Posted inBusiness

The pool became Fort Worth woman’s training ground for leadership 

Jacquelyn Kotar was 16 when she found her career. She just didn’t know it at the time. 

“I heard the YMCA was looking for lifeguards and I just thought, ‘I could do that,’ so I applied,” she said. “The rest is history. I just never left. I say, the YMCA is where I became an adult.” 

Not that she’s still a lifeguard. Kotar, now 33, is associate vice president of compliance, training and recruiting at the YMCA of Metropolitan Fort Worth. The YMCA is an organization that looks to transform lives by ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to grow and thrive, regardless of age, income or background. It was established in Fort Worth in 1890. 

Things have changed from when she started her career. 

“We’ve done a really good job of staying up with research and making sure that we’re teaching what research indicates,” she said. 

The way they teach has also changed with less class time and more instruction taking place online. 

Kotar is a big believer that being a lifeguard is more than just learning how to perform water rescues. There is a lot of leadership involved in making life-saving decisions.

“We’re not just focused on teaching them the specifics of how to be a lifeguard, though that is important, obviously,” she said. “We want to teach them how to determine the best course of action and make split-second decisions because seconds matter,” she said. 

Kotar is aware of changes implemented through the years because she stayed with the YMCA, working there through college and eventually spending time in each department. When she graduated college, the YMCA was hiring an athletic director. 

(Alexis Allison | Fort Worth Report)

“They asked me if I was interested, and I was,” she said. “I started working full time as an aquatics director in 2012.”

Among the leadership training elements is a simple mnemonic device, PASA, which stands for problem, alternatives, consequences, action. 

“First, you identify the problem, then after you identify the problem, you begin racking your brain for the right different alternatives, then you consider the consequences,” she said. And make the right decision.

“There’s a lot of description, but really, when we teach [lifeguards], it’s a 30- second or less process that they’re running through to make that final decision,” Kotar said. 

Kotar said the YMCA training is also about empowerment. That’s key because people have to know the lifeguard is in command. 

“We have a whole section of our courses, the final section, that empowers them, so they understand they are the leader,” she said, “That’s particularly important as many times, the lifeguard is very young, yet they have to control a pool filled with people of various ages.”

“This doesn’t happen in our culture, the way it’s set up,” she added. “We want them to know they are in charge.” 

That empowerment is important, not just in the pool, but also in other areas of life, she said. “If someone asks you to do something that is outside the scope of what  you know is right, we want to empower them to question that,” she said. “We work really hard to build that in our lifeguards.” 

Two years ago, Kotar felt that an intentional plan of onboarding staff was needed, so she created a career path plan for all employees. She is now responsible for the YMCA Career Passport, which is a training required of all staff to orient them to the YMCA and teach leadership skills. 

“It’s for all our staff, from the frontline staff to the CEO. We hired a new CEO last year, and he went through it as well,” she said. 

That CEO, Mike Brown, remembers the training well. 

“I’ve been with the YMCA for 32 years, but not in Fort Worth,” said Brown who had previous stints at YMCAs in Central New York, Rock River, Illinois and Houston. 

“So that gave me a chance to not only learn more about Fort Worth but to also experience what our employees were learning,” he said. “She taught not just leadership, but also the values and respect that we talk about at the YMCA.” 

Kotar expects that maybe fewer than 5% of people who come to work with the YMCA stay with the nonprofit, “but even if they leave, we want them to leave knowing that what they learned at the YMCA helped prepare them as a leader for whatever they do later on,” she said.

Brown echos that. 

“Whatever career path they choose, we want the Y to have been part of that,” he said.  

The lifeguards and other YMCA officials have made good use of their training this summer, as the heat has increased the number of  weather-related incidents.

And while lifeguards are primarily concerned with areas around the pool, they are often called to respond to other medical emergencies at a YMCA facility. “Our front desk staff, our staff and that facility are going and asking for help, because they know that our lifeguards are trained and have a better understanding of how to respond,” Kotar said. 

She’s seen it happen. 

“It literally gives me goosebumps watching our 16-year-old lifeguards, at their very first job, take command of a situation — and to see an adult who is 40-50 years old listening to them,” she said. 

Kotar also was able to see the YMCA’s training in action about 18 months ago. She was teaching a course on pool operation at the downtown facility. There were two aquatic directors, three lifeguards, several administrators and other staff there. Most had been through lifeguard training. As she was teaching, someone from the front desk came into the room.

“I don’t think he even said anything. We all just got up and ran out of the room because we knew something was going on,” Kotar said. 

A member playing on the basketball court had suffered a heart attack. 

“By the time we got up to the gym, he wasn’t breathing. He was starting to turn blue,” she said. She noticed blood coming out of his mouth. Time and decision-making were of the utmost importance. 

She noted that everyone knew what to do and what others involved needed. One person began cardio-pulmanary resuscitation and another began hooking up the automated external defibrillator. 

“One of our instructors got the trauma shears to get the man’s shirt off, and it was all so instantaneous,” she said. 

The staffer who initially responded to the situation also efficiently directed the EMTs to the site. “One of the things we stress in our training is communication,” Kotar said. “You have to let your team know what’s going on.”

“It worked like perfection,” she said.

The man was transported to the hospital where he went straight into emergency surgery. One of his arteries was 100% blocked and the other was 97% blocked, Kotar said. “Statistically, he should not have survived at all,” Kotar said. 

A week later, the man returned to the YMCA to thank them for saving his life. 

“That experience was just the perfect example of why we train the way we train,” she said. 

Jacquelyn Kotar 

College: B.A. in philosophy and religious studies from Centenary College of Louisiana

Volunteer experience: board of directors, Fort Worth Drowning Prevention Coalition; volunteer assistant coach and meet director, Nolan Catholic High School; and business operations manager, Fort Worth TC: Triathlon & Track Club. 

Advice for someone wanting to be a leader: “If I had to boil it down to a piece of advice, it would be when you see an opportunity to improve, don’t wait on your supervisor to recognize it or your supervisor to tell you to do something. I tell my staff all the time: You see something, make a difference. Go for it. That’s how you’re going to grow. Your career is recognizing those opportunities for growth.”

Best advice you ever received: “My boss at the YMCA taught me how to communicate effectively and how to think through arguments logically. That really helped me.” 

Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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