Your student must trust you. If you have agreed to teach the frightened diver, then you have agreed that he can trust you and that you will support his needs. Don’t demand his trust with the famous “Trust me” line. Earn his trust by waiting patiently and not breaking your word as you lead them to performing each new skill. Avoid any line that sounds like “Nothing to it. It’s a piece of cake.” It’s insulting and belittling. Remember—it is NOT easy for this student. Spend your time instead, explaining in detail, what the next steps will be. Your student fears the unknown, so offer clear instructions and detailed demonstrations ahead of time.
When your student arrives at a part that frightens him, such as his first ocean dive, set up the rules ahead of time. Promise him that you will take him back at any time. If he just wants to stand in the water at the beach, that’s fine. If he gets to the point where he can actually swim submerged for a short distance, fine. But agree on the signals for going back. Don’t swim beyond him so that he can’t signal. Hold hands, if he wants to, so that the signal can be felt instantly. Do not question the signal, or delay your reaction. Don’t try to encourage him to go just a little further. Signal a big OK and give him an approving smile and go back with him immediately.
Remember, you promised you would support him and you must not break that trust. If you learn nothing else from this article, learn this one thing. Earn and keep his trust.
At no time during the lessons is this the time for the macho instructor to unexpectedly yank off the student’s mask or shut off his air. If you feel that you must test him with an unexpected problem, then discuss it ahead of time. You may, however, need to extend the training time to assure that your student really is ready. It is very important for fearful people to have more than the usual amount of practice so that they are confident and secure in their skills.
For students who are afraid of the ocean creatures rather than the water itself, the first part of the lessons in the pool may go quite quickly and easily. However, be prepared to shift gears from fast to slow when you finally arrive at the point where fear sets in. Each student will be different, so adjust these tips to fit the situation. Each added task can bring on a new problem that could not be predicted, so maintain an on-going evaluation of how the student feels. No one can make any assumptions about the outcome of each step. Since these experiences are new to the student, he can’t know what new fears may emerge.
Don’t underestimate the power of fear. For one student I interviewed, for example, ANY water on his nose felt like the first stage of drowning and brought on panic. It took a while for this student to get over this response and to be convinced that this water is not a near-death experience. Using a purge valve helped him. Each step may require you to be a problem solver. But that is the challenge that keeps the job of teaching so interesting. It will be your job to help the student over each hurdle that fear throws in his way.
Expect something unexpected. Your student may be doing just fine in the water but anything can happen. One student I interviewed, for example, was doing fine, but unbeknown to the instructor and to him, he equated time underwater with the increased risk of drowning. An internal clock set off the alarm and he bolted for the surface. When tasks elicit panic, try going back a step and think baby steps. For this type of fear, for example, have him stand in waist deep water and just breathe through a snorkel or regulator with his face in the water until he becomes comfortable. Progress to kneeling with his head just below the surface. If you know that the next step elicited panic, then take your time here. Watch for him to relax, then take a little longer. Let him repeat just this step next week if he wants to. If you don’t have any idea how long he needs, ASK HIM. Other causes of fear may require a different solution. But you are a good instructor—you will be able to design your own “baby step.”
For example, if you have no beach for your first open-water dive and you must dive from a boat with a student who is afraid of water, put a line down from the boat ladder to a shallow reef, in an area without current, waves or surge. It would only cause mental anguish and a big setback to try anything more vigorous with a student whose fear involves the water itself. Don’t even ask. When the student is ready, holding hands if they wish, descend a few inches at a time. Stop to look down at the reef or fish mid water. Accept a two-foot descent as a praiseworthy breakthrough, even if they do no more diving that day or even that week. The good instructor will think of many more ways to make his fearful student more comfortable. For example, avoid starting in cold water that requires a wetsuit and a heavy weight belt. Further, using the same pieces of equipment for each lesson helps to build confidence in the equipment.
You must allow the student to control the learning environment and you must be sensitive to the student’s pace. No one should be waiting for the student to perform a task. Other students should not even be in line, waiting their turn to do the task. You cannot set a time limit to master the task, but you can set a time limit for the lesson. If the class is at a dive shop, the student could opt to go slowly while the instructor performs other chores or works with other students.
If the class starts to go too fast and your student finds himself beyond his comfort level, panic can set in and they can easily experience a major set back. With the wrong attitude, the incompetent instructor can permanently lose this student as a potential diver! The good instructor can help the student to back up, regain control, renew his dignity and try again.
I have more than one friend who has been hurt by a macho attitude where the brave instructor laughed at, sneered at, or ridiculed a student for not being faster, better or braver. One acquaintance needed professional psychological therapy after a Caribbean dive instructor ridiculed her for being afraid and refused to cater to her need for extra time to overcome her fear. He laughed and said that she could never become a diver. After therapy she found a proper instructor and she now is a competent diver with a divemaster rating.
If you lose patience with your student, remember that the student has just done a very courageous thing. Even if they only went down four feet, they have gone down deeper than they ever thought they could. They have done something that frightened them. Remind yourself of your own fear and match their courage—put your head in that bag of frightful things we talked about earlier!
If you cannot be patient, if it bothers you to work with frightened people, if it is below your dignity as a SCUBA instructor to sit quietly while your student gathers up his courage, then gently, without causing harm, get another instructor to take your place.