 16-25 coaches for a 53 man roster….woah! Could you imagine that ratio between your lifeguards and leadership team…that would be rad, but expensive! Notwithstanding the ratio, one of the amazing things to me about the coaches is their presence. They are always there…doesn’t matter if it practice or game-time, they know their presence matters. Coaches are the accountability piece, the glue to the organization.

We juggle a lot of tasks as an operator, but our most important is our staff. I made a commitment a few years ago to arrive at work at 6:30am even though our park didn’t open until 10. My thought was I wanted to get through the emails, phone calls, to-do list items or what I call the “whirlwind” before the gates opened. This shift made such a difference in my ability to be present, both mentally and physically during operation. Coaches are there to provide guidance, reassurance, motivation, knowledge, support, to be able to make adjustments to the play call as the game progresses…to do that, you have to be present. Coaches don’t wait until the end of the game to give feedback or make adjustments, they are constantly communicating, talking, and calling the plays. You will most often find the coach with his toes on (or over) the white line on the sidelines, intently focused on the game at hand…my challenge is the same, to have my toes on (or over) the edge of the pool, intently focused on my game at hand.

I think successful coaches also understand that they aren’t so much playing football as they are in the business of managing people. Lifeguard operations are no different….and managing people I think is one of life’s greatest challenges. It is something you have to learn for each person, continually focus on, and always be adapting. But when a team has individual value, limited conflict (there will always be some), and synergy to achieve the designated goals, amazing things can happen.

Coaches also don’t actually play the game for their players. Similarly, we can’t lifeguard or dispatch for our employees, and it doesn’t matter how good of a lifeguard you personally are. We have to teach them, set them up for success, and hold them accountable like a coach. That is why I love the 4 most powerful words in leadership…”I believe in you” (link to article). It is the power of delegation, trust, and confidence that our team needs.

#5 – Goal Connection

It seems like everyone these days is talking about goals, including football teams and coaches. There is a pre-season time where each team establishes their team goals and individual goals. Coaches like Mike Tomlin also have their players write down their goals and discuss how individual goals support the main team goals. In aquatics operations, I think goals are just as important, although I don’t know if we are always clear at identifying them and including our staff in them. We also have the ability to leverage the power of individual goals to meet our ultimate team goals, but we must first be aware of those individual goals of our staff. Our team members are probably viewing a job in aquatics as a stepping stone to something different…do they want to be a nurse, travel the world, write a book, become a famous social media activist…their personal goals are opportunities for us to connect them to our goals within our operation. We are teaching more than lifeguarding or aquatic safety, we are teaching life skills. And if we are successfully able to communicate the connection point between goals and how they support each other, all will win!

#6 – All Players are Key

We investigate drownings on a regular basis, and one thing that is said frequently by managers post-event is “We are so glad these lifeguards responded, they are our strongest…A team!”. To me, these types of phrases referring to their best lifeguards over others are always worrisome. It says to me that there are lifeguards you don’t have confidence in to perform. Now I know there are all varying levels of experience and skill, but I believe you should be confident with all team members and their ability to save your life if needed. I took a hard stance on this a few years ago during lifeguard training and during the first days of summer operation, I wanted the weak ones out. If they couldn’t confidently cut it during lifeguard training, enough that the passing instructor was willing to go to bat for them, then they didn’t make it. We created a culture of accountability of who was on our team and it actually started at the interview process. We would jokingly (but semi-seriously) call out interviewers or instructors who passed someone on to the next round. They had to initial for the progress, so it was easy to pull their paperwork and hold them accountable. Then we removed the weak links from our team as quickly as possible. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying here, we weren’t a heartless organization that never let anyone fail or learn, but we understood we are dealing with people’s lives and there are certain errors we cannot make. In football and aquatics alike, all players on the team are key and the focus is to work and improve individually, minimize mistakes, and for the entire team to trust the other players. We win or lose together.

#7 – Emotion & Motivation Go Together

Lou Holtz is famous for saying, “Your TALENT determines what you can do. Your MOTIVATION determines how much you are willing to do. Your ATTITUDE determines how well you do it.” He understood that talent isn’t enough, even attitude isn’t enough, but it takes all three to be successful. For me, motivation has been a personal and professional mission project. I have developed and implemented many different types of motivational and recognition programs. I have seen first hand the importance of extrinsic (external) motivation in staff performance along with the goal of developing intrinsic (internal) lasting motivation. First and foremost, emotions are at the core of any successful motivational program. If people don’t feel cared about or connected to, then nothing else matters. We have to invest in our employees and more than just a financial investment. Football teams often describe their teammates as family. They would do anything for each other, and they know they care about them and would do anything for them. The emotional piece is so hard to explain to people, but I can tell you that I can feel if it is there or not when I step into an organization. It isn’t something you can fake, you truly believe in the value of others and care for them as people, or you don’t.

#8 – Learn from Failures & Successes

Being on the side of the industry that investigates accidents and drownings, we see a lot of bad things and unfortunate events. We are provided the opportunity to analyze what went wrong and what went well. Sometimes the greatest growth we see in organizations is from failures. We are not perfect, our lifeguards aren’t perfect, and our organizations aren’t perfect. Things are going to happen, and it is amazing the perspective and knowledge that going through an event provides. If you have had an unfortunate event, you have so much value that you bring to your operation and organization now…embrace that, share that, learn from it. I wish we did better as an aquatics community of supporting others after they have been involved in an event, it is one of the reasons why I do what I do today. So often, we feel ashamed and don’t want to share for fear of judgment, when in reality we are denying others the opportunities to learn and the ability to provide personal support. I also think we should look deeper at our successes. There are always things that go well, even during a bad event, or ways that an event was prevented at all. I believe there are opportunities to learn from both successes and failures, you just have to be open and look for them.

#9 – We Need to be Challenged
Pete Carroll, Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks, is quoted as saying “We need to be challenged, …and we need to be under the gun to respond.” I believe this is true in successful aquatics organizations too. Successful operators understand the need for continual challenges in order to stay engaged in the task at hand. Let’s be honest, lifeguarding can be boring and lonely. We see organizations fall into the trap of a laid-back environment or a dare I say it, lazy approach. It is easy to get there, and much harder to stay continually challenged yourself and to continually challenge your team members. Our brain functions differently when we are being challenged and stimulated rather than operating in a habitual or passive position. Consider what new ways you can challenge your lifeguard performance, lifeguard skills, leadership team involvement, and your personal performance. Challenge is not something that will naturally happen, it takes work to create and engage in, but it also creates a powerful engagement and response!
#10 – Off-season is Key
I wonder if any football coach is asked the dreaded question, “So what do you do in the off-season?” (Or when the waterpark is closed?). The off-season is an important time in any football organization. It is a time of planning, reviewing, analyzing, strategizing, trading players, recruiting players, meetings, and recharging and recovering. Sound familiar? The off-season, even if you are in year-round aquatics operations is an important and valuable time. Don’t waste it and don’t underestimate what you can do in a short period of time. If there is something that concerns you, create a plan to fix it. If there is an employee that isn’t working out, trade them. If there is an idea you have, execute on it.
Looking for inspirations in other areas of life is a way to continually drive and improve my personal involvement in aquatic safety. I hope you were able to find value in some of my thoughts and I’d love to hear any additional inspirations you take away from the world of football that we can all consider as we focus on continually improving our operations.
-Natalie Livingston