Arno Kopecky’s latest book is The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis.
A few weeks ago, on a warm August day, I did what any father might do and took my daughter to the pool. We were visiting my parents in Edmonton and there was a springboard diving camp for kids being offered at the Kinsmen Sports Centre, an aquatic training facility where I spent most of my after-school childhood. A lot of Olympians have been produced in that building. For a long time, I thought I’d be one of them.
Ada’s 6, the same age I was when I took my first diving lesson. She loves the water, though she can’t yet swim in the deep end and isn’t big on heights. I assured her she’d have a life jacket and promised nobody would make her do anything she didn’t want to. I’d be watching from the bleachers.
“What are bleachers?” she asked, unconcerned.
For once, I was the worried one. It wasn’t that she might not like diving; it was that she might like it too much. Don’t overthink it, I told myself. Let her gain some confidence around the water, get a taste of the family tradition. Have a little fun and move on.
We held hands as we marched toward the Kinsmen’s entrance that first day. She was the one comforting me. Ada had never been to any kind of summer camp before, and she was in a spirit of high adventure. The instructors who greeted us outside were kind and attentive and playful.
Then we opened the doors and walked inside. When the scent of chlorine washed over me, second thoughts came with it: What were we doing here? Trauma’s often hand-delivered from one generation to the next. I remained on high alert all week, monitoring Ada’s face and body language for any sign of distress. What tortured path had I just set her on?
I dove for 10 years, half of them on Canada’s junior national team. The sport defined my youth and still creeps into my dreams when I’m stressed. It’s a trusty emotional barometer: There I am in competition, standing on a three-metre springboard or a 10-metre platform, psyching up for one of my hardest dives – a front three-and-a-half tuck, or back one-and-a-half with two twists – but I’ve forgotten how to do the dive. I haven’t been training. I can’t jump, and never do. I always wake up first.
I’m still not sure about that word, trauma. I was never abused. Just terribly frightened. Because in case you were wondering, in case it wasn’t obvious, diving is a very scary sport to learn. Evolution did not design our bodies to leap off a precipice, nor to somersault and twist while plummeting toward a distant body of water.
Yet somehow, and herein lies the magic, evolution did keep the possibility open. Many athletes do eventually work through the fear. Most, including me, quit long before that happens. The point I’m excavating here is that to excel at diving, you must first navigate a close relationship with terror.
Not at first, of course. At first it’s just exciting, or at least it was for me. I can’t say when the thrill of flight morphed into fear of wiping out. There was no single moment, just a gradual accumulation of anxiety that mounted with the stakes. The higher I climbed up podiums and platforms, the scarier things became. By the time I began high school I was training a new list of 10-metre dives, and a current of physical dread ran through my days that I haven’t experienced since.
What’s funny is that nobody was forcing me to do these things. It just never occurred to me that walking away was an option. This sport defined me – I didn’t dive, I was a diver.
That identity was reinforced by the approval of everyone I loved. My parents were divorced, and since I lived with my mother, Kinsmen became the second home where I spent time with my father; he drove me to the pool every day after work, stayed to watch me train and became president of the Edmonton Kinsmen Diving Club. If I could have articulated this at the time, I’d have said he believed in me.
My older brother was also an elite diver (he’d been recruited by a coach who saw him fooling around at the pool one day with friends and spotted his potential), which was why I started in the first place. Unlike me, he never left the sport, and now he coaches his own club in Vancouver. Not until I called him a few days ago to discuss these memories did I learn that he’d been just as scared as I was throughout his adolescence. We laughed when we realized we’d both spent our high-school afternoons praying for some dark miracle – a car accident or a citywide power outage – to spare us from that evening’s practice.
But there was always one thing scarier than diving – the prospect of telling my coach, my dad, my teammates and above all myself: “I quit.”
Now, three decades after I finally uttered those words, I’d nudged history into repeating itself. I brought my own daughter to the dive tank. I sat in the same bleachers where my dad used to sit. He was sitting there beside me now, 89 years old and smiling as he squinted to see the life-jacketed pixie plunging headfirst into water for the first time in her life, plopping back up like a duck. I felt a suspicious surge of pride, not just at her courage but at the nascent signs of talent I saw in her delicately pointed toes, her straight legs, her quick arms.
I had to shout for my dad to hear with his faltering ears: “She’s grinning, dad. She’s giving us a thumbs-up.”
She was having an excellent time.
Here’s the thing. Diving also introduced me to mastery, and gave me the strange gift of feeling at ease in the air. Like all the best gifts, this one transcends utility. Aerial comfort confers no material advantage, but it does pay dividends. On Day 2 of Ada’s camp, I put on my boardshorts (no more Speedos for me, thanks), climbed up to the 10-metre platform and chucked a perfect backflip. It’s about all I have left. Seeing the look on Ada’s face when I resurfaced felt almost as good as that brief moment of flight.
The urge to show off is an unfortunate side effect of expertise; so are arrogance and narcissism. One could argue these traits are major contributors to the widespread contempt for elites now threatening to kick the wheels off democracy. Ostentatious backflips notwithstanding, I wouldn’t make that case.
I think true mastery inspires more people than it repels. Being in its presence is electric. That’s why people pay so much to watch the World Cup, Beyoncé or Cirque du Soleil. Most of us will never be that good at anything.
Still, the mere act of pursuing that level of ability brings out so many wonderful qualities in us puny humans. Confidence, patience and style are just a few that come to mind. You don’t have to be the best at anything to win these attributes. You just have to persevere.
That’s what I want my daughter to know about.
Here are some moments I remember:
Skipping to the end of the 10-metre platform on my first front three-and-a-half. My arms rise as I approach. The water comes into sight, then disappears as I leap and throw my arms and bury my face in my tuck; I clutch my shins through a long dark vortex, kick out when I hear my coach’s “hup!” and there’s the water again, much closer now. No longer enemy, but friend.
Hitting my head on the three-metre springboard as I descend from a reverse dive pike. After the whack, crashing into the water below feels like falling through a cloud.
Winning my first national medal, a bronze, when I’m 11. My elation turning into a blend of shame and rage when my coach berates me in the locker room. I could have won, he says, if I’d dived a little better.
At nationals the following year, watching my main competitor warm up in practice. He’s flawless. On the day of our three-metre event another coach wishes me good luck. I say thanks, but I’ll never beat Philippe. He gives me a hard look and says, ”Believe in yourself.” An hour later I nail every dive in my list, and I win.
Watching two Chinese divers train platform at worlds in Oslo. Their level of precision seems physically impossible. You could pour the combined splash from all their dives into a shot glass. This time it’s not self-pity, but cold recognition of a fact: I’ll never be capable of that.
I’m 8 and my face just hit the one-metre board on a back somersault, putting my tooth through my lip. I don’t remember the impact. I climb out of the water and my hands fill with blood when I cup them to my mouth. I don’t cry till I reach the change room with my dad, then I cry uncontrollably. He holds me. He drives me to the doctor who sews my lip together. It tugs without hurting.
Coming out of a simple one-and-a-half on 10. There’s the water. I’m stretching toward it, already immersed in the flow that’s waiting on the other side of fear.
There’s a cliché that’s always bothered me – that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” It’s usually attributed to Einstein, but there’s no proof he ever said it and I have to believe he knew better. Because doing the same thing over and over again is also known as practice and, if you can forgive me for deploying a second cliché to destroy the first, we all know what practice makes.
Consider the most fundamental element of diving: the headfirst entry. Ada learned it that week. She stood at the end of the board, clasped her hands palm-up above her head, folded at the hips, then tipped forward into the water. Her legs stayed straight and her toes were pointed, nice. But her feet splayed apart, whoops, and she buried her chin in her chest, sending her well past vertical. Even if she’d gone in straight, the misalignment of her legs and hips, her bent elbows and loose stomach, would have all conspired to generate splash.
A proper entry is instantly recognizable, because none of those things happen. That not-happening results from the process of elimination that is practice.
You can tell if someone’s taken diving lessons just from the way they dive off a dock. They slip into the water without a ripple. But to really appreciate what’s going on, height needs to be involved. That’s when the real physics kick in. From three or more metres, nobody’s slipping into anything. They’re ripping.
It’s called a rip because of the sound that kind of entry makes – you can hear the surface tension being torn. It actually does have a certain violence. You’re punching a hole in the water. This narrow aperture, no wider than your shoulders, is really a portal to another realm. In order to squeeze through it, your head, arms, ribs, hips, butt and legs all have to line up perfectly.
The feeling when you get this right is unmistakable. You tear through the portal, sucking air in with you all the way to the bottom of the pool, and you know. You don’t need to see a replay or hear the applause. You just push off the bottom and ride the shimmering cascade of bubbles back up to the surface.
Learning it takes thousands of repetitions of exactly what Ada did at camp. Gradually, like granite being smoothed by water, your body becomes seamless. Finally, one day, you rip. The goal is for it to become automatic. You’re carving new paths through the jungle of your motor neurons; once they’re established, you don’t need a compass any more, you just follow the trail.
I talked this over with my brother, who’s been coaching for 20 years. He clarified that you’re not doing the same thing over and over again with these drills. You’re actually making tiny but crucial adjustments every time. These micro-corrections may be invisible to the untrained eye, but they lead to monumental change when they accumulate over time. As he put it, “That’s how mountains are made.”
Trouble is, no mastery is so complete it can’t unravel.
Diving’s terrestrial cousin, gymnastics, reminded the world of this during the Olympics in Tokyo last year, when Simone Biles withdrew from the competition. The most decorated gymnast in history, with 25 world titles and seven Olympic golds to her name, just started getting lost in the air.
She had “the twisties,” an expression I’d never heard before but remembered very well (minus the Olympic pressure). Every acrobat does, in part because twisting is so much faster than somersaulting that you can’t visually spot your landing the way you would in a straight flip. You twist by feel, and you drill that feeling in through repetition. But sometimes, even the best-carved path develops potholes.
It doesn’t just happen to acrobats. In golf and cricket it’s called “the yips,” and often manifests as a wrist twitch that wreaks havoc on putts and bat swings. A famous case in baseball involved Mackey Sasser, a catcher for the New York Mets in the early 1990s who suddenly stopped being able to throw the ball to the pitcher. Every time he tried, he froze, pumping his arm three or four times before finally releasing, and then usually sending the ball wildly astray. None of his other skills were affected. He could still catch, bat and throw to anyone else on the field. This ended his career in his prime.
Sports psychologists call this Lost Move Syndrome. Think of it as the mother of all tics. It hasn’t gotten a lot of sympathy in the sporting world, where such breakdowns are typically regarded as a sign of weakness instead of what they really are: a uniquely visible expression of trauma.
Remember what Ms. Biles revealed to the world just before those Tokyo Olympics: the serial abuse she and so many of her teammates had suffered at the hands of their doctor, Larry Nassar. Decades after Mr. Sasser quit major-league baseball, a psychologist sought him out and excavated his past. It was revealed that when Mr. Sasser was 7, his little brother had dashed past him straight into an approaching car; the boy was pronounced dead on the scene, and though paramedics managed to resuscitate him, Mr. Sasser carried the guilt of failing to save his brother all his life.
Mr. Sasser also suffered major injuries throughout his life, some in the course of his baseball career and others completely unrelated. That’s the thing about trauma. It travels underground, like a forgotten wildfire that’s still smouldering through a forest’s roots, and one day, it erupts back into flame in a tree that’s nowhere near the initial spark.
It so happens that my brother did his master’s thesis on Lost Move Syndrome in diving. He surveyed 82 athletes from multiple countries and across all skill levels: 66 per cent reported having gone through some version of it. Clinical research into this is still in its infancy, but my brother speculated (both from personal experience and from decades of observation) that trauma isn’t the only contributing factor. Simply learning too much, too fast can do it. When you overwhelm those neural pathways, they tend to short-circuit.
“It’s a sort of mental breakdown,” he said, one that every coach has a responsibility not to inflict on their athletes. “The problem is that some kids can handle this without ever breaking down, and some kids can’t.”
I know which kind of kid I was. Do I want to find out which kind my daughter is? Nope. Thankfully, she put my heart at ease after her diving camp ended.
“Diving’s fun,” she said when we returned to Vancouver. “But it’s not great. It’s not like I want to be a diver.”
“You know, I’m glad to hear that,” I said.
Oblivious to my relief, she nodded and went on: “What I really want to be is a ballet dancer.”
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