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What Is Deliberate Practice For Scuba Divers?

Most scuba divers aspire to improve their skill proficiency. They know that doing so will improve their confidence, competence, comfort and safety when diving. Deliberate practice is the most efficient and effective method to fast-track skill proficiency improvement.

Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.

Vince Lombardi

When discussing how to improve diving skills, instructors will routinely recommend “practising”. However, they rarely go so far as to explain what practice needs to include in order to be optimally effective. In particular, they don’t promote the concept of Deliberate Practice.

To transition ‘normal’ practice into deliberate practice, focus on incorporating the following features into your diving skill development time.

Deliberate practice is defined as being effortful in nature, with the main goal of personal improvement of performance rather than enjoyment, and is often performed without immediate reward.

Performance Psychology, 2011

What are the features of deliberate practice?

Specificity of practice

Deliberate practice is when an individual devotes dedicated time towards attaining specific proficiency improvement. It must be focused on a goal.

Just simply ‘going diving’ doesn’t constitute beneficial dedicated practice. The diver needs to identify specific skills or proficiencies that need improvement; then apply equally specific drills in order to improve those skills or proficiencies.

The key thing is to take that general goal—get better—and turn it into something specific that you can work on with a realistic expectation of improvement.

Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Demonstration of practised skills

You need to directly observe an ideal demonstration of the proficiency to be developed. That demonstration has to clearly highlight every sub-component of skill so that you have a clear understanding of exactly what you need to do and how to do it. It ideally needs to be immediately repeatable so that it can be used to remediate incorrect skill performances (this is one reason why an in-person expert instructor is far more valuable than watching videos before practice).

Attention to detail when you practice

In many cases, one incorrectly performed sub-component of an overall proficiency will impede successful progress. You need the right guidance and patience to identify and isolate flawed sub-components – which each need to be perfected through specifically tailored skills and drills.

Deliberate practice involves well-defined, specific goals and often involves improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement.

Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Immediate feedback during practice

Deliberate practice requires immediate corrective feedback. You need a tutor or mentor possessing sufficient proficiency expertise to swiftly identify faults and communicate corrective adjustments in real time. An alternative would be to review video footage of your training; although that isn’t as timely – and thus, not as efficient for development.

Even the most motivated and intelligent student will advance more quickly under the tutelage of someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate the proper way to perform various skills, who can provide useful feedback, and who can devise practice activities designed to overcome particular weaknesses

Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Practice time & skill repetition

More time devoted to deliberate practice allows more repetitive skill performance and remediation improvement of proficiency. It takes a large amount of time to acquire consistent proficiency in a complex skill (i.e. to perform the skill ideally). It takes a far, far larger amount of time to cement that skill as an unconscious, intuitive proficiency (i.e. do the skill ideally, all the time, without conscious effort).

Regular training leads to changes in the parts of the brain that are challenged by the training. The brain adapts to these challenges by rewiring itself in ways that increase its ability to carry out the functions required by the challenges.

Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Create detailed mental representations of skills

Mental Representation: mental imagery of things that are not currently seen or sensed by the sense organs

The diver should endeavour to improve their mental representation of skills practice. This may be described as their ability to “see the skill performed in their mind’s eye“; i.e. to visualize the skill performance. Expertise is often attributed to the level of detail in which a person can experience mental representation within their field of ability.

The key to improved mental performance of almost any sort is the development of mental structures that make it possible to avoid the limitations of short-term memory and deal effectively with large amounts of information at once.

Anders Ericsson, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Why deliberate practice is rarely found on diving courses

Sadly, few scuba instructors or courses allow even remotely enough practice time to develop consistent and ideal proficiency. Most are primarily concerned with rushing you through a syllabus of skills as quickly as possible – often in a pre-set amount of training time (defined by their agencies’ absolute bare minimum requirements).

There are essentially five reasons why many divers struggle to achieve rudimentary proficiency in buoyancy:

  1. Their instructor isn’t adequately proficient in the skill and is thus unable to develop that proficiency in others. In short, ‘the blind cannot lead the blind’.
  2. The teaching methods used by an instructor may be inherently detrimental to buoyancy development. Examples of this would be; teaching in a kneeling, negative buoyancy, position or not developing consistent horizontal trim control before attempting to teach buoyancy. Unsurprisingly, flawed teaching methods result in flawed outcomes.
  3. Training is conducted as a bare-minimum timescale ‘tick list’ of skills, without allowing adequate time for the critical dedicated practice outlined above. Scuba courses are meant to be “performance-related”, whereby student progress is determined by the time it takes them to “master” the syllabus at each stage. In reality, far too many courses are taught on a fixed timescale. Fixed timescales are only possible by lowering interpretations of “skill mastery” to meet the time available. You need an instructor who doesn’t compromise on performance standards, even when that means more time and practice are necessary.
  4. Struggling divers are incorrectly advised to “just do more diving” as the solution for improficiency. That doesn’t constitute the dedicated practice and, typically, is just a ‘blame shifting’ excuse for inferior instruction. It infers that the student would magically attain proficiency fumbling by themselves, which it wasn’t previously achieved on a paid course with a professional instructor.
  5. When struggling divers DO seek further training to remediate their basic skill proficiency deficits, they are instead ‘up-sold’ onto higher-level courses. I’ve encountered frustrated divers who’ve invested in training as high as Divemaster and Instructor levels in the pursuit of BASIC fundamental proficiencies. None of that extra training addressed their actual needs, but it did make money for the disingenuous dive pros leading them by the nose.

Five books to improve your diving development

Deliberate practice references:

  1. The Expert Performance Approach and Deliberate Practice   K. Anders Ericsson, Jerad H. Moxley, in Handbook of Organizational Creativity, 2012
  2. Applications within Performance Psychology  Terry Clark, Aaron Williamon, in Performance Psychology, 2016
  3. Effective use of technology for asynchronous learning to elevate students’ knowledge and problem-solving ability  Madhu Mahalingam, Elisabetta Fasella, in Unplugging the Classroom, 2017
  4. Psychological characteristics of developing excellence  Áine MacNamara, in Performance Psychology, 2011
  5. Developing the performance brain  Duncan R.D. Mascarenhas, Nickolas C. Smith, in Performance Psychology, 2011
  6. Expertise Nicola J. Hodges, Joseph Baker, in Performance Psychology, 2011

Andy Davis Technical Sidemount Wreck Diving Subic Bay Philippines RAID Courses Training

About the Author

Andy Davis is a RAID, PADI TecRec, ANDI, BSAC and SSI-qualified independent technical diving instructor who specializes in teaching sidemount, trimix and advanced wreck diving courses.

Currently residing in Subic Bay, Philippines; he has amassed more than 10,000 open circuit and CCR dives over 27 years of diving across the globe.

He has published numerous diving magazine articles, designed courses for dive training agencies and tests/reviews dive gear for scuba equipment manufacturers. He is currently writing a series of advanced diving books and creating a range of tech diving clothing and accessories

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.

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