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The Secret to Diving Expertise:

Experience Versus Ability

by Andy Davis

If you want to be an expert diver, then you need to practice. Obvious, right?  It seems not…

Practice is grossly neglected in scuba diving.  It’s not a performance sport and nobody wins a gold medal for scuba diving.  Most divers don’t see practice as an imperative. There simply isn’t any motivation to do so.  Practice for the purpose of skill acquisition isn’t identified as a gratifying benefit in itself.

The only practice most divers undertake is limited to the confines of formal certification courses.  Even then, many scuba courses are experiential, rather than ability development focused.

For many divers, the gratification in doing these courses is the prestige associated with a new certification card; or obtaining some ‘license’ which empowers and entitles them to push their diving beyond prior limits.

Very rarely do divers enroll on training courses for the simple purpose of improving their ability. If they did, they wouldn’t be invariably choosing the quickest, cheapest and most convenient courses available to them. If they did, they’d be scheduling ample time after qualification to practice what they learnt; instead of rushing out immediately to undertake dives “at their new level”.

Why Don’t Scuba Divers Practice?

We universally accept that ‘practice makes perfect’.  We readily acknowledge the benefits of practice in other disciplines; such as playing a musical instrument or sports performance.  This common knowledge is rarely applied to scuba diving training.

The reason is that we, the diving community, created a perfect excuse to not practice:

How many times have you heard the phrase “experienced diver”?

How many times have you been told that your diving will improve “with experience”?

Experience is the diving communities’ lame excuse.

Experience is not practice. It is not an effective method of improving skill. Experience, without practice, typically leads to the degraded overall ability over time. Focusing entirely on diver experience absolves us from having to confront skill deficits.

scuba diving training

Labeling divers by their relative ‘experience’ is nothing more than the blinkers of delusion. At best, it’s an insult to those who improve their ability through hard practice. At worst, it’s the leading deception in a scam where divers lose their money on training courses and have nothing to show for it.

Racing drivers are lauded for their skill and ability.  In contrast, my grandfather is an ‘experienced’ motorist.

Most agencies and instructors don’t remedy this delusion. Actually, they constantly reinforce it.  You’ve heard: “Dive within the limits of your experience and training”.  You never hear “Dive with the limits of your ABILITY”.

For the conspiracy theory minded, there might be a leap to conclude that agencies and dive centers wanted to trap you in a loop of limited training and ‘experience’ diving.  Courses that might do little to improve your ability…followed by diving that highlights your inabilities… leading you to seek more training.  It’s a negative feedback loop that, at every stage, makes them money.  It’s a cycle of training dependency.

That’s just for conspiracy theorists though.  I personally don’t think the system is deliberately engineered for nefarious purposes. At worst, I think the dive training industry has just become disorientated as to what they are trying to create.  That being: able divers.

The route to diving expertise doesn’t demand an endless string of training courses.  In ability-focused training, divers learn what skills are necessary and how to perform them correctly. They are educated how to practice, review, analyze and improve their skills independently. Students are empowered to graduate training with a formula to subsequently develop their ability over time. After sufficient time to practice and gain ability, they are ready to add further skills and abilities.

Why Does Ability Matter?

For most, scuba diving is an occasional or infrequent hobby.  For some, it is a passionate obsession that they are committed to.  Obviously, the quest for greater ability and the pursuit of expertise is easy to quantify in the passionate ones.  So what factor should motivate casual divers to seek expertise?

That factor is simply ENJOYMENT.  That is, after all, why they scuba dive in the first place.

I can’t imagine that golf is very enjoyable if you never got closer to par. I don’t think I’d enjoy fishing if I never caught a fish.  I wouldn’t enjoy soccer if I couldn’t ever make a pass, score a goal or tackle the ball.

Sure… I might find sitting on a river bank relaxing on a Saturday morning.  I might enjoy a leisurely walk across well-tended grass each Sunday. I might enjoy hanging out with eleven of my friends for ninety minutes. That actually isn’t enjoying the activity itself.  It’s merely enjoying the environment and the social factors.

Welcome to diving!  People enjoy the underwater environment; and why not?  They enjoy the social aspects of a shared experience. Of course, that’s valid too.

But do people actually ENJOY SCUBA DIVING?

Does the average diver simply enjoy the pleasure of submerging themselves in scuba equipment?  Do those divers attain satisfaction from observing their abilities progressively increase?  Beyond the fake stimulus of high-fiving dive instructors deceitfully proclaiming “you’re awesome!”; do scuba divers really gain any personal pleasure from their improving abilities underwater?

Of course, they don’t. They enjoy seeing pretty fish or muddling around shipwrecks. The actual diving part is just a necessary evil that has to be endured if they want to enjoy being underwater spectators.  The actual scuba diving aspect is the frustrating part of it because they lack ability.

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Prospective scuba divers are told they will “enjoy being weightless”.  Is that promise fulfilled?  Not often.  Qualified divers struggle with buoyancy.  They don’t get that ‘weightless’ enjoyment. Worst still, their lack of ability only detracts from their aquatic spectator activities. But hey, here comes the classic excuse, the newly certified diver has to first “gain more experience” before that simple, sublime, enjoyment will finally reveal itself.  I think that’s called a ‘switch out’ scam.

Imagine paying hundreds of dollars to learn tennis from a ‘pro’. Having completed that course, bought the expensive racket and proper attire, you were still unable to ever return a serve.  Would you be content with being told “you’re awesome”; but the reality of your inability is your fault and that, naturally, you need to gain more experience before maintaining a  simple rally was realistic? No, you wouldn’t. You’d believe that the expensive training failed to deliver what was promised.

Why are scuba divers so prone to swallowing that pathetic ‘experience needed’ excuse? Why are they so content to accept the blame for their woeful ability at the time of certification? Well… It’s because the fish are pretty and what they think they paid for was a ‘license’ to go and see them.

Here’s the truth.  Scuba diving should be awesomely enjoyable.  Fish or no fish.  Diving is about weightlessly gliding, the sublime experience of effortlessly moving through three dimensions, soaring aloft by unconscious whim, blissful suspension over the abyss perfectly relaxed and with utmost confidence. Being underwater should be idyllic and meditative. Diving should be a transcendent experience.

Do you have the ABILITY to truly enjoy diving?

Embarking on a quest for expertise in scuba diving training opens a Pandora’s box of delights.

Why Practice Is Critical

Assuming we haven’t invested our pursuit of expertise in some roguish notion of an indefinable scale of ‘experience’ acquisition, we should be wholeheartedly concerned with improving our ability as scuba divers.

Buoyancy control, trim, situational awareness, air sharing, emergency ascents, gas switches, deco stop stability, frog kick, CCR bailouts, compass reciprocals, DSMB deployment, etc, etc, etc. These are all SKILLS.  They are critical abilities. They are the necessary competencies for safe, comfortable, confident diving at your level.

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Focusing entirely on ‘experience’ assumes that we will efficiently develop all of these necessary skills simply by doing more routine diving. It’s a flawed and illogical notion.  It’s wishful thinking.

How many air donations do you conduct on a typical dive?

How many emergency ascents do you conduct in 100 routine dives?

For the vast majority of scuba divers, the answer is few or none. Those skills rarely arise on routine dives.

Practice sessions improve ability because they enable far more repetition of specific skills; compared to the skills applied to a vastly higher amount routine dives. Practice sessions accelerate ability development because the diver is entirely focused on specific skill outcomes and are critically cognizant of their performance.

On a routine 60 minute dive, you might deploy a DSMB once. Your goal would be no more than to get the DSMB to the surface without catastrophe. You wouldn’t get feedback on your method. Nor are you likely to critically assess your performance of the skill and its subcomponents.

In contrast, in a 60-minute DSMB practice session, you might deploy your DSMB more than a dozen times. You’ll be focused on HOW you deploy the DSMB.  You will break down every aspect of the skill, noting where errors occur and improvements can be made.

Experience is a grossly inefficient method of improving ability.  Routine dives don’t provide sufficient frequency of, or focus upon, the skill performance needed to trigger real improvement.  Some critical emergency skills are absent altogether in routine, incident free, dives. Those unused skills diminish rapidly.

Deliberate Practice

There have been many decades of research into the pursuit of expertise. That research has encompassed scientific studies on expertise development within the fields of athletics, business, government and music.

The prevailing theories subscribe to the notion that expertise is little to do with innate talent and everything to do with hours of practice.

 Psychologist Anders Ericsson PhD devoted thirty years to research before collaborating with Robert Pool PhD and publishing the book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise”.  In that book, he expostulates a concept that expertise stems from 10,000 hours of practice.  In particular, Ericsson and Pool specify that the TYPE of practice is what differentiates experts from the inexpert masses. Furthermore, the wrong type of practice can lead to the erosion of ability.

Ericsson and Pool define the right sort of practice as “Deliberate Practice”.

Deliberate practice must involve two key aspects:

  1. Focused effort to improve a specific skill.
  2. Immediate feedback from someone who understands exactly what improvement looks like.

The importance of those two aspects is held in the specific definition of the words used. I will outline those definitions to help prevent any misunderstandings:

Focused” means that the diver is totally concentrating on the skill being performed. No distractions or ulterior motives. The activity conducted is the purpose of conducting the skill. The skill isn’t a component of another primary activity or goal. In reality, focused skill development should be mentally tiring.  Ericsson and Pool state that even an “experienced expert” wouldn’t be able to sustain a sufficient level of focus for more than four hours a day.

Specific” refers to the identification of a particular component of an overall skill. This would include using predetermined drills to isolate and develop core aspects of a greater ability, task or protocol.

Immediate Feedback” refers to accurate critique being received promptly after the skill is completed.  As an example, in American football, that’d require each pass, tackle or goal kick being analyzed and debriefed on the spot.  It wouldn’t mean generic feedback, such as saying “good game!” postponed until the game concluded.

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Ericsson and Pool are vehemently clear when they explain that simply “doing the activity” is neither focused nor specific enough to be categorized as ’deliberate practice’.  Unspecific, unfocused activity won’t be sufficiently rigorous to enable true ability improvement. Delayed feedback does nothing to help remedy errors and enable improvement through subsequent repeated skill performances.

I should also comment about “someone who understands exactly what improvement looks like”.  The obvious example of this would be an instructor, coach or mentor. That’d probably be a person at a higher level of ability; as this enables an understanding of how the skill needs to be performed. It would certainly be a person who possessed an unflinching attention to detail and owning the abundance of moral character necessary to provide accurate, if not flattering, feedback.

In some, rare, cases it might be the individual themselves.  The practitioner might have access to ‘role model’ demonstrations and examples of the skill being practised; for instance, video tutorials. They might also possess the ‘perfectionist’ qualities necessary to demand sufficient attention-to-detail and honest self-appraisal for effective internal feedback.  All that remains is the need to observe the skill performance. A video with instant playback provides that capacity.

So, all that’s needed for effective practice is a GoPro camera, an internet connection to YouTube… and a sincere commitment to perfection bordering on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  Failing that, simply hire a ‘professional perfectionist’ to enable your effective practice and development.

It is here, I must lament, that many diving instructors fail to deliver the goods. Rather than perfectionism, their area-of–expertise is actually in entertaining students. They masquerade as being motivators. However, all those insincere high-fives and vapid encouragements really just serve to enable students to ignore the nagging voices in the back of their minds that question the vast gulf between expectations and reality in the actual development of their diving ability.

If you want to develop a real ability, pass over the clowns and appeasers and find yourself a straight-talking tyrant. Someone who won’t put up with any of your nonsense and won’t let you off easily.  Anything less is a decision to accept mediocrity.  Hiring an entertainer – the instructor is more fun in the short term, but that short-lived gratification will deprive you of the opportunity to develop an ability to truly enjoy diving.

The theory of ‘Deliberate Practice’ illustrates that undertaking scuba diving for the “experience value” is actually of little value at all. Not if we are seeking to develop a real ability and striving towards expertise.

Reshaping The Brain

Ericsson and Pool also theorized that conducting dedicated practice caused changes in an individuals’ thought processing. They used the term “reshaping the brain”.  It was a literal term, as they noted from experiments that legitimate world-class experts displayed brain area growth linked to the discipline they performed. For instance, expert violinists grew more brain mass in the region of the brain responsible for controlling the left hand.

Ericsson argued that the ability to reshape the brain was independent of general IQ.  It showed specific neural connection adaptation to improve specific competency requirements.   Again, this is a trait identified in those who conduct dedicated practice, not those who simply gain experience doing an activity.

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Is Expertise Realistic?

I can guess what you are thinking.

It might be something along these lines:  “Andy is some sort of hardcore diving guy that expects people to devote 10,000 hours to dedicated, gruelling practice with a tyrannical and uncompromising coach.  I can’t afford the time or financial commitment necessary for that.  I don’t even want to do that.  Having seen what it entails, I now have no great desire to attain world-class expertise in scuba diving. Diving is my hobby, not my obsession”.

You aren’t wrong to think along those lines.

All things are best in moderation.  Few people will spend 10,000 hours practising anything, let alone diving skills.  The fact is that Ericsson and Pool’s definition of world-class expertise is unobtainable to all but a select few.  Competing in the Olympics, being lauded as a chess Grand Master, performing as a prima-donna ballerina or playing lead violin in a capital orchestra is way beyond the motivational spectrum of most of us. So is becoming a world-class expert diver. And that’s ok.

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We just want to actually improve our diving, right?   We want value for the money we spend on training.  We’d like the satisfaction of seeing definable ability improvement over reasonable timescales. We’d like to be rewarded with genuine ability gains for the time and money that we are able to devote to diving training.

What remains constant is that we can develop real diving ability through emulating the methods of those who strive for expertise.  Forget instant-gratification courses and the aimless pursuit of experience.  Devote a little time to dedicated practice.  Keep it real. When you have time to train, make sure you aim for perfection.  If you don’t know where to aim, find a legitimate ‘perfectionist professional’ to do the aiming for you.  The more effort you put into your diving ability, the more enjoyment you’ll reap as a reward.

A little amount of dedicated practice goes a very long way, especially with fundamental skills.  A handful of hours conducting dedicated practice with buoyancy and trim will stimulate more ability than a vastly greater amount of time spent sight-seeing on reefs and wrecks.

I cannot stress enough how undertaking dedicated practice rewards with huge ability development, even for a modest commitment in time.

A Personal Account of Practicing

As I write this article, I’m still a long way short of the 10,000 hours predicted to provide me with world-class expertise in scuba diving.  I’ve done over eight thousand dives over twenty-five years, but only a moderate fraction of that was dedicated practice.

I did recreational diving for a long time gaining ‘experience’ and doing insipid ‘continuing education’ courses, but I developed little further diving ability.  What a waste of time!

It was only when I started technical diving that I began learning what real diving ability means.  I thank Mark Powell for that awakening and providing the road-map for the development that happened after the classes end.

When I became a diving instructor, and later a tech instructor, I began to understand the benefits of conducting routine dedicated practice.  Enlightenment took years, but the more I understood, the more effective my training has become.

My full-time job for the last decade has been teaching advanced level diving and I’ve also been privileged to dive with some real ‘expert’ divers over the years.  I learned to understand what “improvement looked like”.  I am also lucky to work in an environment that allows me to conduct a large amount of dedicated practice.

Whilst teaching students, day-in, day-out, every skill I’ve demonstrated was also my own dedicated practice.  I became a ruthless self-critic, wanting to emulate those with greater expertise.

I studied the finer aspects of world-class diving ability. Competencies were broken down into the small details, practised in isolation and stitched back together to function like clockwork.  I also constantly learned from my students and fellow divers. It helped me comprehend the details of common errors and devise effective drills to rectify them.

For the abilities I wanted to develop that go beyond what I can practice ‘on the student’s dime’, I found the ‘alone time’ necessary to focus on the specifics. That was mostly through devoting hours in the shallow water and then by solo technical /overhead diving; during which I’d analyze and critique every aspect of my performance in real-time.

Again, you might be thinking “….but Andy is hardcore”.

Yeah, I probably am. My brain may have started to reshape itself a little over years.

The ‘high-five’ node may have indeed shrunk to make more room for the ‘buoyancy and trim’ nexus.

I sincerely enjoy the results of what I do. Improvement gets addictive.

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As an ethical and results-focused diving instructor, what I noticed is that when I conducted dedicated practice sessions for my students their ability improved rapidly. I got impressive results in a short time if students were prepared to work hard in class. Student’s acquisition of ability was far more profound than other students who are given only ‘experience’ or don’t receive ‘focused’, ‘specific’ and immediately critiqued practice.

Needless to say, training results were light-years ahead of those budget-focused diving courses whose instructors deceitfully accelerate students through the bare minimum standards of skills training; riding a wave of false-positive performance feedback. And then… “go get yourself some experience”.

Start Practicing

In respect to developing diving ability on qualification courses, you truly get what you pay for.  It’s HARD work for the instructor who provides students with dedicated practice. It’s not unforgivable for people who work HARD to expect more financial compensation than people who don’t work hard.  It’s also understandable that instructors who obtain tangible ability results for their students should charge more than instructors who don’t.  Of course, let’s not forget that dedicated practice takes longer than superficial practice.  Longer courses cost more.

Whilst it may take thousands of dedicated practice hours to obtain ‘world-class expertise’, just a few hours can revolutionize your diving ability. Find an instructor who can introduce you to that standard of training and it’ll change your diving outlook forever. You’ll improve your diving ability consistently thereafter.  In the longer term, you’d never regret the initial outlay of money and hard work.

The instructor who gets results for students is the one who’s committed to substantial dedicated practice over the course of their own development.  They’ll do more to improve your ability in days than a string of non-practised instructors and ‘experience dives’ could do in a lifetime.

About the Author

andy davis technical diving philippines

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.


Originally posted 2018-03-07 23:57:04.

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Tony Dwyet
Tony Dwyet
November 6, 2016 12:37 am

A very good article. It voices thoughts and attitudes that I’ve had for many years
Hopefully I’ve been effective in hammering them into my students. I like to think that I have.
Much of my time as an instrucor has been taken up with remedial training of ‘untertrained’ recreational divers, who were churned out by the commercial recreational traiing industry and told that they were ‘awesome’ when in fact they were bordering on suicidal.


Retired BSAC & PADI Instructor – Also now a retired diver. :(

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