Mental Techniques for 102 meters
Updated: Mar 9
It was the first CNF dive beyond halfway into Dean's Blue Hole. 55 of my body lengths, or 9 meters more than the height of the Statue of Liberty. It had been 2040 days (5.5 years) since the previous record. It was perhaps the hardest official dive I've ever performed.
After the failed Steinlager 'Live Dive' attempt in December 2014, I had made a public guarantee to my supporters in New Zealand: next time would be different.
That was easy to say at the time, but when the new attempt rolled around I had no such pretensions to surety. Initially it was scheduled for March, but by February I wasn't yet hitting the necessary depths, so we decided to postpone until July, meaning I would compete in Vertical Blue and the Caribbean Cup, then have 6 weeks before the attempt.
Just before VB I finally found the form I needed, resulting in the two FIM world records. The purple patch continued into the Caribbean Cup in Roatan, where I registered the deepest ever CNF dive in competition, and the first 100m dive outside of Dean's Blue Hole.
Back in the Bahamas, and for a period I continued to add to my depth. But then the inevitable plateau of performance, followed by sickness and baffling ailments. My legs felt tired and heavy even when I was lying down. The lactic acid in my muscles at the end of training dives could have been used to fill car batteries, and for the first time in months of maximal freedives I had a surface blackout.
It was clear that the 'taper phase' of my training had been stretched out too long, and my performance was faltering. My body was still capable of a 102m dive, but I would have to use every resource and mental strategy available to me in order to ensure that on the day of the attempt I would still be fresh and focussed. As freedivers we must evolve an arsenal of different mental techniques in order to keep one step ahead of the mind's capricious antics.
These are the six techniques that I adopted or developed exclusively for this attempt:
1. NOW IS ALL
At the Caribbean Cup in Honduras in May I spent a lot of time working on my ability to remain exclusively in the present moment. This is no easy task, for freediving as for life. It's so easy for your stream of conscious thought to float you into a swamp of speculation about what may or may not happen in the future.
I call this 'scenario thinking,' and when a world record attempt is on the horizon it can infect your every waking hour. Time and time again throughout the day, the nervous subconscious burps up questions: What happens if I break the record? Or if I fail? What would I need to say to my sponsors, family, and friends? Down the rabbit hole you go, into a whole universe of potential outcomes. Most of these will never come to pass, but the real pointlessness of the whole process is in the fact that it adds to the background stress, in turn feeding the cycle of obsession with the future.
What's the remedy? Bringing yourself gently back to an awareness of the present moment and what you are doing in it is the solution I use. Whether I was making breakfast, putting on my wetsuit, or breathing on the surface before the dive, I allowed that task to occupy my full attention. When I felt the need to consider those possible future worlds I would tell myself that there would be ample time after the dive to think about what happens next. The mantra I created in Honduras and used in these past months is "what is now is all," and this became abridged to "now is all".
On the day of the dive every time I felt myself being steered down a slippery slope of scenario thinking I gently brought my attention back to the only moment that is ever happening: the now.
2. ALL OF ME
When training we create patterns and habits that automate the freedive. This is helpful to avoid the pitfalls of on-the-spot decision making, but it can also lead to complacency and carelessness. I knew that for this record attempt I was going to need my full A-game. All the elements of 'me' – body, mind, undermind (subconscious) and spirit (the driver, or inner fire that pushes me on) – would have to function at their highest level. So in my mental preparation I regularly checked in with each in turn, addressing it like a person, and letting it know I would need all of its resources. As I often tell students in Vertical Blue courses, you can't muscle your way to the bottom plate and back, any more than you can get there with meditation alone. Both vehicles need to be firing on all cylinders, and fuelled by an unshakeable motivation.
When it came time to attempt the record I felt like every part of my being showed up with its toolkit and lunchbox carefully prepared, ready for action.
In the weeks before the attempt I would take evening hikes over the limestone cliffs of Long Island, to clear lactic acid from my muscles and cobwebs from my mind. These were also times to reflect and draw energy from the sea. Here the progress of the ocean's marching rows of silent envoys is checked and reflected by the jagged rocks, filling the air with spray and salty mist. Normally I leave my phone at home, but on this occasion it was in my pocket, and when it buzzed with an alert I absent-mindedly pulled it out (yes, my hand is in the smart phone vice as much as the next person!). The alert was a simple message from Twitter, but the way it was worded and the moment it was received hit a note of significance: "Sealife is now following you."
Now I have no pretension that the ocean's sea life gives a damn about my silly jiggling around in the upper 1% of its depths. But I myself do give a damn about sea life, and I know that with every success I achieve in freediving I secure more power and leverage to be able to influence the issues I care about. "Do it for the oceans" is one of my greatest motivators, and so even the passing fancy that the ocean's sea life might have noticed my efforts and be interested in them added to that motivation.
4. ORANGE LIGHT
I tend to plunder practices like yoga and zazen, taking from them exercises and concepts that I can apply to my training. One of these is the Qi Gong visualisation of a ball of energy that is created with specific hand movements, and then stored in the body. I imagined this energy as an orange light, since orange is the complimentary colour to the ocean's blue, and I'm told helps to balance the time I spend in the water. After shaping it like a snowball with my hands, I visualised 'storing' it in the tanden (space between the navel and perineum that eastern martial arts retain is the seat of the body's energy), to be accessed only during the ascent of the record attempt itself.
Do I believe in such an energy? Not literally, but I do believe in the psychological effects that this kind of visualisation can have. The intention and action create subconscious cues and contingencies, perhaps allowing us to trigger elevated physiological parameters.
If nothing else, the fantasy that I had a cache of stockpiled energy ready to intervene during the dive gave me just a little extra confidence, and confidence is confidence, even when founded on illusion.
5. NERVES AREN'T REAL It was a pretty basic film, but Will Smith's speech on fear in 'After Earth' outlines a clever method of dissuading it. "Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real, but fear is a choice." In freediving the nemesis is more a fear of failure, or performance anxiety. When I felt the fluttering sensation that heralds this anxiety I didn't shy away from it, but rather looked for a concrete source in the present moment, and when I couldn't find one it was further confirmation that nerves aren't real. Gradually, rather than being at the mercy of these nerves, I was able to keep them in control and brush them aside with a cursory thought: "nerves aren't real."
6. THE OTHER EXTREME
If however nerves refuse to be labelled unreal, then we can take it in the opposite direction. In a competition or record attempt, it is essentially the ego that is riding on the outcome. Failure normally means blackout, on the surface or just below it, when the brain reaches its hypoxic (low-oxygen) threshold before the dive has ended. Of course this threshold is still at a level where the blood carries enough oxygen for minutes of brain supply: more than enough time for breathing to be resumed on the surface. So it's less the danger of a blackout than the wounded pride of failure that drives anxiety prior to the dive. But what if it was more serious than that? What if my life or the lives of others actually did depend on the outcome? What if it was imperative that I was successful? When compared to those kind of stakes, the fear of simply being embarrassed is laughable. I can't imagine how much more anxiety there would be in such a grave scenario, but that's not really relevant - I don't have to experience that. I entertain the idea for just long enough to put in perspective just how frivolous this circus-style record attempt really is. How silly I was for letting something so trivial affect my emotional state.
In the immortal words of Natalia Molchanova: "Birth and death are important, but free-diving competitions are just games for adults."