BE PREPARED The visual shock of serious injuries can take a lifeguard’s heart rate into the Gray or even Black Zone. Desensitization Drills and moulage (applying mock injuries and gore) help them practice stress-controlling skills. Here, the moulage drill involves a leg “amputation.”
BE PREPARED The visual shock of serious injuries can take a lifeguard’s heart rate into the Gray or even Black Zone. Desensitization Drills and moulage (applying mock injuries and gore) help them practice stress-controlling skills. Here, the moulage drill involves a leg “amputation.”

At first, it seems like an impossible challenge: Train young people with limited life experience to perform complex skills successfully in life-and-death situations? Yet that’s exactly what we, as aquatics managers, must do. How can we turn teens and young adults into highly skilled rescuers?

One of the best available resources might seem unlikely: the military. But it makes sense because those who train young soldiers have the same responsibility, and we can learn much from military research techniques to prepare our own staffs for emergency response. Two excellent books on the topic are On Combat by David Grossman and The Warrior’s Edge by Bruce Siddle. They make military science and research accessible and understandable. With this article, I hope to also make it applicable to aquatics.

Understanding emergency action includes understanding fear. What are its psychological and physiological effects on the body? In a nutshell, fear increases the heart rate. As a person becomes more afraid, their heart rate increases. Their physical resources (oxygenated blood) move away from their fine motor muscles and cognitive processing. Instead, more blood flows to larger muscles and more automatic brain functions. To categorize fear/stress levels, Grossmann and Siddle classify five heartbeat-per-minute (bpm) zones:

White - resting (60-80 bpm)
Yellow - alert (80-115 bpm)
Red - action (115-145 bpm)
Gray - scared (145-175 bpm)
Black - overwhelmed (175+bpm)

As a person’s heart rate increases and they move from the White Zone toward the Black Zone, they will change physically and psychologically. Physically, a person’s gross motor skills will increase, while their fine motor skills decrease. Psychologically, their complex thinking heightens and then diminishes, while their automatic processing steadily increases. Each zone has its advantages and disadvantages:

White – heightened focus and dexterity for knitting, woodworking and recovery.
Yellow – fast visual processing for driving, table tennis and lifeguard scanning.
Red – maximum complex skill function for biathlon, snowboarding and rescue skills.
Gray – increased strength and endurance for marathons and difficult rescues.
Black – maximum power for powerlifting, astounding feats and flight/fight/freeze.

The skills involved in a water rescue require lifeguards to be at the top of their game physically and mentally. Therefore, the Red Zone, where the heart is pumping steadily at 115-145 bpm, is the ideal place for them to be. In that zone, gross motor muscles and fine motor muscles are at high-functioning levels. All complex sports — soccer, snowboarding, wrestling and the like — are performed best in this zone, so that athletes are strong, precise and dexterous. Decisions and adjustments can be made quickly and accurately.

So doesn’t it only make sense that our lifeguards should be practicing in the Red Zone to perform well in emergencies? Just as the military has developed training techniques to prepare soldiers for peak performance in the Red Zone, the aquatics industry can incorporate trainings that prepare lifeguards for success during times of fear, stress and physical exertion. We know that no 16-year-old lifeguard is going to remain in the White Zone while performing CPR — therefore, we need to have guards practice those CPR skills in the Red Zone.

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Here are four military training tactics that can be applied to lifeguard drills:
Speed Drills: Here, lifeguards perform a specific task quickly while being timed. As a simple task is mastered, more steps can be added to the drill. These drills are designed to create muscle memory so the complex tasks become part of the lifeguard’s automatic response. Great skills to practice for speed drills include putting on gloves, getting a passive victim on your rescue tube, positioning a victim for CPR, and putting AED pads on the victim. For more advanced training, multiple skills can be combined to create Complex Speed Drills. (See video above.)

Exertion Drills: These are designed to increase a lifeguard’s heart rate to at least 145 bpm, and then have them perform a rescue or first aid skill. The trainer can choose to have guards perform a gross motor skill to build endurance, or do a complex motor skill to build dexterity. For example, a guard could tread water holding a brick for two minutes to elevate his heart rate, and perform a submerged victim rescue to improve leg power and endurance. Or the guards could sprint for 50 yards across the pool, and then be asked to backboard to practice fine motor skills at an increased heart rate. Regular practice of Exertion Drills lets lifeguards become accustomed to performing their rescue skills at the same heart rate they’ll experience during emergency response. (See video below.)

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Limitation Drills: By asking guards to perform a rescue while limiting their sight, limbs, equipment and/or the number of rescuers, a trainer can help them build cognitive skills at an escalated heart rate. Guards can learn to develop the skills needed to think through unexpected situations that can occur during emergency response. Limitation Drills reduce their reliance on muscle memory and train them to be effective trouble-shooters.

Desensitization Drills: Here, rescuers are exposed to visually and mentally shocking situations and environments. This prepares them for difficult situations and allows them to practice stress-controlling skills. Such drills can include photos, videos or moulage (applying mock injuries and gore for training). The visual shock of serious injuries can bring a lifeguard’s heart rate into the Gray or even Black Zone. Trainers can incorporate breath training into Desensitization Drills by teaching where guards should take several deep breaths to reduce their heart rate. The combination of exposure to shocking situations and breathing techniques will prepare lifeguards to handle the challenges of rescues that involve gore.

Keep in mind that stress training is not meant to replace the other important aspects of regular in-service lifeguard training. Solid rescue skills and EAP practice still should be considered essential, and the backbone of each facility’s training program. Further, aquatics managers using stress-training techniques need to be conscious of gradual implementation. For example, you wouldn’t want to ask a new lifeguard to perform a deep-water-backboard with a hand tied behind their back during their very first in-service, or you might undermine their confidence and do more harm than good.

Now that we’ve learned how military science can help us train lifeguards to perform successfully in emergencies, let’s see how it can improve lifeguard scanning and minimize panic. To read Part 2, click here.

Credits: Speed Drill video courtesy Northern California Aquatic Management Association; Exertion Drill video courtesy Sunrise Recreation and Park District; moulage drill photo courtesy City of Roseville, Calif.

Becky Herz is recreation services manager III at Sunrise Recreation and Park District in Citrus Heights, Calif. She's been involved in aquatics for 28 years, working in Missouri, Wisconsin, New York and California. Herz also has been a Red Cross Instructor Trainer for more than 10 years.