Mistakes Can be Good – In the Right Setting!

Written by Donny McFadden


What’s that old saying? “We learn from our mistakes”?

It’s certainly true with most things in life however in some of life’s more adventurous activities mistakes have the potential to be costly. Technical diving certainly has an acceptably low level of risk, however it does have its own particular set of challenges and if mistakes are made they can have the potential to be serious.

Despite the deadly serious looks many tec divers have before a dive (we all know that person right?) technical diving is usually done for pleasure. We believe the serious looks come from being deep in thought about the dive mission, going through run times in their head or thinking about every possible scenario they might come up against and what actions they’ll take.

Even though technical diving is done for pleasure, there’s generally a higher level of risk than traditional sport diving. If things turn belly up the consequences could potentially be greater. To counter balance that additional risk, technical divers need their skills to be very sharp and concentration levels need to be high, which often explains the deadpan look before each dive.

A great recreational diving instructor will provide guidance, reinforcement and encouragement during training. It’s not the rule but some technical instructors tend to be more, how should I say… blunt.

“That’s it, sorry dives over, if this was not a simulated dive things could have gone horribly wrong, let’s do it again!”

These are the words I’m sure many technical divers have heard during training from their trainers when mistakes are made. You know it is a little tongue in cheek but you know there’s also a very real element of truth there too.

Of course technical diving instructors will explain in detail how making a particular mistake like breathing the wrong gas can lead to serious problems, but further to that many may craftily create a realistic, controlled scenario on a dive where the student by some capacity is compelled to put the wrong gas (simulated of course!) in their mouth and begin to breathe from it. I call this a simulated demise. It’s mistakes like these that stand out in a student’s mind forever. Hopefully never to be made again. For whatever reason that regulator ended up in their mouth – whether it be deception from the instructor or a pure mistake on the student’s behalf – that student ultimately has to take responsibility. This gets students thinking – mistakes can be made. Nothing like a reality check to hit home that there is also a serious side to diving. You can gauge someone’s attitude towards mistakes too. If a diver’s attitude is a bit too nonchalant you have to ask yourself – is this diver really suited for technical diving?

Mistakes like these can only be afforded under simulated conditions, as a mistake like that for real could be detrimental.

If you don’t think these sort of mistakes happen then think again.

I’ve seen an experienced technical diver break depth during a 6m stop on O2, in which he quickly switched back to EANx50 and ascended back up to 6m. All good right? Not really. Unknowingly to the diver he switched back to backgas at 6m instead of his O2 and resumed his decompression schedule. Through good team awareness this was spotted straight away and a serious incident was avoided. This diver now reinforces the essential step of tracing the hose back to the cylinder before putting it in his mouth as well as seeking team confirmation during switches. If he made that same mistake during training, chances are he may have sternly implemented the crucial step of tracing the hose to the cylinder earlier, and this potential incident may have been avoided.

Team awareness is an incredibly important skill that is usually foreign to most aspiring technical divers. You would be surprised the amount of times I have deliberately completed an entire simulated, accelerated decompression schedule on my back gas without one mention of concern from my students. Or going through the entire NO TOX gas switching procedure only to deliberately switch onto my simulated O2 at 21m – without a bat of an eyelid from my students! You can say it and say it again but sometimes until someone makes a mistake it doesn’t sink in. After a simulated mistake like that and a good constructive debrief on team work and awareness, in most cases, the students won’t make the same mistake again during training.

It is easy for divers to think other experienced divers wouldn’t make gas switching mistakes, but history tells a different story. It’s important to try to get divers out of that “follow the most experienced diver” mentality. Trying to create vigilant, confident divers is an important part of the teaching process. If all divers in the team are vigilant and speak up when they see something wrong, then this makes for a much safer team diving environment.

I am a firm believer that people learn from their mistakes so naturally the more mistakes an instructor can conjure from their students during training the more likely that student will never make that same mistake again. This style might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it certainly is one way of doing things. I think of all the fundamental mistakes I have made in my early days of technical dive training – breaking depth, mistaking another deco cylinder for my own, coming off the guide line, donating back gas on deco etc. Sure I was lured into these mistakes by crafty trainers presenting red herrings, however at the end of the day it was my mistake, and blame games are useless when you’re underwater. In these circumstances I was disappointed in myself however, there was no one else to blame. I took responsibility and took it upon myself to never to make a mistake like that again – and thankfully I never have.

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