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Breaking Bad: How Do You Train Out Unhelpful Habits?

Sport psychologist and British tech instructor Matt Jevon offers instructors an evidence-based approach to help their students break those ingrained ‘bad’ habits that hold back their diving development.



by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of David Martin

How ingrained ‘bad’ habits can hold back divers’ development, and how as an instructor, you can help your student ‘break bad.’

I had the pleasure recently of teaching a father and son on an advanced nitrox and decompression procedures course. Dad was a very experienced diver of over 30 years, including senior instructor levels, the son was also experienced with a good number of dives in his five years of diving. Yet changing their diving foundations of buoyancy, trim and propulsion in order to have a base to build a technical qualification, proved to be a very different challenge for each. Thirty years of habitual 45-degree recreational diving where trim and propulsion were not a critical issue was a lot harder to overcome than it was for his son with only five years under his belt. 

So what are habits? In psychology and in motor-skill learning, they can be defined as ‘automatic and highly entrenched behaviour patterns that resist change through retraining’

Good habits can be highly beneficial. They condition automatic responses in respect of appropriate cues, making skill execution and decision making faster, smoother, and more robust under stressful conditions.  Unfortunately, bad habits are equally efficient at being implemented, and habits such as dropping knees or fins to a seabed, taking a deep breath before attempting a skill or even the biofeedback that suggests someone is flat whereas in fact they are still angled up, or feel head down whereas they are flat, is all a negative part of the ingrained bad.

Matt in Zacil Ha: Good habits are essential in environments that require a high level of skills. Photo by Audrey Cudel.

How do we break these bad habits and instil new skills and decision making in experienced individuals with robust changes that won’t regress to 30 years on patterning?

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Force of Habit

We have to understand what a habit consists of, how it is applied and what triggers the habitual behaviour to be implemented. All too often we as instructors just give the student the new and improved without understanding the degree to which the old ways are embedded. We actually need to help them break the old habit, before we can instil the new. Hence the phrase ‘Breaking Bad!’

A habit consists of a cue or trigger, this begins a ritual / behaviour or sequence of events (timings/actions/steps of both thinking and doing in a pre-learned order) and ends with some sort of feedback or reward. A good reward will provide that nice little dopamine hit, even if rewarding a bad habit e.g., comfort eating or throwing the alarm clock out of the window.

Fig 1. Components of a habit.

So, step one to breaking bad is identifying the cue or trigger. Easier said than done. If the habit is sufficiently embedded in the autonomous or subconscious, and the person may not know what the cue or trigger is. As an instructor, you can observe possible behavioural cues, but not cognitive or emotional ones. Therefore, the debrief really helps here, especially if you can get the student to replay the moments before the bad habit was exhibited in a rich guided imagery replay. 

A quick but strong point: NOT with visualisation. Visualisation is only one solo element out of many senses, plus thoughts and emotions that are fully used in imagery and is a sort of ‘lightweight’ way of mentally rehearsing and recalling. Learn to use and apply imagery in fulltouch, taste, feel, smell, see (internally), and think. 

Matt teaching in Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland. Photo by G Cowley.

Going through guided imagery this way should help the student identify the actions, thoughts, and/or feelings that trigger the behaviour. It may need to be dragged up from deep in the subconscious and cannot be glossed over by, ‘I’ve always done it that way’—a concept as flawed as ‘human error’ or alcohol-free beer. 

Once the cue/trigger is identified, then leave it in place. Trying to change this will be a real uphill struggle. Instead, replace the ritual or actions that follow the cue with something that leads to the desired outcome. For example, feeling under stress due to task load as a cue, current ritual/action, drop knees. Instead, tighten glutes and head up.  Reinforce with thoughts and cues relying on self talk e.g., solid base, (trim, buoyancy) before starting skill. 

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Then this change must deliver a reward. The key here is that the reward must come from and be recognised by the person. I don’t care how big and cheesy you make your congratulations handshake (please stop that), the reward must link to the task. Now, this doesn’t mean you should get the students to carry a packet of biscuits around in the drysuit pocket. Actually, it needs to be something that triggers that happy hit of dopamine. 

For some, that will be the success of executing the drill, for others the relief of a successful execution (Need to achieve vs. fear of failure motivations). The key is to go back to the guided imagery session. Work through the, ‘How do we know what good feels like?’ imagery and then ‘What does success feel like?’. Focus less on the mechanics at this stage, and more on the thoughts and emotions. 

Teaching a New Skill

Teaching and coaching the new skill set can follow more traditional teaching, instructing and coaching practices, and guided imagery to help it become a habit. If you don’t know the difference between these terms then you need to. It’s critically important in developing learning to have a definition and understanding of whether you are teaching, coaching, or instructing. It should be a deliberate choice to apply one of these approaches and understand how that changes your role and delivery.  Another article maybe. 

Develop skills incrementally, then as a whole. Photo by Matt Jevon.

The pure skill acquisition (motor learning – technique – skill) should follow the pattern of whole, part, whole, based on the well documented and highly effective chunking approach. So you demonstrate the whole skill, then break it into discrete parts for the student to master, then bring those parts back together as a complete whole.  The chunks are the small and discrete ordered steps or elements of the movements that the student learns and practices. 

Starting with simple movements, developing to complex, and eventually becoming a skill by being able to execute the whole smoothly and quickly even if under appropriate stress. Until they can do this it’s not a skill, it’s just a technique.  So, as an example, consider a bailout drill. In a very short period of time a diver can learn the techniques of bailing out, find and identify bailout reg, close loop mouthpiece, jump onto bailout reg and change computer. However, when presented with Wet Notes containing an exact replica of the handset readouts showing a PO2 of 2.8, can they make a bailout decision and execute those techniques smoothly and flawlessly? If so, it’s a skill. If not, the instructor hasn’t finished their work. 

Fig 2. Whole part whole skills development.


Something to guard against is when you try to force the changes without breaking the existing bad habits. This can lead to reinforcement of a belief by the student of something known as ‘learned helplessness’. This is where failure after failure in breaking the bad habit leads to a belief that they ‘just can’t do it’ or they ‘are not ever going to be good enough’.  

The trick here is to lay out realistic expectations and ensure your chunking is sufficiently broken down to allow progress towards the whole in smaller, easier parts. The other outcome is a mongrel bred of the new habit and the anchored parts of the bad habit. 

You may consider yourself a genius instructor if you can correct a bad habit in a two-to-three day course. However, you would be delusional if you did. The student can probably execute the good habit in response to a new and fresh cue you have given them, but you haven’t broken the old one. As soon as the original trigger emerges, the old actions will follow. This becomes particularly evident when you progress from skills-based training, to scenario-based training, where you as a good instructor recreate real life scenarios and cues, layering decision making over the top of the motor skills. 

If you have a new student with no bad habits, then you will be up against the inexperience barrier, so applying context and developing decision making in context will be harder. You should be very careful though not to instil bad habits from the start. Don’t allow a student to do multiple technique repetitions, definitely not of poor movement patterns and particularly in response to inappropriate cues. Be clear what cues the student should first recognise, then help them choose and respond to the appropriate ones and filter out the inappropriate. 

Matt on Deco in Croatia. Photo by Derk Remmers.

For example, a really inappropriate cue is the instructor ‘do this skill’ signal. The real cue you want to embed and attach to multiple repetition is something that would actually be seen by the diver in a real life scenario. For example, my students will only see the bailout signal on the very first dive where I teach the technique. After that, the move from technique to skill is always associated with a realistic and relevant cue. 

By the way, the exact same principles apply to breaking any bad habit, health wise, eating or smoking, etc. The trick is recognising the cues and critically recognising the reward. Success will only follow if you can replace the ritual/behaviours that follow a cue with the new desired behaviours and crucially that they give at least an equivalent reward and preferably a greater reward. 

I’m sorry if this article didn’t cover buying a caravan and a ‘how to’ guide to, well, you know. I do hope it makes you reflect on the order and structure of your courses, the need to spend time understanding your students’ habits, good or otherwise, in order that in conjunction with that student, you can truly break bad!


  • Fig 1. Adapted from Durhigg, C. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House.
  • Fig 2. Adapted from Martens, R. (2012). Successful Coaching. Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL.

Dive Deeper 

Matt Jevon, M.Sc. F.IoD is a Full Expedition level Trimix and Cave instructor on OC and CCR with TDI and ANDI. He is the JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines, wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, as well as being one of the inaugural dirty dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with BASES, and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and is a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland. and writes the Facebook page, Psychological Skills for Diving 

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Why I Became a GUE Instructor

Jon Kieren had been an experienced tech diver and instructor for years when, curious, he took a Global Underwater Explorers’ Fundamentals class, a prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training. Soon, he didn’t just want to be a GUE diver. He wanted to be a GUE instructor. Kieren writes about the draw of GUE and why he started over with a new agency.




by Jon Kieren. Photos courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett.

I’ve had the pleasure of working in pretty much every aspect of the diving industry over the past 15 years or so. I’ve been an instructor and boat captain in the Caribbean, worked in the training department of a large training agency, served as a consultant for equipment manufacturers, and traveled all over the world teaching as a full-time cave and technical instructor trainer. Many would have said I’d reached the highest levels in the diving industry. 

So when I decided to start all over from scratch to become a Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) instructor, many of my friends, peers, and students scratched their head a bit and wondered why I would want to invest so much time, energy, and money to teach things I had been capable of teaching for years with other agencies. The answer was I wanted to commit to excellence. “Can’t you do that by teaching for other agencies?” they would ask. Not really.

Over the years, I had become quite frustrated with almost every aspect of the dive industry. Low-quality instruction, lack of accountability from agencies in accidents and quality assurance, manufacturers releasing equipment that created more problems than it solved, and dive shops and instructors at all levels racing to the bottom in terms of quality — all of it was making my blood boil. When I “saw the light,” it was refreshing, inspirational, and a huge relief. I finally found an answer to many of the issues I had been banging my head against the wall trying to solve for years. Here’s how it went down.

In 2016, I left my job in the training department of a large agency after five years of frustration. I realized I could make a larger impact on the industry working with one or two students or instructor candidates at a time. I moved from south Florida to north Florida’s “cave country” to teach full-time as an independent instructor. It was a bit scary to not have a guaranteed paycheck, but I was determined to make it work. I was hungry to improve as an instructor and knew I could do better. The problem was, after working at the highest levels with some of the biggest names in the industry, I didn’t really know where to turn. 

Enter Mark Messersmith. He’s a GUE board director, instructor evaluator, chief operating officer of dive equipment manufacturer Halcyon, and one of the nicest guys around. I had gotten to know Mark a little bit over the years, and always appreciated his laidback and super supportive demeanor. When I approached him about GUE training, he asked, “Why?” Knowing my background, of course he knew the answer, but I think he wanted to hear it from me. 

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Fundamentals: Where the Fog First Lifted

I first started down the technical diving path when I was working in the Caribbean as an open water instructor and boat captain, and I came across GUE in my research. I was immediately put off by the standardization and team-diving philosophy, and decided other agencies would be a better fit for me. Of course I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my thought was, “There can’t be just one way to do EVERYTHING.” Plus, I really enjoyed solo diving at the time. After moving through the ranks over the years and working with hundreds of technical, rebreather, and cave students, I had the opportunity to work with several GUE-trained divers. Most of them had only taken Fundamentals, the prerequisite to GUE’s technical and cave training courses, but two things were consistent with all of those students: The classes were easier to teach, and they were way more fun. We would be able to start cave or tech diving straight out of the gate and not need to spend three or four days on basic skills. I wanted to know what GUE’s secret was to create such solid and consistent divers, and that’s when I approached Mark.

To answer his question, I was honest and told him I wanted to steal as much as I could from the Fundamentals course to incorporate into my classes. He just smiled through his mustache and said, “OK.” We scheduled a class, and I got to work watching all of the skills videos and practicing on my own in order to prepare. To say that I was nervous when class started was an understatement. I think I hid it pretty well, but what if I didn’t meet the highest standard for Fundamentals and get GUE’s coveted tech pass? What would that say about me as an instructor? Mark’s casual style put me at ease as we began, and I was able to focus. When Mark got to the third slide of the first lecture, it was like the fog had lifted and I could see everything clearly for the first time. I knew the trajectory of my career had just shifted and I’d be starting all over. “This is going to be expensive,” I thought.

So what’s on that slide? A simple statement that was the answer to all of my struggles: “End the disconnect between training and passion.” As Mark explained the issues in the dive industry, of which I was all too aware, he also explained how GUE addresses those issues. From the top down, GUE’s board of directors members and instructors are passionate divers and explorers, no exceptions. This changed everything for me. One of my biggest frustrations was recognizing that at the very top of the industry (senior managers of the agencies), almost nobody was an active diver. Presidents and VPs were diving once a year for social media posts to create an illusion they were still active and passionate—many of them with very limited teaching experience and making decisions on standards at the highest levels of technical, cave, and rebreather training when they had only been in a cave once or dove a semi-closed rebreather a couple of times back in the 90s. 

This lack of passion filters down through the industry. It’s amazing how many instructors (technical, cave and rebreather included) refuse to get in the water if they aren’t being paid. Even with my limited experience at the time, when I went to work for the agency, I would have my head in my hands thinking, “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” when sitting in on big meetings as industry heads for all of the agencies were in my opinion focused more on how to keep standards low and profits high rather than on safety and quality. 

A Commitment to Excellence

But now, staring at this slide, we discussed the ways GUE is focused on keeping quality at the highest level and inspiring divers to be passionate, competent, and capable of incredible conservation and exploration efforts. We discussed the global GUE community and all of the remarkable things they accomplish. It was so clearly the answer to everything.

I didn’t just want to be a Fundamentals diver. I wanted to be a GUE instructor. As I started on the path, I started to really realize why “Commit to Excellence” is printed on the back of our t-shirts. I was pushed harder than I had ever been in the past, with support and encouragement. The goal was always to improve, no matter what we were doing: from parking our cars at the dive sites to be courteous and leave room for others, to maintaining perfect stability in extremely task-loading situations, and developing the best instructional and evaluation techniques. There was never a time in any of my classes where I was told, “Good job.” It was always, “Good job, but here’s how we can make it better.”

My Tech 1 (and later Tech 2) instructor, Guy Shockey, made a statement that I remember every day. He explained that he chooses to be a GUE instructor because when he wakes up in the morning and gets ready to teach a class, he knows without a doubt that he has the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. So when I’m on my way to the shop or dive site to meet my students in the morning, I keep that in the back of my mind. I have the capacity and resources to teach the best class available. It not only gives me confidence, but keeps me honest. There are no excuses and no room for shortcuts. Commit to excellence. 

We are held to that standard of excellence through several mechanisms. We have strict annual renewal requirements to ensure we are actively diving and exploring so that students are learning from someone still passionate about what they are teaching. These requirements go far beyond what is typical in the industry, and we are actually monitored for meeting them.

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Staying Current (And Competent)

Most agencies have some form of “currency” recommendation, meaning you’re supposed to teach or assist a class every few years. However, there’s no oversight to ensure instructors are meeting this requirement. There’s loads of instructors out there (tech instructors and instructor trainers included) who haven’t taught a class in five-plus years. There’s nothing stopping these instructors from going out and teaching a class at their highest level. Sure, if something terrible happens, the agency and insurance company will likely drop the instructor, showing that they violated a standard by not remaining current. But at that point, it’s already too late. Students pay the price. Even if there isn’t an accident in training, it’s very likely that students will not have received adequate training and will be more at risk in their post-training diving activities.

GUE instructors need to show dive logs verifying we have conducted at least 25 non-training dives each year, half of which need to be at or above their highest teaching level. This ensures that when you sign up for a GUE class, you can be sure the instructor in front of you is still active, current, and passionate about what they are teaching you. 

All GUE instructors, instructor trainers, and instructor examiners are required to be re-evaluated at their highest teaching level every four years. Nobody is exempt from this rule, as it means that we are consistently ensuring everyone is teaching the same things, to the same standards, without drift. 

Scuba diving is a physically taxing activity, and the more aggressive the dive, the more physically fit the diver should be. Even on fairly benign dives, you never know when the current or seas might pick up, or when a failure could result in extended decompression times. We believe that having physical fitness requirements that are consistent with diving goals is extremely important. No smoking allowed for any GUE diver or instructor, and we require swim tests at every level of training. 

Instructors have to meet pretty stringent fitness requirements each year. We have to be medically evaluated for fitness to dive, maintain a low Body Mass Index (BMI), conduct timed swims and diver tows, stair climbs and equipment carries over long distances, all of which verify our ability to assist our students in emergencies. This is surprisingly absent from other agency’s renewal requirements. There are lines in the renewal agreement about being fit to dive, but there’s no oversight, and they don’t even require a medical exam.

We also have a 100% quality assurance process, meaning every student completes a quality control form. This is not only so our QC director can identify any drift from the standards or issues with our conduct in class, but also to help provide feedback on how we can improve the training we offer. We encourage our students not to just tell us what we did well, but treat us how we treat them in the debriefings and include areas we can better support their growth, because there’s always some room for improvement.

I don’t mention all of the renewal requirements as a flex, but rather to show that it takes a significant investment for GUE instructors to remain in current teaching status. Someone who isn’t committed simply won’t remain current. It was a huge draw for me, as I had seen how the minimal standards typical in the dive industry contribute to the disconnect.

For me, as an instructor, the benefits of GUE go beyond the high-quality training, standardization, and community. The opportunity to work toward ending the disconnect between training and passion as well as the continuous commitment to excellence are what keep me motivated. Not a year has gone by since my Fundamentals course that I haven’t seen significant growth as an instructor, and I don’t see that changing until I hang up my fins.


InDEPTH: The Economics of Being a Tech Diving Instructor by Darcy Kieran

Other stories by Jon Kieren:

InDEPTH: I Trained “Doc Deep” by Jon Kieren

InDEPTH: SUMP POTION #9 by Jon Kieren

InDEPTH: Grokking The FATHOM CCR: My Dive into the Nuts & Bolts with the Inventor by Jon Kieren

Jon Kieren is a cave, technical, and CCR instructor/instructor trainer who has dedicated his 13-year career to improving dive training. As an active TDI, IANTD, NSS-CDS, and GUE Instructor and former training director and training advisory panel member for TDI, he has vast experience working with divers and instructors at all levels, but his main professional focus resides in the caves. In his own personal diving, Jon’s true passions are deep, extended range cave dives, as well as working with photographers to bring back images of his favorite places to share with the world. 

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