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by Mark Powell
Header and other images courtesy of Mark Powell
What is more important, training or experience?
One of the most popular discussions when it comes to diving is, “What is more important, training or experience?”
You often see divers on the internet asking, “Why does anyone need dry suit training? I just bought a dry suit and picked it up as I went along,” or “I can’t believe some instructors offer a course on how to deploy a DSMB, isn’t it obvious?” These are examples of people who believe that training is pointless and you can pick anything up through experience. On the other hand, you also see people who expect a diver to be absolutely perfect at the end of a course, insinuating that an instructor is a poor one unless the students are perfect at every skill.
In reality, this is one of those pointless questions. Of course, the real answer is that both training and experience are important and, in fact, practice and judgement are also required to become a fully rounded, competent diver.
Is Training Really Necessary?
“Why do I need a course to learn how to use a dry suit, DSMB, twinset, or rebreather. I can just jump in and learn it by trial and error.”
It is possible to learn by trial and error and building up experience. However, different people learn in different ways. Some would prefer to learn by trial and error while some learn better by having it explained to them or seeing a demo. Just because you prefer to learn by doing it doesn’t mean that others prefer the same method. For many people receiving training from a good instructor is the best way for them to learn.
Experienced divers often assume that, since they know how to do something, it is easy and other people can pick it up easily. They underestimate the time and effort it took for them to learn that skill.
Experience is a great way of learning, but it is also an expensive way in terms of time, money, and risk.
“Experience is a dear teacher but fools will learn at no other”.Benjamin Franklin
Learning from an experienced instructor is one of the most efficient ways of picking up new knowledge and skills. It can be much more effective than trial and error or learning from experience. It allows students to draw on the knowledge of many other divers, and not just their own experience. It can help avoid blind alleys or practices that seem like a good idea at the time but have hidden flaws that may not be immediately obvious.
Learning from an instructor can be much safer than making dangerous mistakes. Sometimes a dangerous mistake can result in no ill effects, in which case the diver learns the wrong lesson—they ‘got away with it’ and did not acknowledge it was a mistake. In other instances, the dangerous mistake causes an issue which the diver manages and takes as a lesson. In this case, making a dangerous mistake—and surviving it—can be a very effective learning situation. However, at other times, the dangerous mistake may result in a situation that the diver cannot deal with and may result in very serious consequences.
It can also be much cheaper in the long run to pay for quality training than making costly mistakes, especially when it comes to buying the wrong kit. When I run a course for a diver looking at getting into tech diving, I recommend that they do not buy their kit in advance. Part of the course is to look at the various kit configurations, compare the pros and cons of each and allow the student to determine what kit will suit them best. After this exercise, the students often realize that what they thought they needed is not what they actually need, so they can then buy the right kit straight off. Time after time, this approach has meant that students save more money in avoiding buying unsuitable kit than the cost of the course.
Training, no matter how thorough, does not produce the finished article
It is not reasonable to expect a student to have mastered each skill by the end of a realistic training course. This statement may surprise some people, as some agencies do suggest that the student should display “mastery” of a skill as a performance requirement of the course. In reality, this can only be achieved by redefining “mastery” to such an extent that it means no more than “competent under good conditions.” This is not real mastery.
There is simply not enough time to achieve real mastery in a training course. And there shouldn’t be. There is a time for working with an instructor and practicing with feedback from the instructor and a time for practice on your own. Both are required in order to achieve mastery but only one needs to be done as part of the course. Practicing on your own needs to be done over an extended period of time, with breaks to allow for consolidation. It is just not feasible or even necessary to do this with an instructor.
What this means is that the end of a training course is not the end of the learning process; rather, it is just a checkpoint in the student’s long-term progress. I have seen many students that were the strongest in the group at the end of the course, but after six months they had not progressed or had often gotten worse. However, I have seen other students who only just scraped through the course, but realized they needed to practice, and with determination and practice they had much stronger skills after six months.
Good students are not the ones that get it right the first time. They are the ones that know they need to keep practicing after the course. They are the ones that realize that training is only valuable with follow up practice.
“Don’t practice until you get it right, practice until you can’t get it wrong.”Unknown
Good instructors are not those who get their students to a good level at the end of the course or who get students to “practice until they get it right,” but a good instructor is one who makes sure the students will continue practicing in the future and “will practice until they can’t get it wrong.”
Welcome to the Real World
No matter how good your training and how much you practice, you also need to have real world experience. Even the most realistic training is not “real,” so you need to put the training into practice in the water. Training situations are often clear and unambiguous, but the real world is not always like that.
If the training environment is different to the real-world environment then it takes time to apply the training lessons to the real world. Different visibility, cold water vs fresh water, sea vs fresh, currents, entry points, different dive buddies, boats, and local procedures may also add variables they could not practice in training.
When training and practicing, the diver can focus primarily on the activity they are doing without too many distractions. Experience involves using those skills, not in isolation but as part of the whole dive, possibly when you are distracted by other considerations such as environmental challenges, your buddy, or the situation you are in.
“Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.”Steven Wright
Experience is obtained by putting yourself in different environments. If you do 100 dives at the same location, in the same conditions, that is not really 100 separate dives but rather the same dive repeated 100 times. By exposing yourself to different environments, you encounter different conditions and challenges which may make the activity more, or sometimes less, challenging.
This is the real meaning of mastery. It is not when you can do it reasonably well on a couple of occasions in good conditions. True mastery is being able to perform a skill each and every time under different or challenging conditions.
“Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems.”Sun Tzu
With experience will hopefully come judgement
It is your judgment that will be relied upon to make the right decisions on how to avoid a potential problem or deal with a difficult situation. Judgment cannot be bought, or fast-tracked; there is no zero-to-hero option. It is the result of time spent practicing and gaining experience in a variety of conditions.
Good judgement means making a sensible decision at the moment it is needed. It means picking the right tool at the right time. It also means knowing when a rule is applicable but also knowing when to break a rule. Judgement means knowing when to call a dive when the situation is not right and avoiding an incident rather than having to deal with the consequences.
Unfortunately, judgement is not an automatic result of the previous steps. Often, we see divers that do something dangerous and get away with it; their experience tells them it is okay and skews their judgement as to what is acceptable. As a result, some divers become arrogant and think that they have so much experience that none of the rules apply to them.
“Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”Will Rogers
Finally, judgement means recognizing that you don’t know it all and that additional training, practice, and experience are always valuable. Keeping an open mind and learning from others is an important aspect of developing your judgement.
This means that the process is not a straight line but is a cycle. Practicing something might reveal that there is a hole in your knowledge and you need to circle back to an instructor for additional training. As you gain experience, you may realize that there are additional skills or combinations of skills you need to practice or further training you need. Good judgement often results in the realization that you need training on a different area of diving before undertaking deeper dives or progressing further into a wreck. The best divers are constantly learning and actively seek out opportunities for new training, practice, and experience.
“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”Ronald E. Osborn
Stories by Mark Powell:
X-Ray: One for All or All For One?
Mark had his first experience of diving at the age of 10 when he did a try-dive in a local pool. He was hooked from that point onwards. He learnt to dive in 1987 and has been diving ever since.
Mark became an instructor in 1994 and has been actively instructing since then. In 2002, Mark set up Dive-Tech, a dedicated technical diving facility, with the intention of providing the highest quality technical diving training. Dive-Tech provides technical training at all levels up to and including CCR Advanced Mixed Gas Instructor Trainer.
Mark is a TDI/SDI Instructor Trainer and a member of TDI/SDI’s Global Training Advisor Panel. He also represents TDI/SDI on a number of international standards groups. He is a regular contributor to a number of diving magazines and a regular speaker at diving conferences around the world.
In 2008, Mark published Deco for Divers, a widely acclaimed overview of the theory and physiology of decompression. This has quickly become the standard text on the subject and is recommended reading by a number of the technical diving agencies. In 2010, Deco for Divers was awarded “Publication of the Conference” at the EuroTEK.10 technical diving conference, and in 2014 it won the Media Award at TEKDive USA. In 2019, Mark followed this up with a new book, Technical Diving: An Introduction.
A Perspective on Teaching Cave CCR
Veteran Irish cave and CCR instructor cum sports psychologist Matt Jevon explains how he teaches divers to become competent underground rebreather divers who “err safely” and thus are likely to return home at the end of the dive.
by Matt Jevon
Header image courtesy of Marissa Eckert
“To err is human” Alexander Pope
In his “Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” However, if you are not prepared to err safely in cave or rebreather diving, you will come face to face with your preferred divine being, begging for forgiveness.
Stratis Kas’s book, Close Calls, a compilation of stories from a roll call of “who’s who” in diving, attests to the fact that the very best of us can and do make mistakes, or err. That they are still here to share these lessons with us affirms the huge amount of training, preparation, and experience required—and, as many will admit, no small amount of luck.
Gareth Lock, author of Under Pressure, is fond of the phrase “fail safely,” and with good cause. As he puts it, and I paraphrase; the human in the machine is at the heart of likely outcomes. In my own experience as a psychologist with expertise in human performance, the best systems, processes, and technologies are often outwitted by an unwitting fool or an arrogant wise man.
Today there is a surge of divers wishing to become cave divers, perhaps because it is perceived by some as the pinnacle of diving—in skill and status—or perhaps because it is seen as more accessible. Certainly, social media has given access to the incredible and beautiful environments that were once the playground of a select few. Divers are discovering that cave and modern diving practices, equipment, and training are making it a much safer environment until they start exploring virgin caves. Closed circuit rebreathers (CCR) are now mainstream and in wide use by many divers. In cave and deep dives, I would say they have become the primary tool; the limitations of open circuit scuba are seen as making it inappropriate for most “big” dives.
By the time a diver reaches their CCR cave course, they will, or should be, a knowledgeable, skillful, and competent diver on a CCR. Perhaps the odd one will find a shortcut, but it is the exception rather than the rule. In addition, the majority will already have some open circuit cave training, at least to intro level if not to full cave. The pathway from zero to hero in the cave is much longer and more difficult to shortcut than, say, open water to instructor status. Starting cave diving on CCR from cavern to full cave is, and should be, a much longer route.
[Ed.note: There are arguments against allowing a student to pursue any form of diving before gaining open circuit experience. Some argue that one should first become competent on open circuit in the relevant environment and THEN train in that environment on RB/CCR. This argument asserts that RB failures will find a diver on open circuit, requiring them to be proficient on this equipment in the relevant environment. These factors may be progressively more relevant with more complex environments.]
So, the CCR cave instructor is not dealing with an inexperienced CCR diver; nor, if they are as careful in their acceptance of students as most are, will they be dealing with an adrenaline seeking-junkie. See “Why We Cave Dive” (video) for reasons why some divers seek out the karst realm, as well as examples of divers we hope to encourage into the sport and those we prefer to avoid it.
The job of a cave CCR instructor is not to prevent all errors or mistakes. It would be both arrogant and foolish to believe that instructors can overcome human nature and the situational factors found in closed circuit cave diving. The instructor’s role is to lessen the frequency and severity and to mitigate the consequences of those errors as, and when, they occur. The instructor must do this in the course, ideally exposing students to likely errors or challenges in controlled conditions and embedding appropriate solutions. Students should acquire appropriate and controlled emotional, cognitive, and behavioural responses.
Being a cave instructor has a few significant differences from being a deep technical rebreather instructor. Here are a few:
Cave diving demands a greater equipment load. The number of backups can be summarised as “Three is two, and one is none.” So, three sources of light sufficient to complete an exit, three cutting devices, reel/spools, markers, breathing sources, and more. Before entering any overhead environment, the instructor must help students configure, become familiar with, and master accessing and manipulating their configuration. For this reason, cave divers opt for simple, easy solutions that are robust and definitely not prone to failure. This applies to their primary gear (CCR choice) and to every single piece of backup gear.
My own choices are primarily sidemount-based in the cave; the Liberty rebreather; Divesoft computers, primary reel and markers; plus O’Three 90ninety shell suit; and Apeks regulators and spools, all based on a Razor Sidemount System. In backmount I use a JJ-CCR, but I am now using the Liberty Sidemount rebreather as a bailout system. All simple, proven, tough, and each piece having substantial built-in redundancy/failure management options.
The instructor’s primary role—despite what many believe to the contrary—is, in any diving, to ensure that the students are safe and that they go home unharmed medically, physically, or mentally. Secondary to this is teaching skills, having fun, and awesome and epic dives. What a big ask in cave diving!
Progression in open water diving is more straightforward, especially using mixed gas. In the absence of narcosis, divers can build up deco time gradually and have a pre-rehearsed familiar exit/ascent permanently above them. Although not different in terms of time to exit, an open water deco ceiling somehow seems, to most, to be less of a psychological threat than several hundred tons of rock.
I have seen cave divers suddenly go from a point of being perfectly happy to being very unsettled and distressed within a few meters. There is actually a term for this: penetration stress. Penetration should be slowly built up over time with confidence in the linear distance built through many dives—some, but not all, including stressful exits (blind, bailed out, manual control, or touch contact).
To do this, an instructor needs considerable empathy. Some instructors may shy away from this and instead use a pseudo militaristic approach by battering, bullying, or belittling the student, constantly tearing off masks, shutting down gas, or more. (We are talking personality types here, not problem solving training.) Stay away from these people at all costs.
Instructors cope with a high task load. Not only do they have to monitor the group’s penetration distance, navigation, and teamwork, but they also need to monitor the students and their own PO2, decompression obligations and time to surface (TTL), bailout supply and limits, on board gas supply, scrubber durations, as well as to teach. In order to do this, a few tricks are employed. Some of these may be useful when diving in any CCR team:
- PO2 monitoring. HUDS can easily be seen reflected in students’ masks. It’s much easier than trying to read someone’s handset.
- Instructor Ghost Mode. Not just used for sneaky (pre-warned and planned) drills, the lights off/blackout ghost mode is often accompanied by pull and glide along ceilings or cave walls where no damage to the environment is possible. Instructors, especially on quiet CCRs, can get within a few centimeters of a student without their knowing, or they can shoot ahead. It is a bad practice to turn off (as opposed to cover) one’s primarily in a cave. The on-off button/switch is a weak point, especially at depth—sufficient working backups are required.
- Buddy lights on CCRs are brilliant for instructor/team monitoring, Divesoft’s show up well and Sentinels almost too well. When I was a student, my instructor found ghost mode difficult to fully pull off, since I saw this green light above me every time he tried it!
As an instructor, you want the students to develop their own robust team dynamic. If you are part of this, too often, students will always defer to your authority and default to you for leadership and solutions. So, if you do join the team to make up numbers, always be number 2, the weakest member, and play the part. Students don’t need to see how clever or skilled you are, they need to develop their own skills.
Navigation: Know the cave you are teaching in. For students’ first dives where I may not know them or their capabilities, I like to be in caves where a lost line would not be an issue for me in terms of exiting. Take Ressell in France for instance: A quick glance at the ceiling and a look at the scallop shapes in the rock, and I know which way is out.
These assume a whole other level of importance in cave and rebreather diving. A checklist is useful but only if you properly check everything on it. Turn backup lights on and off, breathe bailout regs at least 4-5 breaths. Fill and dump wings and drysuits. Prevention will ensure survival. It will also give students confidence, which means you are less likely to have issues, you’ll get a better response if you do, and you can actually enjoy the dive. [Ed.—Check out GUE’s Pre-Dive Sequence here]
Here are a few tricks I also like to instill:
- Link routines. For example, PO2 check and back reference. I use a hand mirror, so looking back is easy, and a quick over the shoulder is not difficult. Every time I check PO2, I look behind me. Caves often look very different on the way out and if I can, I will mentally imprint landmarks that I will see on exit. Some caves have distance markers every 100-150 m/328-492 ft on the main line, especially training caves. I’m not a huge fan of these for my own diving, as it’s a bit like graffiti; but, for trainees, PO2 plus back reference anytime you pass any navigational marker is a good routine.
- Wetnotes use. A good habit in a new cave is to make a note of time, distance, gas, and the navigation marking/direction in your wetnotes at any substantive navigation. On some dives, this will be two or three notes. Do this in some Mexican caves and you will get about 300 m/0.2 miles from the entrance and need a new Wetnotes book, so be sensible!
Finally, students will learn a lot of new skills, from what to do when you lose teammates, lose or become entangled in the line, encounter a broken line, have light and equipment failures, and more. Many of these will be done with blindfolds or blacked-out masks (mine say, “Use the force” on the front). On an open circuit, these situations can be challenging. On CCR, doing blackout drills while controlling loop content and volume, handling multi bailouts, and more, requires time both to learn and to embed. Don’t do it until you get it right, do it until you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes the lost line drill will provide unique challenges to get it right. If conducted correctly, you will probably get it wrong half the time!
Ultimately, graduating a new CCR cave diver is a moment to enjoy for the instructor—one with a need for appropriate gravitas and consideration. I have certified divers who were less proficient than other divers that I failed or asked to repeat. That was because a student’s attitude, mental strength, and sound decision-making ensured that they would likely go home safely from each dive. As the sign posted at the entrance of almost every cave reads, “Nothing in this cave is worth dying for.” There is an awful lot of cave diving worth living for, and I have been privileged to see some spectacular caves.
Barnson S.C. (2014) The Authentic Coaching Model: A Grounded Theory of Coaching. Human kinetics, Champaign, Il.
Troy A. Moles, Alex D. Auerbach & Trent A. Petrie (2017) Grit Happens: Moderating Effects on Motivational Feedback and Sport Performance, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 29:4, 418-433, DOI: 10.1080/10413200.2017.1306729
Swann, C., Crust, L., Jackman, P., Vella, S. A., Allen, M. S. & Keegan, R. (2017). Performing under pressure: Exploring the psychological state underlying clutch performance in sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35 (23),2272-2280.
The Darkness Beckons by Martyn Farr
Basic Cave Diving a Blueprint for Survival by Sheck Exley (Freedownload)
Psychological Skills for Diving @PSTforDIVING
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 a JJ-CCR and Divesoft Liberty Sidemount instructor and dealer for Ireland. Matt’s personal diving has included cave exploration in the Philippines and wreck projects in Croatia and Ireland, and he was one of the inaugural Dirty Dozen in Truk! Matt has held accreditations as an interdisciplinary sports scientist, sports psychologist with the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), and was a British Olympic Registered Strength and Conditioning Coach and invitee on the Olympic Psychology Advisory Group. Matt works in the high performance business as a board advisor and non-exec, high performance sport, and expeditionary level diving as a partner in South West Technical Diving in Ireland (), and hosts the Facebook page “Psychological Skills for Diving.”
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