Part 1: Striving for Comfort
When I teach new divers, I try to emphasize that diving is about being comfortable with a certain amount of discomfort. We practice being out of air and taking off our mask until it becomes no big deal. As long as you can remain calm in the face of physical and mental discomfort, I tell them, there are virtually no problems that can’t be solved underwater. As a recreational instructor, my goal is to teach divers to be ‘comfortably uncomfortable.’
This is something I strive for in my own diving as well, and it requires constant effort. As with many facets of life, there is a common misconception in diving that in an emergency, we will somehow rise to the occasion and be stronger, faster and smarter than we usually are, and this will allow us to overcome difficult situations. When thinking about a car accident, for example, we often imagine that driven by need and adrenaline, we will acquire super-human strength and be able to lift half a vehicle and pull that very heavy person from under the wreckage – even though normally we may not be able to drag a 100 lbs. sand bag across a gym floor. But sadly, this just simply isn’t true. In fact, we know from experience and research that the exact opposite happens. Extreme stress causes responses that limit thought processes and muscle control. In an emergency, we sink to the level of our training, rather than rising to the occasion. But there are ways to overcome this.
Enter muscle memory training… By repeatedly practising drills and scenarios, we get to a point where we don’t have to think about what to do in an emergency, we do it automatically. This is considered in recreational dive training, but is a huge, central component of technical dive training. Skills like valve drills are practised over and over so that we know our equipment intimately. We train with triple redundancy, not only with our equipment configurations, but with our plans and back-up plans. And all contingencies are practised repeatedly. As one colleague of mine states frequently and correctly, “you have to know what you’re going to do before it happens. Otherwise it’s too late.”
But practising things the same way every time comes with a deadly pitfall: complacency. Is it possible to become too comfortable diving? I think it absolutely is.