There are lots of things you can do to improve your scuba diving. Finding effective learning environments, diving to gain experience at your current level, dedicated practice, working with an instructor to develop skills and confidence …. all useful things to do. But isn’t it a bit odd that the focus is often on the outside, when so many of the problems we experience in diving are related to the mental or emotional aspects. I am hearing that is something divers want to know more about, so will be making more resources. This post is an introduction to “the invisible skills”.
Imagine yourself, at a depth of 15m, deploying a delayed surface marker buoy (dSMB). You fill the dSMB with air and let that go, and are unexpectedly dragged up with it! The line is tangled on the reel, and you are holding the reel. You know you can’t unravel the knot fast enough, and so you let the reel go. It’s a bit uncomfortable, as these things are kind of expensive and part of you wanted to hold on … but it was better than you shooting to the surface with it. Letting it go was the skilled response.
What if it wasn’t a line that was jammed? What if it was your mind getting all tangled in a stray thought: “what if my regs fail? , “did I remember to xxx”, “I don’t like this”. If there is some merit in the thought and you can do something about it, act. If the thought is a useless one, or you have no way to do something with it, same thing as the reel – let it go! Because getting entangled in unhelpful thoughts can be potentially as risky as a rapid ascent. It can sap attention and reduce awareness, it can wind up the body into a state of stress that alters breathing rate, and (in the worst case) can tip into panic.
The skill of letting go of an unhelpful thought can be just as useful as that of letting go of a knotted reel. Both involve doing something, one is opening the hand, the other is a flex of the mind.
Two types of skills needed to improve your scuba diving
As a diver, you learn how to flood and clear a mask, how to respond when low on air, how to plan dives (so that you don’t get low on air!) … etc. Building the knowledge to understand situations and the physical skills to deal with them makes a lot of sense. The equipment and movement skills are relatively straightforward (once you get the hang of them) and they are essential. But what about the other skills? The ones you can’t see other divers doing – invisible skills.
You see, humans can do a whole range of skills without moving a muscle. You do them in your mind. In fact, you are doing one of them right now because (unless you are reading this aloud) you will be silently processing all these little squiggles on the screen, making sense of the words and (probably) thinking your own thoughts in reaction. What do you think? Are you performing a skill no one can see? (Yes, they can see you looking at the screen, but they can’t know if you are reading, worrying or daydreaming).
When do we need invisible skills in diving?
Scuba diving is often a calming, relaxing activity – but sometimes it is not. Sometimes something stressful happens and you’ll need to stay calm and focused in order to deal with it. Sometimes you’ll feel physically uncomfortable, but need to stay where you are. Even in training, learning new skills is a challenge and can bring up concerns. Some people can struggle with fear or failure, lack of confidence or other issues. Thoughts and emotions can interfere with basic skills like buoyancy control and awareness. In fact, when people have difficulty with diving or training, it is usually the case that some of this stuff is involved. For most people, flooding and clearing a mask is a simple action, no where near as challenging as hitting the bulls-eye in target practice, or shooting hoops … but staying calm with a mask full of water – that takes invisible skills!
What are invisible skills?
These are the skills we do with our minds that no one can directly see. STOP-BREATHE-THINK .. that’s invisible, it’s only the ACT at the end that can be seen.
- paying attention,
- consciously focusing on a task,
- rehearsing a procedure,
- holding a mental image,
- directing breathing (e.g. slowing the breath),
- evaluating a potential hazard,
- internal self-talk (e.g. “it’s okay, you can do it”)
- over-riding instinctive urges
- regulating emotion (like calming and soothing, or motivating to act)
Humans learn these skills all the time, but we have different sets of them. You probably have loads of these skills already, even if you are not aware of them. Maybe you can think of examples of times you’ve relied on them in scuba diving.
Barriers to learning, or using, invisible skills in diving
If you can’t see other people doing them, you don’t know how, or when they are doing them, so it’s hard to learn these skills by copying. We can learn from others, but when people try to suggest we do them in the moment it can actually make things worse. (Think about it: have you ever felt calmer right after someone told you to “calm down”?) Being told to use these skills can feel like (or actually be) criticism.
Also, the focus of scuba diving training is on the visible skills, the ones your instructor can show you. Diving instructors can create a great learning environment, take time to go through skills with you, improve your scuba diving … but the professional role does not include techniques for dealing with difficult thoughts.
As a psychologist and scuba diving instructor, I sometimes help divers who have got stuck with some aspect of diving. After exploring the issue and understanding what the difficult is, we make a plan to address. One of the things we can do is learn (or more often revise) one or more of the invisible skills. That could be improving breathing habits, skills for dropping unhelpful thoughts or mentally rehearsing a dive. I also offer these as skills sessions one-to-one improve your scuba diving. You can read more about the invisible skills here.