There is one recurring hypothetical bedeviling Aquatics’ relationship with its larger Recreation family. The hypothetic generally goes something like this: If an aquatics specialist (anyone who works exclusively in aquatics) and a recreation specialist (anyone who works in recreation not in aquatics) were to switch posts, who would be more successful in his new digs?


The proposition usually wends a circuitous path of musings, a type of merry-go-round ride Recreation relishes since in the end it preserves its favorable status and Aquatics reluctantly accepts if for no other reason than for self-preservation. No sense scrapping with family members resolute on your reputed adopted status. Better to grin and bear it, from the Aquatics perspective, than to suffer a parentally approved fraternal beat down. Go figure, blood is thicker than water.


But really, should the need to keep peace within the greater Recreation household deter us from a sober discussion on the subject? I believe the prime hypothetical is not vacuous conjecture and merits studious consideration since it confronts fundamental environmental differences between Recreation and Aquatics. Differences that cannot be glossed over without undo peril.


That said let’s begin by defining what constitutes “success” within this hypothetical framework. Let’s agree that no amount of programming acumen, maintenance sprucing or glossy marketing can compensate for perceived safety lapses. The juice of public service, so to speak, is in the sizzling steak. If safety is the primary investiture, success belongs to the operator better able to meet the unique safety challenges of the respective work environment. So there it is: Safety is the main entree of public service. Everything else is potatoes and parsley.


The question now begging is which specialist, recreation or aquatics, do you suppose has had to adapt more critical work skills to meet safety demands? To answer this with the consideration it deserves, we must understand the risks of the respective work environments.


Common law views the breadth of aquatic activities “high risk” while ascribing no such carte blanche status to other generic recreation programs. The heart of the matter is clear: Water is inhospitable. Humans do not take to it by nature. To survive in this medium we must tease out a comfort zone through formalized instruction. Lacking this instruction, bathers are fodder for grim statistics. We must become skilled to prevent injury or death and knowledgeable in what countermeasures to take when fortunes turn.


A triathlete pulling a hamstring will writhe painfully on the ground for a spell but is expected to make full recovery. An analogous scenario in the water makes no guarantee of a similar happy ending. Move in any direction away from the thin margins of acquired comfort and we find ourselves ogling existential chops.


It is one thing to view water as inherently inhospitable, quite another to recognize it for its power to snatch hapless bathers with little notice. The Mojave Desert and Mt. McKinley are formidable and inhospitable environments. No doubt these kill but not with the gunslinger proficiency of water. An adult can go from surface struggle to drowning within one minute. A toddler, often described as a silent sinker, can succumb in an eye blink.


Water is a ruthless executioner conversant in the remorseless language of physics. You cannot bargain with water anymore than you can haggle with the solar winds. While Recreation sips tea and earns its Good Housekeeping Seal, Aquatics must cautiously peddle its brand of skull-and-crossbones recreation elixir.


The ability to make on-the-fly decisions in an aquatic environment should be clear to everyone. Time is tissue in this business. An unrecognized aquatic hazard can garner a body count faster than a bullet train through a bug swarm.


Cognitive research suggests humans make subconscious decisions based on rules of thumb. Successful rules of thumb – heuristics as they are known in cognitive psychology parlance – are recognition primed, in other words the result of direct experience. The human capacity for recognition, it turns out, is superior to recollection. It is easier to recognize a song or face than to recall a name or fact.


Here’s the crux of the point: Humans operate on a learning curve. Owing to our capacity for adaptive intelligence, the greater our exposure to a particular environment, the more dialed-in our decision-making judgment. Yet, our down loading capacity is limited – we can intake only so much information before the lot degrades to noise.


Reasoned decisions require time to properly weigh the evidence before proceeding. Yet Aquatics functions in a complex environment where time is critical and the stakes are high, forcing operators to make intuitive yet critical decisions. Ultimately it takes experience to develop intuitive properties that accurately guide our judgment. While one environment optimizes learning at minimal costs, the other imposes high costs with little margin for error.


So, in the end, who is better suited to cope with the spontaneous job demands imposed by the hypothetical? The operator who elevates into surroundings demanding greater vigilance and higher-stakes decisions? Or the operator who eases into the spa-like comfort of foggy alertness?

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Comment by Jim Wheeler on May 26, 2011 at 4:55pm
Great insight Joe, i always told people aquatics folks don't need to share jobs for exposure to what the other recreatio professionals deal with, we have it all in one place; Seniors, Sports, Facility bookings, Instructional Classes, Special events...

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