Working in a town of medical experts and staff from the Mayo Clinic, you might expect to have a population of naturally gifted teens to hire as lifeguards. After all, these are the children of doctors and researchers at a world-renowned institution.

You’d be right. But this situation also presents certain challenges to those hiring the teens as lifeguards. For one thing, they generally leave town after a summer or two so they can attend universities around the world. This means that 15- and 16-year-olds will constitute a higher-than-normal proportion of the staff. The average age is 16½ years old.

And there are aspects of the local career-driven culture that serve an individual well in other jobs, but can pose an obstacle to working in a team environment and succeeding in emergency situations. For instance, they may fear making mistakes and be even more self-conscious and worried about looking foolish than the average teenager. This doesn’t help during rescues, when you must be as present as possible.

For these reasons, the Rochester Athletic Club has developed an impressive training program to not only integrate such intelligent and ambitious individuals into its culture, but also to help rear them into solid adults and leaders.

Team building

It begins with a trust exercise, to help newbies shed concerns about how they look to others. Trainees pair off, with one blindfolded. Then they play Follow the Leader, with the blindfolded person trailing after the other, guided by voice or touch.

“We walk them down the stairs, around the fitness floor — all in front of our membership,” says Whitney Benedetti, youth programming and aquatics director of the facility. “[It is] a way to desensitize them to looking silly in front of people, so that if they have to jump in and make a rescue, they know everybody’s watching but it’s okay.”

To help young guards wield the authority their job requires, the staff perform many role-playing exercises that involve awkward or uncomfortable conversations, such correcting an adult. It works: In a recent situation, a teen guard told doctors that they were performing CPR incorrectly and got them to step aside so he could take over.

“He felt comfortable standing up to them at 16 and saying, ‘You’re doing it wrong. This is what you need to do or let me do it,’” Benedetti says.

This confidence comes largely because of the messages they receive from their trainers and leaders. “We tell [our lifeguards], ‘You may not know how to do cardiothoracic surgery, but you’re not in the operating room — you’re on a pool deck, and they don’t know how to do this,’” Benedetti says.

Training is intense from the start. Before the season, lifeguards undergo a two-hour water training session to review rescues and site-specific water scenarios, plus a 1½-hour skills drill session to practice CPR, first aid and biohazard clean-up. Then they undergo four more hours covering business issues — manager expectations, policies, and report writing practice. The lifeguards participate in several team-building activities. During summer, the staff gets together for in-service every other week, while head guards perform daily in-service training during a 7-minute break.

“Our philosophy behind this is to create a safe aquatic environment for our members and guests, keep customer service at the forefront, and develop our young staff into community leaders and successful adults,” the facility staff stated.