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Basic Training: What role does the mind play?

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By Jim Lapenta

Over the last two years or so this column has looked at various topics dealing with basic diving skills and techniques. We’ve talked about planning, choosing instruction and instructors, equipment, and a host of other topics. Most of the articles were adapted from various chapters in my books and were, for the most part, well received. Some have generated controversy and discussion on social media. 

Diver demonstrates how “stress” might look – Jim Lapenta

Discussion is good. Discussion results in thinking divers. Thinking divers are often safer, more skilled, comfortable, informed, and perhaps most importantly, safe. They take the time to practice buoyancy and trim. This results in better air consumption and less damage to the environment. These divers also tend to make an effort to plan their dives with more thought and attention to detail. They make lists that result in less items left behind, more detailed plans, and more time to enjoy the dives they do. 

This column has also had an effect on my own diving and dive interests. I’ve taken up underwater DSLR photography to provide many of the photos that accompany my articles. I’m still learning and working on my basic skills in this area. Of critical importance are buoyancy and trim. Precise control using finning techniques because both hands are on the camera is a necessity as it really is for every diver.

Writing was something I always enjoyed doing, though some of my English teachers would question my choice of subjects and topics! 

Diving, and writing about it, opened up a whole new world for me. My first essay if you will that was diving related was dealing with personal responsibility and “trust me” dives. It was inspired by a tragedy that occurred involving a newly certified diver. The incident is recounted in the chapter on the buddy system in my first book. That incident, perhaps more than any other, made me take a very hard look at just what basic skills were required for divers. Not just the physical ones, but the mental and emotional ones as well. I have been privileged to interact with professionals in the field of mental and emotional health that have had an effect on my dives and how I teach.

The diver’s mental state plays a great deal in basic skills. The role is complex and can have varying effects on the diver and her safety. It is a double edged sword and the same mental state can have effects on individuals that are polar opposites of each other. A sense of accomplishment in mastering basic skills can lead to confidence that increases comfort and enjoyment. It can also lead to false sense of security and convince the diver (often accompanied by peer pressure or even the encouragement of a dive “pro”) that they are ready for dives they are not. 

The diver may easily be talked into a dive site or trip that has high currents, poor visibility, or greater depths that they really are not ready for. The result can be a simple blow to the ego or, in some cases, a tragic outcome.

On the other hand, a sense of insecurity due to less than perfect skills can have the effect of creating a diver who is unsure, nervous, fearful, and requires the service of a DM or guide to accomplish a simple reef dive. The reverse may also result. The diver with a bit of insecurity may be the one to more carefully plan and research sites and operations. They may be the one who is more meticulous in planning and practicing skills over and over. This may be the diver who doesn’t give in to peer pressure and says “Ya know what? I’m not ready for this yet.”

Depending on the dive, I might prefer to buddy up with the latter!

Fear is often cited as a motivator and is also a check on foolish or risky behavior. A basic skill involving it may be one of the factors in a primary tenet of diving. The rule that “Any diver, at any time, may call a dive and no explanation is required” is one of those where a dose of healthy fear plays a role. Self-preservation is never to be ridiculed or looked down on as weakness. 

Fear can be the motivator that inspires a diver to practice basic skills until they are instinctual. I am not talking about the fear that results in panic or a diver suddenly deciding to leave their buddy in a zero-vis situation. That fear is a danger to the diver and their buddy and may be an indication that diving is not the activity for them. 

The fear I am never going to fault a diver for is the one that says “I am not going to jump into a 3-knot current just to see something that may or may not be there.” Or that keeps a wreck diver without trimix training from signing up for a dive on the Andrea Doria. This “fear” may actually be good common sense that has been mislabeled.

When it comes to basic skills, we should never underestimate the importance of the role our mental and emotional states play in them and in diving as a whole. Over time, as we gain experience, our mental and emotional states play and even greater role. Ego and caution may struggle for dominance when it comes to diving. It is dependent on the individual to decide which takes a deciding role and governs the safety of the diver and of the team. Our mental and emotional basic skills don’t just affect us. They play an important role in the physical, emotional, and mental health of those around us. Dive Safe.

Note: Next month I will be deviating a bit in my column. This will be a result of attending the Beneath the Sea dive show in New Jersey. As a columnist for this publication I am going to take the opportunity to go around ask the various vendors a question and the column with deal with their answers as well as an overall impression of the show. I am still working on the what the question will be. If you have a suggestion, message me on Facebook. 

About James Lapenta

James Lapenta – Scuba Instructor, Author

James Lapenta from Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a Diver, dive Instructor, Author and owner of UDM Aquatic Services has been diving since 2004.

He is a Scuba Educators Instructor # 204, SDI/TDI Instructor # 16810, CMAS 2 Star Instructor # USAF0012000204

For more on basic skills and education pick up a copy of either of my books

SCUBA: A Practical Guide for the New Diver or SCUBA: A Practical Guide to Advanced Level Training on Amazon. Dive Safe.