The biggest and most unexpected thing I learned in technical dive training

By Iris van der Zwan

I recently fulfilled my long time wish to become a technical diver. Being a dive instructor, becoming a tech diver had been on my bucket list for ages. However, it just never happened, either because of a lack of time, or money, or both. My motivation for wanting to become a tech diver was two-sided. On one hand, I’ve been fascinated by decompression theory and going deeper ever since I found out it was a thing. But, on the other hand, I also felt like I had come to a halt ever since becoming an instructor. Although I love to teach and coach others to become better divers, I felt like my own progress had completely stopped.

On to bigger and better things

So, I was beyond excited to finally take the TDI Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures courses about a month ago. Unsurprisingly I learned a great deal during my training. Basically, all my learning objectives were realized, but there was one thing that I didn’t see coming: a lesson in humility.

A slice of humble pie 

As a dive instructor, I was fairly confident about my dive skills – as you may expect. I pride myself on consistently delivering competent and responsible divers through my courses, and I love helping more experienced divers improve their own dive skills. Although I certainly didn’t underestimate technical dive training – improving my dive skills was one of the main reasons I wanted to become a technical diver in the first place – I wasn’t too worried about whether or not I’d pass the course.

However, in my first skills practice session, it became painfully clear to me that my dive skills were not as great as I thought they were. My finning techniques, for example, were not something I considered to be up for improvement. Things I normally did effortlessly, such as a reverse kick, suddenly were frustratingly difficult with two extra tanks! I was completely surprised and frankly, a little embarrassed. I don’t think I’ve ever groaned as much underwater (or in general) as in those first sessions with 3 tanks. 

Another thing that I considered myself to be great at was situational awareness. I mean, as an instructor, this is a pretty essential ‘skill’ to master. You need to be constantly focused on your students and quick to respond to problems. It had never been a problem for me, but with a bit of task loading and gas narcosis added to the mix, my mind was suddenly a blank slate. I had no problem focusing on basic and singular tasks like maintaining depth and checking my air, but any additional issue my instructor threw my way I failed miserably. Had these issues really happened, I’d have killed him multiple times.

The big question 

After the 6 mandatory dives of the combined ANDP courses, my instructor asked me if I’d feel comfortable diving with myself as a buddy. I could only give him one heartfelt answer: NO! I was fully aware and willing to admit that I was not ready to go out there independently. Disappointing? Sure. Bad for my instructor ego? Absolutely! Saying this out loud doesn’t mean that I was a bad diver when starting the course, but maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Something I often recognize in dive professionals is that we think we know it all and that there is nothing left to learn. But we couldn’t be more wrong. Even if you have no interest in diving caves, wrecks, or even going deeper, I strongly encourage you to take a technical dive course. I’ve had so many eye-opening moments that have changed the way I dive and teach for the better.

My takeaways 

Even after completing (yes, I did pass after a bit more practice) the ANDP courses, I’m still far from being an expert. I realize more than ever that I’m still such a newbie to all of this, and that’s ok! Admitting that doesn’t make me any less of an instructor. In fact, it probably makes me better.

My biggest takeaway from the ANDP courses isn’t that it improved my dive skills tremendously (even though it did!) The biggest lesson is that it humbled me as a diver. I learned that I’m not untouchable in the ocean. I understand that I still have a lot to learn about decompression. I realize that I still need to work on my situational awareness. I’m aware of my own limitations more than ever. More than anything else, that is exactly what makes me a better diver than I was a month ago!

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8 replies
  1. Tim
    Tim says:

    What I learned while taking a ANDP class.
    I dive side-mounts and we practiced many times shutting down tanks and turning them back on. Being on side-mount I had no problems swapping regulators, but on air at 150 ft, I think I react a little slower.

    We did a beautiful wreck dive on an old schooner. It’s hatches were open and you could go inside to look around. I had a new set of regs that were great, very easy breathing. This time they were a little to easy. The one I was using started free flowing. No problem, although I knew I needed to end the dive, but I was inside the wreck. I shut down my offending tank and breathed off my other tank. I then proceeded to slowly exit the wreck, but as I was exiting the wreck, the reg I was now using started to free-flow So I went back to my first tank and shut down the second.

    The first tank was breathing great, but as you would suspect a few minuets later it again started free flowing. There was no panic, I knew I could breath off a free flowing reg, and I had no problem shutting down the tanks while I changed from my left to my right tank. I signaled to my buddies and slowly headed for the anchor line while still investigating the wreck.

    While ascending I got to my deco stop, switch to a nitrox mix and did my deco. Beside the problem of shutting down tanks, it was still a great dive.

    Tim S

  2. Anthony Dzioba
    Anthony Dzioba says:

    Did you do the course without first using a twinset and/or stage? I dived a twinset for months before doing a tech course. Already had my gear configuration set up perfectly.

  3. Vas Proud
    Vas Proud says:

    This is a great to read – it is not so often you find people being honest about themselves and this ultimately is going to pay you back (lots) as you are no doubt way more aware and focused on what you can do to develop.

    Certainly it’s quite a step to go to AN/DP without an Intro Tec or similar experience – so that’s a factor I see a lot.

    Lastly, I get my ass handed to me now and then too – so I can relate and for sure it is a positive thing compared to never being challenged.

    Nice one!

  4. Micheal
    Micheal says:

    Iris, bless you for your honesty and you are not alone. I been experiencing the same issues as I moved into the Tech World of diving. I was pretty use sure I would be eating humble pie when I started, and part of the reason I took the class. I had dove twins before in my Intro Class using shop gear. Then I banded my tanks, bought my first Dual Bladder, and learned what sand tasted like. I did not understand that my IntroTech instructor taught me intro or exposure not mastery. It took me Hours, of reconfiguring my tanks/gear and moving from a Horseshoe to Donut bladder to feel comfortable again. I would encourage you to take the Cavern Course, it teaches you another level of task loading. In the end, I found a lot of skills I am not implanting in my AOW courses, I am not looking at the students to master them, just know they are there and where they really are.

  5. Andy McCowen
    Andy McCowen says:

    Fantastically honest post. I too took a tech course to improve my dive skill and it was incredibly hard. I can relate to cursing through your reg underwater trying to do shut downs whilst maintaining perfect buoyancy. I am a much better diver as a result of taking the course and continue to learn on every dive I do. Thanks for sharing your experience

  6. Ewout van Walbeek
    Ewout van Walbeek says:

    Excellent article Iris. Having worked in Sharm el sheikh and dived the famous Blue Hole of Dahab over a 100 times I wish a lot of divers were as smart as you. Sadly I have seen accidents and fatalities due to the fact divers ( and instructors)thought they were invincible, tried dives on a single tank. Be smart like Iris and train before you try.


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