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Secrets of Fundamentals: the top mistakes people make

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Secrets from GUE Fundamentals 2 of 5. What are the most common problems and mistakes people make on fundies, and how can I avoid doing the same. Thanks for all the comments and feedback about the first article. Time for article 2


This article outlines the most common problems and mistakes that people make on fundamentals. Or, putting it another way, the reasons why some people come out of fundies looking like they've been rogered by a Polar Bear. 

Let's put this in perspective. GUE Fundamentals can be a very simple course. The clue is in the name. It's the fundamentals. It's designed to instil a collection of basic skills that will serve the diver well in their recreational thirty metre (100 foot) diving. In addition, it's designed to identify those people who possess the ability to go and do more advanced training with GUE, and prepare people for that training. It's neither US NAVY SEAL BUD/s nor UKSF Selection. Most agencies have longer exams. PADI has more strenuous swim tests. It's just an open water course done neutrally buoyant and horizontal. Although admittedly tempted, I have never struck, beaten, or even shouted at a student. I have never switched off someone's gas, or removed a reg from their mouth. They may get a finger wagging in front of them but frankly if they can't handle that they need to nut up or shut up. I never raise my voice. My job is to reduce stress, not increase it. I like to bring peace and calm where there is worry and fear. Yet some people emerge from fundamentals like people emerging from a fallout shelter following a nuclear war, looking exhausted and shell shocked. They look more traumatised than a Scout visit to the BBC TV centre in the 70s. You see them on a Sunday evening, quite unable to comprehend what has just happened to them, saying things like "I had no idea it would be like this" and "this course is too hard", ignoring the fact that the Advanced Open Water diver with 75 dives that was their team mate sailed through the course laughing and joking. This article attempts to identify the difference between Diver 1, who loved the course and came out of it with a pass, and Diver 2, who may or may not have passed the course, but has come out of it thinking it was the hardest thing they have ever done, and glad it is all over. 


Problem 1 - Failure to prepare

I'm guilty of this. Many years ago I did TDI Advanced Nitrox and Decompression Procedures with Mark Powell. I did it because I wanted the "next" qualification and it would "let" me go deeper and longer. I didn't prepare for the course. As a result the course chewed me up and spat me out. I was constantly struggling, and Mark was constantly having to split his attention between me, and the rest of the students. He failed me, and rightly so. I hadn't done any of the background reading. I hadn't become comfortable in my kit.  It was a nightmare. It woke me up and I went back a month later and passed it. I never made the same mistake with a diving course again. 

Diver 1 has read all the background materials. He's done all the online quizzes. I know this because when he does them the GUE website emails me his answers so I can discuss them with him. He also emailed me weeks ago with a list of his equipment asking if everything is ok. Once we got everything sorted by email he went and did a couple of weekends in a quarry without changing any equipment at all so that he has started to become familiar with it. He's been practising buoyancy control using his wing, and although he's still struggling, he thinks he's starting to get the hang of it. He also, on my advice, did a weight check. He and I have been bouncing emails around for a few weeks. Every time he thinks of a question, he emails me, and I respond. He's excited and looking forward to the course.

Diver 2 is a different story.

Diver 2 has not read any of the background materials because "he hasn't had the time". I know he hasn't done the background quizzes because I never got email confirmations. I emailed him 4 weeks before and 2 weeks before the course to confirm he had checked his equipment according to the GUE standards, but heard nothing back. Alarm bells are ringing. People are busy, I get that. Believe me, I'm pretty busy. I'm busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. However, if you are going to spend £500 on having a professional instruct you, it's probably worth listening to their advice on how to prepare for the course. On the theory day, when I ask the divers how many dives they have done since they last changed a bit of equipment Diver 1 says "15". Diver two makes a joke of it and says he had to buy a new wing on the internet in the days leading up to the course. Oh, and also he hasn't had time to do any of the background reading but he's sure it will be fine. The rest of the course laugh with him. Grabbing a pencil, I lunge across the room and repeatedly stab him in the face, holding him down and screaming with each stab "what did I tell you not to do, what did I tell you not to do". Eventually I calm down and drag his corpse out of the classroom and bury it in the woods whilst the rest of the class sit in stunned silence. Whoops. Sorry, lost myself for a minute there. Haha, a man can dream. Where was I? Ahh Yes. I smile as well but know internally that this diver has just made life difficult for themselves.

You see, fundies is a mind-blowingly busy course. It's not particularly difficult, but it is very busy. Fairly commonly in feedback people say to me "I wish it was five days, or six". This is unfortunately easy to say, but I wonder whether people would in reality balk at paying for five, or indeed six, days of my time. It's a busy old course. We start at 8 am and finish at 6 or 7pm. There are short breaks but other than that it's relentless. This is fine, and thousands of divers have proved this is perfectly manageable as long as you are not also trying to learn how to use your equipment at the same time. And you listen. If you have not been in a twinset before, or not used your wing for buoyancy control, then you have to try and fit space in your head for becoming familiar with your equipment as well as what's happening on the course. 

If you have done all the background reading then the theory day just fills in the blanks. In fact, I am able to push your knowledge a bit further if you took it all in. The time pressure comes off everyone. Diver 1 can just listen to the theory day, and ask pertinent questions about the areas he is not completely confident about, or indeed areas he has a particular interest in. It's all new to diver 2. He enjoys the GUE introduction, and my explanation of the course, but once we start talking about minimum decompression, minimum  gas, and the physics behind diving, his eyes start to glaze over. His brain is getting tired. This is understandable. The theory day lasts all day, except for a brief break when I rush people to a swimming pool for testing there. It's a lot to take in, especially if you haven't done any of the background reading. I feel sorry for Diver2, but he really brought this upon himself and there is little I can do. I sent out emails advising him how to avoid precisely this situation. 

Behind the scenes, things are not going well for Diver2. The assessment for GUE Fundamentals start the moment you turn up for the course, and include your attitude out of the water as well as your skills in water. Failure to listen to the instructor and prepare for the course as he advised is already a mark down. We are looking to train people to become team members in GUE projects. Doing a skill in the water and getting a tick in the box is not good enough. Doing EVERY skill in the water perfectly might not be good enough if your attitude stinks out of the water.

Off to the swimming pool, and Diver1 tells me he is nervous about the swim test. He thanks me for the advice in the emails that told him to go swimming half a dozen times before the course. He's done it, and thinks he should be ok, but is worried because now is when it counts. Diver2 tells me he has been a swimmer for years, although hasn't been for a year or two. I make reassuring noises, whilst inside I begin to wonder how long it would take me to beat him to death with a soft polystyrene dive float.

What these divers have not allowed for is the adrenaline and self imposed stress of performing in front of an instructor. This works well for Diver1. Because the stress has been building in him for a while, he has translated this into practice, and will end up not only passing the swim test but doing it faster than he has ever done. He will be delighted. I will see a weight leave his shoulders, and know that the nasty bit is over for him. Diver 2 is a different story. Diver 2 has just realised that he hasn't been swimming for two years, and if he messes this up he will not only fail the course, but have to tell everyone that he did a GUE course and didn't even get past the swim test on day 1. This stress hits him like a sledgehammer. He flounders through the swim test and takes several attempts at the underwater swim. This leaves his completely flustered. When we move onto the back kick and helicopter turn in the swimming pool, his mind is really somewhere else. He's starting to get nervous about the course, because day 1 has been harder than he thought. He's imagining all kinds of horrible things over the next few days.

At the end of day 1 Diver One is excited about the course and really enjoying himself. He has an early night. Diver 2 is now really worried. He sits up and checks the equipment standards. Fairly regularly, I see a light on in the car park as a diver one starts fettling his kit to bring it into line, or I get a knock on the door to ask if he can borrow something at the very last minute. 

Problem: Failure to prepare.

Solution: Read the background materials. Ensure your equipment is completely compliant with the course standards and do enough diving in it that it is familiar before the course. Use your instructor as a mentor to get all this right. Go swimming half a dozen times before the course and ensure you can do both the surface swim and underwater swim within the documented times. Most importantly, your GUE instructor will advise you how to prepare for the course. Listen to him or her.


Problem 2 - Over preparing

Before leaving this "preparation" section let's talk briefly about the opposite problem, over preparation. I am guilty of this in the past as well. People are so focussed on getting a pass, especially a tech pass, that they convince themselves that the way to ensure this is to sail though the course without learning anything. They practice relentlessly before the course. Valve drills are done dozens or hundreds of times with mates. S drills and done endlessly. The diver has nothing to learn. Except they really have. You see, you will NOT have learned the skills correctly. It may be a minor detail, such as taking the offered regulator with the wrong hand during an S drill, or a flaw in the back kick, or it may be a major problem, such as misunderstanding the procedure of the valve drill. In either situation, you will have practised that skill so much that you will have started to build muscle memory, and the procedure will start to have become automated in your mind. This is a problem. I can teach the valve drill to someone in about ten minutes. If they haven't done it before that's the only valve drill they know. They might miss a tiny detail, but we can fix that in the water once and then they are good to go. Someone who thinks they know the GUE valve drill but gets it wrong will get it wrong time and time again, and no matter how often I stop them, or what tools I use to try and get them to remember another way, it will keep coming back to haunt them. This will cause more and more stress until it affects other skills. 

Problem: Over preparing

Solution: Practice appropriately. Do not try to and learn what you will be taught on the course. Just become familiar with your GUE compliant gear. Practice holding stops using your wing for buoyancy control. Practice descending under control, holding a stop, and ascending again. This is far and away the best preparation you can do and the course of action most likely to lead you to a pass. 


Problem 3 - Equipment Issues.

There's no easy way for me to write this, and it's going to be divisive. Diver 1 turns up having spent quite a bit of money on his gear. It's all good quality, and his older stuff is well maintained. He's taken the time not just to look at the quite open GUE course standards, but also read the GUE website and look for the details. His SPG is tied off, not cable tied. That sort of thing. Diver 2 is proud to tell me that he made his wing himself. He ordered the material on the web and only spent £100 on it. Trust me. I can tell. It's shit. He drysuit doesn't fit him properly, but then he's "been diving it for ten years without a problem". The seals are clearly on the way out. His regs bubble a little, and the backup frankly isn't very nice to breathe. The budget button has been pushed every where it possibly can be. Here's the thing. Diver one can forget about his equipment. The equipment section of GUE fundamentals takes about 30 minutes. That's it. He knows the standard. He asks a few questions that were not in his reading, and then forgets about it. My wife Imogen, interning on the course, scans his equipment and then walks away disappointed. She's like a caveman that's just sat down for dinner and been given the vegetarian option. Then she spots Diver two. Diver 2 looks like he has spent two thousand pounds on dive gear but spent more more than £50 on any one item. He has dozens of things clipped to his gear. Bizarre combinations of plastic clips and curly dog leads are connected to his equipment with everything from string to cable ties to surgical tubing. If inflated, his wing would show up on a satellite picture. Of the solar system. It's bolted to a twinset that I can swear I can see holes in, and these have on the top of them valves which have clearly been lubricated with a combination of beach sand and superglue. His drysuit. Sweet Jesus, his drysuit. It's sponsored by aquaseal. There is more patch than suit. He bought it ten years ago. And fifty pounds ago. I suspect it didn't fit properly then anyway. I'm too scared to ask him to reach behind him because I can see he can barely scratch his nose, and I'm worried the arms of his suit will actually pop off. 

Imogen reacts differently when she sees Diver two's gear. On a coaching day, diver two would now see something like a cartoon tazmanian devil, a whirling dervish surrounding his kit. Out of the maelstrom he would hear now and again something like "what the f**k is this" followed by a piece of kit arcing out of the storm and over his head. However, this isn't a coaching day. It's GUE fundamentals. So Imogen stands there quietly and waits patiently for me to talk through the equipment that he needs to change, and why. Diver 2 is now getting increasingly stressed. We haven't even got in the water yet and already he's struggled through the swim tests, had his brain melted on the theory, and been told that he needs to significantly change his equipment for the course. In the worst case scenario, he has been told already that he will not pass this course. If I can see already that he has zero chance of doing a valve drill in a suit which does not fit him then I need to set his expectations immediately. There is still huge value in doing the course, but I will have just shattered his expectations, which I find very sad. 

Look, there are three levels to GUE equipment standardisation. Each level is increasingly demanding. the first level is the course requirements, as defined in the standards. These are remarkably lax because we don't want to turn people away unless we really have to. The next level is the GUE website, which talks about things is much more detail. This is really what drives the equipment standard within the community. Then you get the standard that exists within a team. You'll find a team, who are generally good friends, will tend to just three of something, so they end up with the tightest standard of all. The requirements for fundies are very simple, as long as you take the time to check out the standard and ask questions about anything you are unsure of. You can have cheap kit, but it needs to be fit for purpose and well maintained.

Diver 2 will struggle all the way though fundies as a result of him being lax in adhering to the standards. His enormous wing will result in unstable trim and a difficulty in achieving neutral buoyancy. His poorly fitting drysuit will result in stress when gearing up and problems every time he has to do a flow check of his valves, which is every dive. The shortcuts on tying stuff off will result in things unclipping themselves. Those bubbling regs will free flow sooner or later. More and more stress. It never ends well.

Problem: Equipment Issues

Solution. Don't go cheap on your gear. If there is something you are missing then borrow it well in advance of the course so you can become familiar with it. If you know things need maintenance then get it done. Remember we are grading you all the time. How do you think the grading is going on you being an effective and responsible team mate in and out of the water if your equipment is falling apart. 


Problem 4- Ego

Oh dear. This will raise a few hackles. Take the following two comments. They are answers to the question 

"What do you want out of this course. What would result in you driving home in four days thinking 'that was the best course I have ever done'"


Diver 1, a PADI rescue diver with 75 dives

"I just want to be a better diver. I'll be happy if I can see a path to being as good as the GUE divers I have seen, if I can hold a stop and do a valve drill. I want to be more confident, and to have someone assess me and give me honest feedback"


Diver 2, a PADI Master Scuba Diver instructor with approximately 1000 dives

"I've read a lot about GUE. I don't think I'll learn anything tbh but I'm interested see HOW you do things. I'm already an instructor and technical diver, but I fancy crossing over to being a GUE instructor so this is a check in the box for me"


oh deary me. These are real quotes, from real divers. Guess which one got a tech pass and which one failed the course. 

If you come to GUE fundamentals thinking you have nothing to learn then the course will chew you up and spit you out. I admire anyone that comes to GUE with lots of experience and qualifications, because it must be difficult on the ego. Think about what we are saying. In essence, at the end of the course, we are often saying "I know you are a technical diver and/or instructor for another agency, and after four days assessment and immense hard work I am happy to qualify you as a recreational diver able to dive to 30 metres with other GUE divers". I can see that being a hard pill to swallow. When I did fundies I was a technical diver with another agency. I was horrified to find out on day one that there was a very real possibility of NO-ONE passing the course. Imagine the highly qualified and highly respected diver and / or instructor from another agency failing to qualify as a GUE diver at the recreational level. That has to smart. 

This leads to people putting pressure on themselves. The PADI rescue diver has no pressure. If they fail, they fail. They almost always come back and do it again, and without exception in my experience, end up passing the course. When a highly qualified diver fails the course, it is much more likely that they will not come back. I have had people fail fundies and the next time I see them they are diving a rebreather. I can only put this down to their ego taking too much of a bashing. The irony is that this pressure is self induced. I want everyone to pass the course, and I ALWAYS go home utterly exhausted having done everything I can to turn that wish into reality. I don't care whether you are a training director for another agency or have just walked out of your introductory training course. So FFS relax. When a diver starts to realise that their perception of where their skills are does not quite tie in with what they are seeing there are two possible reactions.

1. Diver 1 puts the ego aside, and just accepts he has stuff to learn. He figures he might as well relax and learn what he can.

2. Diver 2 becomes defensive. He starts to criticise the course, his team mates, starts to blame his equipment, his weighting, anything. 

Diver 1 will see gradual improvement and at some point it will probably all come together for him. Diver 2 will end up fighting the course at every step. They have to see the video to be convinced what I am saying they are doing is true. They make the same mistake again and again because despite listening to me they think they know better. When told they are overweighted they take the weight off and then put it back on without me knowing. And still experience the same problems. Bizarrely.

Please don't think I am making a distinction between new divers and instructors. I have had plenty of very experienced instructors for other agencies come on fundies, have a relatively easy time of it, and pass the course with flying colours. Without exception they admit they were a little humbled and learnt a lot, but they were able to admit to themselves they were there to learn at the end of the day. The divers that have problems are those that cannot admit that. I think they believe they are there to see what the fuss is about, rather than become better divers, and that having the difference between the perception of their skill and the reality of it put into sharp focus is just too much.

Then you get people who, once they realise they are struggling, are pushed by their ego into rebelling. I know of one diver that on being told to remove his ankle weights went off and made some lead insoles for his drysuit boots. I've had people hide weight inside their drysuit. I've had someone tell the other people on the course not to listen to me. People argue about every minuscule detail of equipment. They argue about what happened in the water. They blame everything and sometimes every one. I've had people blame their team mates for their poor valve drills. These people inevitably do poorly on the course because part of my job is to filter people like this out. We're looking for team mates, not primadonnas. 

Luckily, this issue normally resolves itself during the course. There is only so much video you can watch of yourself bouncing off the platform before you have to admit you may have a buoyancy issue, after all. Many fundies graduates will remember seeing themselves on the video and thinking "oh shit is that really me?". Most instructors start out struggling and then chill out, often when they realise that if you were to put me on the course THEY teach the roles would be completely reversed and I would be terrified of doing poorly. This is true, and should be remembered. My GUE valve drill is pretty good. My BSAC boat navigation skills are probably appalling. As diving instructors, we inevitably specialise.

Problem: Self induced pressure / ego

Solution. You are paying good money for my time. You might as well listen to me. If you get to the end of the course and think it's all nonsense you can put all your kit back the way it was, go back to doing your skills the way you did, and go on with your diving. What have you got to lose. I really want you to do well and indeed I want you to have a good time and relax, because if you ARE experienced and knowledgeable, then I want to pick your brains. None of us are beyond learning. Remember that I was a fundies student once. Remember if I was on your course YOU would be the expert. Remember that no-one gets to see the video. Chill out, and enjoy the course.


5 - Misunderstanding the course requirements / wrong focus

This section needs splitting into two. 

Firstly there is the "me, me, me" problem. Everyone has this issue, myself included, but the quicker you get through it the easier you will find the course. Most training that divers will have been through puts the emphasis on individual skills. "I" do a valve drill. "I" do a gas donation. GUE Flips that on it's head. I watch to see if people kit up as a team, if they work as a team during the pre-dive checks. Are they focussed on their team during the descent. Are they playing an active role in every drill, whether they think the video is looking at them or not. During an S drill one person donates gas, and the other person receives it. The third person should be acting as a buoyancy reference, and keeping the two active divers in position. Everyone has a role. There is no room for people who think only of themselves. I want people who ace the swim test to go back and swim next to their struggling team mate. I want to see people helping their team mates kit up before kitting up themselves. We're looking, as I've said a few times, for team players. It's not enough to be completely focussed on yourself and your result, and ironically by focussing entirely on yourself you hinder your own chances at passing the course. 

The second half of this answer comes from giving your GUE instructor what you think they want rather than what they actually ask you for. This is more common than you might think. Let's look at the valve drill. Diver 1 takes fifteen minutes to do the drill. He has to think about each step. He gets lost, cuts the drill, gets back into position, and starts again. Every time he drifts off the platform he pauses, swims back into position, and then carries on. When he starts to lose buoyancy control he stops, comes back down, and carries on. Diver 2 gives a "watch me" signal that scares the shit out of his team mates. He does the valve drill in less than two minutes. It's procedurally find, although he bounced off the bottom a few times, and swam in a circle.

I'm delighted with Diver 1. He maintained awareness. Every time he lost position, or buoyancy, he recognised it and put the drill on hold. He took his time and realised I am looking for awareness of position, buoyancy and team, and that the valve drill should really be an afterthought. OK, so it took 15 minutes. Next time it will take ten. Then five. OK so he kept going up. He stopped it each time so who cares. This is an aware diver that just needs practice. Diver 2 is a problem. He prioritised the valve drill over buoyancy, position, team awareness. Despite what I have told him, he thinks that completing the procedure is what I am after. He wasn't aware of hitting the platform and won't admit it until the video. His team mates didn't exist in his mind, and you can see that from the fact he kicked one in the head. I see this ALL the time. 

Problem: Doing what you think the GUE instructor wants, not what they actually want.

Solution. Listen. Seriously. Your GUE instructor will tell you what the priorities are, but trust me it's awareness of position, buoyancy and team, and THEN whatever they have asked you to. Slow down, and segment your skills so that your focus can remain on where you are and you do not become task fixated.


Phew. Let's summarise that 


Problem 1 : Don't Prepare

Solution: Listen to the advice you are given before the course and do all the background reading. Sort your kit out and do a little diving in it.


Problem 2 : Over preparing

Solution: Let me earn my money. Don't try and learn the course before the course. As long as your drysuit fits, I WILL get you to reach your valves. I'm pretty good at teaching people to back kick. Let me show you. 


Problem 3 : Equipment Issues

Solution: Get a drysuit that fits you. Have your equipment services. Don't buy cheap shit. Read the equipment standards. Ask your instructor for purchasing advice.


Problem 4 : Ego

Solution: Relax and remember that we all had to start somewhere with this. If you want the best possible result on the course, then focus, listen, and do what you are told. Forget about the result. That will happen as a side effect.


Problem 5 : Delivering the wrong things

Solution : Listen carefull to dive briefings, and don't be afraid to ask your instructor to repeat if you are unsure. Focus on position, buoyancy and team. Everything else can wait.


















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Gareth Burrows is a GUE Instructor trainer, and a personal diving coach for recreational and technical divers of all levels, specialising in improving buoyancy control, trim and stability, in-water confidence, and ascent management. He has trained with PADI, TDI, IANTD and GUE as well as serving as a DO in a BSAC branch. He has been diving cold water wrecks in Europe and around the UK for over a decade, and can usually be found diving out of Brighton, Portland or Plymouth. He is qualifying later this year as a cave diver and looking to become a GUE tech1 instructor in the 18 months. He has trained or coached hundreds of divers from newly qualified open water divers, to course directors and technical instructors.