I’ve been reading a lot of articles about modern scuba training of late, how it’s changed over the years, why it is or isn’t deemed adequate depending on what you do in the industry, who you work for and where you work in the world (intensive 3 day courses as opposed to courses covered over many weekends springs to mind). These all lead to the question of what students are really getting out of their diving course, and does it really prepare them for when things go wrong and an instructor or divemaster is not around to look out for them? Most of these articles are geared towards recreational diving, but the ideas put forth are of course directly translatable to technical diving. Frankly, I’m not going to get involved in discussions about recreational diver training. You can argue all day about the best method of air-sharing to employ in the event of an out of gas situation, or whether students should ever be knelt down to do their skills on their open water course, never to practice most of them whilst neutrally buoyant. What I am interested in is why we do skills, how they are taught, how they are rarely practiced outside of a course, and ultimately, how quickly they are forgotten.
It goes without saying that technical divers undertake a hobby that can have very serious consequences if things go wrong and are not dealt with before, or during a dive. For this reason, students on technical diving courses are faced with a very steep learning curve related to equipment, dive practices and procedures, risk management and dive/contingency planning. Foundation courses such as technical sidemount or intro to tech should provide the student with a good grounding of all of the above, and enough time to practice in order to gain a level of competency so that they can confidently go off and do those dives at that level, autonomously, and then be ready to move on to the next level and repeat the process. Otherwise, what was the point of those courses?
But how a course is taught will determine whether or not someone actually knows what they’re doing at the end of it, and whether they’re good at actually doing it or just "passed" a series of skills to fulfil the requirements for the course. This of course entirely depends on the instructor. My first few tech courses involved being told that I had to do this and that skill, a vague reason as to why, and then a couple of goes, first kneeling in the sand, then a second time neutrally buoyant, before being given a “stress test”- mask ripped off, air turned off, tangled up, all at the same time. Great fun if you’re not the type of person that can easily freak out, but ultimately pointless in my opinion. I didn’t feel that I had got to grips with the individual skills in the first place, or had the time to practice them before having it all piled on top of me. But crucially, it was never really communicated when, how, or why the need to employ an emergency procedure might be necessary on a real dive, without an instructor prompting me that I had an issue, and what I should look out for in myself and others on any dive.
So here’s my opinion on how any tech course should be run, based on how I teach my own. Your outlook may differ and I welcome any feedback and ideas on what is written below.
A tech course should never be a one-way process of being told this is how it is, this is what you need to do, and ticking a series of boxes to ensure that you as an instructor have fulfilled the skills and theory to be covered by the standards. I view my theory sessions as an exchange, and I always begin any topic by asking the student what their understanding is up to that point, and I actively encourage constructive interruptions and discussions. If I just sit and talk at someone for two hours, I can almost guarantee that they will learn nothing. They also need regular breaks. It’s long been proven that people’s attention span can rarely last longer than one hour before they start drifting off. Just because they are looking at you, does not mean they are listening! This exchange means that I go off the main topic all the time, and end up covering way more than just the specific thing that I began with.
The same goes for equipment workshops. It’s an exchange. I show the student different ways of setting up, for instance setting regs on sidemount tanks, and going through other ways of doing things, and why I do it this or that way, why I don’t do it that way- and where I am coming from (streamlining, simplicity, entanglement, over encumbured), and what really is wrong (e.g. SPGs flopping in your face!). They need to then have a go, get hands on, take it apart, change the height of this clip and see how it changes things, feed the longhose along the inside of the tank, then along the outside, understand when one method may be more appropriate than the other, set up a standard recreational cylinder for sidemount, and ultimately gain not just familiarity through doing and reptition, but also think about why they are doing what they are doing. Remember, as I previously said, you are preparing them to be able to do this stuff without you being there, and to be able to adapt based on the type of dive they may be doing or kind of equipment accessible to them at the time. Not just demonstrate that they can copy what you did during the course.
In open water, the first couple of dives is a process of assimilating everything up to that point, equipment familiarity, buoyancy and trim, finning techniques, awareness, and diving procedures. All before even thinking about introducing skills.
Each skill involves discussing what has gone wrong, or what combination of factors may have occurred that led to you having to employ the skill. How this failure or situation may be prevented or minimised, and when it is likely to happen on a dive. We also discuss human factors; eu-stress, dis-stress, and how we respond to these stressors; best case behavioural response, worst case emotional response. I would highly recommend that you read the psychological skills for diving facebook page, and specifically the articles on stress management to explain these points further. Also differences in experience and competency between buddies and the potential babysitting and risk factor implications of this. Finally, I discuss awareness, and how during a dive you need to be on constant lookout for problems with yourself or your buddy- a sudden stream of bubbles coming from your buddies 2nd stage swivel, why you are constantly having to put air in your BC. That kind of thing.
As for the skill itself, the student obviously has to learn the process first, which involves SLOW practice, whilst maintaining trim, buoyancy and awareness. Having taught a lot of recreational courses before becoming a tech instructor, I saw time and time again a student have a go at a skill for the first time and completely get it wrong. Normal obviously, there could be many reasons for this, they are nervous, they weren’t really paying attention to your demonstration, it's all a bit too much too soon, maybe you demonstrated it too fast, perhaps they are not a visual learner, or maybe they are just not the sharpest tool in the box! But 99 times out of 100 they get it wrong because they rush it. Same applies for tech. The whole point in doing a course is to learn new things. To learn new things most people need to get them wrong first, because then they will think about why they got it wrong and know what to do to get it right. It’s the perfect time and place to get things wrong. Learning through repetition is important, but also pointless if you’re in autopilot mode and just wanting to please the instructor and move on. Similarly, awareness is crucial. Lack of awareness at 12m hovering above the sand leads to a domino effect. Again I see it all the time. The student begins the skill, all good, nice and slow, then bang.. the head goes down and they suddenly stop what they’re doing because they crashed into the sand, or they complete the skill, look up and realise they’re now 3m above the sand. On a deco dive, you’re now potentially bent or have lost that all important line leading you back to your boat, or your buddy. Or all of these!
It is far better to learn good habits at a slower rate, than pick up bad habits at any time and have to unlearn them. So when first learning a skill, good buoyancy, trim and awareness are integral parts to doing that skill correctly.
Finally, once the student has gotten familiar with skills and diving procedures, and is consistently demonstrating good buoyancy, trim, awareness and an ability to think on their feet, then I will start to test their ability to prove this. One of the dives will just be a fun dive- no skills I tell them. Then at various points they or I will have realistic problems. Throughout this, I am not looking that they can robotically undertake the appropriate skill, but am looking at their stress response, their ability to be assertive and communicate effectively, show good awareness (self, global and situational), and as I’ve said a few times by now, maintain excellent buoyancy, trim and positioning. The kind of diver this produces is a world away from someone who just ran through a bunch of hoops to get that card. If it doesn’t, then they simply need more dives before I will certify them; producing a thinking diver is simply more important than just getting my certs up. Otherwise why the hell am I an instructor?
The problem with all of the above is that when someone is thinking of enrolling on a course, they are always told to do so based on the instructor’s reputation. I couldn’t agree more, but I have personal experience of instructors that are way more experienced than me, but very inconsistent and frankly lazy in their teaching approach, and/or demonstrated poor performance with their own diving abilities (bad role model behaviour). Please don’t take that as me putting people down and thinking I am amazing, far from it. I still have a hell of a lot to learn and practice, it never ends and I think humility and the ability to recongise your own limits is the only way to improve. Before the internet trolls get their keyboards at the ready, i’m not the kind of person to denigrate my peers to promote myself. But I do care about this industry and feel like I have to call out bad apples when I see them. All I am saying is that a student doing their first few tech courses doesn’t really have a point of reference as to whether they are being fed a load of crap, or whether they are really learning how to dive safely and think for themselves. Hopefully this article will give them more to consider when deciding where to do a course.
Finally, as a final thought. If you are a recreational or technical diver and don’t work in the industry, ask yourself when was the last time you practiced any of the skills you learned during your courses. Out of gas for instance? You very quickly forget, and if you start practicing but are missing something, that’s as good as just not practicing. Here at Big Blue Tech I will happily take someone out for a dive to refresh their skills, and with my own ex-students that are sticking around, I pretty much insist on it. Also, ask yourself when was the last time that you finished a diving course, and whilst sitting down with your instructor filling out the final paperwork, they asked for your feedback on how the course was taught, what was good, what was not so good, whether there was anything they could have done differently to improve your ability to learn. Vital questions in my opinion. How else are you going to improve as an instructor?