Learning to Scuba Dive

A couple months ago, a friend and I were wading out in the Mediterranean Sea, looking to body surf some of the light waves that were crashing down on the beach. I’m a strong swimmer, I body surfed a bunch in New Jersey as a kid, and the water temperature in the Mediterranean was pleasant. No big deal. After 15 or so minutes of bobbing up and down in the water facing out toward the sea, fruitlessly trying to surf the waves that lost power just as they crested, my friend yelled over, “Hey, I think we’re a bit far out from the beach. We should probably swim back in.” I turned around and looked back at the beach. We were indeed way further out from the shore than I would have expected, given it had only been 15 minutes and we hadn’t swum out too far. I hollered back that I agreed, and we both turned toward the shore.

I swam hard back toward the shore for about 30 seconds. I was definitely moving through the water. I figured I’d be at the sandy beach in no time. When I pulled my head back up to stay directionally oriented, I glanced toward the shore, and I felt a jolt of panic: I was further from the shore than before. Despite swimming strongly towards it, I was now further from the shore than I was 30 seconds prior. My heart began beating quickly and my breaths became shorter. For a few moments, I contemplated whether I’d make it back to shore at all. I’d never had the experience of swimming as hard as I could in a certain direction but being pulled in the exact opposite direction at the same time. There was no one else swimming in the ocean who could lend a hand, and we were far enough from the beach that yells for help may not have been heard.

After a pause, my friend yelled out to me that we needed to swim parallel to the shore to escape the rip tide. Apparently there’s fairly common knowledge, but I had never heard of it. Thankfully, I was with someone who knew what to do when caught in a rip tide. I moved parallel, and indeed, within a couple minutes, we were back in easy water, and I swam easily toward the beach. I was happy to have made it back in one piece, but disappointed that my “panic mode” activated so quickly.


As it turns out, managing your panic impulse — not freaking out too much when something goes awry or when you feel claustrophobic — is key to becoming certified for open water scuba diving. (In the certification, they also train you to swim parallel to the shore in a rip tide!)

Prior to last weekend, I had never scuba dived, and snorkeled only a few times in Hawaii. But I had heard that the coral reefs are dying due to warming ocean temperatures. I figured I better go see the reefs while they’re still alive.

Scuba training is intense. Several hours of online training, Friday night orientation, all day Saturday and Sunday at the pool in the Bay Area, then another Saturday and Sunday at freezing cold water ocean in Monterey to attempt certification. Through it all, you’re being told to remember different safety acronyms that represent safety checklists, sign language (to communicate underwater), and a multitude of instructions for how to configure and operate the equipment. Along the way, you’re supposed to get comfortable breathing through your mouth underwater and figure out how to make sure your ears stay comfortable as you descend into water. Finally, you’re taught 10-15 specific skills that you have to successfully demonstrate in the pool and ocean: how to do an emergency ascent on breath alone, how to give your buddy oxygen, how to demonstrate neutral buoyancy in the water, how to clear your mask of water, and others.

Much of the skills training involves emergency situations that you will likely never encounter. The purpose of these skills is obvious at one level: on the off chance you do have an emergency underwater, you’ll know what to do. Otherwise you’ll die, as plenty of people do. The more interesting other purpose of these skills is to stress test you: to get you comfortable with things going wrong and to train you to just keep breathing in and out, and calmly figure out how to solve the problem.

One of the skills they train you to do in the pool is how to take off your BCD under water. The BCD is the life preserver backpack that has the oxygen tank, weights, and all your equipment attached to it. It’s hard to do, and not something you’d ever want to try in a real ocean dive. Almost all the students failed in their first and second attempts. When I took off the BCD at depth, I began flailing about in the water, trying to stay on the bottom of the pool even though the weight had been taken off my back. Meanwhile, I was trying to keep the oxygen line in my mouth the whole time. The purpose of the pool-only skill is to induce stress and build confidence. The students who dropped out of the class too frequently panicked and jumped to the surface. Removing and then putting back on your BCD under water was a big confidence booster…even though I’ll likely never have to use the skill in real life. It’s interesting to contemplate other stress tests we should be running in our personal and professional lives…

Some other quick observations on my experience:

  • I was one of the weaker students in the class. It was a good experience to struggle at something genuinely new and hard for me. In addition to all the scuba-specific training, I was also a newbie at putting on a thick wetsuit, using a compass under water, and other random tasks. And, in general, any activities that require fine physical motor skills — buckling and harnessing and clipping and tying knots — are not my strong suit, especially if I’m wearing wearing thick gloves and operating in cold water. For all these reasons, it was especially gratifying to learn the skills, complete the four open water dives, and become certified.
  • Diving opens up new travel options. I’m excited by the prospect of being able to add a day or two to a trip somewhere in the world, and go diving. A whole new world of travel opportunity might be opening up.
  • Diving is a dangerous sport. Our teacher recounted multiple stories of people who have died while diving. With danger comes adrenaline. I don’t do many physically dangerous things in my life.
  • Learn to scuba dive when you have a life partner or go-to friend. It’s a buddy sport — beginners never dive alone. Learning with your partner is a blast.
  • My ear equalization is still a little messed up. If anyone has tips on clever ways to equalize, let me know. For me to stick with diving, I’ll need to be able to equalize effectively and not have my ears clogged up for the week+ after diving.

Next up: The Great Barrier Reef in Australia. And New Year’s Eve in Sydney. My first time to Australia!

Small Example of Cultivating Awe

It’s almost playoffs time in Major League Baseball and so in the theme of awe and how to cultivate it, a frequent topic on this blog…

In the National League, pitchers must hit when it’s their turn in the lineup. Next time you watch a pro baseball game, watch the pitcher try to hit. He almost always strikes out and looks goofy doing it; he’s a pitcher, after all. He spends all his time in the big leagues practicing pitching, not hitting.

But then think about the following. That MLB pitcher who looked utterly goofy at the plate was likely the best hitter on his little league team, the best hitter in his high school, the best hitter at his college, the best hitter in his region growing up, probably one of the most highly touted hitters of his generation. Yet, by the time he gets to the big leagues, he is one of the worst hitters on the field. He’s only in the pros because he can pitch.

It reminds you how good everyone is: truly, the very best in the world. It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe as a result, and it can be felt even if you’re a casual fan watching an otherwise meaningless baseball game.

Awe comes from being in the presence of world-class expertise. But sometimes it takes a little bit of a reminder to yourself to fully feel it. A bit of a re-frame. It does for me, anyway.

Book Review: Eleven Rings by Phil Jackson

71AYbGJCoZL._SL1499_I loved Phil Jackson’s latest memoir, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Hugh Delehanty. It’s full of interesting stories from his time coaching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, amusing and at times inspiring riffs on his Zen spirituality beliefs, and smart advice on how to coach a bunch of individual talents to work together as a team.

Jackson is one of the winningest coaches ever. And probably the most spiritually inclined. I found plenty of insights on teamwork, leadership, and meditation that are broadly applicable. That said, if you aren’t interested in basketball, it’ll be a slog. There are many love letters to the triangle offense and blow-by-blows of seasons which will interest only those with an above-average interest in the game.

Here are some of the lessons and a couple direct quotes:

  • “After years of experimenting, I discovered that the more I tried to exert power directly, the less powerful I became. I learned to dial back my ego and distribute power as widely as possible without surrounding final authority.”
  • He didn’t call a time out when an opposing team went on a 6-0 run. He wanted his players to figure out a solution themselves — not bail them out.
  • Mix up practice routines by introducing novelty in a long season. He had the Bulls practice in silence once; another team they scrimmaged with the lights out. He broke the team into a stronger squad and a weaker squad and then didn’t call any fouls on the weaker squad during a scrimmage.
  • The Knicks coach, when Jackson was a player, wanted bench players to be actively engaged in the game so they were prepared mentally. He’d give them several minutes’ warning before putting them in the game so they could focus in.
  • Follow your breath with your mind as it moves in and out like a swinging door.
  • Practices for new NBA players would start with the basics, including footwork, dribbling, passing. Even at the professional level, re-visiting the basics was necessary. Most experts understand simple things deeply.
  • “At that time most coaches subscribed to the Knute Rockne theory of mental training. They tried to get their players revved up for the game with win-one-for-the-Gipper-style pep talks. That approach may work if you’re a linebacker. But what I discovered playing for the Knicks is that when I got too excited mentally, it had a negative effect on my ability to stay focused under pressure. So I did the opposite. Instead of charging players up, I developed a number of strategies to help them quiet their minds and build awareness so they could go into battle poised and in control.”
  • On road trips, he selected a book for each player to read. He assigned Michael Jordan Song of Solomon.
  • Jackson orchestrated a meeting between Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan during a Lakers’ trip to Chicago, with the hope that Michael could help Kobe understand the value of selfless play. After shaking hands, the first words out of Kobe’s mouth to Jordan were “You know I can kick your ass one on one.”

“He’s a Grown Man”

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich speaking to the press about LeBron James, after the Heat’s Game 1 loss and criticisms of LeBron not being aggressive enough:

He’s a grown man. He doesn’t need any of you to tell him anything. He knows more than all of you put together. He understands the game. If he makes a pass and you all think he should have shot it, or he shoots it and you think he should have made a pass, your opinions mean nothing to him, as they should not mean anything to him.

(hat tip: porejide)

“I Want Some Nasty”

My friend Kevin Arnovitz on what coach Gregg Popovich told his unbeatable San Antonio Spurs during a time out:

Wired coaches are a nice little frill of the modern-day NBA telecast, but the segment often produces a flurry of well-worn clichés and platitudes. But every once in a while a huddle sound-byte will transmit the essence of a team, its coach and its guiding principles.

“Are we having fun yet?” Gregg Popovich asked the team as they trailed by nine. He raised his voice enough to be heard over “Sweet Caroline,” but no more loudly than he needed to. “I need a little bit more dose of nasty. I’m seeing a little bit of unconfident, a little hesitation. It’s not supposed to be easy. Every round gets tougher. … Penetrate hard, good passes, shoot with confidence. I want some nasty.”

Popovich expressed himself with pure calm. This was one adult speaking to other adults, and the tone was as moderate and measured as anything we’d hear at a random office meeting. Five minutes later, the Spurs took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“Be aggressive” is the tired urge of every coach to players. “I want some nasty” takes on a whole new freshness. It feels more actionable somehow. It actually reminds me of DFW in the way one uncommon, vivid adjective can carry an entire thought.