Mar 17

Freediving Competitions- 10 Common Mistakes

“Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.” – Oscar Wilde

And let me tell you, I have a LOT of experience. :) But all kidding aside, a lot of doing well at freediving competitions has to do with being familiar with all the different ways you can get disqualified or receive penalties. Freediving competitions are regulated by an organization called AIDA, the International Association for the Development of Apnea, which certifies judges, who attend competitions and make sure all of us freedivers are paying attention to the rules. After evaluating a dive, judges will show the athlete a card- white for a good, clean dive, yellow for a dive with penalties and red for a disqualification.

In competitions there are two main types of competitors- those who are going after records and those who are going after the overall competition win. Record divers don’t worry about points, but MUST complete perfect dives (no penalties) in order to receive the record they’re targeting. Competitors going for the overall win try to get as many points as possible, so aren’t quite as concerned about penalties, though it’s an easy way to lose points needed to win.

With Deja Bluethe annual PFI Grand Cayman competition, looming only a month away, many freedivers, including myself, are gearing up for this major event, not only by training but by reminding themselves of these rules as well.

Here are a few of the most common competition mistakes that keep divers from receiving that ever-important white card.

Loss of Airway Control/Blackout- Disqualification

After a dive the judges typically watch an athlete for around 30 seconds (though they can opt to watch longer) to make sure they don’t have a hypoxic issue. If the athlete lets their airway go into the water during this time they can and will be disqualified. I’ve seen this happen due to blackout and due to diver error (ie putting your face back in the water to rinse off). The best plan is to keep your airway nice and high over the float after finishing your surface protocol.

Incomplete/Incorrect/Too Long Surface Protocol-Disqualification

Following a dive the competitor must finish their surface protocol within 15 seconds of surfacing. This includes removing all face equipment, which could be a mask or goggles and a noseclip, give an okay sign (index finger touching thumb with other three fingers extended) and say “I’m okay,” or “I am okay,” in english. Failure to complete this fully, in the proper order, within 15 seconds will result in disqualification. This maneuver is intended to serve as a measuring stick as to how hypoxic the diver is. Most experienced competitors have messed this one up a time or two. I know I have!

Assistance from Safety- Disqualification

Simply put, if a safety has to grab you to assist you you’ll get disqualified. Unfortunately, divers can also get disqualified if a safety accidentally touches them, though there are some instances where athletes can contest a DQ for such an infraction.

Late Start- Penalty/Denied Start

In ocean disciplines competitors have to start within 30 seconds of their “official top” time and in pool disciplines they have to start within 10 seconds. In the ocean judges will often stop athletes from beginning their dive if they go outside of this time period in order to keep the rest of the divers on schedule. In the pool the athlete will receive significant penalties for every second they go over their start time.

Did Not Reach Depth/Time- Penalty

Prior to a competitive performance the athlete is required to make an “announcement” that lets the judges know what the diver intends to do. In ocean disciplines the announcement also serves as a maximum limit for the diver, though in the pool the diver can go over their announced performance. If the diver fails to reach their announcement, however, they will incur penalties.

No Tag- Penalty

In any ocean discipline divers are required to grab a “tag” off the bottom plate, proving that they reached the planned depth. Even in the event that the diver reaches depth, but does not grab the tag, they will receive a penalty point, except in the event that organizers forget to put a tag to depth prior to a dive, as Grant Hogan found out during his 67m national record no-fins dive last year.

Securing the Line Early- Penalty

On a depth dive athletes are not allowed to secure the line (grab it) until they are ready to turn, which ideally would happen a the bottom. If they secure the line early they will receive penalty points, even if they continued down to depth afterward. The points would be calculated as though the diver only made it to the depth at which they secured the line. The exception to this rule is free immersion diving, where the diver pulls down to depth and back.

Touching the Pool Bottom/Water Surface (Dynamic Apnea)- Penalty

During a dynamic apnea, where athletes do underwater laps in a pool on a single breath, there are penalties for touching the pool bottom or breaking the surface with any part of your body, except during the turn at the wall. It’s still worth going for a personal best after incurring such a penalty, but it’s always best to just figure out proper buoyancy ahead of time.

Hands Out of Water Before Airway- Penalty

After a depth dive the diver is not allowed to break the water with their hands before their airway. The idea here is that divers aren’t allowed to pull themselves up. It’s always best to practice ascending normally, letting your airway break the surface, then grabbing the float and beginning recovery breathing and surface protocol.

Mismanaged Warm-Up- Disadvantage

During competition every athlete is given an official top time, which is the time that they’re supposed to begin their dive by putting their airway under the water. Prior to this they have 45 minutes of warm-up time that they can use as they see fit. It’s very common for new competitors to mismanage this time as they’re learning the best way to take advantage of this time. There’s no penalty for this, but it’s definitely a major disadvantage to miss a proper warm-up, which helps kick in your dive reflexes.

I hope this has helped those of you planning your first competition, but just keep in mind that every first-time competitor usually makes almost every one of these mistakes. That’s what’s great about competitions that incorporate training prior to the competition start date to let you make these mistakes before it starts to count!

And for you experienced competitors reading this- please feel free to add things I’ve missed!



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  1. Meredith

    Your topic posts have all been really helpful ! I look forward to every one of them ! If you have suggestions about books or articles with new research on the physiology behind diving reflexes, maximizing O2 storage in tissues, when and why the body switches from anaerobic to aerobic metabolism, how to increase one’s RBC, etc., that would be great. Also, are there ways to measure one’s lung capacity? Thank you!

    1. admin

      Hi Meredith,
      Thanks for your input! I’ve actually got a pretty exciting contributor working on a freediving research post, which I’m guessing you’ll like.

      You can measure your lung volume a number of ways, including a Pulmonary Function Test, which estimates lung volumes. If you want something more exact you should look into a Body Box test, which gives you more precise numbers.


  2. Bill Graham

    If you’re willing to accept +/- 5% you can just blow as much air into a round balloon as you can with one breath, measure the circumference in inches, cube it (Y^x3) and divide by 3622. Answer is Vital capacity in liters, add 25% for total lung volume. To arrive at the 5%, I compared two divers with spirometer readings from experts and even my numbers from the box (cube).

    1. admin

      Thanks for the tip, Bill! I’m guessing your lung volume is a little larger than most of ours?? :)

      1. Bill Graham

        For six foot and 180#, six liters is about normal. Almost as big as Jessy.

    2. Meredith

      Thanks … I’ll give it a go!

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