What does it mean to be a lifeguard?

I have been certified by the American Red Cross as a lifeguard since the spring of 2011. As of writing this, I am almost at five years of being a lifeguard, so I know a thing or two about what it means to have earned this title.


First, I would like to point out a few misunderstandings about what my peers and I do.

  1. We aren’t all super sexy. Being physically attractive is not a requirement for being a lifeguard, despite what many shows and movies may suggest. We are required to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, but any personal trainer, health fanatic, or exercise enthusiast can tell you that fitness comes in many different forms. We have in-services, re-certification classes, and various other test-like events to ensure that we are capable to swim to and save a person without putting ourselves in unnecessary danger. Do not expect us to be super models, but do expect us to be able to get to your drowning self and save the heck out of you regardless of our body types.
  2. We don’t like being ‘mean’ to you, your children, or anyone else. Lifeguards are notorious for asking you to exit the pool when a thunder storm has moved into the area, telling energetic teenagers that they are not allowed to flip into the pool regardless of how fun or cool it is, and yelling “WALK!” at kids who are gleefully speeding across the pool deck. Why do we do this if not to make your life as miserable as we possibly can? Because we care about keeping our patrons safe. It’s literally what we get paid to do. I don’t want to risk lightening striking something connected to that pool and seeing you writhe as electricity courses through your body. I don’t want to be strapping your best friend, just three weeks away from graduation, to a back board after pulling his unconscious body up from the deep end because he hit his head on the side of the pool trying to impress you. I don’t want to be checking the pulse of your daughter as she lies on the pool deck with blood pouring from an open head wound because she slipped and hit the tiles just so. Our priority is to keep you from needing our help, and sometimes, that means we have to say things you don’t want to hear. Just listen.
  3. We judge you not on how you look, but rather on how you act. You don’t have to self-conscious about us watching you swim. We don’t care if your tummy isn’t flat or if your stroke isn’t perfect. Yes, you’re going to catch us looking at you. Why? Because we are monitoring your face for signs of panic and making sure your stroke has not become ineffective. This lets us know if you’re going to start drowning any time soon. We also are trained to keep count of how many people are in our pool at a time, which means we will be looking at you to count you. If we ever don’t see someone who should be in the pool but is not visible, we will scan the bottom as quickly as possible, and you might get to see us jump in. I hope that never happens to you. Or me, for that matter. Just remember that lifeguards don’t judge you. The only time a lifeguard will ever judge you is if you are a jerk. No one likes a jerk.

Second, some stuff you should know about the lifeguards at your favorite swimming location.

  1. We work really hard for this. To get certified, we have to pass some pretty intense swim tests. They aren’t too bad for anyone who has swam competitively and built up your endurance from lap swimming, but if you are just a casual swimmer who took a few swim lessons as a kid, it’s going to seem like a lot. We learn how to swim with a giant stick of foam under our arms. We are taught to stabilize any kind of injury for what can be long periods of time before help arrives.We memorize the exact steps to get a victim with a spinal injury onto a floating backboard without letting them slide off or sink. We learn to pull people twice our size from the bottom of the pool, get the out of the water, and administer CPR to save them.

After we pass the certification, we have to attend in-services at our places of employment to ensure our skills and overall ability to save a person have not slipped. Some facilities even throw dummies into the bottom of a pool when they think a guard isn’t looking to make sure they have the reaction time needed to save a life. We have to take re-certification classes every two years so we can be brought up to par on any changes the ARC has made to the lifeguarding program. This is also where we run through every skill we know, from first aid and CPR to the proper rescue used for a submerged passive victim in deep water with a suspected head or neck injury.

  1. Every facility has different rules. This goes without say for different types of facilities (lakes vs. beaches vs. pools), but it also varies from facilities that belong to the same archetype. The pool you swam at over the summer might have allowed corkscrew jumps, but mine certainly does not. Please don’t try to argue with me because these rules exist for a reason. As a guard on the bottom of the chain of command responsible for making these rules, I might not be able to explain to you exactly why your child has to wear a life jacket even if you watching him from the side of the pool and are confident in his ability, but I can say that there is a darn good reason why that rule is in place and that I will learn the answer by the next time you come in.
  2. Each of us is different. Some guards are going to love to sit on the side of the pool and chat with you when there are only two people in the pool. Some guards are going to be sitting on the opposite side of the pool from you, avoiding eye contact while they nibble a granola bar. Some guards are going to be chatting to a co-worker while the keep an eye on you, while others may not even ask like they know their shift partner is there. Some are going to play classical music on the radio while others are going to find the one station that only plays the newest pop music and spend the shift walking around the pool. If you expect each guard to have the exact same personality, you are going to be in for a world of disappointment. We are each our own person, and we need to do different things to keep our minds and bodies ready to help you at any given moment. However, each and every guard will address any concerns and questions you have to the best of their ability. You just have to ask.

Finally, some ways you can be a great patron

  1. Use your manners. Lifeguards are people, too. This means that saying “please,” “thank you,” or even smiling at us will help us feel ten times better. If we mention something to you, whether it is a pool rule or a compliment on your swim suit, treating us with respect is just the polite thing to do. Lifeguards don’t want to be mean to you, but sometimes our jobs require that we tell you about the no running rule. Sometimes, we really just like your swim suit and think you should know. We aren’t intentionally stepping over any lines, but we don’t always know where those lines are for you. Just treat us like people, and you can quickly become a favorite patron, which is great for both of us.
  2. Obey the rules. This should go without say, but the rules are there for your safety and the safety of other patrons. By not obeying them, especially if I have reminded you not to pull on the rim of our cool basketball hoop twice now, you are putting yourself at risk. Ideally, the greatest risk you are at is being asked to leave the facility. However, the worst case scenario is that you get really, really hurt, like that hoop overbalances, crashing into your head and giving you permanent brain damage. See why we have rules?
  3. Get to know us. If your lifeguard is sitting on the opposite side of the pool or keeping his replies short, it’s probably because he isn’t feeling very social. These introverted guards tend to appear as it gets closer to closing time. I recommend just asking your question to these sassy zombies and being on your best behavior. However, if a guard is sitting near where you are swimming and look genuinely social, feel free to engage them. I love hearing all about my patrons’ grandkids or that funny thing your co-worker did today. I also love talking about school and joking about school. Getting to know your guards can provide both you and them with great networking opportunities, and it’s always nice to have a friendly face to greet you.


This ended up being a bit longer than I anticipated, but if you have read this far, congratulations! You’re now enlightened about the basic lifeguarding profession!

Thank your lifeguard today!


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