By Brian Shreve  & Kate Swanson

A student’s perspective:

I am a few hundred feet back in an underwater cave. My lights are out. A blackout mask covers my face. I spin through the dark, blind and disoriented. A solid shove from my instructor has separated me from the line leading us out to open water and dry land. Although I know, logically, that I cannot be more than several feet from the line, the isolation is absolute, and I hear the instructor’s words in my head: “If you lose the line, at least you have the rest of your life to find it again.”

Getting into technical diving means getting your ass kicked, there’s no way around it.

That is the point of the training, really.

  • To challenge you to develop your skills as a diver.
  • To mentally toughen you to be able to think and act appropriately under (literal!) pressure.
  • To humble you a bit, as you are confronted by your own limits.

While open water training serves primarily to teach you skills you will use on each and every dive, technical training has a dual purpose for each drill. Yes, it is important that I learned how to find a lost guideline, in the scenario above. But equally important is the message I was internalizing during those long, agonizing seconds of searching: You do not want to lose the line in the first place. Line awareness!

My transition to tech diving has brought many moments like this one.

In another drill, we practiced buddy breathing our deco gas. This was incredibly challenging for my buddy and me. Two divers, who would have told you that same morning that yes, we had great buoyancy control, completely fell apart under the simple task of sharing a regulator in 6 m/20 ft of water.

I rose to the surface while he sank below the MOD for our deco gas. Oops. In a subsequent attempt, I took in a lungful of water from an improperly timed breath/regulator switch. It was probably entertaining for our instructor to observe, but it was frustrating and exhausting for us as students.

Eventually, we got the buddy breathing down. We also learned that:

  • Sharing a cylinder was not a skill we wanted to rely on under a true deco obligation.
  • Proper communication between teammates at all times is a necessity.
  • Disregarding your buoyancy for even a moment could be catastrophic.
  • Lungs full of water really hurt.

These were all lessons we had been told in our classroom sessions and in our reading, but it took getting beat up underwater to really solidify them.

There hasn’t been a day of tech diving training that I haven’t finished totally exhausted. At some point in every course, the rush of taking the next step in your diving career collides with the barriers of your current experience level. And it’s rough! But staying focused and remaining open to learning all the lessons in front of you will get you to the other side.

And when the blackout mask comes off, the lights switch back on, and the regulator is securely back in your mouth, there’s a whole world of incredible diving in front of you.

An Instructor’s Perspective:

The challenge of taking a competent sport diver and making them a competent technical diver is why we do this. Challenging ourselves to think of creative ways to help students overcome problems. Encouraging our students to rise to the challenge of the goals we set for them. Perhaps most challenging — managing the student’s expectations versus the reality of their performance and giving them a pathway to success.

Managing expectations early on is crucial. Ways to do this include:

  • Use of a learning agreement
  • Reviewing the course standards
  • Clearly stating performance requirements and expectations
  • Providing solid explanations and demonstrations of skills
  • Laying a solid foundation of skills to build upon

Learning agreements were covered in an earlier article. Course standards for all TDI diver-level courses are published on the TDI website. Reviewing them with the divers in the course helps to clarify and solidify what the requirements are. I always explain that these are the minimum requirements. I also explain why we want to hold ourselves to higher performance than the minimums. This also helps to address the third item above.


A key part of learning new skills is a concept known as primacy – seeing the skill done correctly the first time and being able to mimic that demonstration. It is this concept that makes a solid demonstration of the skill so important. Part of being able to perform a skill well is understanding how to do the skill, so a solid explanation is also needed. Divers learn differently, and this gives both visual and audible learners the input they need to master the skills.

Once we’re at the dive site, Murphy often joins the class. Often with humorous results — as long as we’re ready for him. A typical skill in most technical classes is testing a student’s ability to solve common problems for the environment. As Kate and her buddy found out, often times the divers themselves may be the problem. Through practice, repetition and determination, common issues can be worked out.

During that process, as an instructor, I have to swim that fine line between controlling the situation and allowing the divers to learn from their mistakes. The result is a diver that can competently execute the required skills at above the minimum required level of performance.

Performing the skill once isn’t enough — practicing the core skills on every dive develops that foundation needed for not only solid performance in the course but also as the diver moves onward after the course. Managing divers’ expectation of their performance here is also key. Many experienced sport divers expect to perform flawlessly and are often humbled when they realize that they must learn and then master a new skill set.

It’s a process, not a course

Taking a competent, single-tank sport diver and making them into a competent technical diver isn’t a course. It’s a process. Training and education definitely play a role in that; however, being a mentor and a role model are also crucial to that development. I’m not certifying students when I train new technical divers. I’m creating my future dive buddies.