The other day, while I watched a student demonstrate a frog kick that got better and better over the course of the week, I started thinking about something.
We’d done some video debriefs to discuss the finer points of their kick and how it can be more efficient and be both more powerful, yet more energy conserving. But we’d gotten past the point where every dive was a dissection of the kick. We’d moved on to more complex issues, the student having understood the basics and performing it passably at the Intro to Cave level. But despite no longer breaking down the kick on each dive, each dive did show improvement. To where it was easily passable even at the Full Cave level, if not true mastery. They were paying attention to their kick, and really focusing - when things weren’t engineered to go wrong - on teaching their legs exactly how to move. I got to wondering why. How? What were they doing differently to maintain that improvement arc? “I’ve been watching you kick,” they explained. And that’s what got me thinking, throughout the next dive, about the level to which divers emulate their instructors and mentors. In the long, long ago, when I was teaching Open Water classes all the time, we’d reach the point where you do a second stage ditch and don. You remember, throw the reg over your shoulder, then sweep your arm to recover it? Each and every time I would preface the skill by briefing, “I am going to do this painfully slowly so you can see all the steps. You DO NOT have to do it as slowly as I do.” I’d repeat this several times before demonstrating the skill. I’d have students repeat it back to me. But not once, ever… not one student… no one every did it at a normal speed or with any haste at all. They ALL, to a person, performed the skill at the exact same pace as I did. It was not unusual for me to have to grab their reg and stick it back in their face for them when they had completely exhaled before recovering the reg. Eventually I opted to demonstrate it twice a more normal pace in lieu of exaggerating each step. This is not completely unsurprising. As people are exposed to new environments, new equipment, new skills, etc they will look to the people they see as the experts and do what they do. Or, at the very least, attempt to do what they do and how they do it. I was reminded of that as I watch this student’s kick get better and better with each passing day. I, as the instructor, am setting the benchmark for performance. That’s how an instructor-student relationship is going to work best: the instructor doing their damnedest to be a good role model, while the student aims to, hopefully one day, meet that standard. This is all sort of obvious, isn’t it? When we’re talking about skills performance students are trying to become better divers and use their instructors as the paradigm. Slightly less obvious, however, is that this does extend beyond simply skills performance. A student, or even simply a newer diver, looks to these same instructors and mentors to feel their way into the dive community and world. They observe and will emulate thoughts and philosophies. You know how there is always a sort of culture to each dive shop or boat? Think of a boat you’ve been on where the whole crew hates standard gas mixes and thinks they’re fucking stupid. Or a shop where you’re afraid to admit that you tech dive or cave dive or whatever because every clerk you’ve ever talked to gives you a long tirade about how that’s crazy and you’ll probably die. The shop that is all trips to far-flung destinations and, despite there being the opportunity, never ever dives locally for this, that, or the other reason. I was once building Nelly a backplate and came up one d-ring short. I spent an afternoon going to every dive shop in Manhattan looking for a single d-ring. In one shop I had a long debate with the clerks about how I didn’t need a new BC, I wasn’t trying to fix a BC, I knew what I was doing, did they have a d-ring? They kept insisting that back-inflate stuff like that floats you face down on the surface. I eventually slipped and mentioned that I dove a rebreather (this was before the wide-spread prevalence of the gizmos). “Oh!” Proclaimed one clerk, “You got your will made out?” I stormed out. D-ring-less. This is all some “top down” behaviour. A newer diver starts hanging around the shop and listening to their instructor talk story. And they want to fit in. They want to be a cool diver, just like their mentor. So they agree with what’s said and, after hanging around long enough, they start repeating the same sorts of things. Thus, the culture of the shop is formed. Let’s go even deeper than that (pun partially intended). The way divers treat things like preparedness, or think about things like what constitutes as safe, how they treat SOPs. We all know those divers who were trained by XXXXXXXXX who tend to treat safety and SOPs as loosely issued suggestions. Or divers who use the “READY” acronym for their predive checks (this is performed by one diver looking at the other divers and saying, “Ready?” then submerging without waiting for an answer). Or divers who respond, “Oh, it always does that,” if you point out that their first stage is haemorrhaging gas. On the flip side, there are divers who are authoritarian nutbags whose predive lasts longer than the dive. Or will refuse to dive with someone with different training or equipment. Some of the former come from complacency after long years; some of the later come from the fear of god due to some earlier incident. Some of these come from deliberately seeking out instructors or mentors who reinforce a divers a priori constitution. But most of the time this, too, is “top down” behaviour. Divers approaching the activity in a manner that has been defined for them in a certain way and modelled as the way a good diver behaves. It would be remiss to skip over one of the frequently more toxic aspects of the dive community. All the dumb beefs and politics of it all. No one from this shop talks to anyone from that shop. This instructor’s students all hate that other instructor. Everyone hates on this or that agency, insisting that THOSE divers are all __________________. And it’s all nonsense. Half the time it’s not true. Most of the time no one really gives a shit, just engaging in the gossip for gossips-sake and for the entertainment value of it. Simple-minded, caveman tribalism so that you can fit in with the cool kids by demeaning others. Bolstering an Us vs. Them superiority. It’s divisive and silly. And, almost all the time, engaged by newer divers trying to ingratiate themselves to those they see as their betters within the dive world. It can be a very ugly side to the culture of any dive shop or boat. No, I don’t claim to get along with everyone. There are some people I wish would up their game, some people whose philosophies I may not agree with. There are even some people with whom I actively do not get along… who are still excellent instructors and/or divers. And I’m always happy to recommend them (even if they hate my guts). What I’m not going to do is poison the well, so to speak, by gossiping with students about them or or role modelling a passive expectation that our guests go, “Yeah, yeah, that guy’s an asshole!!!” It does no one any good whatsoever.
There have only ever been three dive instructors I’ve actively warned people away from because I thought they were incredibly dangerous (two of them are out of the dive world now, both having arguably killed people). Last, but certainly not least, way that instructors and mentors shape the minds and the behaviour of divers in their charge… the way we treat incidents and accidents. Do you as an instructor, or DM, or even a 30 foot reef bimbler of a diver have a nice debrief after you or someone on your team has fucked up? Do you discuss it in a constructive and non-accusative way? Or do you go to Scubaboard every time there’s an accident and scream, “That diver was a dickhead! Of course I’D never make such a stupid, stupid mistake!” Then, when you do - as we all inevitably do - make a mistake, do you whirl around in the water to make sure no one saw it happen and then never discuss it again? The value of a debrief can not possibly be overstated. Having another set of critical eyes at one another’s backs helps us all grow as divers. It can keep us honestly on the straight and narrow, hopefully preventing or, at least, moderating accidents. Procedural drift is inevitable. If mentors set the example that it’s completely acceptable, so too will the people who admire them. But if the mentor is a long-time diver, who has spent years gaining experience and comfort, they may be in a position to be able to capably manage any failures which may arise. Whereas a newer diver, lacking that experience and quiver of knowledge… may not be so lucky. And the disregard for SOPs, the belief that rules don’t apply, encouraged by their mentor’s example, can turn into a lethal normalisation of deviance. And this is to say nothing of the weird, lingering stigma surrounding something like DCS. I can not, for the life of me, understand why divers tend to treat DCS like it is a venereal disease. As far as I know, every agency has written into their general instructor standards something along the lines of: “Always behave as a good role model.” It’s of particular value to remember just how much ground that statement covers. From how to kick - to how to talk about and treat others in the community - to how to address our similarities and differences as divers - to how to talk openly about our safety. Think carefully, instructors and role models, about how you behave, how you dive, and how you talk. You will be imitated in more ways than you think. None of this is to say that our divers are mindless sheep without the free-will to express or assert themselves as individuals. But they are learning how to be divers, or tech divers, or cave divers, or whatever from you. They’ve come to you because they are under the impression that you are the expert. And they are working on, one day, becoming experts themselves.