Fixing The Sidemount Training Disappointment
by Andy Davis
Sidemount training is increasingly marketed as ‘just another’ quick specialty course for divers. It is not.
Sidemount students are sometimes sold a myth that a couple of days and a handful of dives (usually 4) is sufficient to gain mastery in using unfamiliar and very specialist equipment.
Sidemount actually demands a refined and proficient foundation before it can be truly effective in the water. That takes longer to achieve than many of the ‘quick’ courses allow. It also demands an instructor with a credible level of specific expertise and experience in diving sidemount.
When students elect for very short courses or train with instructors of insufficient sidemount expertise and experience, the results are, unsurprisingly, dismal.
This results in the sidemount student feeling disappointed that they do not look, or feel, like the polished and comfortable images of sidemount divers they see on social media and websites.
I routinely conduct private sidemount clinics to help improve or remediate qualified sidemount divers who are less than ecstatic about their performance. This remedial training reflects an additional expense; usually to resolve the consequences of ineffective prior training.
Cheap, fast, inexpert, sidemount instruction is the perfect example of “save a dime, cost a dollar“.
The areas most frequently needing remedial training are –
1. Weak Fundamental skills.
If the sidemount instructor themselves has weak fundamental skills and/or no experience developing high-level fundamentals then they cannot hope to achieve good results with their students.
Fundamental skills include; proper weighting, precision buoyancy control, consistent horizontal trim, effective propulsion methods, unimpeded situational awareness and robust team diving protocols.
Sidemount equipment won’t work efficiently if the diver isn’t able to hold consistent horizontal trim.
Weak trim causes a myriad of secondary equipment problems. The cylinders, hoses and bungees will not ‘sit’ properly when the diver isn’t in trim.
Weak fundamental diving skills coupled with incorrect equipment configuration. In this case, aluminium cylinders are set-up on a butt-plate. This makes streamlined cylinder trim an impossibility. The student won’t enjoy any of the stability and control that should be synonymous with sidemount diving.
2. Improper Equipment Configuration.
Sidemount courses are primarily equipment focused. Configuring, sizing and optimizing sidemount equipment for individual divers demands a high attention-to-detail.
The instructor must intimately understand the critical principles of how every aspect of the sidemount rig is inter-related to achieve optimal performance.
Every facet of the sidemount configuration; the bungee method, harness rigging, hose routing and cylinder set-up, must work together effectively. When its all done right, the diver will benefit from extremely low task loading, more ease in the operation of their equipment and overall performance in the water.
This diver has to physically hold their cylinder in trim. Their aluminium cylinder has been mounted on a buttplate and with the ring bungee method designed for steel cylinders. It represents the sidemount equivalent of trying to force a square cube through a round hole. Coupled with the extremely messy regulator configuration, the entire setup is guaranteed to impede the diver and spoil their enjoyment underwater.
Inexperienced sidemount instructors typically fail to appreciate the ‘fine points’ in sidemount set-up. The student inevitably suffers from that low attention to detail. They won’t feel as comfortable in the water and the whole experience of using sidemount will be difficult and counter-intuitive.
There is also a problem with instructors who are not expert enough to appreciate critical differences in the configuration necessary for steel and aluminium cylinder diving.
This failing is often indicative of the ‘fake it until you make it‘ approach to teaching.
The instructor themselves didn’t receive quality sidemount instruction or attempted to teach themselves through brief research online. In doing so, they read inappropriate resources and consequently struggle to apply inappropriate methods to the equipment and cylinders they use.
Incorrect and sub-standard configuration – no bungees to secure and streamline cylinders and awful regulator configuration. There is zero attention to detail with the regulator setup, creating gross complexity that would be stressful and confusing in use.
3. Insufficient Equipment Knowledge
Where courses are taught by instructors who have a very limited range of sidemount equipment knowledge it becomes impossible to optimize a sidemount BCD efficiently.
There are a plethora of different sidemount BCD systems on the market. They basically fall into one of two design categories, Florida or Mexico style, but optimally configuring a specific brand of sidemount BCD can only be achieved through specific equipment experience.
Instructors whose experience is restricted to only one, or a small handful of sidemount BCD brands, cannot hope to teach their students how to configure other brands or styles of BCD optimally and efficiently.
The instructor’s role is to empower the student to get the best out of their equipment. When that is achieved, the student should find that diving sidemount is easy, intuitive and comfortable.
The performance of the student in the water is very much determined by expertise and attention to detail that is, or isn’t, applied during the initial equipment configuration phase of training.
Improper selection and configuration of the sidemount BCD, causing the cylinders to push forwards beyond the armpits. The waist strap is located up by the lower ribcage, not by the hips – so it becomes impossible to keep the cylinders located where they should ideally be.
This is known as the “gorilla’ posture. Cylinder trim is impossible and diver performance suffers from limited arm mobility.
4. Insufficient Training Time
I have already described why specific sidemount equipment expertise and a high attention to detail in equipment configuration are critical. For a sidemount course to be effective, it must provide sufficient time for the instructor to apply their expertise and attention to detail.
When sidemount training is considered as ‘just another specialty course‘; run in a minimum timescale of two days and four training dives, even the best instructors will struggle to achieve satisfying results.
In truth, sidemount isn’t a specialty course. It is a specialist form of diving that demands very specialist knowledge and expertise from the instructor. Very specialist knowledge takes more time to teach and learn.
When an instructor attempts to cram a course within a bare minimum timescale, then they do so at the expense of teaching thoroughly and with a high attention to detail. There will be insufficient time available for properly configuring the sidemount equipment and also for the student to accurately ingrain the necessary equipment operation skills needed.
This sidemount instructor has applied little or no attention to detail with their equipment configuration. Unnecessary complexity makes the task of sidemount diving much more complex and uncomfortable. This would be a truly horrendous configuration to dive and would make every simple skill feel very hard to perform.
A sidemount instructor with true expertise has a lot of knowledge and proficiency to pass to the student. You might notice that the leading sidemount instructors typically specify a course duration of four to five days duration. If you undertake such a course, you will notice that it is, nonetheless, very intensive and comprehensive.
It takes time to adjust sidemount equipment properly down to the last fraction of an inch. It takes time to teach every critical facet of each skill performed. With sidemount diving, attention to detail in equipment configuration and skill performance translates directly into ease of operation.
As an example, I usually devote between four to eight hours of a sidemount course to conduct a sidemount configuration workshop. This time ensures that the student fully understands the principles behind effective sidemount configuration and that they enter the water with their equipment 95% perfect.
Very little time is then needed in the water for adjustment. The student will feel comfortable and confident from the very first moment onwards. That, in turn, empowers them to learn sidemount skills most efficiently and effectively.
If the student struggles with using sidemount, not finding it easy and intuitive, then it is entirely a result of the instructor having insufficient time or expertise to apply the right level of detail.
When an instructor considers that a bare minimum requirement two-day course is sufficient, you might interpret this as a sign that they don’t have much expertise and experience to share with students. The results will be disappointing and the student will struggle thereafter.
Aluminium cylinders being used with a buttplate. This is a clear illustration that the instructor has a flawed understanding of sidemount principles. Note the ‘quick fix’ of adding lead weights to the cylinders in a desperate attempt to keep them in trim. Ultimately, it is not workable and won’t be an enjoyable experience to dive.
5. Too little practice in the water.
Hopefully, you are already beginning to understand the necessity for a high attention to detail in sidemount training. Students need ample time available to learn and practice skills so that the right level of detail can be applied.
When students can accurately apply detailed skills, they will find sidemount diving to be easy and undemanding.
A ‘typical’ two-day duration sidemount course doesn’t enable a significant amount of practice time in the water.
Whilst some students may be exceptionally fast learners, the majority benefit from having extensive opportunity to get intimately familiar with the equipment and repeat the necessary skills sufficient times to learn and ingrain the finer aspects of each skill.
On my courses and clinics, I typically devote two or three days conducting multiple 90+ minute duration skills development dives in shallow water. These dives are intensive and stress the development of equipment familiarity and accurate repetition of skills with high attention to detail.
Training of this nature has a profound effect on developing overall diver proficiency and competency. The training is sufficient to make sidemount equipment operation and skills easy.
The student subsequently enjoys far less task loading and stress during their diving. That, in turn, empowers the student to enjoy much higher situational awareness and control in the water.
Low-quality instructors ‘make it easy’ to certify as a sidemount diver by lowering skill performance expectations. They certify students who are struggling with the basic operation of their equipment and who have not achieved any measure of proficiency or comfort in the water.
Once qualified, the student will struggle indefinitely and not reap the rewards that they were promised that sidemount diving would bring.
In contrast, a sidemount instructor with expertise and experience will allocate sufficient time for the student to learn and practice every necessary facet to meet a high standard of performance.
Having that ample time to apply a high attention to detail and conduct repetitive effective practice makes it very easy for the student to attain proficiency and comfort using their sidemount equipment.
A high-quality instructor will never need to lower performance expectations. Instead, they’ll understand that their students will ultimately benefit in the long-term by presenting them with the opportunity to learn effectively and comprehensively from the outset.
Another illustration of aluminium cylinders being mounted on a buttplate so that cylinder trim becomes impossible. Notice the extreme complexity of the regulator configuration. This jumble of badly routed hoses adds greatly to the divers’ stress and makes every simple skill exponentially more difficult to complete. Not only would this make sidemount less enjoyable, it also poses very real safety risks if an emergency occurs.
6. Too little expertise to enable simplicity
Simple, clean and functional equipment configuration and skill protocols are a product of superior instructor expertise and experience.
Achieving functional simplicity through refined equipment configuration and operating skills makes learning and using sidemount an easier, quicker and much more enjoyable process.
Do not underestimate the huge impact that instructor expertise and experience has on the student’s learning curve.
If a rushed or inexperienced sidemount instructor empowers their students to learn via a series of shortcuts and compromises, then that student will not appreciate or enjoy the inherent performance characteristics that sidemount is supposed to provide.
A low-quality sidemount instructor may not have the expertise, experience or professional care necessary to spend time optimizing and refining the configuration and procedures that they teach to their students. The equipment will be messy and inefficient to operate. The skill procedures taught will be inefficient and difficult to perform.
Overall, the training experience will become unnecessarily frustrating. The student will be faced with flawed equipment configuration that poses a barrier to easy learning. They will be shown imprecise, vague or ill-considered skill demonstrations that are ineffective in allowing them to achieve the desired outcome fluidly and easily.
For these unfortunate students; performing skills, operating their equipment and conducting sidemount dives becomes a painfully complex, frustrating and stressful task. This is not the outcome that students desire when seeking tuition.
This technical sidemount student is suffering from a very poorly optimized configuration. Every facet of their gear illustrates almost zero attention to detail. The decompression cylinders hang a clear 12 inches below the torso, causing a pendulum effect that destroys any sense of stability. Notice the student holding the instructor’s wrist as a result.
7. Fixing the training disappointment.
You should by now understand the flaws that I suggest are entirely responsible for student disappointment in sidemount training. These can be summarized as:
- Insufficient instructor expertise and experience.
- Inadequate time allocated for training.
These flaws promote ineffective training because they inevitably cause the following problems:
- The wrong solutions being applied.
- Weak attention to detail in equipment configuration and skill protocols.
- Compromises and short-cuts from optimal solutions.
- Lowering of student performance expectations.
- Student stress and frustration presenting a barrier to learning.
- Inefficient use of constrained training time.
Needless to say, the results speak for themselves. Badly trained sidemount divers are usually very easy to identify; either through the ineffectiveness of their configuration and low proficiency in the water or by their cynical attitude towards sidemount diving.
With this in mind, the obvious solution to fixing the sidemount training disappointment should be quite clear:
- Ensure the sidemount instructor has genuine expertise and ample experience.
- Allocate sufficient training time for that instructor to convey their expertise and experience to the student.
8. Instructor Experience.
Sidemount isn’t “just another specialty course”. It is a highly specialist and distinct approach to scuba diving. The instructor teaching it needs to be a genuine specialist in sidemount use and applications.
They should have hundreds, if not thousands, of hours experience using sidemount. They should also have a breadth of experience covering a wide variety of equipment options and alternatives.
This requires that the instructor actually gain significant experience diving sidemount before attempting to teach it. Sidemount should be their preferred method of diving. They should find the time to dive it frequently.
Obviously, this demand for specific sidemount experience precludes those instructors who do a fast-track ‘specialty’ instructor course and leap directly into teaching it. Their experience will be pitiful. The best they could hope to do is ‘fake it until they make it‘, but their students will suffer for that. In my mind, that is fraudulent.
Once qualified, the sidemount instructor shouldn’t only ever dive sidemount when teaching it. That would be too infrequent to amass any real experience and proficiency. One way or another, the instructor must find the time and motivation to dive sidemount.
A specialist sidemount instructor has ample opportunity to do that. Non-specialist instructors have to make the opportunity to regularly dive sidemount outside of their normal teaching schedule.
9. Instructor Expertise.
Sidemount has firmly entered the arena of recreational diving, but nonetheless, it reflects a standard of equipment configuration and operating skills that is more akin to technical diving standards.
Prior experience only diving in a recreational jacket BCD will not effectively prepare an instructor with a proficient skill set for configuring, adjusting, refining and operating sidemount equipment.
The recreational instructor in a jacket BCD doesn’t ever have to individually fine-tune a harness, operate bolt-snaps on D-rings, or concern themselves with regulator configuration and hose management. Neither do they have to assess and simplify skills, procedures and protocols for the utmost efficiency.
Those more typically represent a common approach, skillset and mindset for competent technical diving instructors.
Ideally, that means the sidemount instructor should have more expertise to offer if they have previously dove and taught technical and/or overhead environment diving.
If they haven’t, then they should have ensured that they received very comprehensive and intensive sidemount instructor training from an instructor who has.
Expertise isn’t something that can be acquired on a short ‘specialty’ instructor course.
10. Sufficient Training Time.
Sidemount isn’t something that most people can learn in a weekend. At least, not if they want to enjoy proficiency, comfort with it – to actually enjoy sidemount for the benefits it should provide.
Depending on the sidemount equipment used, a reasonable sidemount class should devote a full day to equipment configuration, dry skills practice and theory study. The equipment should be 95% optimized before they get into the water, with only quick, minor tweaks needed thereafter.
The student should then be afforded with ample time in shallow water to gain comfortable equipment familiarity and practice a comprehensive syllabus of skills with an emphasis on attention to detail. Many students will also need time to improve and refine their fundamental diving skills, especially buoyancy, trim, control and propulsion – as these are an inherent prerequisite for effective use of sidemount.
The fundamental and sidemount skill development practice is likely to take another full day. Real proficiency only becomes apparent for most divers after approximately 240+ minutes of skills practice.
Only when the student has developed consistent and reliable skill proficiency should they be taken to conduct actual sidemount training dives. This is where they start to apply their new competencies. They should be able to do so as if it were second-nature. It should by then, be easy and intuitive for them. Most agencies syllabus requires at least three or four actual dives to be conducted for certification. This will take another day or two.
Total all of that training time together and it becomes apparent that a two-day program must fall far short of the ideal. It may be suitable for particularly fast learners, those with strong pre-existing diving proficiency and/or with experience in technical diving.
However, for the ‘average’ student there is simply no substitute for having the time and opportunity to learn and practice with a high attention to detail from a truly expert instructor.
You might also enjoy reading:
The Two Schools of Sidemount Design Heritage
How to build your own DIY custom sidemount harness
Ultimate guide to sidemount cylinder trim
How to find the optimal height for sidemount cylinder bands
Ultimate guide to setting up your sidemount harness.
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. He tests and reviews diving gear for major manufacturers and consults for 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.