Where Have all the Aquatics Professionals Gone?
Written By: Jason Pirnie, Director of Business Operations & IT, Association of YMCA Professionals
Ring… Ring… “Hello,” a groggy voice answers.
“Good morning, this is Mary at the Y, the morning lifeguard isn’t here and we have members waiting” says the cheery Member Services Rep.
“Ok, I’m on my way” says the Aquatics Director.
Our Aquatics Director, rolls out of bed, grabs their keys and cell phone, and heads for the car. 20 minutes later, the pool is open and another 14 hour day begins.
I’ve worked at the Y for years, and have been on the receiving end of those calls on a number of occasions. The long hours and long weeks takes it’s toll. Early morning call outs always seemed to happen on days when the afternoon was filled with leadership meetings and evening classes to teach. Most weeks, it seemed like the movie Groundhog Day, where the day appeared to repeat itself over and over again.
What is the price for this kind of situation?
One word… burnout, which is that overwhelming feeling of exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, and frustration at the long hours and (sometimes) low pay.
Aquatics Directors and Supervisors are “on call” from the time the pool opens in the early morning to the time the pool closes in the late evening, this is all in addition to our teaching hours and Branch Leadership responsibilities. So, after a few years of this… we see 1 of 2 things happen:
2. Lateral and/or vertical moves within the YMCA
So, how do we help to keep them and create a pipeline for aquatics to prevent a knowledge gap? We like to think that it’s easy to find aquatics professionals and that we can just put a vacancy up, and magically the right candidate with the right credentials will appear. For aquatics professionals, like all entry level Director roles in the YMCA, one needs a combination of certifications/education and experience. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to find that perfect combination of aquatic certifications and experience, so we tend to hire the best from the pool of candidates (pun intended) and work with them to get what they
lack coming into their role. This means long hours learning their ‘trade’ that leads to burnout and that lateral/vertical move out of Aquatics or their resignation.
This phenomena is not isolated to Aquatics, it transcends all program categories and roles in the YMCA. Insert your role into the above scenario , and it will seem the same. So, what can we do as both Aquatics professionals and Sr. Leaders to help prevent their burnout?
Here are some tips that I’ve come across that can help:
1. Analyze and shed the unnecessary: we get overwhelmed with all the stuff we have to do, but, how much of that stuff is really what we are supposed to do? Take a look at your daily, weekly, monthly tasks and compare them (with your supervisor) to your job description and responsibilities. Start the dialogue to shed the
unnecessary so your time is better managed.
2. Don’t take it home with you: we are a family organization that promotes the healthy development of self, family and community. We need to be better at being home when we are home, not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones as well. Work should stay at work, and while at home, be at home.
3. Take care of yourself: you are no good to anyone else if you yourself are not well. Take the time to eat right, sleep well and exercise… your body and mind will thank you for it.
4. Don’t sweat the Big Stuff: take larger projects and break them down to small tasks that ultimately will accomplish the larger project. By managing projects like this, you also break it down to tasks that you can see you will need help with, better managing your time.
5.Downtime and unplug: we often say our downtime is when we sit for a moment. But, it is not really downtime when our smartphone is sitting next to us and we have that phone tied to our work email and it pings every few minutes and the text messages come in, and the phone rings. Set/establish boundaries for your downtime and unplug, and share those with your staff.
6. Delegate and learn to say “no”: we can’t be all things to all people, but as Y Professionals we always want to say “yes” and be all things to all people. I’d rather be great at a few things, than mediocre at a lot of things. Surround yourself with those people that are great at that those things that you mediocre at, and build a winning team.
7. Vacation is vacation: we need that ultimate downtown to recharge and focus on ourselves. You’ve earned it, use it. No one gets trophies for having the most vacation hours vacated at the end of the fiscal year because you didn’t use it. In most YMCAs, you are not able to rollover unused vacation hours, so you lose them if you don’t use them. You’ve earned them, use them.
Tips will only get us so far, we have to also take a look at the pipeline of Aquatics Professionals. We need to find a way to fill those vacancies with qualified staff and what better way, than to look internally. We often overlook people right in front of us for these types of roles. We all have staff that with the right push
and right mentoring could take on leadership roles. In aquatics, it could be that part time instructor that never thought of the Y as a career, or it could be that evening Lifeguard that is looking for some direction or a little more responsibility. I’m not suggesting, moving these folks to Full Time exempt employees, I am suggesting that we nurture and pass on our experience to our staff, so that we don’t have a huge knowledge and experience gap if and when that Aquatics leader moves on.
When we bring up staff we accomplish a few things.
1. Creates knowledgeable internal candidates
2. Keeps institutional knowledge in-house
3. Improves staff moral by seeing that there is a future
role for them
4. Develops staff through experiential learning
The YMCA is America’s swim instructor and has been the leader in aquatic safety and programs for over 100 years. We need to carry on this legacy by keeping our aquatics professionals in the YMCA, develop them to take on leadership roles, and have them pass on their knowledge and experience to the next generation of YMCA Aquatic Leaders.