TEACHING NEUTRALLY BUOYANT
CREATING COMPETENT AND CONFIDENT DIVERS
You know that ocean conservation is super close to my heart, right?
As an Instructor, I get an amazing opportunity to show my divers why protecting the ocean is so important. I start by helping them nail their buoyancy - it's the one skill they can utilise to directly preserve the underwater environment. So, I start teaching neutrally buoyant as soon as they're ready.
But, adopting this approach to teaching is not as simple as it sounds.
In this article, I'm going to write about my journey to teaching neutrally buoyant. I'm not preaching cos SPOILER ALERT: it doesn't always work! I'll explain the challenges I've faced, why I still think it's worth the effort to try it out, and some tips to help you teach neutrally buoyant if that's something you're aiming for.
BACK IN THE DAY...
I became a PADI Instructor over a decade ago. It seems like only yesterday but I guess time flies when you're having fun! Back then, I was volunteering in a dive centre in the North East of England, working weekends alongside my day job as a teacher.
As a newbie dive pro I looked up to the more experienced instructors around me. I wanted to emulate the way they were teaching - I was new, they were the seasoned experts, I copied the way they taught students. During my IDC, the techniques I learnt to deliver and control divers were very similar to what I'd seen from my peers so, it was reinforced that this is the way things were done. I might be going a bit far to say that I was institutionalised, but I'd literally never seen any other way of teaching. So as soon as I was unleashed on my own students, that's the way I taught.
And it looked a little bit like this...
I'd have maybe 3 or 4 students. They'd kneel in front of me (whether we were in the pool or open water it was the same). I'd kneel down and my divemaster would wrangle them from behind, usually standing over them and holding onto their tanks so they couldn't accidentally move away. To help them be more stable on the bottom, I'd add a couple of extra kilos in their pockets. If the viz was bad, I'd get them to link arms. And then we'd start to perform skills.
... I don't teach like that anymore. I'm not going to lie, teaching with students pinned to the bottom definitely gave me more control which is essential to any new Instructor - especially when you've got a group of students. It helped me learn the ropes for sure, but once I had certified a dozen or so students, I felt I wasn't doing the best job I could. I wanted to create better divers.
Don't get me wrong, the people I was certifying could definitely dive - they met all the performance requirements. I saw it a bit like when you take driving lessons - you only really learn to drive the car after you've passed the test and get out there on your own experiencing real conditions. My divers passed my test, they ticked the boxes and off they went to really learn to dive.
But I wanted to be more than a ticky box instructor. I wanted divers to come out the back of my courses looking like they'd been diving for years - I wanted them to be confident and competent. Every time a student kicked up the bottom or accidentally bumped into something, my heart sank. That was my fault that happened. If I'm giving divers the qualification to go explore the places that I love the most, it's kinda my responsibility to make sure that they have the skills to protect it.
Over time, I got more teaching experience by working with different students, instructors and in different parts of the world. I stopped being a newbie instructor that just followed what my peers did and felt more confident to start changing the way I taught. I was adamant that in order to produce confident and competent divers who would protect the ocean, I needed to start teaching neutrally buoyant. After trying it out... I was right.
WHY TEACHING NEUTRALLY BUOYANT IS MINT
- It protects the ocean - obviously a total no-brainer for me and the catalyst for me going down this route. I know that every minute I spend with a student to help them develop their buoyancy is a minute well spent to protect the ocean. If I can create divers that are completely in control underwater there is a much lower risk that they're going to cause any accidental damage by kicking the reef or stirring up sediment. For those who are really good, they can even start to use their new superpower to start doing dive against debris and other conservation activities.
- It increases comfort, confidence and competence - when a diver has really mastered their buoyancy, to the point where it's almost second nature, their diving adventures are much more enjoyable. They can focus on the experience instead of worrying about their equipment and breathing. There's less general flailing about. They're more relaxed, their air consumption is better, they see more and they just have more fun.
- It discourages bad habits - we don't want divers to touch the bottom (or anything else for that matter) when they're diving. We talk about how bad that is ALL the time, yet we pin them to the bottom when they're training? If students never get the chance to practice hanging about mid-water, neutrally buoyant, why are we surprised they can't hold their position when they stop swimming?
- It's more realistic - let's use a mask clearing as an example. As a diver, how many times have you cleared your mask kneeling on the bottom? Nope, you'd do it on the fly! So while I get the point of introducing the skills while kneeling, I think it's really important to progress this to practicing the skills neutral so it's more like real diving.
- It allows easier progression - I don't know many divers who get open water qualified and don't go any further. They get hooked! If they've had the time to develop their buoyancy it sets them up for success as they progress through their future courses.
So what does teaching neutrally buoyant actually look like in practice? At its furthest extreme, this might mean that your students are hovering throughout in perfect trim. This is definitely achievable and often expected as part of higher-level courses like technical diving and pro. Is it possible to teach like this with brand new open water students? On a very rare occasion yes... but probably not for the average student - especially not in con1!
For me, anything other than being planted to the bottom is neutrally buoyant. It's not about drilling perfect trim and expecting them to hold it at all times. It's about them playing about and experimenting until the penny drops. As soon as they grasp the concept of how the air in their lungs and equipment affects their position in the water, I'm teaching neutrally buoyant. They might start on their knees and find that they're rising and falling back to their knees. Once they understand what's going on, they might progress to being able to control their position balanced on fin tips. Once their confidence builds they'll move into a full hover and that's when I get super excited. That's when I know that I can let them loose in the ocean and they'll be in complete control.
TRANSITIONING TO TEACHING NEUTRALLY BUOYANT
Changing the way I taught didn't happen overnight. To be honest, I was never truly happy with my teaching until I owned my own centre and I had the freedom to do things the way I wanted... but let's rewind a little bit.
TEACHING AS A BABY INSTRUCTOR
As a noob, I was more concerned with making sure everything was safe and I was in control. That's made it sound like I'm not bothered about that stuff now... that's not what I mean! When I was new to the game I didn't have the experience that I do now. After 10 years I know how to keep my divers safe, it comes naturally now as it's part of my routine. But when I first started I was making conscious decisions to make sure it happened. Because of this (and because I had no experience of doing it any other way), I chose to teach kneeling down because it achieved the best control and so made everything as safe as possible. My students couldn't move around, I couldn't lose them, if anything happened I could handle it really easily.
If this sounds like the way you teach, then I get it. I'm not saying teaching while kneeling is wrong especially if you're a new Instructor - I totally get it and I think that it's a great place to start.
After a while, I felt that teaching this way was too restrictive for my students. Having someone pinning you to the bottom constantly doesn't allow for self-discovery - especially with the basics, and I'm talking super basic here. Things like learning how to counterbalance the tank when it starts tipping you to one side. As pros, these elementary skills come so naturally to us, we don't even think about it and we certainly don't consider that our students might struggle with it. I'm not saying we should make a point of practicing these types of skills, but if a student is left to their own devices, these things will crop up on their own. We need to make sure that we're allowing the chance for it to happen. If a DM is holding on, it'll never happen because they will automatically fix the problem on the student's behalf. We should try to make diver training as realistic as possible. Once they're qualified there's not going to be anyone holding on, stopping them from toppling over so they need to learn how to control it themselves.
I've also learned that some students feel smothered by this approach. As dive pros, it's in our nature to help when we think a student is struggling. We're hands-on underwater and we offer lots of solutions when we're talking at the surface. The thing is, we need to ask ourselves if we're being helpful or actually stamping out any possibility of self-discovery. 10 years into this game and I'm still trying to develop the way I teach - that's why I'm currently learning how to encourage self-discovery more because it promotes understanding and confidence in lots of students. But, we're getting into diver psychology here and that's a topic for a different blog post!
TEACHING AS A FAIRLY EXPERIENCED PRO
Once I'd been teaching for a few years, I felt confident enough to start really experimenting with the way I taught. Around this time in my career, I was working full-time in Malaysia. I was teaching a lot of courses so this allowed me to test what worked and what didn't - I had back to back courses where I could tweak and change things and notice the differences really quickly.
The first change I made was to get neutral myself. I got off the bottom and I started teaching neutrally buoyant. I started demoing skills neutral, dealing with issues neutral, watching while they performed their skills neutral. This was REALLY good practice for what was to come. If you can stay neutrally buoyant while you're task-loaded, you've nailed it. But you can only develop that level of skill if you challenge yourself - and what better way to get task loaded than while you're concentrating on teaching!
There was also a knock-on effect that I hadn't anticipated. I was inadvertently being a role model. You know how it is with students, they want to copy what you do and aspire to dive as good as you. Some of my students started to bring themselves off the bottom - without me even asking. They saw me demoing and staying neutral all the time, so they copied. These particular students were always the ones I was most proud of once they'd qualified. Their skills were amazing and they looked great in the water - confident and competent divers.
I decided to take it a step further and get everyone diving like my star students. I had a masterplan, I was going to be the best instructor ever, I was going to tell everyone "look how good my students are!" But... it didn't work! It looked great on paper, but in reality there were a lot of challenges that meant I couldn't teach like that with everyone.
The main reason it didn't work was because I had a time constraint. I was working in a holiday market - I had groups of 4 (occasionally 5) and a maximum of 4 days to get them through their PADI Open Water Course. For those star students, it was easy. They were already comfortable in the water, plus they were that type who pick things up first time, every time. The majority of my students did not fall into this category. My average student needed time and practice to become confident and competent. 4 days was nowhere near enough for them to reach the level I was hoping for. Some of my students didn't even know how to swim so I had to start off by teaching them that first!
If you've got big groups and short time frames, teaching neutrally buoyant is going to be a struggle. There's just too much going on. Your students could all have different levels of progression so you have to teach with differentiation in mind. It might take so long to nail the basics that you run out of time to work on proper neutral buoyancy stuff. It might be that the dynamics of the group make teaching neutral almost impossible from a control point of view.
With 4 students and no Divemaster, I found it REALLY hard to control neutral sessions. It was like herding cats at times - especially if I was doing sessions in confined open water. There was too much that could go wrong. I quickly learned that I had to drop this idea of teaching everyone neutral and be flexible in my approach. For some students in their 4 day time frame, I was just asking too much. If it worked better for the students, we'd do skills kneeling. I still created decent divers, and I was happy to certify them. But, comparing a neutral student to a kneeling student... the kneelers had a lot of catching up to do.
It's really hard to teach the way you want when you have to work within the constraints of a dive centre and the owners. I've lost count of the number of times I had to push back against requests to teach courses in increasingly small time frames. I understand why I was being asked to do it - time is money after all, but I've never been prepared to churn out divers who I would not be happy signing off.
The difference today is that I'm the boss. A totally jammy position to be in I know, but I can teach the way that I want and no one can tell me otherwise! There's no one pressuring me to cut corners, no one making me take big groups, and no one trying to squeeze time. In fact, teaching my way (and James' to be fair - I can't take all the credit for this) is now built into our business. For Open Water Courses, where we're building foundations, we teach one on one, there's no groups, no set times. The course takes as long as it takes to develop the student into a confident and competent diver.
It's a great way to teach because now I've got all the time in the world to do whatever I need to do. If they need another session, no problem - we can jump in again. As soon as they're comfortable in the water, we start exploring buoyancy through self-discovery - what happens when you press those buttons, what happens when you breathe in, can you use that to swim about a bit without bumping into stuff? I sew the seeds and watch them grow. Then by con3 we're neutral without even thinking. I only wish we had a bigger training tank so this would work even better!
I also realise that we've got a pretty jammy set up here at The Fifth Point too. The only way this whole approach works is because of our onsite training tank. We can jump in with students whenever we want, as many times as we want. We don't need to worry about paying for rented pool time once a week where we need to get as many people in as possible to make the most of it.
Now, if you're sitting there reading this and thinking well it's all very well her saying all this stuff. It's not possible for me with my setup. Whether you're working with time constraints like 4 day open water courses or restricted pool times - there's one thing that will solve all your problems... CHARGE MORE FOR YOUR COURSES.
TIPS TO HELP YOU TEACH NEUTRALLY BUOYANT
1. CHARGE MORE FOR YOUR COURSES
Bet you didn't expect my first neutral buoyancy tip to be all about money, did you?! Rember, time is money, right?
Courses at The Fifth Point are expensive - we definitely have the highest prices in the North East of England, and we're among the most expensive in the UK. Part of the reason is that we include wages in our costs (most UK dive centres rely on volunteer instructors so they don't need to include it). Another reason is that the prices reflect all the extra time that students get. They're not going to be rushed into a swimming pool where they're in and out in an hour with 3 other classmates. When our guys come into the dive centre, the tank is booked out just for them for 3 hours and they'll do at least 5 of those sessions. They can relax, learn at their own pace and most importantly... they've got time to just mess about!
Messing about is SO important. Sitting drilling skills for a whole session is overwhelming. Sitting still while you wait for your classmates to take their turn is boring. There needs to be time to consolidate the learning and perform the skills in a more realistic setting.
As an example, let's say I do some mask skills with my student. It's 1:1 (or maybe 2:1 if they're learning with their buddy). They nail the mask stuff, we coach any issues, high fives all round. Now it's time to play. You can bet your bottom dollar that while they're messing about doing handstands and pulling faces they're going to use their new mask skill for real! Me too from laughing at them underwater 😉 It concretes their newly learned skills because they're using them in real diving situations - just like they will when they're qualified. A standalone monkey see, monkey do set of actions does nothing to consolidate learning.
Messing about also improves buoyancy control. If you want to start teaching neutrally buoyant, you've got to give your students the time to practice. We can explain buoyancy and demo it till we're blue in the face. The penny only really drops when they can mess about with it and experience it for themselves. And it'll take some students more time than others.
The top and bottom of it is that if your course prices are so low that you can't afford to pay for extra time (and wages if needed) in confined water, you'll really struggle to teach neutrally buoyant. You'll be like me in Malaysia where it'll work for the bright sparks but the majority of your students won't be able to achieve it in the time frame. You're creating a time constraint for yourself. If you charge more, you can pay for an extra pool session, an extra couple of hours of instructor time, an extra night's accommodation as part of their holiday.
PLUS charging more means you can reduce your group sizes. If you increase the price of your course you will make the same money with fewer students - that's a win-win for the student (they're going to get a more personalised experience and become confident and competent in the process) the instructor (they have more time to teach and create amazing divers) and your back pocket (more money woo!)
2. BABY STEPS
I've already fought my corner for teaching neutrally buoyant and it's benfits, but as I've also explained, it's not without its challenges. There's a lot of debate about teaching neutrally buoyant in the diving community. And like any opinion that divides the masses, there are those who hate it with a passion and those who zealously insist it's the only way to teach and berate anyone not doing it their way.
At the end of the day, what the keyboard warriors say is irrelevant and even everything written here is just my opinion that's based on my teaching experiences. Whether you teach neutral or kneeling is up to you. Only you can decide if it will work for you and at what point it'll work for your students.
If you do want to teach neutral, it's better to have this as an end goal. I set it as an end goal for confined water. I like to see they're performing skills neutral and completely in control before they go in the sea. If they need more sessions, so be it - I'd rather spend the time in confined water so they have an absolute whale of a time out there diving and everything is easy for them.
How you get them to that end goal is up to you, but my advice is to take baby steps. Don't expect them to get it the first time they're underwater and don't expect them to progress if you're not giving them the time they need (see tip 1!)
3. DON'T OVERWEIGHT YOUR STUDENTS
I used to do it - it makes life easier for them when they're descending, they drop like a stone! It makes life easier when they're kneeling doing skills, they're nice and stable. It makes life easier for controlling the group because they're planted on the bottom. If you want to start teaching neutrally buoyant, you're missing a trick by overweighting your students.
Instead, weight your students appropriately. This will naturally throw up many valuable teaching moments. Remember, we want them to learn through self-discovery as much as we can. We also want to make the conditions as realistic as possible. We don't want them to get in the habit of relying on being overweighted when they're diving.
Think about a typical student you've had. Recall what happens the very first time they try to descend. I bet they struggled, right? Our initial reaction as an instructor is to chuck another kilo on them to make it easier. A better way might be to ask the student some questions - they already know a little bit about descending from your briefing and the theory they've read. Can you connect the dots in their brain so that they work out why they're struggling to go down for themselves? The more they think they arrived at the answer on their own, the better the learning experience. They solved a problem, how clever are they! They must be a natural at this diving malarky! Can they connect the fact that they're a little bit nervous (or excited!) with the way they're breathing and how having big lungfuls of air might be stopping them going down? There's a reason they have to let all the air out of their BCD... can they link that to their lungs?
If we overweight them, teaching moments like this will never occur.
I love it when I've got them kneeling on the bottom after their first descent and as they breathe in and out they rise up and down. Again, old me would be tempted to chuck more weight on them to make them more comfy... but that's LITERALLY them neutrally bouyant! Now I give them more time to play with it. On the next session, I'll be asking them to perform that exact movement anyway - if I can get them to recognise and understand what's going on in this moment, it's going to make the rest of the training a hell of a lot easier. And from here we can progress to getting from knees to fin-tips and eventually off the bottom completely. Baby steps - we're not expecting them to be hovering the first time they're underwater!
IS TEACHING NEUTRALLY BUOYANT THE FUTURE?
The benefits are obvious and wanting to protect the ocean is high on everyone's radar right now. Although what you do in your own teaching is completely your decision, I'm going to put a bet on diving education going down the neutral buoyancy teaching route over time.
It's already been adopted by fast adapting training agencies like RAID, and last year it started creeping into PADI's pro levels too. You might have noticed it in the skill circuit evaluation criteria for Divemaster and IDCs. For skill demos, candidates can only score full marks on reg recovery and mask remove and replace if they perform the skill neutral. For the big organisations like PADI, it'll take longer to trickle down into other performance requirements but I reckon we'll see it more.
Of course, there's nothing stopping you from developing your students to that level while you wait for it to be official, and if you need any further help or guidance just give me a shout!