Taper Time: How Does It Affect The Mind?

Taper Time: How Does It Affect The Mind?

In the second and final part of this series, former Stanford rower and U.S. junior national triathlete Andrew Gyenis, who currently trains at Virginia's Machine Aquatics, examines the mental effects of tapering on athletes.

Jan 25, 2017 by Maclin Simpson
Taper Time: How Does It Affect The Mind?
In the second and final part of this series, former Stanford rower and U.S. junior national triathlete Andrew Gyenis, who currently trains at Virginia's Machine Aquatics, examines the mental effects of tapering on athletes.

I recently asked my younger brother, Daniel, a fast-rising sophomore in high school, what was the first thing that came to mind when I said the word taper.

"I feel calm," he said, "and relaxed. I know the hard work is done, and now it's time for my mind to get ready to race."

As much as we think about the physical decrease in workouts during a taper, mastering the mental side of tapering is even more important to ensuring a successful championship meet. Athletes need to practice having that killer instinct in high-pressure scenarios to be best prepared when they step up on the blocks for their races. 

Plan And Prepare

There are a lot of subjects that fall under the umbrella of the mental side of taper, ranging from race visualization to planning your nutrition for a weekend of racing. However, it is critical to know and understand who ​you ​are as a swimmer and know what works best for ​your​ body. It is easy to get too caught up in your own mind leading up to a race, and there is a fine line between overthinking and proper preparation for a race. Things will always come up that you can't control, and you have to be willing to stay flexible and relaxed in those situations: maybe there's traffic on the way to the pool or your goggles snap during warmup. The best athletes will still step up even under less-than-ideal circumstances. 

Thomas Hallock, one of the top sprinters in the high school class of 2017 and a Virginia Tech commit, says he actually places more emphasis on the mental side of taper than the physical side leading up to a big race. 

"If you show up to the meet without any prior planning, you've already lost," Hallock said. 

Race visualization is a key part of Thomas' taper, in which he will plan out his exact strategy for his sprint events. That includes the finest details such as where and when he'll breathe and how many dolphin kicks he will take off each wall. As the first day of competition approaches, Hallock decides exactly how far out from his race he wants to arrive at the pool, what his stretching and foam rolling routine will be, what he will do for his in-water warmup, when he will eat a snack, and what playlist he will listen to behind the block. 

Never Stop Evaluating

While in Austin, Texas, last weekend at the Arena Pro Swim Series, I took some time to observe 2016 world 100m champion Michael Andrew's pre-race routine, and one of the key things he does before every race is set a goal time with his coach (who is also his dad). It doesn't matter if it's a prelims swim in an off-event or a final at a world championships; every race has a goal that the two of them work together to determine and get in the proper mindset to achieve. Most importantly, immediately following the race they would evaluate why the goal time was met or missed, and what can be improved on for the next race. For example, in the 50 freestyle finals, his breakout was really strong, but his tempo in the middle of the pool needed to be faster. 

To the average athlete, all of these things may sound tedious, but that's exactly the point. The best in the sport will take the extra time and effort to figure out what works best for their body. 

That also speaks to the importance of the relationship between a coach and an athlete that is built on trust in each other in order to properly prepare for a race. Oftentimes the athlete will need guidance from someone who can see the big picture and can either push the athlete to work harder in his or her preparation or hold the athlete back from pushing himself or herself too hard and overthinking before a race. Conversely, the coach doesn't have that intimate knowledge of how an athlete's muscles are feeling, how much sleep he or she got last night, etc., unless there is an open dialogue between the two parties. Behind every Olympic gold medal, there is a team of people that has helped guide the athlete's mental preparation along the way.

Even when things are seemingly going really well for athletes, they may still decide that a change of pace and mental freshness in a coaching environment is needed for a long push in a new Olympic cycle, as we saw with South African Olympic gold medalist Chad Le Clos leaving his longtime coach, Graham Hill, this past September following the Olympic Games. 

Remove Your Blinders

I sat down with professional triathlete Collin Chartier to discuss his mental preparation before a big race, which is the biggest factor he attributes to his rise in the sport of triathlon in the past year. The night before a race he will write down in a notebook his schedule for the race day and his race plan, including what time he will wake up, when he will eat breakfast, how long his warmup will be, and his strategy for each of his three disciplines (swimming, biking, and running). The most interesting part of Chartier's race strategy is that it includes buzzwords during each portion of the race that are mental queues for his body which he has worked on in practice. For example, on the bike portion, if he tells himself "cadence," that's a queue for his body to increase his leg turnover; if he tells himself "drive with your legs" on the run portion, that's a queue to get his knees up and relax his shoulders. Just like you work on the physical preparation for a race in practice, an athlete has to take the time to prepare mentally for a big race in their workouts throughout the year. When you've worked on something repeatedly in practice, it becomes second nature to execute it during a race. 

The most important part of Chartier's pre-race routine is that after he finishes writing his race-day plan in his notebook, he shuts it and puts it away for the night. He thinks mental fatigue is a growing problem for young athletes, who will burn up their mental fortitude for race day before they even get to the starting line by staying up all night running through scenarios in their heads. Athletes have to have the ability to shut off thinking about the race when they need to rest to ensure they are mentally sharp on race day.

"You have to be able to let go of desired outcomes and fully embrace the process of getting ready for a race," Chartier said. "Once you have that self-confidence, it's incredible how your goals become realized as well." 

As we finished up our coffee, Chartier had one final insight to share: "A lot of athletes are like horses with blinders on, just so focused on their fitness and hitting their splits and unable to tie together the physical and mental side of training on race day. When you get to a certain elite level of a sport, everyone is extremely fit and full of natural talent. The person who wins the race is usually the person that is strongest between the ears."

​Taper Time: How Does It Affect The Body

​By Andrew Gyenis​