Inside the Head of an Expert Freediver

After watching The Big Blue for the first time I remember actually becoming excited about holding my breath and swimming underwater. I hadn’t enjoyed nor wanted to participate in breath-hold diving since I was a kid playing in my grandparents’ pool. Give me a tank with air in it, and I was as happy as anyone could be in the underwater world. Back then if you asked me to hold my breath and dive down twenty feet, you could see the misery on my face.

Following some post-movie reading on the sport of freediving, I wanted to see just what everyone was so excited about. I grabbed my mask, snorkel and fins and jumped in the pool. I spent some time floating in the water trying to relax and to clear my mind. Finally I took a few deep breaths and down I went. Even though it was only a twelve-foot pool, and I only was at the bottom for a short time, I felt at ease and excited about how comfortable being in the water with no tank could be. I still consider myself quite the novice, especially considering that world records are set at incredible depths and times in this sport.

I recently took a course on Expert Performance and became interested in that of freedivers; specifically, competitive freedivers. I had the privilege of talking with quite a few individuals involved in freediving, including national (U.S.) and world record holders, coaches, and others both neophyte and veteran to the sport.

What I learned about the makings of expertise in such a young sport was incredible, and I gained valuable insight into the opinions of experts. I’d like to take the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with those of you who are interested in competing or are just curious to know what is going through these people’s minds.

Insight #1: What is expertise in freediving?

There seems to be a consensus that expertise in freediving is a combination of knowledge and experience. A thorough knowledge of all aspects of freediving, a mastery of technique (both physical and mental)and what one might call an ‘unconscious competence’. Experts have the desire to apply training techniques learned from coaches, and the drive to continuously improve the sport for themselves and for others.

Insight #2: The difference between experts and novices isn’t just experience.

Experts generally seem to have a more complete understanding of all aspects of freediving, not of just one discipline or of theory only. Whereas a majority of us may have an adequate understanding of our physiology and physics, experts know this subject matter inside and out.

Experts also tend to train with specific depth or time goals in mind, which systematically advances their attainment. Someone like me goes out and just has fun with no real goal in mind other than seeing some fish and experiencing the underwater world without scuba. I certainly don’t have the dedication to go out and practice everyday, nor do I set any depth or time goals for myself. I’m happy at 20 feet chasing a French Angel Fish around the reef ,trying to get a picture, without the scuba bubbles getting in the way.

Insight #3: The critical factors in skill development are dedication to training and an open mind.

Willingness to accept others’ feedback and effective use of a coach are essential. One must be aware of one’s body and what it is doing in the water. Effective use of time is critical, hence a coach (or instructor) is considered an essential ingredient to improvement as a diver, whether competitive or recreational.

Insight #4: Speaking of dedication… experts practice a lot… and enjoy it!

Experts generally train six to seven days a week and usually enjoy it. In addition to practicing freediving techniques, their regimens likely include gym training , dry breathhold, and various mental exercises such as relaxation and visualization (now that’s what I call dedication!).

Insight #5: Experts get into the ‘flow of the dive’.

In an ideal world one feels completely at ease during a dive, as if time had stopped. One doesn’t realize one is underwater, but feels ‘that it is somewhere one is meant to be’. Experts are often able to reach this state during a dive. They let their bodies take over and relax, something like to meditation. They do what is natural to them.

Keep in mind that this feeling is not restricted to experts in competitive freediving, but is common to all those who are comfortable with their skills and are able to dive in an autonomic fashion. Being in the flow of the dive seems to occur more often in experts because they are more comfortable diving and are able to relax enough to get into the “flow”.

Overall, I’ve become extremely fascinated by freediving, not only the competitive end (although it is really exciting), but the sport as a whole. I’ve recently been reading books on the physiology, history, and different genres of freediving, and continue to become more captivated by the activity. The more people I have the privilege to talk to, the more enchanted I become. I look forward to sharing more insights with you as my journey into the depths of the underwater world of breath-holding continues.

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