You ever heard of the 7Ps? It’s one of my favourite acronyms. i’m not a fan of acronyms, as a rule; because it seems like most acronyms need their own mnemonic to decode. Example: “Bruce Willis Rocks All Films.” If you’d just dedicated the attention to remembering what’s needed during a predive to coming up with dirty versions of BWARF you’d probably be in the water already. But I like the 7Ps. It’s a very streamlined acronym: PPPPPPP Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance There are variations. The one I prefer removes “piss” and inserts “practice” and a pair of commas towards the front. (Not because I object to the curse, I just like practice and don’t want to encourage the entire affair snowballing into the 47Ps too quickly by tacking on shit willy-nilly.) It’s an email I got from an upcoming student that has “preparation” most on my mind this morning. In the context of a class what does it mean to be properly prepared? None of us was really prepared for what awaited us under the surface of the water, were we? Sure, you knew that there would be some pretty fish. There would probably be some boat rides? Maybe it was going to be scary, and exciting, and challenging, and fun, and all sorts of things all at once. We were prepared for that. Expected it. Desired it. That’s why we signed up for that first Open Water course in the first place, wasn’t it? What I mean is: Were you prepared to be broke forever? To constantly be looking for that next thrill, that next photo of a nudibranch, to look through that next bulkhead in the wreck, or turn that next corner in the cave? To start dreaming about being underwater most nights? For the lifelong friendships made? The adventures that are so enticing you rarely ever travel except to dive again? For my part, I thought it was something fun I’d do once or twice a year when I went on a Caribbean vacation. If you had told me, when I put that PADI DVD into my computer to start my at-home learning 20 years ago that THIS was where that journey would lead me I probably would have needed a stiff drink and a bit of a lay down. (I often tell people about how in that moment, as the DVD was sliding into the computer, I felt the world unfocus around me a little. Almost like a glitch in the matrix, or a far-off earthquake that you only subliminally notice. I cocked my head and tried to put my finger on how something had just shifted in some way. But I never knew how monumentally until much, much later.) We were never prepared because we didn’t know what we didn’t know. And then it all went wrong. We were, each of us, lured onto the educational equivalent of the moving walkways at the airport. Where each class ends, the very next one begins. They become predictable, comfortable, almost necessary. You want to get to the destination of “Good Diver” and you can either walk, like the schmucks, by diving all the time and having to learn things on your own — OR you can take this friendly, easy-to-use educational system of conveyor belts that will tell you exactly what you need to do to be awesome and place you securely at your destination way faster. Sure, you might have to take a designated number of steps from one walkway to the next… but the course is clear. And you wind up with “advanced” divers with only 9 dives in their entire lives. You wind up with rescue divers who have practiced CPR for about 10 minutes ever. You have dive professionals who’s very first underwater experience was only a few months previous and shouldn’t be allowed to consult on which color Amphibious Outfitters T-Shirt you should buy much less be responsible for people’s lives. But this is how we’re trained to think about things. What our experience has demonstrated and what our perceptions around the shops/sites/destinations/resorts/boats/etc lead us to expect. It’s wrong. Especially as one starts to venture into the more aggressive versions of the sport, one can no longer afford to think about things in this manner. It becomes disappointing at least… dangerous at worst. How many of you actually interviewed potential instructors? Winnowed down a list of possibilities from recommendations or internet searches or the illusions of “dive fame” to a few people you thought you’d like to train with and then interacted with each to see who would best suit you? Whether it’s some emailing back and forth with a questionnaire, or a video chat, some PMing, a phone call… whatever. Actually talked to this person (or a few people) and decided, “Yes, this is the instructor for me,” for whatever set of parameters you feel are the most important? I get lots of such contact. I’m delighted by this. Even when the last back and forth is someone saying, “I’ve decided to go with another instructor,” I am delighted. Well… of course I’m disappointed and wonder how I could have been “better,” but have to acknowledge that there wasn’t any “better” to it than “better for what this person wants/needs/is looking for” and that’s different for every person. The important thing is that you find that right instructor with whom you click. That’s the very first step in proper preparation. Obviously an exaggeration, but the logical extension of the opposite of this behaviour would be someone showing up at the front gate of XOC-Ha while Nelly and I were eating dinner, ringing the bell, and asking, “May I take a Full Cave class here please?” What answer would you give such a prospect? It demonstrates a hell of a lack of preparation and, by extension, appropriate mindset. So… get your ducks in a row. That’s your first step. Then what? If it wasn’t addressed during your instructor interview - which should be a two-way street, by the way - how thorough was the potential instructor in giving you some guidance on experience, gear, expectations, how to warm up for class, along with any and all other such questions as you might have about this thing you’re going to commit to? How much more did they offer beyond your questions that you hadn’t even thought of? Let’s return to the standard recreational model for contrast: When I got to the shop at 4AM I’d look at the whiteboard to learn what classes I would be teaching that day. I would meet my students when I picked them up at their hotel in the van to the boat. (Doing things that way for years has very much defined how I do things now. IE: Not like that.) Any instructor does a potential student a disservice by always saying, “Yes,” no matter what the class, no matter what their previous certification or even experience level. If I have someone who, on paper, is qualified to start a trimix course and I simply respond, via email, “Sure, c’mon down,” without discussing what I would expect to see coming INTO the class how could I possibly, in good conscience, sit down with them on day one with any exception from either of us that it is going to go well? If I take it for granted that this person will be able to stably hold deco stops and team-confirm gas switches from their earlier deco training… but their earlier instructor(s) didn’t value or emphasise these things… class is going to be a little more challenging for us both. To the point that class has a very good chance of not being completed in the time we have allotted. The much more frequent example is when we get queries about coming down to take sidemount and cavern/intro in a week. Then Nelly or I have to write and say, “You need to pick one of those things, because both is exceedingly unlikely to be a success.” Same goes for when people would like to take cavern/intro, but have never worn a set of doubles. Most people are receptive to coming down to do an Intro to Tech class or a sidemount class. Some will bundle this with some cavern tours or possibly even a cavern class. Some will ask for recommendations for instructors local to them they might be able to do some prep work with and then come down to try their hand at their more advanced target. Some - just as predictably as lamentably - will find some other instructor who will just say, “Yes." In all cases our would-be student is getting prepared. Prepared for what is the variable. Some a getting prepared for success, safety, fun. Some are getting prepared for failure, whether they know it or not. And that last case is getting prepared to be just good enough to pass a class with the lowest possible standards. Which is obviously distressing, but too deep a rabbit-warren to explore right now. Much more positively, and the reason I’m thinking about it this morning, was the email I mentioned earlier. It contained a link to a video that one my upcoming student’s had their will-be-class-buddy shoot of them in their local dive site. They’re hovering. That’s it. Just a 5 minute video of them hovering. “Any thoughts?” they had emailed with the link. I did have a few. There were a few stray fin twitches here and there that can certainly be cleaned up. So I sent my suggestions on things to play with on how to get to that sought-after “perfectly motionless and horizontal” place that divers covet. And I have little doubt that they’ll make it, if not there before class, even closer than they are now… and they’re already damned close. This is an example of extremely high preparation. With this level of prep, the buoyancy, trim and stability all already fully tended to, our class-work together is likely to get further along the curriculum much, much quicker. It is not something I expect, nor certainly demand of all my students. Truth is, that would be unreasonable. This buddy team obviously has had some excellent instruction and guidance, equipping them with the tools to get themselves to a level of stability that we all work so hard to achieve. Not everyone has those resources. That’s why they come to instructors like me in the first place. Yes, there have been weeks which have closed out with my students needing to go home, work on this, that, or the other thing so that they can return more well prepared to make it across the finish line of a class with aplomb. Yes, there have been weeks I’ve started expecting that was how the week was going to end, only to be surprised a few days in by things all suddenly clicking into place, allowing us to move on. But mostly, when people come to XOC-Ha, we’ve had some time to chat and make sure that people are coming with their experience and their expectations tempered to the demands of what is coming. And most are not capable of holding perfectly still through the entire execution of their first air-share drill of the week. But by the end of the week they are. That’s the whole purpose of the class, right? Once upon a time (well before my time) cave training was a laboriously long process. Months. Sometimes years. The idea of being “prepared” for a cave class was laughable; you weren’t prepared, that was the point of the class, to learn what you need. Still is. But after 50+ years, with many of the last 20 seeing a huge surge in technical styles of diving, the process of training has gotten so much more streamlined. Gone are the days when you dive 300 feet into the cave for two years, running a line, before you so much as tie into a mainline. Hell… if one of my classes is going well, day 3 (or even 2) sees students tying into the mainline. Cave divers are no longer only the residents of a few counties in North Florida. Divers come to cave dive and to learn to cave dive from all over the world. From their real lives and real jobs, from which they only have a certain amount of time off. So we, as instructors, have to make that time count. The best way for us to achieve that is to ensure that our students know what to expect coming into things. The best way for a student to achieve that is by following their would-be instructor’s guidance as best they can. I send divers reading materials and some mental exercises beforehand. I ask about their experience, their training, and their training experiences. Where appropriate and/or available, I can give them some things to work on in the water. And then all I can do is hope that they actually follow through with it all. I hope, knowing that if they do, MY expectations for their class and the way that I plan things will probably be most efficient. The overwhelming majority of my students do just that. I always get really happy, on day one, when I see people open a notebook where they’ve completed a couple of the math worksheets I’ve sent them. “The academics at least,” I think to myself, “Are going to be a piece of cake.” Because I’ve got a prepared student. There are some instructors/shops/agencies that will require certain prerequisite classes, either beyond standards or dictated by proprietary standards. Some will suggest or even insist, half-way through one class, that the only way to pass this class is to take some other class instead. Truth is I am one such instructor. For example: Cavern Diver requires OW, Deep Diver, and 25 dives. I’m going to insist anyone coming into such a class has significantly more than those. What’s more, if we’re 1/2 way through a Cavern/Intro class and I suggest that we focus our time on something more like an Intro to Tech… it’s because I want you to be able to knock Cavern/Intro out of the park instead of just barely scraping by meeting the bare minimums, or frustratingly trying to meet those minimums which might, currently, be out of reach. I am, however, not the sort of instructor who needs to insist, “You absolutely must take XXX class before I allow you to move on to YYY.” Standards must be met (exceeded by preference), but there is some squidge-room on the demands I absolutely must impose. Experience and ability matter, too. It’s nice to have that the luxury of that flexibility. It’s a nice thing to be able to share with my students. But I can only exercise that flexibility when people come as best prepared as they possibly can. Only then can I be prepared to tailor a course around a student and/or the team. Be warned, however: no, I’m not going to let you get away with shit because, “It’s good enough.” If you can do better I’m going to make you do better. Yes, I know your buddy’s frog-kick isn’t perfect… they had reconstructive hip surgery… you didn’t… so let’s do it again.
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