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Handling the Pressures of Competitive Freediving

Sporting vegan diets, yoga, meditation, breath work and plenty of Mucinex, freedivers are often considered to be the woke, hippy contingent of the diving community—backpacks anyone? But as scuba instructor turned freediver Charly Stringer explains there’s method in the madness, err, protocol. I kid our breath-hold brethren. 😉 How do elite divers handle the competitive and hydrostatic pressures? Why, they pump up the prāṇa, of course.

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By Charly Stringer. Header image: Diver Lily Crespy coming to the end of a Constant Weight (CWT ) competition dive. Photo by Kalinda Wijsmuller

Diving to your deepest capabilities can be nerve wracking on even your best day. Throw in some judges, spectators, plus the pressure of diving for your country, and this can take the nerves to a whole new level.

So how do you handle these nerves and stay relaxed enough to perform well in a freediving competition?

Let’s dive into Ted Harty’s Freediving Summit, and see what some of the deepest divers in the world have to say about relaxation techniques and stress management skills.

Competition diving

For those of you who don’t know, there are pool freediving competitions, and depth freediving competitions. The current AIDA world records include an amazing 11 minutes and 35 seconds for static apnea (STA) which was achieved by Stéphane Mifsud. The records for depth in competition include 130 m/427 ft in the constant weight discipline (CWT) by Alexey Molchanov, and 102 m/335 ft in the no fins discipline (CNF) by William Trubridge. I think we can all agree that these are some extraordinary achievements—and that’s just the guys! Alenka Artnik is hot on the heels of Alexey, with her world record for the women being just 16 m/53 ft away from his in CWT.

William Trubridge, in an interview with Ted Hardy at this year’s Freediving Summit, spoke about his world record and his experiences with competition diving. When discussing the comparisons between freediving competitions and other sports, Trubridge expounded about how freediving is so unique, in that there are so many aspects to it that athletes of other sports don’t have to consider. For example, freedivers have to think about things like equalization, pressure adaptation, and narcosis. But he also said freedivers get “a beautiful sensation that they can’t experience with any other sport”.

So how do these world champions do it? How do they achieve such incredible depths without letting their nerves get the best of them? 

Let’s look at some techniques to help you handle the pressure of competition freediving:

Yoga/Meditation

Pranayama can help to relax the mind and body. Photo by Piko Studios. Model: @shadesinblue

Yoga and meditation play a big part in the lives of most deep freedivers. Yoga helps them stay flexible and strong, which are both essential qualities for deep diving in an efficient way. Meditation can help to keep them calm both before and during a dive. It allows them to be in the present moment and accept all that they are feeling.

At the Freediving Summit, Sara Campbell (four time world record holder and yoga/meditation coach) spoke with Ted Hardy about her experiences with yoga, meditation, and freediving.

Sara was convinced to try freediving by a yoga student back in 2007. Reluctantly she tried, and realized very quickly that she had a talent for it. After just nine short months of training, Sara achieved three world records in three consecutive days, putting her on the map as one of the most impressive freedivers still to this day. Currently her deepest dive in competition was 96 m/315 ft in CWT.

During the summit, Sara and Ted talked about how yoga and meditation played a huge part in Sara’s fast progression. She said bringing these skills to freediving allowed her to have better awareness of her body and mind. 

Yoga helps to keep the body flexible and teaches mindfulness.Photo by Anastasia Ivanova. Model: @shadesinblue

Sara discussed how spiritual teachers talk about “downloading information,” and how she felt that was true for her with yoga and freediving: “Somehow I was given a lot of wisdom about how our bodies behave in water. I had the ability to surrender to what was happening to my body in the ocean” she said. “Yoga and meditation gave me access to awareness. Through any blockage or fear, I had trust in myself.”

Yoga and meditation are a common pre-dive ritual for deep divers. Setting aside time before a stressful competition dive to be mindful and do some light stretching (nothing too strenuous in order to stay relaxed) can make a huge difference to how relaxing your dive will feel.



Breathwork

Breathwork is a part of meditation and can be massively helpful in relaxation for freediving.

Believe it or not, there is a wrong way to breathe. Your natural way of breathing is not optimum for relaxation, and therefore not optimum for freediving either. Breathwork and Pranayama can be used to increase relaxation for freediving. Including techniques such as:

Belly breathing: While breathing normally, you will probably be breathing more from the chest, or a mix of chest and belly. Breathing into the belly slows the breathing down and uses less energy, which can increase relaxation, and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. This is what makes it perfect for relaxation breathing for freediving.

2:1 breathing: 2:1 breathing is the technique of breathing out for half the amount of time that you breathed in for. It’s a breathing technique used to relax yourself. For example, breathing in for four seconds and breathing out for eight seconds. It shouldn’t feel like a struggle, but if it’s difficult try reducing the amount of seconds to three in and six out. Do whatever is most comfortable for you. There are other breathing ratios you can experiment with, but the 2:1 works best for relaxation breathing right before a dive. Remembering of course, not to hyperventilate.

Lily Creepy taking relaxation breaths before a competition dive. Photo by Daan Verhoeven

Ujjayi breath: Ujjayi breath is commonly used in yoga. You perform it by constricting the throat slightly, so that when you breathe you can hear the breaths, almost like a snoring sound. Some compare it to the Darth Vader noise from Star Wars. Ujjayi breathing is very calming and can be nice to do as part of relaxation breathing to stop your mind from wandering.

All of these breathwork techniques can be combined to create the best relaxation breathing for a competition dive.

Visualisation

Visualisation can be used in the moments before a dive, as well as the night before, and even in the weeks before. It can be used alongside your meditation practice, and is an excellent way to stay relaxed and confident with the dive you’re preparing for.

visualisation is when you go through every aspect of the dive before you do it. You play the relaxation breathing phase in your mind, followed by the duck dive, the first pulls or kicks, the first mouthfill, the freefall phase, the feeling of the pressure increasing, the turn, the way up, and the final minutes of the dive on the surface, including surface protocol for competition diving. You will think about how each of these phases of the dive will feel. It’s important to visualize the dive going well, but also to visualize any issues you might face and how you would overcome them.

If you visualize the dive, you know exactly what you have to do at every phase, and there will be no surprises. Knowing that you are completely prepared will help you to feel relaxed and confident.

Diver Gus Kreivenas takes final breaths before a dive. Photo by Alex St-Jean

Body Scan

A body scan is a technique to check how relaxed you are. Sometimes you feel completely relaxed, but you’re actually holding tension somewhere in your body. Even somewhere small or subtle.

You perform a body scan by lying still and going over every part of your body in your mind to check there’s no tension there. Start from your head, your ears, your forehead, your eyes, your mouth, and so on until you reach your toes. Do the front and the back of the body. You might be surprised to find tension in a subtle place such as the eyebrows or fingers.

Body scanning can be combined in the breathe up with the relaxed breathing exercises, to check you’re totally relaxed and ready to go.



The Importance of Competitions

Staying relaxed and mindful before and during a competition dive is important. But it’s also important not to put too much pressure on yourself to do well in the competition. Everyone has bad days, even the best athletes in the world. Of course, strive for your best and hope to do well, but remember that if you do have a bad dive for any reason, it’s not the end of the world. Thinking this way will help to put less pressure on yourself, which means you’ll be more relaxed, and more likely to have a successful dive.

In the Freediving Summit, Alexey Molchanov talked with Ted Hardy about the importance he puts on competitions. Alexey is arguably currently the world’s best freediver, holding 24 world records so far. He owns his own freediving equipment company and education system with schools around the world.

Lily Crespi heading towards freefall, where the relaxation can really begin. Photo by Fakeye Productions.

Alexey’s mother, Natalia Molchanova was a legend and pioneer in the freediving world, she achieved an incredible 41 world records, and was the first woman to dive to 100 m/328 ft. This meant that Alexey learned freediving from the best, and from a very young age he was always involved in the sport.

In the interview, Alexey claimed that something he learned from his mother was how to manage stress for competitions. He said he used to feel pressure to win, and that it was “painful for the ego” to lose. But then he realized that he was putting too much importance on winning. Referring to freediving competitions as “just games for adults” he said: “They’re not important. There are much more important things”. This realisation allowed Alexey to “avoid personal attachment to the competition” and to “create distance” between himself and the event. 

Advice from Alexey: “Work hard but don’t place too much importance on winning. It’s not easy to do, and coaches need to work with your personal worries. But I just think, “If I lose, does it change anything?”

Additional Resources

Ted’s Freediving Summit here 

To explore additional stories, videos and webinars on freediving click: FREE


Charly is a writer who’s originally from the UK but has been based in Dahab, Egypt for the past four years. She taught scuba diving for three years in Cyprus, Thailand, and Egypt before discovering her love of freediving. She still scuba dives for fun, but these days she’s more focused on her freediving training. When she’s not in the water, diving, she’s on her laptop, writing about diving.

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Resurrecting a Ghost: The Launch of Ghost Diving USA

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By Katie McWilliams. Photos courtesy of Ghost Diving USA unless noted. Header image by Jim Babor

Ghost Diving, formerly Ghost Fishing, has officially arrived in the United States. Naming Southern California as home for the United States chapter is not an expansion to a new territory; instead, it is a warm welcome home after a long journey. 

Ghost Fishing first arrived in Southern California in the mid 2000s spearheaded by Karim and Heather Hamza. Their team, a group of volunteer technical divers, set out to improve the health and viability of the Southern California waters. The team started with the Infidel, a sunken squid fishing vessel near Catalina Island in 45 m/150 ft. They diligently worked to clean the Infidel which took almost two years. This victory was huge for their effort. Sadly, due to lack of funding, they were unable to continue other projects. Despite this hardship and some time away from their pursuit of the ghosts, Karim and Heather are back and more motivated than ever. 

Heather’s passion is deeply rooted in her mission to advocate for animals. This passion has helped her to push through and focus on advocating for the animals that are often unseen. The marine life that goes undetected but is ever threatened in our oceans. These are the animals Heather makes very certain to see. Her passion and love for them is palpable; it radiates from her like the warmth of a sunny day. It beckons you to join her cause. This is what keeps the fire alive in her heart for Ghost Diving. She knows that she can turn the collection of nets and her experiences into educational opportunities. Heather’s aspirations for Ghost Diving USA include continuing to educate others regarding the threat of abandoned and discarded fishing gear, seeking legislative solutions to the problem, and ultimately, building an informed and empowered community that takes care of our oceans.

Karim thrives in situations that require precision and accuracy. He explains that for him, this new era of Ghost Diving is providing a fresh opportunity to build a community of elite divers that share a passion for and commitment to a great cause. He has the knowledge and experience to help train and mentor divers along their path to becoming ghost divers and intends to give all he can to the process. He wants to bring to fruition teams of divers who trust not only each other but also the process, as well as high training standards and passion for the cause. As Karim described all the things that a ghost diver needs to be, one of the original team members immediately sprang to mind, Jim Babor. 

Jim recounted the arduous process that is becoming a ghost diver and being active with projects. He started with the project as a safety diver. The deep team would come up from the dive to the nets, and Jim would ascend with them through their scheduled decompression. He then progressed into his technical training and began photographing and documenting the work the divers were doing. Jim shared something that truly captures the essence of the passion needed to be a ghost diver. When asked about some of his most memorable incidents, he recounted the amazing experience of rescuing live animals by cutting them out of nets they were trapped in.. When asked what it felt like to cut an animal out of the net and watch it swim away, Jim was simply at a loss for words. We spoke on the phone and despite Jim’s reflective pause as he gathered his thoughts, it was apparent that the experience resonates with him on a deep level rooted in compassion. For Jim, the Ghost Diving USA launch brings his commitment and journey as a ghost diver full circle.  

Helping to lead Ghost Diving USA into the future is scientific coordinator Norbert Lee, Scuba instructor, marine biologist, and active technical diver. To speak to Norbert is to feel his can-do attitude and realize his aspirations are rooted in protecting and fostering the growth of the underwater world while educating the community about ocean conservation. More importantly, his strong sense of commitment to the team effort shines through everything. In asking Norbert about his journey to becoming the US chapter coordinator, he cited the significance of the mentorship he has and continues to receive. This mentorship comes from a variety of sources including Pascal van Erp, the Hamzas and Jim Babor. 

Norbert Lee’s goal is to collect data about the environmental impact of ghost nets and how their removal impacts the health and growth of a given area. By collecting this data, he is confident he can help to educate the community about the true impact of abandoned fishing gear. He does not want to stop with nets. He wants to help recover lobster pots and other fishing apparatus that continue to catch fish after being left behind. Through educating the community, he does not want to villainize or chastise commercial fishing but rather to build working, symbiotic relationships with fishermen. By working together, Norbert hopes to have the nets removed before they do irreversible damage. 

The Founding of Ghost Diving

Pascal van Erp has a commanding grasp on the issue of abandoned fishing gear. As the founder of Ghost Diving. Pascal’s passion has built a formidable and forward-thinking movement. Speaking to Pascal is a unique experience. He exudes a quiet confidence that only time and experience can build. In researching his work to prepare for his visit and subsequent presentations, it became quite apparent that Pascal is consistent in his message. The message is that Ghost Diving breathes new life into abandoned nets that can be recycled or upcycled. To reuse and upcycle the nets means to actively contribute to the health of the planet for today and more importantly, future generations. 

Next, Pascal emphasizes Ghost Diving is dangerous. He explains that the dangers are not always apparent. Instead, they lurk in the shadows cast by ghost nets. Team dynamics are not only critical but a matter of life and death. Pascal frequently mentions the significance of trust. The ability to trust teammates to maintain composure in the face of adversity. Trusting that if something goes wrong, they can and will continue to problem solve. Trusting that they can and will save your life. The team must always perform at the highest levels. It is critical that the dive is executed according to plan and that the procedure is applied with absolute fidelity. The nets do not discriminate between human life and marine life. They are not forgiving. A diver can meet an untimely fate in the grasp of a ghost net. 

Ghost Diving USA provides a unique and exciting opportunity by planting its roots here. With support from Zen Dive Co., ghost divers will have access to equipment, standard gasses and service that will meet all their needs while ensuring the quality and reliability of these resources. While funding issues had previously plagued Ghost Fishing, the Ghost Diving partnership with Healthy Seas along with other community sponsors helps to ensure the security of the critical funding that makes these projects possible. 

Launching Ghost Diving USA

Zen Dive Co. hosted a launch event for Ghost Diving USA on Thursday, April 28. The energy in the building was electric. Everyone was thrilled to network, build community, and work towards supporting Ghost Diving USA in any possible way. Karim opened the evening by describing the net diving mission that the ghost divers had gone on earlier in the day. He explained in detail that the Moody, a Wickes class destroyer, sits at approximately 45m/150 ft. Conditions at sea were challenging. Spring is a rough season in Southern California. Variable winds cause large swells, and upwellings bring up life giving nutrients. Unfortunately, both phenomena significantly reduce visibility. This dive was no exception. Karim described a thick green cloud in the shallower depths cutting visibility to 4.5–6 m/15–20 ft. This green cloud blocked out all ambient light as the ghost divers descended, and then cutting the nets only made visibility worse. Essentially, there was no ambient light, and visibility quickly became next to zero. The ghost divers were forced to rely upon the light they brought with them. Despite the challenges, the net clean-up was successful, but the work is far from done. The ghost divers will have to return to remove more net. 

Pascal made a brief presentation about the problem of ghost nets. It was incredible to experience a room full of people feeling compelled to act, and everyone looking for the way they could best support the mission. Veronika Mikos of Healthy Seas helped to drive the point home when she explained that through partnerships with organizations such as Bracenet and Aquafil, the recycling and upcycling of nets can help to significantly reduce carbon emissions. Additionally, as the ability to recycle nets and the products made from nets grows, they become sustainable and renewable. The yarn made from the nets can be processed infinitely and never loses quality. 

The most precious resource to any of these projects is manpower. Volunteers. People willing to train hard, think of the many versus the one and ultimately focus on safety. A ghost diver is a technical diver that has successfully completed a series of training workshops that help to best prepare them for what they will experience on a net retrieval dive. The workshops also serve to build team cohesion. Pascal and Karim both explain that the need to work with technical divers is not to be exclusionary. Ghost divers need to be able to handle any situation that may arise at any moment. Technical divers are trained to do exactly that. 

For recreational divers and non-divers alike, there is a place for everyone. Ghost divers cannot do what they do without support. Jim shared with me that his son, middle-school-aged at the time, used to volunteer as surface support. He and a friend would help to bring nets onto the boat and then search through them meticulously for any trapped marine life that could be released back into the ocean. Not only did his son help to raise awareness through multiple award-winning science projects, but he also became a diver crediting his experience helping with ghost nets. The Hamzas and Norbert hope to grow Ghost Diving USA to include recreational limit projects that allow for the training and participation of recreational divers. 

Ghost Diving USA is hitting the ground running. If you are looking for a way to get involved, a great place to start is to follow them on their social media pages. They are on Facebook and Instagram as Ghost Diving USA or @GhostDivingUSA. If you would like to inquire about the application process, you can reach the USA chapter via email at info@ghostdivingusa.org

You can also act right now. Learn about what abandoned fishing gear does to our oceans and talk to others about it. Through raising awareness, you can help remind people that while the surface of the ocean is beautiful, it is what is below the surface that desperately needs our help.

Photo by Sean Farkas

Additional Resources

Ghost Diving International:https://ghostdiving.org
Aquafil:https://www.aquafil.com
Bracenet:https://bracenet.net/en
Healthy Seas:https://www.healthyseas.org
Alert Diver:Ghost Fishing by Michael Menduno. The story of Heather Hamza and her team (2014).


Katie McWilliams is an avid diver, spending every spare moment she can in the water. Currently completing her divemaster and training for her technical pass, she wants to not only further her education and ability to explore the ocean but help with the training of divers. Specifically, Katie wants to focus on spreading awareness of how we can help the health and conservation of the oceans and marine life. Outside of diving, Katie works in moderate/severe special education. She enjoys reading, exercise, off-roading, camping and spending time with her husband, family and friends. 

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