A student’s guide to a technical diving course

Based on a presentation made in the winter of 2000, updated 2009

“Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect…”
Ralph Waldo Emerson: American Transcendentalist, 1803 – 1882

Technical diving is about having a whole lot of fun while enjoying an unparalleled, unbeatable opportunity for personal growth and unique experiences. The perception is that technical diving is dangerous and edgy and so it’s got a sexy aura about it. All that may or may not be true, but it definitely can take you to places most people don’t even know exist, plus you can dress like a ninja and not be arrested.

What’s more, technical diving is almost universally accepted to the point it has evolved into a borderline mainstream activity… which essentially translates into, fewer and fewer people think tech divers are crazy risk takers and more and more want to join the party!

I can say this because in a recent survey – conducted by Scuba Diving International and Technical Diving International in the Fall of 2008, almost four out of ten divers indicated they were “diving tech” or they were interested in taking a technical diving program of some sort within 12 months following their participation in the survey. Given the audience these data have a definite bias but they nevertheless tell a story: technical diving is a small portion of the dive industry but it is growing larger and more acceptable.

My personal benchmark is that my maiden aunt Mildred has stopped giving me a hard time about being a cave diver because she’s been able to watch it on TV, and now she “gets it!”

But as popular as “it” has become, technical diving is still troubled by a few mysteries and misconceptions. For example sport divers who are thinking about getting started as technical divers usually have a bunch of questions about the training. These essentially boil down to: “How do I get there from here, and what‘s going to happen to me on the journey.”

If you fall into this “uninformed but an interested consumer” category, you can take some comfort knowing you are not alone. The majority of students enrolled in their first tech-diving course start off Day One sitting in the classroom wondering quietly to themselves: “What’s going to happen over the next few days?”

It’s not a complete mystery. Almost everyone seems to have a grasp of the ethereal… Technical diving courses promise to extend one’s envelope of experience and stretch one’s comfort zone.

But how this “growth” and “stretching” are going to be kick-started; and exactly what new concepts and ideas the instructor is going to attempt to cram into their heads, is often kind of cloudy.

A few arrive thinking they are going to be given a special formula to learn or a magic equation to solve. They have an idea that this new piece of information will be their personal Rossetta stone and will unlock all sorts of secrets making them a better diver overnight. And of course that is not the case. There is no special formula or magic equation or blood-curdling chant to remember.

Well, we do hand out secret decoder rings and teach a special handshake, but when it comes to hard facts and new science, there is nada. A special something that helps new tech divers to decipher the inner meanings of internet postings and poorly written textbooks: No, not on your life. The horrible truth is, most of the stuff in a tech diving class will not be new to anyone who’s not suffering from massive memory loss.

One of the first things I tell students in my classes is this: “I have nothing to teach you about the science of diving that you do not already know or have not discussed with instructors in previous classes. All the physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics you need to know about for this kind of diving were covered in your second year of high school and your open water class…”

Lest they rise up as one and demand a refund, I then swiftly add one of the “new” concepts we will be covering during their class. I say that the most important task facing a technical instructor – regardless of what level of program said instructor is presenting – is to show their students how to think creatively about problems… to recognize what problems are present and likely, how to avoid those problems, and what might work if avoidance is not an option (or if something that was categorized as an unlikely problem happened anyway).

For sure there are a few other things that must be covered – the physics, chemistry, biology and other hard science needs revision for example – but a technical diving program is where you will learn about and refine the art of diving not the science. It is artfulness and creativity that one needs mastery of to become a successful technical diver. A student, who grasps this early on, will leave a positive impression on even the most case-hardened instructor.

Now let’s consider what’s on the agenda in slightly less broad terms. There are six skills a student must show some level of ability in if he or she wishes to complete a technical diving course with a passing grade. Indeed, these are things divers will meet again and again in the real world of technical diving.

(Calling them skills is a studied misnomer since coming to terms with each one of these six challenges actually requires an understanding and proficiency in several related skills and techniques.)

These six skills can be divided into two sets of three: one set physical and one set mental.

The physical challenges are about place and time: Buoyancy, Trim, Movement. The mental challenges are about control: Breathing, Awareness and Emotion.

The value of each of these will be evident to most experienced divers, but it may come as a mild surprise that such simple concepts and seemingly straightforward challenges form the fundamental structure of even the most rigorous technical diving program.

Now let’s take a few moments to explore more closely why each of these six concepts is so significant.

Buoyancy is a delicate and dynamic balance between the forces of gravity pulling divers and their equipment towards the bottom of the ocean or floor of a cave, and the upward thrust that overcomes this force and that is delivered by various bits and pieces of gear displacing water… a diver’s wing for instance but everything including the diver in reality.

When these two forces are balanced, diving is like flying: not flying like being in a Boeing but flying like being a bird. Equipment becomes weightless, the diver becomes weightless, and her focus suddenly shifts outside her body and extends into the environment surrounding her. Without buoyancy, diving ceases to be fun and becomes a chore… it may also turn into an extremely dangerous situation. With no control of one’s position in the water column the bulk of a diver’s awareness will be burned up with the task of try to maintain a constant depth. Trim will be impossible to master, breathing will quickly become labored and swimming will be difficult… and as though all that wasn’t enough… the slightest interference will distract the diver and her emotional state will start to creep towards bitchiness or borderline panic. Yes, buoyancy is enormously important.

Trim follows buoyancy because without buoyancy trim is inconsequential. It’s a rare graduate from open water class who understands what trim is. Lots of experienced sport divers believe trim is being perfectly horizontal in the water without being able to achieve it with any degree of comfort (about half of which is gear related). Some beginning technical divers are able to maintain horizontal trim in still water conditions and kick themselves mentally when they drift into a slightly heads-up or heads-down attitude. Experienced technical divers understand intuitively that trim is not about being horizontal. That’s only part of the message.

Trim is about being able to adjust one’s attitude in the water to whatever is optimal for the conditions. Trim is about presenting exactly the correct profile to the water so that in a current or high-flow situation, they can make progress – up or down, left or right, forward or backward – with the least effort and most control. Trim – not trying to get too esoteric or Zen-like – but trim really is about becoming one with the water.

Last of this first trio is movement. Twenty five percent of movement is about fin kicks. This includes how to stay stationary in a current (which is partly trim as well, but you already knew that). But it is also about how to move along slowly or rapidly without leaving a trail when one’s tummy is only a couple of hand breadths above a silt floor. Movement is also about how to rotate “on a dime,” and how to move backwards.

Forty percent of movement is knowing where every piece of gear is located on one’s rig and how to access it fast. This includes valves – and which way turns them off and which way does not – stage bottle clips, backup second stages, light switches, spare masks, whatever. The corollary to this of course is that because the whole team’s gear is similarly configured, all the movements to access a buddy’s gear in an emergency are known, practiced, fast and precise!

Ten percent is knowing how to be perfectly still. How to have a quiet body, quiet hands and feet and how to remain motionless when being motionless is the best approach.

The remainder — twenty five percent by my count — is about being in the right place at the right time: like being at the correct depth for a gas switch at the precise moment it needs to happen.

OK, so that covers the physical challenges… what about the mental ones. All three of these, breathing, awareness, emotional control are so totally and completely inter-related that it really is impossible to have one sewn up if the other two are not squared away.

Breathing is the red-headed step-child among general scuba skills and this extends from the sport into the technical sectors. It’s poorly understood and badly described in most diving texts. The common reference is: “Don’t hold your breath” and a passing mention that breathing from a regulator is “just like breathing on the surface,” which you and I know is not the case.

One of the all-round technical diving pioneers is Tom Mount who, among other things, is well known for his focuses on the importance of proper breath control in diving. Mount, a black belt martial artist, was one of the first instructors to insist his students practice yoga or tai chi style breathing exercises. As eccentric as this sounded in the 1980s and early 90s, Mount’s system was validated by the results it returned. This was underscored as more and more performance sports trainers explained the “secret” to several medal performances was breath control. This moved breath control away from the eastern mystic and solidly into the realm of hard-nosed western sports… like technical diving.

And when you consider things logically as we move deeper into the water column or we work against current the opportunity to throw our personal chemistry out of balance with high levels of carbon dioxide greatly increases unless we breathe correctly.

A huge amount of time is spent discussing gear configuration, when to start using helium, and what type of primary light is best for wreck diving — all of which are fine questions to seek answers for — but the same people who ask these questions have given no thought to breath control. Seems odd to me, but then I like breathing more than I like arguing about dive gear or gas mixes.

Focus, foresight, pre-planning all describe the second mental skill: Awareness. This skill begins with self-awareness and sufficient honesty to self-assess before, during and after a dive. At a more advanced level, awareness is a chess player’s skill. It is knowing one’s position in the water column relative to one’s team members all the time. Awareness is knowing exactly how far from one’s fin tips are the bottom, sides and top of the environment being traveled through. Awareness is knowing, not guessing, but knowing to within a few dozen litres (say a cubic foot or two) how much gas is left in your buddy’s cylinders — as well as your own — after a 500-metre swim into a high-flow cave. Awareness is focus and mindfulness, all necessary assets when one’s chosen pastime includes swimming around in water too deep to stand up in wearing almost one’s own weight in dive gear.

And the final skill you need to know about is staying calm and keeping a lid on your emotions when stress levels begin to build… for example when something goes wrong at depth. In truth, staying calm and keeping one’s emotions flat, is only possible when one has “situational awareness” and control of one’s breathing. Calmness comes from being in control and feeling relaxed and ready for whatever happens.

Emotional control does not mean that a diver feels no thrill or rush when their team finally reaches its goal. It simply means that if their primary regulator quits behaving properly at that point, their first reaction is one of calm competence and not rushed panic.

One of my very first instructor-trainers gave me a piece of advice that seems particularly apropos. When something bad happens at depth, focus and calmness can easily mean the difference between an exciting day and a disastrous one.

So, when something breaks or quits working, he told me to imagine the owner of my local dive shop standing in front of me with his credit card machine in hand and a smile on his face (this was back in the day when CCs were swiped!) and to think: “Crap! This is going to cost me money!” The intent of this exercise of course was to help focus the mind back to the real world and to prevent any blind, panicky “OH HELP!!!” sort of reaction. I still use it and teach it to this day.

You may have your own techniques for staying calm and quieting your mind so that nothing can faze you. There are lots of places to borrow them from… martial arts, meditation, yoga. Practicing this skill is as necessary as valve shutdowns… and it can be done anywhere.

Well, those are the skills you need to give some thought to and that you might expect to demonstrate in your first tech class. And now I want to quickly outline a drill that I use and what it teaches me about participants in my classes.

Ostensibly this is a drill to build buoyancy control. It’s called the Static Line + Peg Game. Ordinary plastic clothes pins are loaded onto loops positioned about every two to three metres along a taut drop line. The pins at each “station” are marked to make them unique to that station… these marks might be numbers, colors, or depths. A team of divers enters the water and — as a team or buddy pair — stops at the first station to pick up one clothespin per person.

The depth of this first stop should be around three metres or ten feet. This exercise is repeated for each station (usually at least five stops) and then at the bottom, diver’s pair off and execute an air-sharing drill and reverse their progress replacing the pins as they go. Lost pins, pins replaced at the incorrect station, and complete Muppetry is rewarded with a “lost life” — my students start out with nine and the goal is to have them finish the course with at least one intact. However, I’m a soft touch and in most circumstances a lost life may be purchased back with a round of coffee or tea (or frozen custard!) for the whole group during the debriefing!

Good buoyancy means being able to perform this skill without drifting all over the place, and without having to put your hand in your pocket at Dunkin’ Donuts.

But this drill is about more than buoyancy. To perform correctly, it is also necessary to have control of one’s movement (especially staying still), trim must be perfect (adopting the attitude that gives best control during descent and ascent), breathing, awareness and emotions need to be under control… (These three skills are as easy to observe as the previous three. You‘d be surprised how many divers tense up and hold their breath when they concentrate on a little task like collecting a clothes pin from a loop of cave line.) One of the first things to understand about the drill is that working as a team makes it run much more smoothly, and keeping a regular cadence and a calm demeanor are crucial.

I think we already established that there are no guarantees in technical diving, but with these six challenges met and managed, there is nothing a diver cannot accomplish.

If you understand this and understand that these skills can be acquired and developed through the repetition of drills – both physical and mental – over a period of time, you’ll be a great diver.

How much time is the usual question. This is a variable but years seems about right to become expert.

But of course, a technical diving class does not go on for years… so what does an instructor expect from his students in order for them to earn their certification? Progress is the short answer.

The longer answer is that no instructor expects perfection from a student at the onset of a course. This doesn’t mean it’s OK to show up for a course totally unprepared, but don’t be too flipped out if you have not perfected a seriously powerful back fin kick. There are other, more important, things than that.

So you will be fine with your instructor if you are not perfect in the water when your course starts, and if they are realists, they will not expect perfection by the time you end it. The best possible outcome is a discernible improvement and some indication that the student understands the challenge, is able to perform an drill appropriate to the challenge, and that they appreciate the value of working towards acquiring the necessary skill.

Now, we have to admit right now that nobody can speak for every instructor because each has his or her idea of where a passing grade sits on a continuum that joins inept to perfect. I can tell you what I look for though. Something I’ve found useful in quantifying the progress of students is the Dreyfus Model of Skills Acquisition. The Dreyfus model suggests that in the acquisition and development of a skill, a student passes through five levels of proficiency: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.

Briefly, a novice is a beginner with no experience and no context for any of the tasks he is being asked to perform. Novices need rules to function. “Just tell me what I need to do and I will get it done.” For example, a novice will perform a valve shutdown exactly as it was demonstrated to them. Their performance will be slow and they will behave inappropriately to a curve ball thrown at them… a simulated gas emergency for example. They have no concept of primacy – what MUST be considered and dealt with first regardless of less important issues. Other challenges, such as buoyancy go to hell in a hand basket.

An advanced beginner is able to perform drills reasonably well, and is beginning to recognize and note the principles that matter. During debriefings they might say something like: “I think I’m beginning to understand why we do it this way.” This student will understand that there is a logical response to a “simulated gas emergency” but will forget primacy or hesitate when given a second concurrent issue to deal with. They will also most likely lose awareness of their surroundings, their equipment or a team member… a situation their instructor will use to provide an in-situ object lesson!

A competent student relies less on “rules” and more on context. Their reaction to a challenge follows a conscious, deliberate plan that they have thought out beforehand, and organized through some analytical perspective. This person has moved away from blind reliance on rules and abstract principles as acceptable paradigms and towards reactions based on past concrete experience. They can deal with a “simulated gas emergency,” maintain primacy and are not surprised when presented with a simultaneous issue. However, they can still be knocked off kilter and lose control of breathing, awareness or emotion, but will have the capacity to fight back and regain composure.

The proficient student understands situations as part of a continuous series of related events rather than disjointed or discordant bits and pieces. They enjoy a “whole world view” in which all possible responses are understood but challenges are met with only relevant responses. If this first level response is blocked or becomes impractical because of a second issue, they fall back onto a Plan B immediately and seamlessly. A “simulated gas emergency” becomes part of the dive and is dealt with efficiently while plans for the rest of the dive are being modified according to the particular circumstances of the emergency. For example, they will be thinking along the lines of: “Is this a situation that requires some secondary action and how does it alter the team dynamic, how does it impact the collective “risk” and what would be the best course of action if such and such a thing happened next.”

The expert student is more like a mentor and potentially a candidate to become an instructor. They read situations intuitively and focus immediately on the critical primary issue with a deep understanding built on a solid foundation of experience. This type of person will be able to perform tasks creatively and can think “on the fly” to come up with unusual but appropriate solutions to challenges. They do not lose control and are completely in the zone throughout a dive. In essence this diver has made a full transition from detached observer to someone involved and engaged by the situation.

And so, this is the scale I find it useful to work from. I rate each student on their “Dreyfus Level” for each of the six challenges — Buoyancy, Trim, Movement, Breathing, Awareness, and Emotion — after our first dive together.

It would be unrealistic to expect students to make it from novice to expert in meeting even one of these challenges during the course of a six day decompression program. I do expect them to fall into the advanced beginner category at least when the course starts. The goal is to have them competent and on their way to proficient by the conclusion.

This sounds way more scientific than it actually is, because there is a percentage of “gut feeling” that enters into any evaluation of a candidate – whether the course is for a diver or and instructor – and I am unable to qualify or quantify that factor.

So where have we ended up? I hope you have a better idea of what skills are going to be expected of you in a technical diving class… there are only six of them and they can all be improved upon with practice. All the book work is secondary to understanding these six skills. If you are maths and science challenged, we can work around that… there are computers to do most of that stuff… but if you are inattentive and distracted, given to rash decisions and incapable of passing within six metres of a silt pile without kicking it up, you have a real challenge ahead of you… and so does your instructor.


7 thoughts on “A student’s guide to a technical diving course

  1. Love the inclusion of emotion as something that has to be managed. It’s not just fear and anxiety, either; I’ve had things get mismanaged because of impatience or irritation, and I recently got an object lesson that my skills were degraded by becoming worried about why a teammate seemed to be annoyed with me, and by diving when shaken by an ugly argument with someone BEFORE the dive.

    Nobody has ever talked about emotional control in any of my classes, other than the obvious implied idea that freaking out is a bad thing . . .

  2. Hi
    Saying that the bookwork and calculations is secondary to the basic skills is not really true. As a technical diver you need to be able to plan your own dives, and analyze your own gasses. A dive computer should always be backed up by a bottom timer and a runtime written out on a slate.
    90% of technical diving is preparation, which does include practacing the skills and familiarity with your equipment, but the planning of the dive is crucial. All the skills in the world won’t help you if you miscalculate and don’t carry enough gas to last you the duration of the dive!
    Also, shouldn’t any professional sports diver (divemaster etc) have to master these skills anyway?
    What technical course is this based on?

  3. Hi Steve,

    Great!! as usual you have managed to put into words exactly how I feel about and operate when teaching technical diving (whatever that really is). When I try with my puny efforts to write something proper, it just never comes out clearly. Never black and white, just an interminable number of shades of grey (even more than 255!) You are such an eloquent person, well done. I’m so glad you discuss not having to be perfect before you take the class, after all, learning is what it’s about.


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