How can I get more comfortable with the scuba diving mask skills?

Your ability to flood and clear, or remove and replace your mask is an important part of being a scuba diver, and essential to be a calm, safe diver. However, these scuba mask skills are sometimes a bit of a challenge. In this article, explore some of the issues divers have with mask skills and how psychology can help you be okay with, and without, your mask. If you would like more information, you can also download the free eGuide to mask skills.

When we are underwater breathing is not the most natural thing to do at first.  We all need to get used to breathing without the mask on, or with a flooded mask.  It is a vital skill, and should be learned safely in training and practiced.

scuba mask

Scuba mask skills #1 Your concern

As divers, we wear a mask so that we can see underwater.  That is easy enough, but masks can always fail.  Your scuba mask might leak annoyingly, or the buckle may break and the strap fall off.  So we need to be prepared to deal with those events if they happen: We all need to get used to breathing without the mask on, or with a flooded mask.  It is a vital skill, and should be learned safely in training and practiced.  There is a full list of the basic mask skills you need to have in the eGuide.

NOTE: if you are reading this as a non-diver, please don’t! Seriously, stop reading now.   Most people learn these skills with no trouble at all, when receiving proper instruction. But, there are some common issues and that’s where this information may be useful, come back if you need it.

Scuba diving skills are important

When we are underwater breathing is not the most natural thing to do at first.  It can feel a bit strange due to new sensations, and the slight stress of this can lead to emotional and physical reactions.  Practicing all of the mask skills under instruction, in a safe environment, means that this experience eventually becomes ordinary.  Building competence in the skills allows the diver to feel in control of the situation and repeated practice means that our brains react less strongly. 

If you are able to breathe comfortably underwater without your mask and can clear your mask when it leaks, then you will feel considerably better underwater. Take the self-check in the free eGuide to reflect on your own comfort levels.

diver mask skills

Scuba diving mask skills #2 Actions

The good news about mask skills and any discomfort you have around the mask: you can do something!  If you do have concerns, take action!  Change what you do and you will change how you feel about your leaky mask.  When you build the skills you need, you will be comfortable with a flooded mask, or even no mask.  This means that you will be able to stay calm and respond competently to mask related issues.

How? First of all, find an instructor to work with.  Frequently if people are having difficulty with mask skills, a little instruction in the correct techniques can go a long way.  Being with an experienced professional also helps you to stay safe while learning.  Learn how to respond effectively to any of the possible issues that may happen with your mask, such as fogging or leaking, breakage or loss. 

Once you have the correct technique, you then need to practice it.  The more you practice the easier it gets and the less of an issue it will be for you. Being able to flood and clear a mask, change masks and swim with no mask underwater are motor skills, repeating them often keeps the actions fresh in the memory, so performed with little effort or stress.  Taking action to put a bit of time into learning these skills means you are safe in knowing you can respond to problems, and that means you can relax and enjoy the dive even more!

water on face

Mask skills #3 Sensations

The human brain and nervous system has an important survival feature: we tend to notice new sensations.  Sensations can be pleasant or unpleasant. We can sometimes find ourselves having strong or uncomfortable reactions to sensations, especially if they are unpleasant or strange.  We also react very strongly to sensations that are linked to previous bad experiences we may have had.  For example, hearing the noise of a dentist’s drill can trigger anxiety or fear, even if we are only in for a check up.  There are some sensations that our bodies react to automatically, such as pain or intense heat.  Reacting quickly and strongly to unknown causes of sensation is an important safety feature.  In diving it can sometimes cause issues.

New sensations

Water on the face or in the nose brings a range of sensations.  Some sensations can be interpreted by the brain as threats to survival, so they may trigger (unhelpful) reflex reactions to prevent drowning. Automatic behaviour may take over, and the brain co-ordinates actions to get the head above water.  When we dive, we cannot go immediately to the surface.  We may also be too far.  If the brain is in “fight or flight” mode, we may not be aware of our actions and we may not be thinking clearly. 

For this reason, it is essential to get used to the sensations we may experience, and learn to respond appropriately.  For example, the automatic reaction to water on the face may be to head for the surface, but as a diver, the correct response is to breathe normally through the regulator, then take action to address the problem. 

You can get comfortable with new sensations with practice and other psychological techniques for staying present.  When attempting new skills or practicing something you have difficulty with, then it is recommended to work with an instructor. 

diver thinking

Mask skills #4 Emotions

Sensations or thoughts about the dangers of no mask, or a flooded mask, often lead to unpleasant emotions of anxiety and fear.  

Emotions are useful, because they alert us to important aspects of the situation.  They can help us to become more aware of something important in the environment.  Fear and anxiety make us pay more attention to potential threats, and that can be helpful.  We can notice the issue and decide how to respond to it. But, sometimes the emotions are so intense that they cloud our awareness of the real situation.  Stress also leads to physical changes, such as increased heart rate or breathing.  This can be a problem for divers, but there is a lot we can do to stay in control.

Understanding emotions

Emotions are simple signals and we need to learn to make useful responses to them.  For example, if a diver is anxious about water leaking into the mask, they can respond in different ways.  They might think about it a lot, worrying and increasing the anxiety.  Maybe they talk about the mask and repeatedly ask for reassurance that it won’t leak.  Or perhaps they take excessive avoidance measures, pulling the mask strap tighter and tighter in the hope it will keep the water out (in fact this creates a vacuum and sucks the water in). 

These approaches are not particularly helpful.  They temporarily avoid anxiety, but don’t actually deal with the problem that the anxiety is trying to tell them about.  That problem is that the diver lacks confidence and competence in mask related issues.  This means that if there is a problem with their scuba mask, they may not be able to deal with it, and this may lead to panic.

In order to deal effectively with this issue, the diver must change their response to the anxiety.  Rather than trying to avoid anxiety, they have to face the problem, by improving their skills.  If you can breath and swim without a mask, and clear water from a flooded mask calmly and easily, then the anxiety will disappear! It was only trying to let you know how to be safe.

scuba divers in the water

Mask skills #5 Others

As divers we need to learn specific skills in order to stay safe in the environment we dive in.  Being human, we are good at communicating and sharing our skills, so this means we can learn from each other.  It can be really helpful to watch how other people achieve something, because it can help us understand how it is done. 

When we struggle, we often turn to others for support.  This is normal for humans.  It helps us get stuff done! Support is great when it is needed, for example when we are learning how to do something new.  But if we become over-reliant on support it can become a problem.  There are some things we need to be able to do for ourselves, like clearing a mask. 

Fear of being judged

Our social natures can lead us into traps of comparison and fears of being judged, or rejected.  This sometimes creates issues, especially in training where it can get in the way of learning a skill.  You will know this if you have struggled with a skill, and the mask skills often trigger these issues.  On the one hand it can feel physically threatening to take off a mask underwater, but on the other it seems socially risky. 

Getting caught up in what others think, or the potential for embarrassment if we don’t do a skill properly the first time can interfere with learning.  Fear of making a mistake might stop us from giving something a go, and social worries may be a barrier to asking for support.  It can be hard when everybody else is getting it, and you’re not.

Being with a trusted buddy or professional can help reduce unpleasant emotions.  But don’t rely on the buddy as an alternative to building your own skills. Instead use their support to practice in safety.  And if you need more time to learn, take it! Being able to deal with water in the mask is so important, it is worth the effort and you will feel so much more confident as a diver.

diver getting used to the water

Scuba mask skills #6 Situation

Submerged in water and breathing through a regulator, unable to see clearly and making sure to breathe only through the mouth.  That is quite an unusual situation; it is hardly surprising if your brain finds it a bit alarming at first!  But humans are adaptable. We can get used to new experiences.  We can also shape the situation to make it more likely we will succeed.

To get this, you need to understand two processes: habituation and sensitization.  Habituation means getting used to something new, reacting to it less.  Sensitization means becoming more alert to something, reacting to it more.  When it comes to mask skills, we want to create a situation that leads to habituation, i.e. the diver gets used to it and does not react strongly to water in the mask.

Underwater is an unfamiliar situation

Consider that if we throw a person into an unfamiliar and overwhelming situation, they react strongly, with raised tension and heart beat, and perhaps fear.  For example, if you had never scuba dived before, then starting at 10 metres with a no mask swim is likely to be quite daunting!  Forcing someone to do that repeatedly, it is likely they would become increasingly sensitised and fearful of swimming without a mask.  That’s why we don’t do that!

Instead, the skill is broken down into much easier and less intimidating steps.  The first skill, partly flooding the mask and clearing it, feels a bit weird, but its in a shallow swimming pool and the student is safe.  They do it again and it feels easier.  The more it is repeated, the more familiar it starts to feel and the reaction reduces.  Then we introduce the next skill, usually fully flooding and clearing the mask, the student gets used to that before trying the next skill, etc. By taking small steps, the person can easily get used to the new sensations.

Frequently, when a diver does have concerns about mask flooding or removal, there has been sensitization instead of habituation. This can happen if there is not enough time, or the diver felt out of control, or did not have the opportunity to get used to one new experience before moving onto the next thing.  It is easily avoided, but can also be fixed by creating a situation in which the diver can get used to the sensations and learn the skills. The scuba mask skills can be broken down into tiny steps, like doing the skills on the surface first, this can be fun too!

scuba diver with mask thinking

Scuba mask skills #7 Thoughts

Humans like explanations! When we have a difficulty with something, we tell ourselves stories to help reduce the uncertainty and anxiety.  That can be helpful, but it can also really get in the way of us moving forward.  We can get hooked into thoughts like “I can’t do that” or “I’ve never been any good at things like this”.  The more we tell ourselves that story, the less of our brain is occupied with changing what we are doing!  Also, if we are constantly telling ourselves we cannot do something, then we probably will not be able to do it.

Being pre-occupied with thoughts and worries can be very distracting, and it gets in the way of learning.  If you have difficulty with the mask skills, you have likely developed a set of thoughts or beliefs (e.g. “the water will go up my nose”, “I can only clear my mask if/when …”). These may be getting in the way!

What’s the story? Can you notice what your mind is telling you when you struggle with these things? Do you genuinely need to gather more information? Tell your instructor what you are thinking, because then they will be able to give you information for you to make a more accurate explanation.  (i.e. the water will not go up my nose if I focus on breathing through my mouth). 

If the story is an old, unhelpful one that you are beating yourself up with.  Consider changing it, or finding a way to drop it. You can!

Good training and practice can mean that learning the mask skill is relatively straightforward. Unfortunately, sometimes a leaky mask or a mask getting knocked can be a significant source of stress for divers. This can be a real problem, because it increases the risk of diver panic. Even if you are not too concerned about that, it’s just plain inconvenient! Not being able to see clearly due to a leaky mask is so frustrating. If you want to be more comfortable with flooding and clearing the mask, pick up our free eGuide!