Mental Tapering

Do you feel the stress?  Right about this time in the season, when the championships kick off relentlessly one after another, we all feel our blood pressures, anxiety levels, and stress meters hit the highs — swimmers and parents alike.  Welcome to the mental side of swimming!  The power of mental tapering is such an important piece of the sport because the skills that swimmers learn in regards to mentally preparing for success in a meet, are the same skills that will allow them to mentally prepare for success in their lives outside of the pool.

Swimming teaches athletes to push themselves to the brink of their abilities day in and day out. This is what makes the sport great. The ability to strive for a goal that is just outside of our reach and know that through hard work we can achieve more tomorrow than we could today.  But what do you do when the swimmer grows tired of reaching for that goal and feels emotionally exhausted? One of the ironic things about time based sports like swimming is that while the workouts can be physically taxing, the emotional stress of the season is what exhausts many athletes, right at championship time.

The grind of morning workouts, class, afternoon workouts and homework day after day can be draining. When this demanding schedule is combined with the winter months, a lack of sunlight and long meets that eat into sleep and weekends; it’s enough to drain the emotional reserve of even the most dedicated athlete. The result is that by the end of the season, when swimmers are preparing for their most important races, they lose the drive that they had early in the season. Taking time off isn’t an option because of the importance and the buildup to the upcoming meets.

The traditional answer is to taper the approach and get more rest. While this is the perfect answer for getting the body ready to perform at its peak level, it does not address the mental condition of the athlete. It lessens the demand on the emotional bank account, but just because you stop withdrawing money doesn’t mean the bank account will go up on it’s own.

This concept of tapering shouldn’t be exclusive to the physical load that swimmers are experiencing.  Mental tapering is just as important.  Here are a few simple things that can help:

For the swimmers, if you need a quick dose of courage and spirit, listen to the story of “Eric the Eel” (the swimming underdog who swam at the 2000 Olympics without having ever seen a 50 meter pool before), and relive the phenomenal 4×100 free men’s relay at the 2008 Olympic Games (“Most Phenomenal American Swim Ever!”).  If you are having doubts about achieving the seemingly impossible, watch the “Miracle on Ice” (the 1980 US Olympic hockey team pulled off one of the greatest upsets in sports) will certainly make you believe your hard work will deliver.

For the parents, it is especially important that you play a positive role during the psychological tapering period.  As much as possible, you should limit the psychological burden on the athletes. This does not mean not holding them accountable to completing their homework and chores around the house. Instead, it’s about removing as much pressure on their performance as possible and instead focus on making deposits to their emotional bank account.  These deposits can take many forms and should vary based on the child. A couple of starting ideas could be a nice dinner out where the topic of swimming is off limits. It’s common for swimmers to feel like the sport is consuming their lives. A night away from the sport is a nice reprieve that allows both the parents and swimmers to return to the sport fresh in the morning.   Another great activity is to review old pictures and video footage from other activities the family did together, and remembering that your swimmers are also talented writers, artists, or joke masters.  This is the time when swimmers and parents can reinforce the bond between one another and understand that your lives are not defined by the results of one swim meet.

You might just be surprised that by removing the stress of competing at a high level, athletes release the burden and tension that the season has pinned on them. By letting this burden go, they are then free to achieve some of their best results.

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