Redefining Taper to Engage Both the Brain and Body

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By Claire Alongi, Swimming World College Intern.

Swimming is a very physical sport, but that’s certainly not all. Just as much rides on an athlete’s mental training when it comes to their prowess in the pool. Sure, it helps to have height or longer arms. But that will only take a swimmer so far. A swimmer’s mind must also be highly trained to succeed. From taper to everyday practices and juggling the balance of swimming and life, a strong mental outlook is key.

So how does this apply to taper? Think back to the grueling seasons when you couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. Tests and papers piled up on top of exhausting practices while the cold and grey of winter lowered your spirits. Only one thing kept you going – knowing that taper would be around the corner. Practices end earlier and you leave with some extra energy. Your focus begins to falter as you’ve started to check out a bit mentally. It’s taper time – what is there to worry about? The very word carries connotations that may be more detrimental than helpful for both the athletes and coaches. But what if there was a better way to approach it?

How Do We Define Taper?


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In swimming, like a lot of sports, mental focus especially comes into light around competitions. It’s particularly a topic around bigger meets where a conference or national title is at stake. Often, coaches incorporate some kind of mental training into their version of taper. To swimmers, taper often carries associations akin to, “Finally I won’t feel like my legs are going to fall off after every practice!” Taper is the time leading up to a big meet when workouts are not only typically more focused on race-specific scenarios but also shorter to ensure proper recovery.

Cameron Taggesell, a rising junior and swimmer at Willamette University, saw taper as something to look forward to and also a time to look back:

“To me, taper is anticipation. It’s a signal that I am approaching a goal that I’ve been working towards all season long. Sure, I see it as ‘easy’ practices and a break [from] the physical pain that’s endured at all other practices, but it’s also a time to reflect on how far I’ve come and reinforce my determination to do well at our large meet.”

Willamette Head Coach Brent Summers defines taper as “coming down in volume and intensity and increasing rest.”

Finding a New Point of View


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Many swimmers might take the term “taper” for granted. But this past winter, when it came time for Willamette University Swimming to begin their taper, swimmers got a bit of a surprise. Summers announced that the pre-conference training would be called “peak performance phase” instead of taper.

Taggesell noted that when Summers made the  announcement, she had a little “chuckle.” She wasn’t alone in her initial skepticism. Summers did notice a few eye-rolls when he made the change, but he had a very specific reason for his decision – it had to do with both the mental and physical aspects of swimming.

He had recently stumbled across an article about retired University of Alabama swim coach Dennis Purley, who began to use “peak performance phase” to replace taper. He felt that taper had begun to solely be associated with the word “rest.”  Summers developed a similar stance:

I thought about how I used to think of taper – as a swimmer and coach – and what it meant and how I believe the team saw that portion of our training. I saw how that as we got toward that time of the season, the talk shifted to ‘I can’t wait until we rest’ but didn’t really focus on ‘I can’t wait until we swim fast.’”

Getting Used to the New Normal

Lourdes Villasenor Reyes-2015

Summers defines peak performance as “increasing focus on the little things [like] streamlines, breakouts, turns etc., and fine-tuning the stroke while keeping intensity up high to get to body prepared to swim fast.”

Taggesell realized that the name and focus change had some merit.  While Summers put emphasis on even the smallest technical aspects, he also wanted swimmers to imagine themselves swimming fast, warming-up, walking to the blocks and diving in.

“My second reaction was an acknowledgement that framing matters. I think that the name has a lot of potential to change a lot of athletes’ mentalities toward big-race-day preparations,” she said.

Taking Mental Focus Beyond the Big Meet (and Out of the Pool)


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Mental focus is not something that just comes and goes when a meet ends.  Just like the body, the brain needs to be constantly trained.  Outside of visualizations on the pool deck, activities like meditation and yoga can help you keep up your mental game even when you’re out of season.

Swimming is demanding. From morning workouts to dryland, it’s no wonder swimmers have the reputation of being almost married to the sport.  Taggesell elaborates on how mental training has positively impacted different parts of her life:

“I think [mindfulness] has affected me positively during normal practices and even in my classes and work, because it’s more prevalent in my thoughts. For instance, when preparing for a big test or final, I feel a lot of the same nerves that I get before a big race. Having a mental approach to racing has actually made me a stronger and more confident test taker because I can fall back on the same type of self-talk that I use for swimming.”

Moving (or Swimming) Forward


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Summers and Purley are far from alone in their quest to bring mentality on par with physicality. Websites like Sports Psychology and Peak Performance Sports are almost wholly devoted to the mental aspect of athletics. An article in Psychology Today discusses ways to change your mental outlook. While not directly intended specifically for swimming, its suggestions can apply to any life situation.  

Looking to the future, Summers wants to incorporate some of the techniques from peak performance into regular training:

“Next season, I want to expand our use of mental focus and visualization to be a season-long thing and not just a month’s worth as we prep for [Northwest Conference] Championships. You can train your mind just like you can train your body. Visualizing yourself succeeding, however you define it – swimming fast, beating a personal best, beating a season best, executing a race strategy, etc. – those mental reps count.”

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.