Aquatic Management Training

By Terri Matal

As a decentralized aquatic operation within a large urban recreation and parks department, swimming pools must be operated with a seasonal pool-management team consisting of a manager, assistant manager, and a senior guard. Before budget reductions forced the city of Sacramento, Calif., to close a number of neighborhood pools, the department operated 22 aquatic facilities during the summer. In 2013, it operated eight swimming pools and five stand-alone wading pools.

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A large number of municipal parks and recreation organizations operate pools from a seasonal model where facilities are open for a limited time, usually during summer months. The full-time staff may often oversee year-round programs and facilities in addition to aquatic programs. Also, many municipal and community recreation service-delivery models may have one or two staff members who have a variety of programs and facilities to oversee year-round. In these models, a large seasonal summer staff is necessary for these programs and facilities, and full-time staff members may find themselves over-worked in the summer but under-utilized during the school year. For this reason, training tends to be low-level for seasonal workers. Many recreation and leisure organizations cannot afford to pay for pre-service training for seasonal staff, and may make the training non-mandatory.

For more than 40 years, Sacramento’s recreation department has operated within this model. Because the full-time aquatic staff members cannot be in several places at once, 30 to 60 pool-management candidates are hired and trained to operate the swimming pools during the summer. In 2002, a management “school” was created so that second- and third-year lifeguards could attend specialized pre-service training. Because of the size of the aquatic operations, a 16-year-old lifeguard may work his or her way up the ladder to pool manager within 4 to 5 years. It is not unusual for staff members to remain employed with the organization for 8 to 10 years. Developing managers from within has proven to be a valuable investment in staff members.

Integrating Training Successfully
For lifeguard staff to be effective at operating a swimming pool, several facility-management concepts must be integrated into training:

  • Staff supervision
  • Safe chemical and equipment handling
  • Customer service
  • Program implementation
  • In-service training
  • Paperwork organization
  • Cash collecting and handling.

Concepts in public safety, skills in lifeguarding, first aid, and CPR also are reviewed.

In January, at the first management training, the last part of the day is dedicated to asking staff members to evaluate their previous summer by participating in a short SWOT analysis, measuring strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Questions like “What went well?” and “What could be improved?” are answered in a small-group setting. Similar to participants in strategic-planning sessions, members of each group are asked to write on postcards what did not go well, and then the cards are passed around and read by the other groups. This allows for anonymity and honesty in answering the question.

Once management candidates participate in this evaluation process, they become an integral part of a learning environment and help drive the next set of topics. A typical 7-hour day (one Saturday per month from January through May) includes an ice-breaker, a pre-determined scenario with discussion, a 1-hour session on concepts of leadership or supervision then a 30-minute lunch break. The afternoon may consist of a training DVD on a public-safety subject, a guest speaker presenting on workplace violence or sexual harassment, then a team-building session. The day ends with an evaluation and closing.

Another aspect of this management training is a concentrated weekend near spring break, which helps accommodate candidates who may be out of state attending college. Because of the nature of the training, management academy is mandatory, and attendance is only excused by being in an out-of-state college, or living more than 300 miles from the organization. This concentrated weekend’s curriculum is packed with relevant information and opportunities for learning. Also included in the management conference are several hours of water work. Guest speakers are invited to present topics such as workplace safety, specific water-related issues, and other train-the-trainer ideas.

How To Get Started
Building the capacity of veteran lifeguards to lead teams has been a successful venture; by taking the following steps, the possibility of developing pool managers is also there:

Assess the facility’s needs. Do you operate multiple facilities? Do you have a decentralized operation, where you will need competent oversight of facilities? By training returning staff in management practices, you create competent leaders who can:

  1. Evaluate staff members. Do you have a large seasonal staff that returns each year? If staff members have opportunities for seasonal advancement, even starting a small management program will work.
  2. Network with other aquatic professionals. Do you belong to a state or national parks and recreation organization? Membership in at least one of these groups may assist aquatic professionals in networking with other professionals. For small leisure organizations, consider partnering with smaller agencies and combine efforts for training staff in management practices.
  3. Examine your own professional-development status. How much aquatic knowledge do you currently have? If you intend to train staff members in management concepts, should you acquire more training and education? Attending workshops hosted by organizations mentioned in #2 can assist in this endeavor.
  4. Update your aquatic certifications. Has it been a few years since you guarded a pool or taught a swim lesson? Invest in courses such as Aquatic Facility Operator (AFO), or obtain an instructor certification. For example, teaching lifeguard training or Water Safety Instructor (WSI) can assist with presentation skills, and can become familiar with deeper concepts.
  5. Read industry publications (like this one!). There are many free subscriptions that are full of informative articles. Membership in parks and recreation organizations may also have a monthly publication. There are abundant online resources as well.
  6. Participate in various social media. Many social networking sites have relevant discussion topics to which people answer questions and share resources.

Terri Webster Matal is the Aquatics and Adult Sports Supervisor for the city of Sacramento, Calif. Reach her at .



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Yarger, L. and Ogoreuc, R. (2009). “Aquatics professional development.” International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education, 3 (1) , 83-88.