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Training, Practice, Experience and Judgement

What is more important, training or experience? And when is a course—you bought a new DPV did you?—preferable to learning on your own? Tech educator and author of Deco for Divers fame, Mark Powell, discusses the sweet spot between training and experience and why practice and judgement are also required to maximize your performance and safety and become a competent tekkie.

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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.

After training comes real-life practice.


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.

Welcome to the real world.

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.

Can you perform the skill in a strange environment?

“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.

Powell doing his pre-breathe

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.

Only practice might reveal that there is a hole in your knowledge.

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
What is more important, training or experience? And when is a course—you bought a new DPV did you?—preferable to learning on your own? Tech educator and author of Deco for Divers fame, Mark Powell, discusses the sweet spot between training and experience and why practice and judgement are also required to maximize your performance and safety and become a competent tekkie.

Additional Resources:

Stories by Mark Powell:

X-Ray: Achieving Our Teaching Objectives

X-Ray: Permanent Change: We Have We Learnt?

X-Ray: One for All or All For One?

Deco For Divers


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.

Cave

Andy Torbet: The Swiss Army Knife of the Diving Community

In this era of heightened stress, dive engineer and content producer, Carlos Lander thought it useful to speak to someone who manages prolonged stress in extreme situations. That man is Andy Torbet, a former British special forces officer, cave diver, freediver, rock climber, sky diver, BBC host and producer and DAN Europe Ambassador. Oh did I mention he’s Daniel Craig’s stunt double in the new 007 movie, “No Time to Die.” Here’s what Torbet advised.

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by Carlos Lander. Photos courtesy of Andy Torbet

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new stressful situations  that have raised our awareness of the impact of stress on our mental and physical health. I was, therefore, enthusiastic to talk with Andy Torbet, someone who has—in the past and present—successfully managed prolonged, extreme stress in survival situations.

In his former life, 45-year old Andy Torbet was a bomb disposal officer and maritime counter-terrorism agent for the British Army. When he made the leap to civilian life, he remained within the realm of extreme adventures, becoming one of the finest Briton underwater explorers; he’s a professional cave diver, skydiver, free diver, climber, TV presenter, and filmmaker. His most notable programs include BBC’s The One Show, Coast, Operation Iceberg, Operation Cloud Lab, Britain’s Ancient Capital, The People Remembered

He co-produced the children’s BBC series Beyond Bionic, which was adapted into a computer game:  “Beyond Bionic—Extreme Encounters.” Torbet’s first book, Extreme Adventures, was published in 2015, and he became a host on Fully Charged in April 2020. More recently, he can be seen in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die. He’s obviously a guy who excels in many fields, so he’s familiar with stress and has some ideas about how to cope with it.

Torbet’s prolific diving career memorably includes the Britannic expedition in 2016 for a BBC documentary. He was also involved in “The MV Shoal Fisher—The Mystery Shipwreck,” about a wrecked World War II merchant ship in the English Channel. Andy himself admits his solo exploration of The Cave of Skulls, Scotland’s deepest pot hole system, was “probably the most hardcore” of his adventures. That dive involved crawling through tight and flooded passages, getting stuck, and finally releasing his breath hold just enough to squeeze out of trouble. His book vividly details the harrowing dive and takes readers on a spine chilling adventure, as it did me.

When thinking about Torbet, a Swiss Army Knife comes to mind—an instrument designed to be useful in many situations. Another analogy might be Tony Stark without the Iron Man suit. Or, perhaps, a modern-day Sir David Attenborough. When presented with these options, he happily chose the knife comparison. Mr. Torbet has a compelling set of tools to call upon: He’s a loyal family man, has a sense of purpose, is resourceful and righteous, a teacher, and a risk management expert who can compartmentalize, communicate, and be playful. Oh, and he’s humble.

Torbet began his journey in the beautiful Scottish highlands. Born in 1976, he was an outdoor kid, climbing trees and playing in the lochs with his brother, who has joined him in many adventures over the years. At 20 having finished his university degree in zoology, Torbet joined the Army, inspired by  his brother who had enlisted when he was 16. Torbet also admitted that joining the military was a way to see the world—it appealed to his desire for adventure—and to “make some decent money.” According to Torbet:

“Anyone can have a desire for exploration, but desire won’t get you there; action will. That doesn’t mean being reckless. It means taking the time to build discipline and to acquire the skills and knowledge you need to do whatever you do safely, also balancing the risk with sometimes needing to say, ‘Fuck it, here I come!”

The Torbet Method for Managing Stress  

Mr. Torbet has three favorite sports: diving, skydiving, and “Esoteric Climbing” (where the bedrock is likely to be loose, fragile, and crumbling). Andy explained that, while climbing, he does not need to look down, because he knows how much distance he’s covered. “Even in this type of climbing, when I’m not or I don’t feel entirely in control, I don’t look down,” he said. “It won’t do any good.”  

Why? Sometimes we can’t change an external situation, and that shouldn’t affect our emotions. What is important is how we react and how we reframe it. As Torbet put it:

“What we choose to do and how we choose to act is what counts, and this is all within our power to influence. In fact, sometimes when injuries are crippling us, time is against us, the weather is beating us back, and our kit is failing. Our attitude—the mindset we hold as we walk through the world—is the only thing we can control.” 

Although Torbet has been in many military incursions, he prefers cave diving as an example of managing stress since, in his opinion, underwater caves are the most hazardous environments available to us. “[Underwater caves are] an alien world here on earth, and from a psychological point of view, very oppressive,” he explained. “It’s dark, isolated, cold, and claustrophobic. Therefore, we must deal with those realities long before we enter the cave.” 



There are a few things that Torbet believes we should do to manage stress. First, evaluate the “what if” scenarios familiar to the diving community. Second, gain and maintain proficiency in the skills needed to manage those situations. Third, have the proper equipment and make sure it has been tested. And last, we must be mindful of what we are doing at all times. He also posits that, in an emergency, having fewer choices is better than having many; it reduces the time needed to choose a plan of action and allows us to more easily draw on our training and preparation. Not all situations can be foreseen. As Torbet explained,

“Do not lose yourself in emotions. Be present. I could be a mile from the cave exit; it does not matter. My concern is with the moment.  I know that because I prepared myself, I have a proper plan for contingencies. Something random that I did not expect may occur, but I remain calm, focused on making my way out. I do not succumb to emotions, and I am focused because I prepared myself mentally and physically for this. You don’t save your life at that moment, you save your life in the days, months, and years before that.”

In this way cave diving is reduced to managing a sustainable level of pressure during prolonged periods of time, while maintaining concentration on techniques. 

A Team of One?

Solo diving is a reality of exploring caves in the U.K. Paths are often so narrow that sometimes divers need to crawl, and more than one person will not fit. In tight spots, you’re on your own to handle difficult situations. 

Torbet’s experiences have taught him that, even during team dives, sometimes you need to focus on yourself without distraction and without accepting responsibility for others; Andy experienced this in his Cave of Skulls explorations. Everyone needs to make their own decisions, trust their own gut feelings, and be vocal when things aren’t okay. 

In his case, the Army trained him to put fears aside and get on with the job at hand. Andy specifically wrote in his book that, in the armed forces,  the only option is to man up. When his teammates experienced difficulties during the Cave of Skulls dive, he decided to continue his adventure alone. [Ed. note: Global Underwater Explorers (GUE) does not sanction solo diving.]

“In situations like these—that not only require technical skills but also are potentially dangerous—it is easier to just look after yourself. But, in the vast majority of dives, you’re better off having a teammate. Being alone isn’t just less fun, but it also requires resilience that only a select few—and highly-trained—divers have.” 

After he reached the end of the cave, Andy felt a moment of quiet satisfaction and peace. But, of course, his adventuring didn’t stop there. Andy’s current project and focus? Becoming a stunt double. 

Stunt Doubles 

Managing stress as a stuntman requires individual concentration while your safety is in the hands of others. Torbet’s a bit uncomfortable placing responsibility for his safety in a crew, but he is learning to accept it. He said that he has a great deal of respect for this community, and it was a wonderful opportunity to work on a variety of films. “My last project, James Bond as 007 in No Time to Die, was an incredible experience.” I asked him if he could elaborate, but he said he was under a non-disclosure agreement and couldn’t say more.

Torbet is eager to keep doing these kinds of projects, and he explained that stunts in an action movie require a lot of rehearsal and coordination between different teams, performers, cameramen, and safety crews. It is all extremely streamlined, like a dance between crews. Any stunt person, whether in a blockbuster movie or a documentary, will report that planning is required in order to prevent life-threatening peril. Nothing is left to chance. For all these circumstances, preparedness is key (physically and mentally). Timing and self-confidence are paramount. And, like Torbet’s observation about diving, you save your life long before you start. 

Why does he love being part of the stunt community? 

“They are a real brotherhood, it’s a family atmosphere, and they look after each other. They are extremely motivated, talented, and self-disciplined people who want to get the most out of life. Although they are super adventurers, they also have the skills and bring their game up. On top of all that, everyone that I’ve met is a thoroughly decent human being.” 

A Perspective on life 

 Torbet is constantly in motion, always growing. He recently got his master’s degree in Archaeology. His plan is to write his doctoral dissertation on studying caves. His diverse interests and activities are always driven by passion. He teaches that adventure is personal and that even by walking on the path others have taken, it is still possible to own your journey, to fill it with new experiences and feelings.

“Everyone is different, and what works for me does not necessarily work for you,” Torbet advised. For him, compartmentalizing is a way of dealing with his life experiences. What happened in the armed forces stayed there, and he doesn’t share it with his family or mix it up with his other activities.

I think Torbet’s secret is focusing on the moment. Taking pleasure from his job at hand, filling his time with projects and family. Teaching his kids about the pleasure of nature and freediving when he has spare time. As he told me on more than one occasion, “Your happiness is dictated by the people you surround yourself with.”  

Additional Resources:

Fourth Element Wetnotes: My First Time-Andy Torbet

Read about Andy’s past adventures as well as his current projects at Andy TorbetProjects | Andy Torbet 

Amazon: Extreme Adventures by Andy Torbet

Rising: Meet The Man Who Dives 100m Deep Into Caves One Kilometre Underground

Dive Odyssey—A meditative journey into the depths of water and mind

Beyond Bionic Andy Tornet TOP 3: Andy Torbet from Beyond Bionic tells us his top 3, like his favourite foods, memorable moments and inspirational people!

Find Andy Torbet’s “close call” story in Close Calls by Stratis Kas.

I want to thank Andy for his openness and candor with me and the diving community. He was kind to me, letting me pick his brain. He is truly a gentleman. I really enjoyed our conversations. I hope we can drink a pint or two in an Irish pub in the future and go diving. 



Carlos Lander—I’m a father, a husband, and a diver. I’m a self-taught amateur archaeologist, programmer, and statistician. I think that the amateur has a different mindset than the professional, and that this mindset can provide an advantage in the field. I studied economics at university. My website is Dive Immersion.  You can sign up for my newsletter here.

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