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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?

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. 

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.

Additional Resources 

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. www.swt.ie and writes the Facebook page, Psychological Skills for Diving 


Learning from Others’ Mistakes: The Power of Context-Rich “Second” Stories

Proper storytelling is a key to learning from the mistakes of others. Human Factors consultant and educator Gareth Lock explains the power of context-rich stories to inform and help us to develop the non-technical skills needed to make better decisions, communicate more clearly, and lead/teach more effectively.




by Gareth Lock
Header image courtesy of Gareth Lock
. Divers from Red Sea Explorers’ examining a magnificent gorgonian coral.

Diving can be a fun, sociable, and peaceful activity; it can be challenging and technically difficult; and it can be a way of escaping the hustle and bustle of modern life. Sometimes new wrecks are discovered, caves have new line laid in them, new encounters with wildlife are experienced, and in many cases, courses are completed where both instructors and students have learned something new. 

However, it can also be scary, harrowing and frightening if things don’t go to plan or if the plan was flawed in the first place. 

Fortunately, the majority of dives which take place are the former and we consider the outcomes to be positive. If we think about it, the goal for every dive should be to surface, having had an enjoyable time, with gas reserves intact and no-one feeling physically or emotionally injured. But how do we achieve this goal considering the inherent risks we face while diving? 

The easy answer would be to have effective training, to have the correct equipment, and to have and apply the right mindset. These three things together then lead to safe diving practices. You could say that the majority of safe diving practices and safely designed and configured equipment comes from feedback following accidents, incidents, and near misses. You only have to look at the work which the late, famed cave explorer Sheck Exley did in terms of cave diving fatalities and his “Blueprint for Survival” to see how procedures and equipment have evolved.

What do we learn?

There are accident and incident reports available to us. What do we learn from them? Bearing in mind that the majority of reports which divers see are either in social media or summarised in reports like the Divers Alert Network Annual Incident Report or the BS-AC Annual Incident Report.

For example, the following incident reports are written in a style similar to those you would find on social media or in an organization’s incident report.   

An inexperienced diver entered the water to provide support for a guided dive to 24m. They got separated from their buddy, made a rapid ascent to the surface after nearly running out of gas. They were recovered on the boat without any symptoms of DCS being present.

A diver on the final dive of a rebreather training course entered the water from a dive boat. The diver swam to the side of the boat to receive their bailout cylinder to clip on. While sorting their gear out alongside the boat, they appeared to go unconscious and descend below the surface. The diver was recovered from 38 m/124 ft and despite CPR and first aid being applied, they were pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital ER. On inspection, the oxygen cylinder on their rebreather was found to be turned off and the controller logs showed that the pO2 had dropped to 0.05 while they were on the surface.

How much learning do you get from these reports? What emotions did you feel while reading them? What did you think was the primary cause of each of these events? If you were to choose two or three words to describe the causes, what would they be? 

Human error? Complacency? Inexperience? Rushing? Not paying attention? Overconfidence? Naivety? Arrogance? Stupidity? Who was it? Where was the instructor? Were they certified? Which agency? Were they qualified?

All of these are normal responses, and they make up the first story.

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Photo courtesy of 123rf Image Library

The First Story

The first story is the narrative we hear, and we start to make immediate judgments on. We can’t help making judgments, even when we try not to. We make judgments because we compare the stories we’ve just read or heard to our own previous experiences. We match patterns to what we ‘know’ and then fill in the gaps with what we think happened, all the time thinking about whether it was the ‘right thing’ to do based on our own experiences.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

This ‘filling in gaps’ is normal human behavior. Because our brains are constantly trying to make sense of the situation when we don’t have enough information about a scene or a situation, we reflect on what we’ve seen, read, and heard in the past and then make a best guess or closest fit. During this process, we will be subject to a number of biases, and one of the strongest at this stage is called confirmation bias. This is where we think we know the answer to the question, then as we read or hear something in the story that aligns with our reasoning, we stop looking any further because we have confirmed our suspicions.

In many cases, we carry on and don’t think anything of the learning opportunities presented because we know what happened, we know that ‘we wouldn’t do that’ because we would have spotted the issue before it became critical. We often make use of counterfactuals (could have, should have, and would have) to describe how the incident could have been prevented.

Unfortunately, this means that often we don’t learn. There is a difference between a lesson identified and a lesson learned—a lesson learned is where we make a conscious decision to accept how we do things based on the conditions and outcomes, or we actually put something in place which is different than what was there before and see how effective it is to resolve the problem encountered. 

If we are to make improvements, we need to look at the errors, mistakes, and deviations that were made. However, we must recognize that errors are outcomes, not causes of adverse events. If we want to stop an adverse event from occurring, we need to look closer at the conditions which led to the error occurring i.e., the error-producing conditions. 


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Extracted from INPO/DOE Human Performance Improvement Handbook Vol 1 – The Human Diver.

The easiest way to look for error-producing conditions in an event that has already happened is to get those involved to tell context-rich stories. This becomes the second story.

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Photo courtesy of 123rf Image Library.

The Second Story

Second stories look much deeper than what we first hear. They look at the context, the local rationality, the conditions, especially those conditions which might lead to errors. Ultimately, they expose the inherent weakness and gaps in any system, where the system includes people, paperwork, equipment, relationships, the environment and their interactions. 

Second stories also highlight how divers and instructors are constantly adapting and changing their behaviors/actions to deal with the dynamic nature of diving. They describe ‘normal work’. This adaptation could be moving dive sites, increasing or reducing the time for a course, the order in which skills are taught or the amount of gas used/planned for a dive. Second stories describe the difference between ‘Work as Imagined’, which is what is written down, what is expected to happen, and against which compliance is assessed, and ‘Work as Done’ which is what actually happens in the real world and takes into account the pressures, drivers, and constraints which are faced by those on the dive or the course.

The easiest way to see what a second story looks like is to tell it, and the following account is the same recreational event as above but told as a second story. 

An Advanced Open Water (AOW) diver with around 50 dives was acting as an ‘assistant’ to the instructor and dive-centre owner on a guided dive with five Open Water (OW) divers and recent graduates from the school they themselves had learned at. The AOW diver felt a social obligation to help the Open Water Scuba Instructor (OWSI) who was leading the dive, because the OWSI had done so much to help her conquer her fear of mask-clearing during her own training. However, she was also wary that, over time, her role had moved from being a diver on the trip to being almost the divemaster by helping other divers out, which she wasn’t trained to do. In addition, the instructor regularly asked her, at the last minute, to help out and change teams to ensure the ‘experience’ dives happened.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

On this particular occasion, the AOW diver was buddied with a low-skilled OW diver who acted arrogantly and did not communicate well. In fact, she didn’t believe that three of the five on this trip should have received their OW certificates, given their poor in-water skills. As they approached the dive site, the visibility could be seen to be poor from the boat and the surface conditions weren’t great. The instructor said to the AOW diver, “Don’t lose the divers. I want you at the back shepherding them.”

They entered the water and descended to 24 m/78 ft and made their way in the poor visibility. On two occasions, the OW buddy had to be brought back down by the AOW diver as they ascended out of control. At one point, the OW diver turned around quickly and accidently knocked the AOW diver into the reef. Unfortunately, the AOW diver became entangled in some line there, and the OW diver swam off oblivious to the entanglement. When the five divers and instructor reached the shot-line ready to ascend, the instructor realized the AOW diver was missing. The instructor couldn’t trust the five divers to ascend on their own and didn’t have enough time to wait at the bottom and conduct a search, so the six ascended. On the surface, the buddied OW diver said that the AOW diver had swum off looking at fish in a certain area.

In the meantime, the AOW diver had managed to free herself; but in her panic, while stuck on the bottom, she breathed her gas down to almost zero and had to do a rapid ascent. She surfaced, feeling very scared and sick with panic, just as the instructor was speaking to the other six on the surface. On seeing the AOW diver break the surface, the instructor swam to her but turned and shouted at the other divers, admonishing them for abandoning their buddy on the bottom. The AOW diver felt very alone and wanted to give up diving as she was not given the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

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Photo by Gareth Lock.

Observations on potential contributory factors and error-producing conditions:

  • Deviation of standards on the part of the instructor/dive-center owner taking OW divers to 24 m/78 ft, maybe driven because of the need to generate revenue and offer something unique.
  • Authority gradient between the instructor and AOW diver meant that the AOW diver felt they couldn’t end the dive before they even got in the water or once in the water.
  • Inferred peer pressure to help out when they weren’t qualified or experienced enough to act in a supervisory role.
  • Poor technical skills on the part of the OW divers and the AOW limited their situation awareness to be aware of hazards and risks.
  • Limited awareness on the part of the instructor regarding the location of all the divers during the dive.
  • Positive note – good decision on the part of the instructor to ascend with the five OW divers in poor conditions and not keep them on the bottom or get them to ascend on their own.

A full account of the second event can be found here where you can also download a guide which contains more detail than the video covers and also gives you details on how to run a learning event at your dive center or in your own classes.

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We can see that the learning opportunities have increased in the second stories. They allow certain issues to be identified like time pressures, financial pressures, peer-pressure, authority gradient, teamwork, leadership, decision-making and situation awareness. These aspects are rarely captured or recounted in the narratives we see online or in incident reports. There are a number of reasons: 

  • They are often considered ‘common sense’, 
  • Our brains are constantly looking for simple answers to complicated or complex problems, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to find an individual or piece of equipment to ‘blame’ rather than look wider.
  • Those involved don’t consider these factors to be important so they don’t write them down.
  • Those involved don’t know about these error-producing conditions or human factors so they don’t know to include them.
  • There is no formalised and structured investigation process for diving incidents by diving organisations to facilitate the capture, analysis and sharing of second stories.

Telling second stories isn’t enough to create learning though. We have to work out how to change our own behaviors, and that is where the free materials and courses which The Human Diver provides come in. They help develop these non-technical skills in divers, instructors, instructor trainers, and dive center managers/owners to help them make better decisions, communicate more clearly and lead/teach more effectively. Ultimately, it is about having more fun on the dive, and ending each dive with the goal described at the start of this article intact and creating learning in the process.

Since 2011, Gareth has been on a mission to take the human factors and crew resource management lessons learned from his 25 year military aviation career and apply it to diving. In 2016, he formed The Human Diver with the goal to bring human factors, non-technical skills and a Just Culture to the diving industry via a number of different online and face-to-face programmes. Since then, he has trained more than 350 divers from across the globe in face-to-face programmes and nearly 1500 people are subscribed to his online micro-class. In March 2019, he published ‘Under Pressure: Diving Deeper with Human Factors’ which has sold more than 4000 copies and on 20 May 2020, the documentary ‘If Only…’ was released which tells the story of a tragic diving accident through the lens of human factors and a Just Culture. He has presented around the globe at dive shows and conferences to share his passion and knowledge. He has also acted as a subject matter expert on a number of military diving incidents and accidents focusing on the role of human factors.

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