Turning teaching scuba divers inside out

The neutral buoyancy teaching debate focuses on how skills are introduced.  Do you start your students off by kneeling on the floor of a pool and gradually work towards neutral skills? Would having them lie prone on the bottom be a better start? Or should we go the other way and start from the surface and work our way down, learning everything without touching the bottom at all?

Experienced instructors will be quick to highlight the four cornerstones of scuba diving:


These are sets of skills that the student diver will need to learn to form a firm foundation upon which to build “the skills” (mask clearing, regulator removal etc.).

But does this really give us an accurate picture of high-quality dive training? Is this all that is needed to help people develop into scuba divers?

I’d argue not.  Because it’s missing at least half of the story.

Looking at students from the outside

These debates often hook us in to looking only at the outside of the student.  What position are they in? Kneeling, prone, swimming.  How is their trim? Legs dragging along the bottom or floating up above their head. Buoyancy? Bouncing up and down, negative on the bottom or unable to get away from the surface.  Propulsion? Do they look like they are riding an invisible bicycle, or are legs outstretched and kicking from the hip, is what they are doing some strange mix of flutter and frog kick, how much are they moving their hands? Breathing.  Bubble fountain or slow exhalations.  Do they disappear up to the surface when clearing the mask or removing the regulator.  Or do they sink to the bottom when they stop swimming. 

Experienced instructors will be seeing all these signs and more.  A huge part of teaching skills in a neutral position is being able to read these external indicators of skills progress and instruct accordingly. 

However, that’s only the outside. 

What is going on inside your students?

How are your students when they turn up for the first confined session? Whether that is a DSD or CW1.  Excited? Nervous? Bored? Terrified? Anxious? Happy?

If they are anything like mine, the majority will be either excited, keen, maybe a bit nervous. A few will be anxious; and a small number could be scared out of their wits but trying not to show it! Occasionally, there are the ones that are half asleep or their minds are elsewhere too. 

As the session progresses these emotions will shift and change.  Maybe they’ll calm down, maybe they’ll get more alert, maybe at times they get really wound up and freak out.  That is because, as humans, we are constantly sensing what is going on around us and this has an impact on our mental and emotional states. 

Affective state is central to learning.  For example, being low in motivation or in the absence of any stressors, a student may not be sufficiently motivated to learn new knowledge or skills.  On the other hand, being overwhelmed and over-stimulated into a fight or flight state is also counter-productive to learning.

What is affective state?

We have a mix of psychological and physiological (bodily) systems that work together to put our behaviour and emotions in the right state for the situation.  This takes a while to explain fully (something we do in Psychology for Scuba Divers / PADI Psychological Diver) but here is a short summary on the back of a beer mat, it’s a simple model for thinking about what’s going on inside your student:

For a more detailed description of the original model, this video from Portsmouth University is excellent.  (Note that I use slightly different words, but we are talking about the same three systems).

What does this have to do with basic dive skills?


Our affect state affects: our breathing, our muscle tension, our patterns of movement, how much we are able to connect with people around us, how we hear what people are saying to us, how our brains direct attention, the way that information is laid down in memory, how we process and understand information, whether and how neural connections are forged in the brain …  (again, something we get into in Psychology for Scuba Divers / PADI Psychological Diver).

Allowing students to sit in a reasonably optimal affective state is a core part of dive training. The effects are long-lasting.  Ever met a diver who refuses to clear their mask? Some instructors still hate doing it… chances are their experience of learning to clear the mask involved a lot of stress response.  Possibly, they able to tough it out and get through it, so they look like they can do it.  But its all under duress, and the system winds up every time it needs to be done for real.  That means, when it needs to be done, the affect system is winding up, attention is being redirected and tension is being perpetuated. 

Many instructors understand this intuitively and understand the value of helping a student stay in an optimal learning state.  We do this by connecting with students, showing that they can trust us.  By managing the task load, letting them adjust to being underwater before throwing in extra tasks.  … and that’s where the kneeling comes in.  For whatever reason the practice originally began, in recreational training, it’s quite commonly cited as a way to let students be comfortable underwater and not overly task loaded while learning something new. But does that really work?  (What is so comfortable about kneeling? Is that how you would choose to rest? Which parts of your body need to be in tension to kneel underwater? What is that muscle tension feeding into the change in affective state?)

It’s not just the kneeling though, tension can come from many directions.  For example, a student who is intently pre-occupied with hovering perfectly right at the beginning, can end up so wound up it becomes impossible.  They then end up over-controlling breathing and throwing a lot of attention at maintaining position, in fear of not being good enough.  … Is that student in an optimal affective state for learning?

In teaching scuba diving, equally important to observation of the external behaviours is the ability to read clues about internal, affective state. Whether a diver is taught from kneeling, from lying prone on the bottom, or from starting on the surface, affective state matters.