With championship seasons popping up over the next few months for all levels of college swimming across the US, I wanted to discuss a topic that every college swimmer can relate to and utilize going into their championship meets: The importance of mentally coping with the tapering process.
As the official mental coach for the Florida Gulf Coast University Swimming & Diving team, every season, I see first-hand the mental effects that tapering has on top level swimmers. Those that do the best at mentally coping with their taper almost always do well at the championship meets, and those that don’t properly mentally cope with their taper tend to struggle. In the end, your mindset during your taper, as well as the mindset you have coming out of your taper, is going to play a massive role in determining how you perform at your championship meets and the results you end getting.
So, let’s delve into the mental aspects of tapering and get better understanding of, not only how it works, but what you need to do in order to come out of your taper and into your championship meet with the best mindset possible. First, let’s explore how the brain reacts once you start tapering and why it reacts that way.
An Addiction To Training
As complicated and complex as the brain can be, it can also be very predictable. For example, we know, through decades of scientific research, that the brain loves to automate things as much as possible by developing habits and routines and ultimately forming a comfort zone where it knows what to expect day in, day out. Throughout your season, you’ve trained extremely hard. You’ve put in an enormous amount of hours in both the pool and the gym. You’ve constantly pushed your body to its physical limitations and grown accustomed to training at such a high intensity level. However, when you go to taper, you stop training at that high intensity level so that your body can rest and reach its peak physical condition. That’s when things get complicated.
Because you’ve been training at such a high intensity level for so long, and because that’s been your norm throughout the season, your brain has essentially become addicted to high intensity training. It simply expects to experience that every day. However, now that you’re tapering and the intensity level drops off dramatically, your brain recognizes that you’re not training at the same intensity level and, because you’re not getting your high intensity training “fix”, your brain tweaks out a little bit. It goes into a bit of a panic mode. Once that happens, your brain essentially goes like this:
“Whoa whoa whoa. What’s going on here? We’re used to training really intense, but we’ve stopped doing that. I don’t like this! What are you doing!? We need to train like we normally train! Let’s go!”
Now what’s happened is that your brain has recognized you’ve gone outside your normal comfort zone and it doesn’t like that. The brain doesn’t like change. If it’s used to high intensity training, it doesn’t like it when you start doing the opposite and resting, so when it’s forced outside it’s normal routine, it panics and starts making you think negative thoughts you wouldn’t normally think. It starts making you think worst case scenario and doubting both the process and yourself. For example, you can start having thoughts along the lines of the following:
“What if I haven’t trained hard enough this year?”
“I’m not sure my turns are as smooth as they should be.”
“I don’t know if my technique is as sharp as it could be.”
“What if my taper is too short?”
“What if my taper is too long?”
“My taper isn’t short enough.”
“My taper isn’t long enough.”
“I’m not going to be rested enough for the meet and do badly.”
“I’m going to be TOO rested for the meet and do badly.”
“I’m going to lose all my fitness and not be prepared for the meet.”
There are a million other negative thoughts you can have, but these are just an example of some of the more common ones. Now, having said all of this, I want to be very clear about something: These thoughts are lies. They’re all false fears and they’re not true. Again, this is your brain reacting desperately because it’s been forced outside its normal routine and its comfort zone. When the brain panics, it can make you think things that are complete BS and that are totally false. When your brain reacts this way, if you don’t properly cope with it and keep yourself in the right mindset, you’re going to sabotage your own taper and your performance at your championship meet.
Having said that, here are some things you can do to fight back against that reaction, get your brain back into a positive state, and set yourself up for having the right mentality and attitude coming out of your taper and going into your championship meet.
1) Create the right narrative.
As I’ve mentioned in my other articles, we know there’s a mind-body connection where your thoughts and emotions have a direct influence on your physical health and performance. We don’t necessarily know why it happens or how it happens. We just know that it does. That’s important to understand because it means that what you think and the story you create in your mind during your taper is going to directly affect how you feel physically and how you perform in the pool. If you create a negative narrative in your mind, and if you convince yourself that your taper isn’t working and that you’re going to have a bad meet, then it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll feel more heavy, tired, and sore. You’ll produce physical actions in the pool that are a manifestation of the negative narrative you created in your mind.
However, the reverse is also true. If you create a positive narrative in your mind, and if you convince yourself that everything is fine, that you’ve trained hard, that you’re prepared, and that your taper is going to work, then your brain will take that message in, believe it as truth, and react in a way to manifests those thoughts. You’ll feel more rested, rejuvenated, and fresh. You’ll produce physical performances in the pool that are a manifestation of that positive narrative you created in your mind. So, during your taper, it’s important you constantly feed your mind the right narrative, something along the lines of this:
“My brain is just feeling uneasy because I’m not training like I normally do. Any negative thoughts my brain pumps out are completely untrue and I’m not going to take them seriously. This taper is my resting period and my body is going to be completely rested and in peak condition for my meet. I’m doing everything I need to do to prepare and my taper is going to work exactly as it’s intended. I’m going to have a great meet.”
2) Trust in everything.
Doubt is a killer. Doubt has killed more athletic dreams and aspirations than anything else in the history of sport. Now that you’re at the tail end of your season and in the final stages of preparation for your biggest meet, now is not the time to doubt the work you’ve put in up to this point. You absolutely have to trust in everything. You have to trust that you’ve worked hard enough in the pool. You have to trust that you’ve worked hard enough in the gym. You have to trust in your diet and eating routine. You have to trust in your fitness and strength. You have to trust in your coaches and the training they’ve given you. And, most importantly, you have to fully trust in your taper.
Even the slightest inkling of doubt can kill everything, because doubt is like rolling a snowball down a hill. It starts out as a tiny doubt, but the more you indulge in it and the more you feed into it, the bigger it gets, the more it expands, and sooner or later, you’re doubting, not just one thing, but everything: Your work, your training, your diet, your coaches, your ability, and your taper. You’re doubting the whole process. To help trust in everything and keep the doubt at bay, recite this mantra to yourself every day during your taper:
“I trust in everything. I trust in the work I’ve put in this season in the pool. I trust in the work I’ve put in this season in the gym. I trust in the training that I’ve been given. I trust in my diet and the way I’ve been eating. I trust in my coaches and the instructions they’ve given me. I trust that my taper will work exactly as it should, and I trust that I will be rested perfectly for my meet. I trust in myself, my talent, my skill, and my ability. I trust that I’m going to have a great meet. I trust in everything.”
3) Stay moderately active and get your mind off the championship meet.
Since you’re resting during your taper, you obviously can’t do anything physically intense because you need your body to rest. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t stay active. Every morning, go for walk. Put some headphones on, listen to some music, and go for a relaxing bike ride. Go canoeing, or even kayaking. Nothing dangerous and nothing intense, but something that can keep you feeling active and helping to keep your brain occupied during your taper. The last thing you want to do is just sit around and mire in your own thoughts. You’ll go stir crazy that way.
Lastly, try to get your mind off the meet for a bit. Go to a hockey game with friends. Head to an arcade and play some video games. Go see a movie. Go bowling! The championship meet is the culmination of an entire season of work and can easily make you feel stressed out and anxious. Go, enjoy your life, have some harmless fun outside of swimming, and let your mind think about other things besides the meet. Not only will this help with eliminating nervousness or stress about the meet, if you give you a healthy perspective and give you a great motivational boost going into the most important meet of your season.
Ultimately, things like tapering and suits don’t make the difference. They’re not going to be the absolute #1 factors that determine whether or not you have a great championship meet and shatter your PB’s. Every season, there are swimmers, including ones I personally work with, that get PB’s without a taper and without a suit. In the end, those things are tools. They’re part of the equation, but not the only part. Your mindset and attitude towards your taper, as well as the mindset and attitude you have coming out of it going into your meet, is the ultimate difference maker. If you mentally cope with your taper in the proper way, then great things can happen.
I wish you all the best, and thanks for reading!