Over the years I've tried my hand at many physically oriented pastimes from sports such as Rugby and Cricket, to many years practicing Aikido and of course, diving. What all of these have in common is the requirement to build both physical skillsets and mental capability. In this blog I want to explore some of the keys aspects of building superior physical skillsets in diving.
When I decided to enter technical diving specifically sidemount cave diving, I knew that I had a lot to learn. I was more excited by the acquisition of great dive skills than by any particular desire to go deep into flooded caves. I watched video of prominent sidemount cave divers such as Steve Bogaerts over and over (This one in particular - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ahQYqho7w4).
I absolutely wanted to have that level of what I now call, 'relaxed static stability'. Where you can relax motionless in the water column while holding perfect trim. Where you can maintain this stability in any aspect while performing tasks. That to me not only looked amazing, but had to be the most efficient way to dive. So I set about to get it!
I was an experienced recreational Divemaster with enough dives under my belt to have stopped logging them in the 80s (which incidentally, was a mistake). I searched for and found a top instructor with whom I would train in Mexico. This is a vital first step. You can only be as good as the instructor who trains you. At least initially :). You don't have to scour the world but make sure your instructor is the best you can reasonably find for the skills you want to learn.
But finding the right instructor is just the beginning. In my case, sidemount cave diving required a substantial change in equipment, skillset and dive execution. Being neutrally buoyant no longer meant in a vertical orientation. Nor did it mean finning or (occasionally) hand sculling to hold position. Propulsion techniques were different. I had to learn the frog kick, helicopter turn and back kick. I now had more equipment to manage both in and out of the water. More task loading and a lot more to think about in terms of dive planning and execution. At first Tec dive training can feel overwhelming but a good instructor breaks it down into bite size pieces so you can acquire a skill and use that as a building block to move on to the next.
So, the Instructor's role in your learning I believe is clear. Primarily, they must manage risks and safety. Then based on the course; they set up your equipment. explain, demonstrate, allow you to practice, provide feedback and repeat as necessary for you to build your skills and knowledge. After the set amount of training time, you achieve the certification standard or you don't. But either way, no one comes off a course an expert. What you should have, is the foundation that you then work upon and polish through more dives and skills practice. And this is the key, you must continue to practice and this must be "perfect practice". I do not mean that you have achieved perfection in your execution. I am saying that you have a 'clear vision' of what correct execution is and you are trying to build the muscle memory such that you can consistently achieve this standard.
I have italicised 'clear vision' deliberately to emphasise the visual aspect. There are many learning modalities that relate to our senses and abilities to receive and process new information. Visual, aural, tactile, smell, taste. We receive instruction, briefings and feedback aurally but in the water it is all visual. You need to understand the verbal instruction given, ask questions and mentally or actually note what you have learned. Once in the water, watch your instructor like a hawk. How do they kit up, do their checks, enter the water, check their weighting, descend, move, accomplish skills and so on. Become a keen observer of every good diver you see. Steal their good bits, leave parts you don't like. Politely ask them questions, most good divers will be more than happy to share.
My point is 'watch and learn'! I have spent much of the last two years diving in Gozo with what I consider some of the best divers in the world. They are unbelievable to watch in the water... and that's what I do, watch! Every small detail! How do they hold trim, how do they frog kick, back kick. How do they perform skills? Where do they put their hands on gas switches... everything. I might ask a question or three to clarify what I think I saw and then I try and apply this in my next dive and so, I improve as a diver.
Make every dive a training dive. Give yourself something to work on, do the dive and then make notes in your dive log on how it went. Use video if you can, to see what is happening. How did you look and feel? Stable? In Trim? If not, make an adjustment for your next dive. This might mean moving or removing some weight, reconfiguring your equipment and removing/replacing some equipment. Next dive try again and see whether you gain an improvement. Don't shy away from your weaknesses. Have trouble clearing your mask? Practice it until it is a strength. Over the past year I have had to learn to do this one-handed. At first it was difficult but a year later it is a strength built by insisting on doing this drill on every dive... some instruction and a few hundred repetitions will do that for you :)
I hope this makes sense and the next time you see a good diver in the water, follow them around some, 'watch and learn'. The drive to continuously observe good divers, ask questions, steal their moves, and apply it in your own diving will pay massive benefits.
Dive safe - Steve