Can we successfully influence the outcome of a dive just by visually rehearsing it on our minds before we do it? I definitely believe so, and this technique of “Visualization” has helped me a lot during my career, the same way it has helped many other athletes from other sports as well as those who perform cutting-edge activities, from pilots to surgeons.
In understanding how this works, we need to realize that just “seeing” a dive before you do it is not enough. This must be an Active process rather than a Passive one. What I do is divide my dive into different stages, and I see myself following all the actions and procedures that apply to that specific stage one after the other, from surface to bottom and then to surface again. One thing that still surprises me a lot when I talk to other divers is that the majority of them do not have a “plan of action” for their dives. Yes, they know that as we go deeper the equalization techniques must change, or that after the break point there is no need to kick anymore since you can free fall and conserve energy, etc, etc. But they deal with these situations as they appear, rather than anticipating them and being prepared to do what must be done even before it needs to be done.
One thing that Rudi (my trainer) taught me since the first day we started working together back in 1999 is that deep freediving is not a “getting lost in yourself, journey into the blue” experience, but rather an activity that requires a lot of carefully planned actions. It is serious work, not enjoyment anymore, and this is a big difference from the way I was diving before and the way many people still dive. We review everything that I need to do throughout the whole dive for many months before I do it, so that by the time the record dive comes, these actions have been ingrained in my mind and there’s no way I can forget them. And that is the first step for a successful pre-dive visualization: to know very well what you need to visualize, not to improvise it before the dive itself. So, even if there are a lot of things I need to do underwater, I am so accustomed to them and have performed them so many times, that they don’t feel like a burden anymore.
Then, rather that focusing on the whole dive, I visualize each of the stages one at a time, and I see myself making all of the mistakes that can commonly be expected at that stage, and how I will react to it. Only once I have pictured myself dealing with all these problems in one stage do I allow myself to start visualizing the next one, and I repeat the same process again. I call this “Problem Solving Visualization” and it is not a negative visualization technique, as many who use positive visualization would have you believe. Positive Visualizers see themselves performing their activity to perfection and being triumphant at the end of it, and they don’t allow for any negative thoughts such as making a mistake. While this may be very reassuring, I believe that when it comes to freediving, a sport so delicate and where so many small (and big) things can go wrong even if the diver does everything to perfection, this is a mistake. So, although I never have a doubt that I will succeed in my dive (otherwise I would not dive) I actually see myself dealing with all foreseeable problems and solving them rather than just dreaming of a perfect dive. And this is the second step for a successful pre-dive visualization: to use it as tool to help us overcome problems instead of just a positive reassurance technique. If you are not certain that you can complete a dive, then don’t even attempt it and go back to training. Here now are examples of how I implement my Problem Solving Visualization before a dive, stage by stage:
Descent 1- The Positive Buoyancy Zone. From 0 to 20 meters. My goal here is to cover those first 20 meters focusing on using as little energy as possible rather than doing it quickly, so proper technique is essential here. Therefore, I visualize myself taking my usual 7 kicks with a monofin, or 9 pulls for line assisted, or 12-13 strokes for unassisted.
Problem Solving: I imagine myself making more strokes than needed, in which case I will make it a point to rest more during the following phase, to compensate for that extra energy lost. Or I see myself getting there in less strokes, in which case I either slow down or realize that this may be due to the fact that my last breath was not as big as usual and I will have less oxygen available to me during the dive, which will influence all my actions from that point on, as I will be on “energy conservation” mode. It will also mean that during the last part of the ascent, I will be less buoyant than I would prefer so I need to streamline myself to the maximum and perhaps use more strokes on the ascent than planned. Indeed, I am already making changes to my whole dive plan only after the first 20 meters.
2- The Free-Fall Zone. From 20 to Bottom – 10 meters. After 20 meters I will be free falling. This is my time to rest and bring my heart-beat down after the initial effort. This slowing down is essential for the diving reflex to kick in and for oxygen conservation, so I try to really rest during this part. I see myself relaxing all my muscles (on some of my videos you can even see me shaking my legs and arms) and achieving perfect streamlining. In line assisted or unassisted, for example, I see my legs being together, my feet pointed, my arms by the side of my body with my hands pressed against the legs like a torpedo. In this ideal position, I can fall very fast and rest my whole body, so all I need to concentrate on now is equalization.
Problem Solving: Most problems will be related to speed or hydrodynamics. So I picture myself loosing vertical alignment, in which case I gently steer my body with my head or extremities back into position, all done without rush. Or I can see my ears hurting a bit much, in which case I may need to slow down to allow for easier equalization, and this I will achieve by flaring my arms outwards a bit, or bending my fins against the water flow slightly, like airplane ailerons. I see myself solving these problems calmly and with a minimum of movements. Did I mention I really want to rest during this phase of the dive?
3- Bottom Arrival. From -10 meters to Goal Depth. At 10 meters from the goal depth, I will receive a signal from a diver, and I will then awake from my “hibernation” mode and prepare for the important maneuver of reaching the bottom. I will need to slow down, come close to the line and find the bottom plate with the confirmation tags. Then comes the maneuver of grabbing the line to stop myself, which must be perfect, not to stop too far from the plate or too close to it. After grabbing the confirmation tag I will then start the ascent. There are many tasks to be performed here, so my goal is to do everything in exactly the order I have planned to do it, since this familiarity will bring me relaxation and speed. And, with FREE positioning a judge right at the bottom to check me out, I can’t afford to commit a deep water violation and have the record invalidated (which already happened to me once), so extreme alertness and slow, controlled motions are key here.
Problem Solving: This is the part where more things can go wrong in a dive, so I review it in my mind several times. What if I can’t find a tag, or I drop the tag as I’m grabbing it? I will see myself dedicating another 3-5 seconds to find a second tag, which is the maximum time I am prepared to spend at the bottom. If I can’t find it, then I will purposely and in an exaggerated manner touch the bottom plate (an accepted substitution) so the judge can see me. Or I may stop too far from the plate, in which case I can slide my hand down the line, or stop too close to the plate, where I must take care not to hit it with my body as I’m turning around. So I see myself dealing with these quickly (I don’t want to be there too long, remember?) but gently, as I don’t want to build up more C02 than needed here, where narcosis can be a factor.
1- Establishing Momentum. From bottom to +20 meters. At the bottom, I am, buoyancy wise, at my most negative. I am also at the point where the diving reflex is most acute, so most of the blood has been drained from my arms and legs, and I have spent a long time inactive during the second phase of the descent. So it will take me some time to reactivate my body. I will do this with slow motions and short strokes, until I feel fully functional again. I am cautious to let this happen naturally, rather than forcing my muscles into a totally anaerobic or catabolic sprint, which could result in cramps, pain or muscle failure, and usually, after 20 meters of controlled motions, I have overcome this problem.
Problem Solving: If the dive is deeper than 60 meters, I will usually feel some degree of narcosis at the bottom, which can be compounded by the exercise at the start of the ascent. I picture myself feeling dizzy and narcotized, and I force my mind to deal with this. I memorize a part of a song (usually, one of the songs I am writing myself) and sing it in my head to fight off narcosis. Also, at that point, I review any mistakes I have made during the descent and for which I may have to compensate during the ascent and formulate my plan of action for the way up. I visualize my technique steadily improving as the blood returns to my limbs, my body gaining speed and without any equalizations problems left, I see myself feeling good and ready for the most difficult part of the dive. I always see myself feeling confident at this point, because if not, I won’t have the strength of mind to deal with the rest of the ascent, when things will only get worse. This is, for me, the part where Positive Visualization really helps a lot.
2- The Opposite of Free-Fall: Heavy Work and Fatigue. From bottom +20 meters to 20 meters. Well, this is in many ways the worst part of the dive. Just as it was the most enjoyable part of the descent, when I was nicely free falling and marveling at my aquaticity, I now must cover this distance through steady, consistent and heavy work. This will eventually lead to fatigue, hypoxia and a decrease in technique efficiency. In some ways, this is a very demoralizing stage, where the mind inevitably starts playing tricks on the diver, and doubts could arise. Rather than fearing this moment, I start monitoring myself very closely, checking ever muscle reaction, keeping track of my speed, my oxygen levels and the lucidity of my brain. This means only one thing: with so much going on in my head, my actions need to be automatic, of a mechanical second nature.
Problem Solving: There is not much to fake here, on a truly demanding deep dive, I will always feel bad at this point. So, rather than imagining problems, I just try to anticipate the order in which they will appear. I see me slowing down, or messing up a stroke here or there, which could be common. But I push myself to relax and not panic, to slowly fix the technique problems without any changes in speed or sudden movements, which will only worsen things. I picture the first contractions appearing, and I hear my voice saying that this is perfectly logical for such a demanding performance, so I relax once again and adopt my “contraction-fighting” posture. I know that this is a normal period and that, as long as I stick to the plan, I will get through it OK. Then, as in a real dive, I realize that although my muscles are still tired, my speed is increasing and the blue around me is getting lighter all the time, and I know that I’m becoming more and more buoyant and that the surface is closer. Then I hear the signal of the diver at 20 meters, and I know it’s time to start the last part of the dive.
3- Oxygen Optimization and Arrival Preparation. From 20 meters to the surface. Well, this is it, the end of the dive is only seconds away, which as we all know, is the most delicate part. By now, I already know whether it will be an “easy” conclusion or if I will be on the edge. Now every meter I ascend means a drastic decrease in pressure, where oxygen will be less able to sustain vital functions. To compensate, I need to decrease my activity level to a minimum, and if I have done my work properly since I left the bottom, I should have picked up enough momentum that I can basically float to the surface from this point. By now Rudi will be in front of me, shouting encouragement and watching me carefully. I follow the drill to increase my blood pressure in the brain, which will also increase the oxygen’s partial pressure there and help me stay conscious. When I actually break the surface, there follows a moment of transition where I’m neither underwater nor back on earth yet, and to wake me from this trance, Rudi starts yelling “Breathe!”, which brings me back right away. Once I have done this and taken 5-6 recovery breaths, I know the dive has been successful and I will look for the judge and deliver the confirmation tag to him.
Problem Solving: Now most of the things that can go wrong, such as a blackout, are beyond my control, so all I can do is stay calm, use as little energy as possible and make as controlled a surfacing as possible. I will remember all the dives that I have done until now, remember how great they felt and how I knew for sure that I could have gone a few more meters, and then I remind myself that this dive is exactly just that: a few more meters. It is during the visualization of the last phase of the ascent that I allow myself the luxury of feeling confident for the dive, only after having completed the whole dive in my head and having dealt in the best possible way with any and all problems. Feeling confident, in a sense, is a reward that I only get after this hard-working visualization.
If the whole visualization has felt “right” and the dive I have just seen in my mind really resembles what I know a real dive feels like, then I know that my concentration level for the dive is at its highest and that I will be totally focused, highly motivated and energized. In a way, if the pre-dive visualization doesn’t work well, and I am not able to concentrate on it, I know that I will have an even worse dive, since the mind is the motor that drives a freediving performance (at least it is with me). In fact, a couple of times I have aborted dives after I was unable to do a proper visualization. I knew my mind was anything but on dive mode, and looking back, those were the right decisions. So you could say that I place a lot of importance on my pre-dive visualization routine, and if you want my advice, so should every other diver. So now then, when and where should we perform our pre-dive visualization?
When: Anytime before the dive is good, and the more you do it the better a dive you will have. Obviously, a very suitable time is right before the dive, when the alertness and adrenaline rush of the upcoming performance will help your mind be very awake and memorize any plans you make easily. Also, it always helps to combine the pre-dive visualization with another activity, so that both your mind and body are occupied and you allow yourself not time of inactivity. I do my pre-dive stretch routine and breathing warm up together with the visualization, and having all these things to do helps me a lot in not getting nervous before a big dive, especially if there is a lot of press and guests around.
Where: A place that feels comfortable and familiar is even more important than an isolated, peaceful one. For example, for a long time, I used to stay on land while my team was on the boat setting everything up, so that I would not be bothered by all the hectic activities going on onboard. But, having to do my visualization and breathing exercises on a desolated place on land never worked for me, and it filled me up with anticipation and made me nervous. So, for the past couple of years I left together with the team on the boat, where I feel more comfortable and surrounded by positive energy and where the noise made by my friends as they prepare things for me is actually a reassuring and welcome sound. There, I am quite able to disconnect from the surroundings and do my pre-dive routine quite comfortably as long as I have a small and protected place somewhere. Again, this works for me and others may feel better being completely away from all the chaos that precedes the dive. But I still recommend allowing enough time to get used to the final location where you will dive, rather than making a sudden change in environment right before the dive, which can be quite negative.
Lastly, I want to say that pre-dive visualization is nothing without a proper post-dive analysis from your last dives. And this is the 3rd step for a successful pre-dive visualization: Base your problem solving on what has gone wrong and right during your last dive, not on a supposition of what might happen. Yes, after every dive Rudi and I sit together and carefully analyze the whole dive, stage by stage, finding the strengths and weaknesses in my performance. We discuss whether I dealt properly with any problems or whether I need to solve them in a different way next time they happen, and compare the dive against all the dives that have preceded it. This helps us establish a pattern that tells us very clearly “how” I’m diving and what aspects of my dives still need improvement and which ones are always being done properly, so I don’t waste effort on those. So, when you sit down somewhere to visualize your upcoming dive, you should have in your mind a list of what went well and what didn’t from your last dive, so that you can work on those points during your visualization.
Well, I hope this article has been of some help to all who read it, as visualization has certainly made a big difference in the quality of my dives.