What are the most important skills for a new diver to master?

When you first learn to dive, there seems to be so much to think about that it can all be overwhelming. It's often hard to separate what is very important from what is not so important. As you start doing more diving, these are the top three things that you should work on more than anything else. Get them right and everything else will fall into place.

1. Breathing

While you are underwater you breathe air under pressure, so it is denser than the air you breathe from the atmosphere when you are on land. You also breathe through a regulator, which extends the distance between your lungs and the source of the air you are breathing.

So, if you breathe like you do on land, that is, haphazardly and without thinking about it, these two factors can prevent much of the air you inhale from actually reaching your lungs. You just breathe a lot of in half way then puff it out again.

To breathe efficiently underwater, you have to develop a controlled long, slow breathing style to pull the dense air down deep into your lungs with each inhalation and then expel it in a long, slow exhalation. You need to breathe from your diaphragm, rather than your chest.

How do you do this?

When you inhale, push your stomach out so that it distends to allow your lungs to expand and draw as much air in as possible. When you exhale, compress your stomach muscles to reduce your lung volume to a minimum and breathe out slowly and continuously until it feels like there is no air left to come out. Then breathe in again.

This technique does take a little getting used to but you do not have to be actually diving to practice it. You can do any time, anywhere, while you are riding in a train, sitting in your car in a traffic jam or watching TV. A good exercise is to lie on the floor, put a book on your stomach and focus on moving the book up and down by slowly breathing in and out. Draw the air in slowly and release it slowly.

2. Relaxing

This style of breathing will help you relax and being relaxed when you dive is a very good thing. It enables you to be more aware of what is going on puts you in a good frame of mind to deal calmly with any emergency that may take place and reduces considerably the likelihood that you will panic.

As well as developing a long, slow breathing habit, try a skill called visualisation to help you relax underwater. Before a scuba dive, sit in a quiet place and think about the dive ahead. Think positive thoughts imagine all the wonderful things you are going to experience and picture a successful dive in your mind.

See yourself preparing for the dive, making sure your air is on and that you have your all your equipment with you. Then picture yourself entering the water then descending, in control, checking everything is in place, establishing a steady breathing rate, maintaining good buoyancy, looking at the environment around you as well as below and staying in touch with your team.

Then focus your thoughts on the dive itself. Visualise yourself feeling comfortable, being aware and checking the status of your computer and submersible pressure gauge from time to time.

Finally, see yourself making a slow, controlled ascent with a safety stop, establishing positive buoyancy on the surface and ending the dive with plenty of air left in your cylinder. You will be surprised how much more calm you are on a dive after you have visualised it in advance.

3. Maintaining Control

When you first start diving, you may feel clumsy. Most people do. When you took your course, you were taught a variety of techniques to help you stay in control of your position in the water, maintain a nice horizontal trim and stay neutrally buoyant.

It is unlikely that you managed to master these techniques during the course. Mastery takes time. So, continue to practice them on every dive you do. Also, while you are swimming along, watch how the professionals move in and try to copy what they do.

Notice how they “fly” underwater through a combination of fin control, body control and breath control and how they rarely use their arms. You can be just like them. The more you work on it, the better you will get.

There was a time when they felt just as clumsy as you do now.