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Practice Doesn't Make Perfect

Every dive is a training dive. Sounds corny as hell, doesn’t it? There was an organisation where I used to live that made a lot of self-aggrandising promotional videos that used this as the constant catch-phrase and I’d snort-chuckle every time I saw it. Sure, there is a kernel of truth to it.

Assuming one is always focused on refining one’s skills and turning into a better diver… assuming teams end the dive with a short debrief with self and team constructive criticism… assuming one follows the proven logic that focused practice of properly performed techniques will turn into expertise… assuming one doesn’t dive according to the “So what if I shredded a 6’ sea fan, whatever, it was only that one this time” school of thought… then yeah, sure, every dive is a training dive. But to actually frame it that way. To tell other human beings, out loud, that you think that way. Comes off as a not-just-a-little supercilious, innit? That said, I want to get back to focused practice. Do you do it? Practice certain skills with a hope towards perfecting them?

Do you take the occasion to turn your attention towards your buoyancy control, picking a depth and holding it for a time without moving so much as a fingertip (not within 3 feet of 30 feet; 30 feet exactly)? Do you and your buddies S-Drill and/or valve drill periodically? This is stuff you could make those long, slow, 3-minute safety stops just fly by, filling the time with something useful. Do you volunteer to run the reel on the wreck or to the primary line of the cave, then do so meticulously… as opposed to as fast as possible and hope that the string behind you is probably fine? When dropping or collecting a stage bottle (or more seriously, making a gas switch) do you do so with careful steps in mind… or do you just clip shit any, old place and then adjust buoyancy later, when you feel like it? Cave diver? When’s the last time you practiced a blue-water ascent? Reef diver? When’s the last time you really assessed your trim? Rebreather diver? When’s the last time you did a bailout drill or measured your stressed RMV? Any diver? When’s the last time you practiced surfacing an unresponsive buddy?

Photo by SJ

You ever hear of the 7Ps? Proper Planning and Preparation Prevent Piss Poor Performance. To avoid sounding like the 7-minute Abs guy in Something About Mary by adding in extra Ps and making the whole thing unwieldy let’s just all permit that we can pigeonhole “Practice” under the purview of “Preparation,” shall we? Let’s also acknowledge that the the question of “performance” can be further elaborated as “under stress.” Or, perhaps, just generally “when it matters.”

Diving, when done properly at any level, from beginner to expert, from 30 foot reef bimble to 300 foot cave dive is, at its core, simply floating around and looking at cool shit. But there is an awful lot that goes into it. Physical control. Mental control. Stress management. Safety conscientiousness. Ever more complex gear management. Skills performance. Team interplay. Environmental awareness. And on and on and on. This is probably the line that I’m going to get the most flack over, but here goes: If you’re content to simply float around all care-free-like, if you think you don’t need practice: you are almost certainly never going to master the sport.

Everyone has heard the adage, "Practice makes perfect." It isn't true. Perfect practice makes perfect. Imperfect practice will simply ossify imperfect practices. And not practicing at all... well, that's the highway to Skillsdegredationtown. What we should all be aiming for is that when faced with a set of stressors or, just generally, "when it matters," our perfectly practiced skills can fall into the background, our body and hands operating properly, but free of need for attention. Leaving our minds unhindered in focusing all energies on the best possible solution to whatever it is before us. And all of this without the risk of inadvertently compounding the problem.

I’m not talking about more classes, either. When you get a C-card that doesn’t mean you’re an awesome diver. That means that your instructor believes you won’t kill yourself or your dive buddies at whatever level is printed on the card, that you are capable of practicing at that level. So go practice. Do simple stuff to kill time during safety stops or deco. Stuck at a quarry this week? Bring a GoPro; you and your buddy can film each other doing back-kicks and helicopter turns, and make fun of each other over burgers later. Shoot an SMB when you have no other reason to than that you haven’t in a while. A conversation I have all the time is, “How much more should I dive before I can take the next class?” I don’t know. When you’re ready. When you’re banging up against the limitations placed on you by the last one. When you’ve already seen everything at that level. And, most importantly, when you can perform the skills and techniques at that level damn near in your sleep. With some exceptions. There are some skills that do need to be performed under the supervision of an instructor. This is not because you’re a terrible diver. And it’s not because they aren’t important skills. It’s because for some of them it is important to have someone right next to you who is trained and practiced in avoiding or rapidly managing the situation if you suddenly find yourself in over your head. CESA is a good example every diver in the world can relate to. Don't have someone to slow your ascent if needed? Then don't try it. If you weren’t already aware, in cave diving there is always a guideline that can lead you all the way home. Literally a piece of string you can follow. One of the skills practiced in training is how to find the string if, suddenly, you lost it and can’t see (if, for example, you were without lights or the visibility is blown out). If you haven’t done it yourself, ask a buddy who is cave trained how much fun it is and what the actual take-home lesson of the drill is. This is an example of a skill that should not EVER be performed without the direct supervision of an instructor. Not a buddy - an instructor. Your buddy doesn’t know where the best places (or even allowed places) to perform this skill are. Your buddy doesn’t know what parts of the cave you might get yourself wedged into or how to get you out. Your buddy doesn’t know how to avoid interfering with other dive teams or putting other teams in potential danger. And as for the idea of you simply doing it on your own, even in open water… no. Just no. Not ever. It’s not a certainty that you will get tangled and drown and die, but the possibility exists. There are a couple of skills like this. Blind gas shares are another. I love watching blind air shares as a ghost/instructor. I especially love when they go totally pear-shaped; hoses and light cords and guidelines all tangled into proper knots, one diver has a boltsnap clipped to the line and the other has it wrapped around their leg, they’ve turned back into the cave, and they’ve managed to get into the wrong order somehow.. It’s amazing! Makes for a great learning experience. Two divers attempting this without someone trained and experienced standing by to pull whatever rip-cord needs to be pulled before the line breaks or someone runs critically low on gas or you are about to run into a different team managing an actual problem of their own or what… the industry term for such an attempt is “fucked.” What’s more, there are so many other things you can safely apply focused practice towards to avoid these scenarios altogether. Lost line: screw that, practice line awareness. Out of gas emergencies: nope, practice doing the super-simple gas usage math in your head and confirm with your pressure gauge and combine that with periodic S-drills in 10 feet of open water. When people ask, “When should I move on to XXXXXX class,” one of the things I always strongly encourage is to dive past the prerequisites. The prereqs in standards are assuming the best possible diver in the world - which the vast majority of us aren’t. The vast majority of us need some additional room to learn and to practice, to refine and to pursue expertise. Yeah, every dive is a training dive. Just don’t actually say it that way. You’ll sound like a jackass.

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