Psychology of Lifeguarding
Lifeguard training agencies give lifeguards the knowledge and water skills they need in order to do their jobs effectively. But there is also a great need for strategies to prevent boredom and keep lifeguards alert, particularly when they are on duty for long periods of time. Vigilance in general is difficult for all human beings but particularly difficult for teenagers, and most lifeguards in this country are teenagers. Lifeguard surveys continually indicate that boredom is a lifeguard’s primary enemy. Although lifeguarding is an extremely important job and has many rewards, it can quickly become very tedious depending on the situation.
Although crowded days can be stressful for lifeguards, at least their attention typically increases with the size of the crowd. Most lifeguards would agree that slow days are more of a problem, at least from the standpoint of attention and concentration, than crowded days. On crowded days, however, more lifeguards are often necessary to visually cover the swimming area adequately.
Since the early 1900s, much has been researched and written about the optimal level of psychological and emotional arousal for physical and mental tasks. In 1908, the Yerkes–Dodson law first illustrated how different levels of arousal predict performance. Basically stated, low levels of arousal and high levels of arousal lead to poor performance, while moderate levels of arousal lead to optimal performance in many endeavors. Low levels of arousal lead to poor performance through a lack of awareness and motivation, and high levels of arousal lead to panic and choking due to overloading, with potentially catastrophic results. Many areas including sports and medical training use the Yerkes–Dodson Law, sometimes referred to as the inverted-U hypothesis. Regardless of the sport or profession, to maximize performance, a little bit of nervousness or arousal is desirable. On the contrary, too much or too little arousal has a negative effect on performance. Lifeguards have known this for decades: Slow days and busy days produce either bored or overloaded lifeguards, and moderately busy days are best for attention, concentration, and awareness.
The field of medicine uses the Yerkes–Dodson Law to train physicians. Most medical schools use the motto “See one, do one, teach one.” This refers to the competence and confidence levels of physicians performing vitally important medical procedures. Before being competent and confident in doing lifesaving procedures, particularly when time is of the essence, physicians should first see the procedure performed by another physician. Then after being further taught about the procedure, the physician may be ready to attempt the procedure on his own. However, the best medical educators truly believe that doctors become competent and confident in doing a procedure only after teaching it to other potential physicians. Lifeguards should be so lucky. Most often, the one and only time lifeguards perform a water rescue requiring resuscitation is their first and last. Lifeguards are expected, of course, to respond perfectly, professionally, and in a timely fashion, even though they have not had the opportunity to “see one, do one, teach
The Yerkes–Dodson law has important application for lifeguards. In essence, when lifeguards are busy and the weather is hot (overaroused), more lifeguards are needed for surveillance and to provide frequent rest breaks for the lifeguards on duty. To the contrary, when few patrons are in the water (underaroused), lifeguards on duty need to be challenged by their supervisors with “dummy drops,” unannounced audits, staged water rescues, and anything else that can raise their arousal and attention. Because conditions at both surf beaches and water parks often lend themselves to real-life rescues by the on-duty lifeguards, boredom and low levels of arousal are not as common compared with traditional swimming pools and flat-water beaches. Although high levels of arousal may occur frequently for surf and water park lifeguards, low levels of arousal are more common for guards who are watching boring, rectangular, competitive swimming pools. Surf guards and water park lifeguards often have critical incidents, whereas pool lifeguards and flat-water lifeguards often do not. Regardless of the type of guarding environment, slow, monotonous days can lead to boredom and a lack of vigilance, whereas busy days can lead to overloading. To keep vigilance up for most lifeguards on most days, supervisors and managers must use tricks of the trade to keep their employees alert. Unfortunately, there has been insufficient research conducted specifically in the area of lifeguard surveillance, but research conducted in similar fields should apply to lifeguards today.
There are psychological and physiological strategies that lifeguards should utilize to decrease boredom and increase vigilance. Many athletes, pilots, and long-haul drivers already use these techniques effectively. More specifically, lifeguards should try to change positions or assignments at least every 30 minutes. In addition, moving frequently, mild exercise, working with a partner, cold water, and lowering ambient temperatures have proven to increase attention and concentration. Moderate increases in physical movement, respiration, and heart rate stimulate neurological pathways, which in turn improves attention, concentration, and vigilance. In short, research supports the view that an active and interactive lifeguard is more alert than a passive one. Lifeguards who continually sit rather than stand, walk, and otherwise move cannot maintain the same level of vigilance as those who are always in motion. The lifeguard who sits, stands, and strolls while on duty, as required by the five-minute scanning strategy (page 115), should be more alert physiologically and psychologically, provided she is well rested and not overly stimulated by other environmental factors.
Perceptual Body Blindness
For more than a quarter of a century, cognitive psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of perceptual blindness. Perceptual blindness can be simply explained as failing to detect the obvious in critical situations. Human beings are bad observers and poor monitors. We fail to see the most obvious things because although our eyes take in a tremendous amount of visual stimuli, very little of the data received by the eyes is actually encoded or recorded by our brains. Therefore we may see a lot but perceive very little, one reason humans are not infallible when it comes to drowning prevention and another reason why lifejackets are so important for nonswimmers. In essence, we as human beings see what we expect to see and what we want to see. That is why lifeguards and parents miss drowning victims: They don’t want or expect people to actually drown and die on their watch. This happens on the subconscious level and may be described as perceptual body blindness. Although there are many forms and causes of perceptual blindness, the results are the same—drowning due to a lack of perception. Being aware of this concept and expecting the unexpected may help lifeguards and parents alike who are providing surveillance around the water.
Human beings, just like animals and plants, have biological clocks that predict levels of alertness and fatigue, with both levels fluctuating and alternating throughout each day. Unfortunately, peak times for alertness do not often coincide with the busiest times of the day at the beach. In general, people are most alert in the early to midmorning hours and again in the later afternoon. Between noon and the early afternoon, most people experience increased fatigue and reduced alertness. This is not comforting for those who supervise and manage beach lifeguards because these times of fatigue most often occur when the beaches are the most crowded. Figure 11.1 lists the Circadian Learning Center’s nine switches of alertness.
Maturation and Motivation
As lifeguards become older and more experienced, they usually become more mature and motivated. Considering all lifeguards (pools, water parks, open water), their average age is very young. Lifeguards can begin working at many aquatic facilities at just 15 years of age, and studies conducted at Penn State University show that the average age of lifeguards in America is about 17. Surf lifeguards, however, in places such as Southern California and Florida, are of course much older than that, with many lifeguards being in their 20s and 30s. Remember that adolescence does not end until 25 years of age. The centers for judgment and decision making in the cerebral cortex do not completely form and mature until age 25. That is why many young adults still make bad decisions and exercise poor judgment. Even though some young teens are extremely mature beyond their years, adult decision making is not common until the mid-20s.
Hesitation and Indecision
Too often, lifeguards see or sense something out of the ordinary with a swimmer but continue to scan their zone of coverage with the intent of returning to double-check on the swimmer during the returning scan. This is particularly true for swimmers who are surface diving and swimming underwater. Not surprisingly, when lifeguards return their gaze to where the person was, she is no longer there. When this occurs at a beach, the victim is naturally much more difficult to find because of reduced water clarity and visibility. Waves and currents may also exacerbate the situation. The Ellis and Associates mantras “When you don’t know, go!” and “When in doubt, check them out!” are so vitally important for drowning prevention. Likewise, if a lifeguard sees something at or beneath the surface of the water, he should investigate, even if it doesn’t look exactly like a person; many drowning victims in the past have been mistaken for towels, shadows, or other inanimate objects and ignored by the lifeguard on duty. Lifeguards should not be racing into the water in an attempt to “save” everyone and everything, but contact should be made with every swimmer who raises a question in the guard’s mind. This by definition is proactive prevention.
Read more about Safer Beaches.