DANGER ZONE The over-relaxed White Zone can be detrimental to lifeguard scanning.
DANGER ZONE The over-relaxed White Zone can be detrimental to lifeguard scanning.
ALL SYSTEMS GO A person’s vision works best in the Yellow (above)) and Red Zones.
ALL SYSTEMS GO A person’s vision works best in the Yellow (above)) and Red Zones.

Did you know that military research can be applied to improve lifeguard scanning and to minimize lifeguard panic in an emergency? Absolutely!

The key is to first understand how the body reacts to fear/stress. As a person’s heart rate increases, they gain strength and endurance, but lose dexterity and cognitive processing.

In Part 1 of this two-part series (AI June digital edition), we focused on understanding emergency response in the Red Zone. Here, we’ll look at other heart rate zones and their effect on lifeguard performance. To quickly recap, the five heart-rate zones are:

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

Improving scanning
To understand the importance that heart rate plays in lifeguard scanning, first consider that visual-cognitive processing is ideal at 115 bpm. What it means: At the high edge of the Yellow Zone, a person will be able to see something, assess it and react to it with the most accuracy and speed. At heart rates below 80 bpm (White Zone), reaction time is very slow. At heart rates around 145 bpm (Gray Zone), the ability to accurately assess visual cues diminishes. In other words, a person’s vision works best in the Yellow and Red Zones.

Do you recall a time when you were driving your car and began thinking about something else, then the red tail lights of the car in front of you lit up and snapped you back into reality? Of course you do. This happens to us all the time because we often drive our cars while we’re in the White Zone. Unfortunately, if a lifeguard slips into the White Zone while doing surveillance, there are no tail light-illuminated victims to stimulate their visual cortex. Pool surveillance requires excellent visual-cognitive processing.

The resting heart rate of the White Zone is great for the fine motor skills needed to play Angry Birds on your phone or thread a needle. A resting heart rate also is perfect for complex thinking and problem solving, including balancing a budget, sorting out staff issues and writing a report. The White Zone plays an important role in stress recovery when a guard rotates into a guard-on-break station. But -- for a lifeguard on surveillance -- the White Zone is the danger zone.

As an aquatics manager, the first step you can take to help lifeguards avoid the visual-cognitive slowdown of the White Zone is to educate them about it. Explain that surveillance must take place in an alert state at a slightly elevated heart rate. Lifeguards who look overly relaxed, usually are. Teach your guards to sit and/or stand straight while on surveillance.

Once lifeguards can recognize the Yellow Zone heart rate in themselves, they also can learn tricks to keep their blood pumping at the ideal 80- to 115 bpm during surveillance.  Consider the following:

* Rapid Breathing: By taking 10 fast, deep breaths, a lifeguard will increase their heart rate from resting to alert. Have lifeguards practice sitting up straight and taking 10 rapid breaths whenever they sense themselves relaxing into the guard chair.

* Motion: While it is not always possible due to zone coverage and visibility, encouraging lifeguards to walk while scanning will help them maintain a Yellow Zone heart rate. Teach guards to walk with their shoulders squared up to the pool, to maximize peripheral vision while staying alert.

* Self-Talk: Lifeguards can be taught to mentally recite what they are seeing to keep the visual processing centers of the brain alert. Self-talk is not the deep-thought state associated with the White Zone, but rather, a running dialogue that keeps the pathways between the eyes and the brain active.

(Unable to see the video on a mobile device? Click here to view it in our video gallery.)

This can be taught through shadow guarding: Have an experienced lifeguard and a new lifeguard perform surveillance together. First, have the senior guard tell the rookie what they are seeing. Next, have the rookie tell the senior guard what they are seeing. Repeat.  Once a lifeguard is ready to perform surveillance on their own, remind them to continue the dialogue they shared with their partner in their head. (See video above.)

Talk with your staff about the Yellow Zone, and the important role it plays in good scanning technique.

Reducing panic
Just as the over-relaxed White Zone can be detrimental to lifeguard scanning, the over-stressed Black Zone can undermine effective emergency response. To minimize the negative effects of the Black Zone, aquatics managers can teach lifeguards to avoid the Black Zone, recognize the bodily responses of a high heart rate, and use tactical breathing to get out of the Black Zone.

There are four tools that will help lifeguards avoid entering the Black Zone: Physical fitness, mental fitness, physical rest and mental rest.

Physical fitness can be improved the old-fashioned way: swim workouts, cardio training and strength training. You can encourage guards to stay physically fit by adding a fitness component to their regular training schedule, and by promoting a healthy lifestyle.  Mental fitness can be developed using the Red Zone stress training discussed in Part 1. The White Zone plays a key role in physical rest and mental rest. Lifeguards should be encouraged to enter the White Zone during the guard-on-break portion of their rotation to relax into a resting heart rate. Allowing breaks, even from the slightly elevated heart rate of Yellow Zone surveillance, provides guards with the rest they need to reset their physical and mental stress levels.

Even lifeguards who are trained to handle stress can encounter a situation that elevates their heart rate over 175. In the Black Zone, a person will experience the Flight/Fight/Freeze response. It’s important for lifeguards to be able to recognize these responses and know that they are normal. Here are elevated bpm causes: Increased heart rate and blood pressure
Increased respiratory rate
Dilated pupils
Increased blood flow to brain
Increased blood flow to muscles
Increased muscle tension
Perceptual Distortions:
> Diminished sound
> Intensified sounds
> Tunnel vision
> Auto pilot
> Heightened visual clarity
> Slow motion time
> Temporary paralysis
> Memory loss for parts of the event
> Memory loss for parts of actions
> Dissociation (detachment)|
> Intrusive distracting thoughts
> Memory distortions|
> Fast motion time

Lifeguards who are educated in the body’s natural responses to elevated heart rates are less likely to be surprised by these symptoms, and will be more likely to be able to use tactical breathing to manage them. (See video below.)

(Unable to see the video on a mobile device? Click here to view it in our video gallery.)

Tactical breathing is a straightforward and easy-to-teach method of slowing a person’s heart rate. To perform tactical breathing, a lifeguard simply inhales slowly through their nose for the count of 4, holds their breath for the count of 4, and then exhales slowly through pursed lips for the count of 4. By several breaths of tactical breathing, a lifeguard can instantly slow their heart rate, and also reduce the symptoms of Black Zone stress.

Preparing lifeguards to avoid the Black Zone through promoting physical fitness, mental fitness, physical rest, and mental rest will help minimize their panic susceptibility during emergencies. Still, Black Zone stress levels cannot be completely eliminated, so teaching lifeguards to recognize the symptoms of a heart rate over 175 bpm will reduce the spiraling effect that the surprise of these biological responses could create. Introducing guards to tactical breathing is providing them with the tools they need to calm down if they do enter the Black Zone, so that they can return to being a contributing part of the emergency response team.

As you work with your staff to teach surveillance skills and emergency response, consider ways to apply the military research about different heart rates to your training.

For a more in-depth look at military training concepts, read the books On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace (Warrior Science Publications, 3rd Edition, 2008) by David Grossman, and Sharpening The Warrior’s Edge: The Psychology & Science of Training (PPCT Research Publications, 1st Edition, 1995) by Bruce Siddle.

Credits: Lifeguard photos as well as shadow guarding and tactical breathing videos courtesy Sunrise Recreation and Park District.