Hurdles to cross as an instructor teaching open waterI have mentioned this in the past, that as a scuba instructor its not all about the diving, and this was clearly proved over my last class. Counsellor would fall into the role here. Over the past weekend I was working with a group of 15 open water students. Now those of you that know me, are aware of the fact that I don’t normally teach too many open water classes now. The new instructors in the dive center very kindly do that, allowing me to focus on divemaster and instructor programs instead, as well as technical dive programs. Last week though, I brushed the dust off of my open water slates and got my pool kit ready, including my lovely faded rashy and ripped up boardshorts ("you have to look good!"according to an unnamed PADI trainer!!). This was a 15 person course in spanish, and having recently been in England for a few weeks it was going to be a serious concentration of Spanish for me, but after a warm up of a morning, we were well into a true spanish/Tico/spanglish mix.
Anyway, I digress. There is a sharp, or at least I feel that there is, contrast between those people that actively seek you out to learn, and those that are "having to" take the open water program. Mind you, I am not saying that they still don’t want to learn, the majority of them do, but some are maybe not as driven or enthusiastic. In a group as large as 15, you know that not everyone will be reaching that goal of open water diver. So here in comes my point. How do you "nicely" inform people that they may not be suited to diving? Especially if they are in the former group that have come looking for you (or maybe it’s their other half that has come looking for you!). The first part of an open water course is academics, and whilst they can be tricky for some, with a bit of coaching anyone can traverse the academics of the PADI open water program. I am "old school" and teach the dive tables as I feel that it is important to understand the basics of nitrogen absorption before slapping a computer on your wrist. And then I have to add, please learn what your computer is actually telling you, and not use it as a digital depth gauge, oblivious to the fact that you may be about to put yourself in deco. This was so beautifully demonstrated by one of our DMTs last year (you know who you are!) and will get you a ban on our boat for at least 48 hours and a good chance to read your manual!!
The tables can be challenging, in which case we will use the digital table but eventually you will pass. The main challenges as an instructor will start to arrive once you hit the water, remember , its not all blue water and Finding Nemo. The water can be a scary place and you are putting people into a situation that may be out of their comfort zone.
The physical step of putting someone in full scuba gear with a piece of plastic in their mouth and telling them to breathe can be a tough one for some people, and that’s before you have even thrown them under the water (not literally I promise!!). So, I will use my recent group as an example. In three small groups we head to the pool to start swimming, breathing and playing around, getting comfortable with out gear. It is our job as a scuba professional to recognize stress, and this comes with experience but we don’t always catch it believe me. Common signs include dilated pupils, rapid breathing, and yes, we can see exactly how fast you are breathing from the movement of your chest and the insane amount of bubbles surrounding your face. Shaking I have encountered various times as well, I think more predominantly in the scared spouse/girlfriend/boyfriend sector.
Now, one of the biggest hurdles you face as an instructor is letting people know that it’s okay to not scuba if they don’t want to. Trust me, I would love to introduce everyone to the wonders of diving, but that doesn’t change the fact that not everyone would enjoy it.
If someone, who is unhappy in the water comes up and tells you, it is soooo much easier, but unfortunately that is rarely the case. If they face their fears, and admit, then you have something to work through and you can make a plan, offer solutions if they want to conquer their fears. Some people will just keep quiet, especially if they are in a group or with a significant other. They don’t want to disappoint. That is slightly more difficult to deal with, normally in the fact that you have to deal with the "disappointed" group or other person. Maybe the group is swimming around, high fiving, taking the regs out of their mouths, filling their masks having a great time. How hard is that for that person. I have in the past had to instruct a husband that I would not take his wife in the water at which point he got angry, but the relief on her face (including the tears I have to add) made me stick to my guns. A good way of dealing with this is to remind them of the fact that if they are unhappy in the pool, then add in the additional factors of an open water environment and it would be dangerous and stressful. This can be enough to make them understand and be happy with the decision. Maybe suggest an alternative like snorkeling, so they can still participate on the boat and group activity.
One of the big things that I notice, and again, this comes with experience, is noting other signs. For example, in my past group of students, only one admitted he wasn’t comfortable but we are going to work through. A couple of the other students were rife with excuses. Trust me, as scuba instructors, we have heard it all and we know that whatever excuse you give, you are nervous, you just don’t want to admit it. So please, don’t think badly about it we want to help you, but if you don’t want to do it just say!
I heard some interesting ones recently;
1. "I just ate so my stomach isn’t good" - really? I eat too. If you know you are going into a pool or ocean environment, a huge meal may not be the most recommended thing, but after an hour, or a bit more you will be fine. There are plenty of people in the world, and I know some divers are nodding their heads who literally dream of the burger they can scoff on the surface interval!
2. "I’m not weighted enough" - Try bending your legs in the pool and you will find that you suddenly can drop down. I refuse to overweight people as it is dangerous. fullstop, end of discussion . In open water, if you stop kicking up, magically you will start descending. (please note these are extreme examples!)
3."the mask doesn’t fit" - The mask can be one of the more nerve wracking things to deal with, I know from experience. Try as we might, it isn’t always a solvable problem. As instructors you always want to have extra masks available to give your students options. However, even with that, you may be faced with the phantom water episode, students insisting there is water in their mask but you can clearly see there is not. This is a good reason why I like to put students in clear masks.
4. "I can’t clear my ears" - To combat this one a bit I have added into my briefings that "if you have ear problems let me know, but I cannot physically do anything about it, they are your ears". A lot of people genuinely have problems with their ears including myself, and apart from signaling someone and then continuing yourself to try and equalize there’s not too much you can do. As an instructor, you certainly can’t equalize your students ears for them. Ears are one of the biggest things I find that people use to disguise the fact that they are nervous. One of the best things you can do as an instructor is get them to focus directly on you, nothing else and you can see clearly their face, eyes etc to look for other signs. From there, in the ocean, you can slowly start making your way down the line and before they realize, they are below and the ears magically clear up. Problem solved. If the really do have ear problems, then you can see from their expression etc and move them up a bit to retry. One of the things I have seen is people that are frantically signaling about their ears, almost too much and haven’t even moved. That is more nerves than actual ear problems. Do be careful though and watch closely.
So, with excuses, or real reasons, or nerves, how do you work with your students to make sure they have a good experience, even if they don’t continue on.
Do not make them feel bad. Scuba is not for everyone. Counsel both them and their dive partners if they have any, most specifically about the safety aspects and how important it is to be comfortable. If you have that student that doesn’t make the mark for open water but maybe for scuba diver (under the eye of a professional when diving), then it is very straight forward to explain that as an open water diver, they are responsible for themselves and a buddy and won’t always have a professional there. If there are nervous in any way, that can very quickly sway them towards a scuba diver cert over an open water cert, and it is their decision which is a big thing.
Help your students overcome their fears and build confidence in the ocean Talk about building confidence over time, then they can retry. Remember with referrals that they have a year to complete their certification which is big advantage to the system. With my last large group we had 10 out of the 15 complete and I think, that within a year we will have at least 3 more of them finish. Just a bit more confidence needed and time which we’ll put in.
Overall there are many things to consider, and when you become and instructor it can be disheartening when your student doesn’t make it through. Don’t take it as a defeat though and look at your options, scuba diver, discover scuba, snorkeling. Remember, its not for everyone, not matter how hard you wish and for those that make it, Rock on!!