Dive Experience Through Deliberate Practice

One of the pleasures of running this site is that I get to hear from a variety of divers all over the world. At times these divers disagree with me, and I certainly appreciate hearing the different point-of-views these fellow enthusiasts have---even when I think they are wrong! ;)

In my article on instructor certification, I said the following:

The level of experience you quickly achieve moving through the professional ranks comes along with a level of comfort in the water. This level comes much quicker than just through regular diving.

I have heard some disagreement with this statement and it has been misconstrued to mean that somehow advanced certification should serve as a replacement for dive experience.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

However, I will say that the experience obtained through focused training, like that received during certification (or at least should be), has far greater benefit than general diving experience, and when used in conjuction with regular diving, can greatly accelerate how quickly your diving skill progresses.

Just a number

One reader of the aforementioned article pointed out, supposedly as evidence of my lack of experience:
"I notice you do not include your dives logged thus far."
This is true, and for good reason. Logged dives is just a number, and has little correlation with practical diving skill.

For example, I remember distinctly a boat dive in Bonaire. On board with our group was an older gentlemen who had been diving as long as diving was a public activity. And his gear looked like it. He was the complete opposite of the diving newbie with all new, shiny, top-of-the-line gear but ziltch logged dives. I expected to be impressed with his comfort level underwater.

This man might have been one of the most awkward divers I have ever seen. He was all over the reef. Constantly. His buoyancy control was non-existent. Any turn he made looked like a clumsy seal on land.

According to the logged dives=experience crowd, this man should have been one of the best divers in the world. What's going on here?

Talent is overrated

The book Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin is a pretty well-known piece of popular non-fiction. The basis premise is that what we refer to as talent is not achieved through in-born ability nor general experience, but rather through deliberate practice. Colvin describes deliberate practice as

Hitting an eight-iron 300 times with a goal of leaving the ball within 20 feet of the pin 80 percent of the time, continually observing results and making appropriate adjustments, and doing that for hours every day.

I argue that the same can be said for diving experience. While there are some with a more natural affinity to the water, this mindset more than makes up for it on the medium- and long-term.

I don't consider myself the best diver; maybe slightly above average. And I certainly don't consider myself better than most divers with >5000 logged dives. However, I would put myself up against most any divers with 4x the number of logged dives that I have. The difference is that I have exercised deliberate practice as part of my dive training and continue to use it as part of my general diving experience.

Deliberate practice

How does deliberate practice work? This article gives a basis rundown in four steps:

  • Motivation. The task will require effort and you must have the motivation to do it.
  • Incremental. The task should build incrementally on what you already know, so that you can understand how to do it easily.
  • Feedback. You should receive immediate feedback about your performance.
  • Repetition. Either the same task, or a similar task should be repeated.

Sounds a little like well-designed scuba training, doesn't it? I don't think this is a coincidence, and is the reason I made the statement quoted at the beginning of this article.

The good news is that advanced training is not strictly necessary to engage deliberate practice, it is simply a convenient vehicle for providing the necessary environment. The idea is that while diving you should challenge yourself in a way that directly utilizes the dive skills you wish to develop. The main catch is you will need the internal motivation to get better: there is no external motivator like completing certification to push you to improve.

The number one skill certified divers usually need to develop is buoyancy control. If buoyancy control increases linearly with the number of dives, it does so at an incredibly slow pace, in my opinion. A more effective approach, and probably the one you employed (even if unintentionally) if you consider yourself an exception to the previous statement, is to consciously measure your skill in some way and take definite steps to improve it.

For example, instead of counting down the seconds in your next safety stop, what would happen if you picked a visual marker then focused on maintaining an even level with this marker? Or keeping an eye on your computer and maintaining 15ft / 5m plus or minus some small deviation? When this gets too easy you can try doing it completely upside-down. I'd wager a guess that most above-average divers practice these types of skills already, even if they don't think of it as any special sort of training. They are unintentionally engaging deliberate practice, and reaping the benefits.

Exercises like this one fulfill the requirements, assuming you have the necessary motivation to actually attempt it. It is incremental, in other words, you have all the necessary knowledge to perform the exercise. You receive immediate feedback since it's obvious when you fail. And lastly there is repetition, since you have at least 3 minutes at the end of every dive to practice.

The sad truth

I can understand how my statements have been misinterpreted. The fact is that much dive training in the world, through all agencies, is sub-par. This was driven home during my instructor examination, where I expected all divers to have fairy polished diving skills and good buoyancy control. I was disappointed with the level of awkwardness a noticeable percentage of participants had in the water, and expected much better from soon-to-be instructors.

A big part of this comes down to instruction, both in the immediate training received as well as the mentality of the instructor. I would be willing to bet that a student of Duane over at Precision Diving, even with only 25 dives under their belt, are looking better in the water than most divers with >100 dives. This is because they have a) received quality instruction, and b) had the idea imparted that certification is only the beginning of their training, and that they should continually improve (the former can be surmised from reading his blog, the latter I am inferring).

As an example, he requires all of his students to perform the requisite skills at neutral buoyancy, not sitting on the bottom as is usually done. This is clearly above the minimum instruction standard of "how not to die underwater".

Out of proportion?

Am I making a a big deal out of nothing? Does it really matter that Jane Diver with 100 dives looks like a "average" diver with 400?

It does matter, for the simple reason that advanced skill increases comfort level in the water. This has a myriad of benefits, beginning with an overall improved dive experience, allowing a diver to reduce air consumption as well as spend more time observing nature rather than awkwardly adjusting equipment. There are also environmental advantages, since comfortable divers also spend less time crashing into reefs.

As a diver, try to think about how to utilize deliberate practice as part of your general diving experience. If you'd like to hear about some specific methods, feel free to contact me and I can write about it in future articles. If you are an instructor, think about how you can incorporate principles of deliberate practice into your courses, as well as how to encourage your students to continue self-learning even after certification. The oceans and your fellow divers will thank you.