Hannah Calverley, budding researcher, lifeguard and drowning prevention enthusiast talks about her research.

I have been involved in lifesaving since I was roughly 11-years-old at Retford and District Lifesaving club in Nottinghamshire. I started off competing in club competitions, which progressed to regionals and nationals and I also went to Rescue 2010 and 2012 in the inter-club world championships, receiving a bronze medal in 2012 with my team mates for the open SERC (Simulated Emergency Response Competition).

I started teaching lifesaving when I was 16 and loved it! I worked with such a good group of people for the next two years which led up to me going to university. It was my involvement in lifesaving that inspired my choice of undergraduate degree in Sport Development with Coaching. When it came to the dreaded dissertation I chose to focus my research on lifeguarding because it has always been something I’ve been interested in, and when you have to spend weeks researching something to produce 10,000 words, it’s probably best that you enjoy the subject!

For this thesis, I investigated the precompetitive anxiety and emotion regulation strategies of lifeguards in an anxious situation (sounds complicated but I promise it is interesting!). I handed out questionnaires at several competitive university swimming competitions, to 100 participants in total, with a rough 50-50 split between lifeguards and non-lifeguards. What I found was unique, no-one else had done research (that I know of) that highlighted such a result. I found that lifeguards were less anxious in the situation than those who weren’t lifeguards. This could suggest that lifeguards may have a certain personality characteristic which draws them to lifeguarding (this has been researched by Wismeijer & Gomà‐i‐Freixanet in 2012 and produced some very interesting results about lifeguards having thrill-seeking personality types). However, the question was still left which was – does the lifeguards’ training cause them to have less anxiety i.e. are they more capable of dealing with stress and their emotions because of their training, or is it an innate personality characteristic which makes them less anxious in those situations? For this dissertation (and degree) I received a First Class (Hons).

I felt I hadn’t been at university long enough, and became very interested in the psychology of sport, so decided to do a one year MSc in Psychology. I was fortunate that I already had a focus for my dissertation – lifeguarding again! This time I conducted 12 interviews with lifeguards about how they coped with their emotions and stress before, during and after a rescue situation. What I discovered was that the way a lifeguard responds to a rescue is based around the level of control they feel in that situation. Contributing to that was their experience, training, the team that was with them and their personal characteristics – they tended to comment that they were calm people. The lifeguards also displayed a sense of detachment to the rescue claiming ‘it was just the job’. A major influence to the lifeguards’ emotional response was the health of the casualty following the rescue – whether they survived or not. This brought to light the level of support available for the lifeguard. It seems, from my interviews, that some of the lifeguards didn’t quite know where to seek help if they needed it. This in itself is quite worrying as they can be the first line of response in an emergency, yes it’s all well and good having them physically fit enough to conduct the rescue, but what about their mental health? I feel this is something which organisations really need to look at to make sure their lifeguards are well looked after and perform their role effectively.

Researching in this area has shown me just how little research has been conducted into lifeguard personality and their mental capacity to cope with the stress of their job. In comparison, I uncovered pages of research dedicated to the mental health and support of the ‘blue light’ emergency services. I recommend that much more research needs to be conducted within this area, and I feel quite passionate about getting more university students to use their research opportunity to really contribute to the research that will benefit lifeguards and ultimately the general public.

If you would be interested in exploring research as part of a dissertation, thesis or research project please contact [email protected] and we will be happy to help.