Learning Scuba Diving Skills On Your Knees
Negative Habitual Response Conditioning
by Andy Davis
Sometimes small, seemingly insignificant or innocent training methods can have a persisting and insidious negative consequence for student divers.
From my experience, teaching any diving skills from kneeling or in a vertical position simply reinforces a future habitual response to resume that ‘knees/feet down’ trim position when having to complete a task or becoming stationary.
My definition of ‘teaching’ includes; role-modelling bad habits, instructing students to adopt certain positions or tolerating students adopting certain positions without giving corrective feedback about it. It also includes the content of agency training videos and illustrative photographs used in manuals. Even if the instructor allows it only once or twice, then it cannot be undone; it has been unequivocally advocated as acceptable.
If an instructor teaches and conditions a student diver to drop their trim whenever they are static or performing a task then they must expect that teaching and conditioning to have a profound impact on that student’s future diving behaviour.
I see this habitual response with virtually every student I teach. I notice it because I teach primarily wreck, tech and sidemount diving; all of which are courses where going ‘knees/feet down’ is a fundamental mistake, and can be hazardous in some circumstances.
Needless to say, it also promotes the likelihood of damaging vulnerable marine life, damaging corals and also disturbs the bottom which ruins photography or videography opportunities.
The habitual responses taught at the initial stages of diver education are especially likely to become insidiously ingrained. The longer they are permitted to persist, the more ingrained and unconscious they become. As more time progresses, breaking those negative habitual responses becomes a very difficult and timely struggle.
If you were taught to have negative habitual responses at the outset, then ALL subsequent experience that you gained only served to condition those imperfections deeper. That continues until you encounter a person, or situation (i.e. training course) that can help you break the habit.
Quite often, that time doesn’t come until someone reaches tech/overhead level training; by which time the negative habitual response has had significant opportunity to become firmly entrenched in the divers’ instinctive behaviour patterns.
As an example of the issue of ingraining bad habits, I recently taught a Technical Wreck course. The student was an experienced, active, diving instructor with Tec50 and Full Cave qualifications. He was an excellent diver in many respects.
However, throughout the course, I routinely noted (and gave repeated feedback) that he retained a slight tendency to drop his knees when static. Graduating the course, it was still an occasional issue and my guidance to him was to keep working on it and be very strict about his knee-dropping habit.
Diving skills work intuitively if taught in neutral, horizontal trim; where the student is unambiguously taught from the very start that their trim/buoyancy is a priority and shouldn’t be allowed to degrade just because they get busy practising something new. This approach creates a positive habitual response which, in the long term, also promotes increased situational awareness and decreases task loading when performing new skills.
I say that trim/buoyancy maintenance is a priority because it’s potentially unsafe to lose focus or control on buoyancy and/or trim anytime the diver gets distracted, has to perform a task or become static. I’ve seen divers drifting down to hazardous depths when distracted by equipment.
I’ve seen wreck divers go vertical and cause silt-outs when focusing on guideline deployment. I’ve seen technical divers blow decompression ceilings because their buoyancy and/trim degraded when practising air-shares or gas-switches. It is bad training that results in negative habitual responses that cause these tendencies.
Technical and cave focused dive training agencies have always understood the negative implications of teaching skills from the knees or in vertical positions.
Training is typically done from a horizontal-trim hover position. However, some of the recreational training agencies are beginning to acknowledge the issue of negative response conditioning in relation to neutral buoyancy based skills practice.
PADI published an article in their professional journal in 2012 that first suggested the benefits of “getting off the knees” as a more effective long-term teaching approach. Where adopted, this approach has been reported as effective. Based on this success, I would expect PADI to issue stronger guidelines on neutral buoyancy skills training in the future.
I won’t deny that teaching diving courses which insist upon students constantly maintaining good buoyancy control and proper horizontal trim is more challenging for both the instructor and the student.
That approach to training takes longer because the students must develop good buoyancy and trim before they can progress onto learning other skills. It is also harder for the instructor to control and ‘shepherd’ their neutrally buoyant students during skills practice sessions. The approach increases instructor workload, requires capable experience and no small measure of motivation and professionalism.
The instructor must truly and passionately care about the quality of diver that they produce in training.
Last, but not least, this approach demands instructors who are, themselves, actually capable of demonstrating and teaching the entire spectrum of scuba skills from a reliable, stable and consistent platform of horizontally trim, stable, neutral buoyancy. It would be very wrong to assume that most scuba diving instructors possess this level of competency.
In reality, teaching scuba diving skills in neutral buoyancy and proper trim demands smaller class sizes, more time, more cost; and a diving instructor that is willing to accept the challenge of training their students effectively for the long-term.
There will be some significant inertia in the dive training industry to implement these teaching strategies.
Many dive centres have a business model that panders to an instant-gratification culture who have been encouraged to expect quick, cheap, convenient and undemanding diver training.
About the Author
Andy Davis is a RAID, PADI TecRec, ANDI, BSAC and SSI qualified independent technical diving instructor who specializes in teaching advanced sidemount, trimix and wreck exploration diving courses across South East Asia. Currently residing in ‘wreck diving heaven’ at Subic Bay, Philippines, he has amassed more than 9000 open circuit and CCR dives over 27 years of diving across the globe.
Andy has published many magazine articles on technical diving, has written course materials for dive training agency syllabus, tests and reviews diving gear for major manufacturers and consults with the Philippines Underwater Archaeology Society.
He is currently writing a series of books to be published on advanced diving topics. Prior to becoming a professional technical diving educator in 2006, Andy was a commissioned officer in the Royal Air Force and has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Belize and Cyprus.