By Mark Powell
One of the most contentious issues amongst technical divers is the difference between the self sufficiency and team diving approaches to diving. Like a number of other issues in technical diving it seems to polarise opinions.
The self sufficiency mindset is where the diver is fully self sufficient and approaches the dive with the view that they can perform the dive on their own and would be fully able to complete the dive without a buddy. The approach is summed up by the mindset that if you can’t do the dive on your own then you should not be doing the dive at all. The other approach is team diving where strong team work and cooperation are the focus of the dive and you plan to dive with a team of divers and the team works as a well coordinated whole.
In some areas technical diving has evolved into a culture of solo diving where many experienced technical divers dive solo. All equipment choices are made on the basis that you will be diving alone or that your buddy will be of no use. Gas planning is based on the principle that it is impossible or unlikely that your buddy will be any use in an emergency and so all procedures are based on individual action. The team diving approach also has its extremists who focus on teamwork as the primary goal and consider self sufficiency to be a sign of weak teamwork.
In reality these two extreme positions are not very realistic and when taken to extreme counteract the very point of the principles. This can cause significant problems as the advocates of self sufficiency can refuse to see some of the benefits of team diving whereas the advocates of team diving refuse to see any benefit in self sufficiency.
In particular the principle of self sufficiency does not mean the same thing as rejecting team diving. For example, pioneering technical diving instructor Kevin Gurr says “Assume all dives are solo dives; do not get into the water if you feel you can’t do it without someone else to rely on.” This is a clear endorsement of the self sufficient approach and many people have taken this to be a recommendation against team diving. However Kevin then goes on to say “This does not mean you should not dive in a team, you should. Be prepared to be separated and to have to look after your self.” Similarly those who advocate team diving do not mean that you should not be able to deal with situations on your own or that you need to rely on your team.
So despite initial impressions the self sufficient and team diving approaches are not as contradictory as they might at first seem. In fact they are just two sides of the same coin.
The best technical divers obviously have to have good individual skills. Building on your own level of buoyancy control, familiarity with kit and ability to deal with difficult situations are fundamental for anyone wanting to progress in technical diving. No diver who has thought about this question for more then a millisecond would ever suggest anything less. Team sports such as football, hockey or basketball are a perfect example of the team approach but players still ensure that they work on their individual skills. Players with weak individual skills would never make it into the team in the first place. Diving with someone who is not self sufficient is not team diving. If one of the team cannot deal with an emergency situation then they are going to weaken the overall team rather than strengthen it. This means that self sufficiency is clearly a prerequisite for team diving.
The best approach then is to aim for self sufficiency within a team environment. Each diver should have enough capacity to resolve any problems they may have and have enough spare capacity to be able to offer assistance to the other members of their team. If their buddies also have enough capacity to resolve their own problems and have enough spare capacity to be able to offer assistance to the other divers then you have a very strong team.
The strongest teams usually consist of experienced individual divers with good self sufficiency and self awareness, skills they have practiced while working together in a team. Training and practice are essential in order for team diving to work successfully. Each member of the team should have similar views so they are following the same general approach. In addition good teamwork only comes with practice. You can see this with national sports teams. Each player is amongst the best player in the country yet unless they train together as a team they will not be able to perform well as an effective team.
When team diving is carried out by experienced, trained divers then it is a very safe way of diving. In the case of a problem you have more options available to help out; more gas available, more chance of spotting the problem and more ideas on how to solve it. In the case of an incident, one member of the team can be initiating a rescue while the other sends up a delayed SMB and another provides a visual reference to ensure the rest of the team can maintain depth. It is when problems occur that the benefits of diving in a team become apparent.
Of course this is very easy to say but it raises the question that if self sufficiency within a team environment is the goal how come it is not that common? The reason for this is that it’s not easy to develop these two aspects. The time and effort required to master your own skills to the point where you are truly self sufficient and then the additional time and effort required to maintain those skills is more than most people can commit to. We all have jobs, families, other hobbies and commitments which are all competing for our time. It is entirely feasible to be a recreational diver and just dive a few times a year on holiday or on a couple of dive trips. However this is not the case for technical diving. If you are involved in decompression diving, trimix or rebreathers then it is essential to ensure that you put in sufficient practice to build up and maintain your skills. Some people may take to diving more easily than others but no one is born with all the skills and knowledge they need to become a technical diver.
The development of a strong team also requires time and effort. If it is difficult to ensure that a single person can dedicate the time and effort it is even more difficult to gather a groups or team to practice together. The individual commitments of each team member and the logistics of getting them together can be difficult. However the same principle applies. If you want to become a true technical diver then it requires a certain commitment in terms of time and effort.
It is because developing strong self sufficiency skills and teamwork require such a commitment that alternative approaches have sprung up. If individual divers and their buddies do not have the individual or team skills required they take alternative approaches to try to overcome these problems. Teamwork is made more prescriptive so that it removes the emphasis on the individual diver. Alternatively, teamwork is ignored all together and divers adopt a solo diving mentality. Each of these approaches might seem easier in the short term and more appealing to those who cannot commit the time and effort to develop their individual and team skills but it is a poor solution to the problem. In the case of emergencies the lack of personal skills and self sufficiency can cause problems for you and any buddies you are loosely teamed up with. Equally the lack of team skills may cause confusion and often makes the situation worse. So even though those alternatives might seem more attractive in the short term and may be acceptable for the majority of divers where nothing goes wrong they are a poor long term solution as they can fall apart in times of emergency.
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