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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.

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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Risk-Takers, Thrill-Seekers, Sensation-Seekers, and … You?

It’s likely that many in our community no longer think of tech diving as a risky activity, or perhaps even appreciate how important taking risks may be to one’s personal health—let alone that of our species. Fortunately, InDEPTH’s copy editing manager Pat Jablonski dived deep into the origins, meaning, and benefits of regularly taking risks, and even offers a thrill-seeking quiz for your edgy edification. What have you got to lose?




by Pat Jablonski. Title photo courtesy of Katelyn Compton Escott.

“Life without risk is not worth living.” – Charles Lindbergh

What defines a risk? What is involved in taking a risk?

Difficult questions to answer, because something that feels risky to one person might be yawn-worthy to another. Risk taking, unscientifically, is something you do that gets your blood up, raises your heartbeat, awakens your senses, and makes you hyper-aware of your surroundings.

Surely we can agree that the Covid pandemic has added an unexpected level of risk to everyday life. Add poor drivers, mass shootings, contentious politics, global climate change, and many are left believing that meeting each day is risky enough. But that’s not true for people who identify as risk-takers or thrill-seekers.

“Everyone has a ‘risk muscle’. You keep in shape by trying new things. If you don’t, it atrophies. Make a point of using it once a day.” – Roger Von Tech

There are many activities that go to the trouble of defining the level of risk involved with a specific activity, and while that’s not the purpose of this article, you should know that scuba diving ranks fairly high on the risky behavior scale–higher than skydiving and rappelling. And, cave/wreck diving or freediving isn’t on any risk scale we could locate. We can assume it’s up there—near or at the top.

Fock A. Analysis of recreational closed-circuit rebreather deaths 1998–2010 Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine. 2013 Volume 43, No. 2. With the caveat that they are “best guess numbers,” Fock concluded that rebreather diving is likely 5-10x as risky as open circuit scuba diving, accounting for about 4-5 deaths per 100,000 dives, compared to about 0.4 to 0.5 deaths per 100k dives for open circuit scuba. This makes rebreather diving more risky than skydiving at .99/100k, but far less risky than base-jumping at 43 deaths/100k. The current belief is that rebreather diving has gotten safer.

Divers are a fairly small niche group for many reasons. One of them could involve the degree of danger associated with the sport. Answer this: Do dry land people ever ask you why you would want to take such a chance with your life in order to go where you weren’t meant to go? 

It’s a reasonable question, albeit a hard one to answer.

Photo courtesy of Glen Kwan

“A life without risk is a life unlived, my friend.” – Big Time Rush

Kevin Costner’s Waterworld aside, humans have (yet) to be born with gills or webbed toes. Still, there you are. You’ve spent unmentionable amounts of money. You’ve carved out a whole day, or maybe weeks, away from your to-do list. You’re suited up and look like an alien. You’re on a quest to explore the aquatic world where you’re able to breathe only with a cumbersome apparatus. You’re planning to explore inner space! You’re going to delve into that amazing realm that’s off limits to most people. 

You may look all matter-of-fact, cool as a cucumber, another day at the office, but it’s a thrill, isn’t it? Inside, you’re a kid with butterflies in your tummy who’s getting away with something big and exciting. Okay, it’s true–you and your team are highly trained, your equipment is top-notch, every box is checked off, and you are behaving responsibly. However, you’d have to be in a coma to not realize that what you’re about to do is taking a risk. Who doesn’t know that people have died doing what you’re doing? Answer honestly: How much more exhilarating is the experience when you know it’s not a walk in the park? Our own Michael Menduno admitted that “the feeling of being more alive lasted for days” after a dive.

So, you’re a diver. Does that mean you’re a risk taker? A thrill seeker? A sensation seeker?

Let’s dive into that subject, first by taking a little quiz, shall we? 

Photo courtesy of SJ Alice Bennett

From A Death Wish to Life Is Precious

In the past, too many mental health professionals treated risky behavior like a disease in need of a cure, focusing on the negative side of risk, even using government funding to address risky behavior and stamp it out. 

Before that, Sigmund Freud might have even believed that thrill seekers had a death wish; in fact, it’s what was believed for many years. 

Modern-day science doesn’t support either theory.

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” – TS Elliot

For our purposes, we’re focusing on the positive aspects of taking chances, pushing boundaries, and seeking experiences that make life feel . . . more alive. Richer. Fuller. We want to examine what goes into the psyche of a person (like you?) who is enthusiastically willing to engage in an activity already identified as dangerous, possibly even by the people who are engaging in it, and hear what some experts on the subject have to say about such people.

Photo courtesy of Jen MacKinnon

The University of Michigan’s Daniel Kruger proposes that taking chances is a fundamental part of human nature going all the way back to our ancient ancestors—prehistoric humans who had to constantly put their safety on the line in their fight for survival. Think fighting off a wooly mammoth with a stick. Kruger believes we have consequently retained many of those same instincts today, and he believes that it’s a good thing. 

This writer, who is related to a major risk-taker, has always believed that heart-quickening experiences are essential for a well-lived life. I’m convinced and have long proposed that those pulse-pounding moments are often accompanied by a deepened understanding of and appreciation for one’s life—perhaps all life. And I’m happy to report that current science confirms that belief.

“If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn

Dr. Kruger is one of the scientists who proposes that taking risks means “seeking that moment when life feels most precious.

This should not be news for you diving adventurers out there.

Nature vs. Nurture: Born That Way or Learned To Love Adventure

Another scientist, Marvin Zuckerberg, affirms the theory that risk taking is in our DNA. “Certain people have high sensation-seeking personalities that demand challenges and seek out environments that most people’s brains are geared to avoid.” I’ll go out on a limb and say that underwater caves or shipwrecks would qualify as environments most would avoid.

Dr. Cynthia Thompson, the researcher behind a 2014 study from the University of British Columbia, was early to look at the genetic factors that might make a person predisposed to participating in extreme sports, ones that are typically defined as activities where death is a real possibility. The results of her study revealed that risk-takers shared a similar genetic constitution, a genetic variant that influences how powerful feelings are during intense situations.

Photo courtesy of Steve Boisvert

Most scientists agree that personality is a complicated mix of genetic and environmental influences. The “nature vs. nurture” dilemma is alive and well. Dr. Thompson concluded that people who engaged in so-called high-risk sports were not impulsive at all, not reckless either. Instead, “they’re highly skilled masters of their discipline who take a very thoughtful approach to their sports.”

A study conducted in 2019 examined human boundaries, people who pushed them to their limits and beyond, and what made those people tick. Zuckerman labeled such people “sensation seekers” and defined them as “people who chase novel, complex, and intense sensations, who love experience for its own sake, and who may take risks to pursue those experiences.” Is that you?

“History is full of risk-takers. In fact, you could say that risk-takers are the ones who get to make history.” – Daniel Kruger

Other experts posit an alternate theory—one proposing that modern society in the age of seatbelts, guardrails, child-proof caps, safety precautions, laws, rules, and regulations has dulled the sense of survival. In other words, life has flattened out and no longer feels exciting, or risky. So, is one of the reasons we seek excitement because of boredom? 

Maslow’s Theory of Self-actualization

I don’t honestly know who was the first proponent of risk-taking being a positive thing, but the work of Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, was one of the first. Maslow became one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century, and he developed a theory of human motivation that advocates for “peak experiences.” Peak experiences are not attained without risk.

“One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again” – A Maslow

He proposed that, in addition to meeting basic needs, all humans from birth seek fulfillment in terms of what he called self-actualization—finding their purpose/being authentic. Self-actualization involves peak experiences—those life-altering moments that take us outside ourselves, make us feel one with nature, and allow us to experience a sense of wonder and awe. Maslow also believed that those who were able to have such peak experiences tended to seek them out rather than waiting for the next random occurrence. Hence the anticipation of the next dive?

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” – Anonymous

Photo courtesy of Adam Haydock

Out of Your Comfort Zone Into A World of Wonder

Psychologist Eric Brymer from Queenstown University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, has spent years studying extreme athletes and has this to say: “They’re actually extremely well-prepared, careful, intelligent, and thoughtful athletes with high levels of self-awareness and a deep knowledge of the environment and of the activity.”

Recent research backs up what some extreme sports athletes have been saying for years, even if only to themselves.

“What participants get from extreme sports is deeply transformational, a sense of connecting with a deep sense of self and being authentic, a powerful relationship with the natural world, a sense of freedom,” says Brymer. “They get a strong sense of living life to its fullest as if touching their full potential.”

Brymer’s comments mirror what Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, said back in the 1940s.

We’re not advocating for taking stupid chances (such as diving without proper training, or necessary precautions) and we don’t believe anyone reading this article does that. We simply intended to focus on the scientific evidence that supports adventurers—people who get a thrill from an activity that offers—as a bonus; a chance to feel awakened from the mundane and thrust into a world of wonder. 

Risk-takers and sensation- or thrill-seekers chase unique experiences. Often, those experiences bring awareness of important issues or increase essential knowledge about the planet we share. Many people overanalyze and dither when faced with an unfamiliar situation; they shy away from unsettling circumstances. Risk-takers face the unknown and trust themselves to prevail. Learning to scuba dive, for example, pushes people out of their comfort zone, takes them into a realm foreign and mysterious. Diving forces divers to pay complete attention to a task, to focus with laser-like precision in order to conquer misgivings, and to attain a skill that few others have. Confidence comes with accomplishment. Leadership emerges. Fear is overcome. 

Sensation-seekers see potential stressors as challenges to be met rather than threats that might defeat them. With action, resilience develops. High sensation-seekers report lower perceived stress, more positive emotions, and greater life satisfaction. Engaging in extreme activities brings them peace. 

What does it bring you?

Dive Deeper

Bandolier: Risk of dying and sporting activities

National Geographic: What Makes Risk Takers Tempt Fate? Recent research suggests that genetic, environmental, and personal factors can make people take on risky—even potentially fatal—challenges.

Healthday: Taking Risks By Chris Woolston HealthDay Reporter

Pat Jablonski heads up the copy edit team for InDEPTH. She is a blogger, a writer of stories, a retired tutor, English writing teacher, and therapist. She’s a friend, a wife, a proud mother and grandmother. She is also a native of Florida, having spent most of her life in Palm Beach County. She has a B.A. in English from FAU in Boca Raton and an M.S.W. from Barry University in Miami. She learned to swim in the ocean, a place she thinks of as home, but she doesn’t dive.

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