Why the Hardest Working Athletes Struggle With Rest

It's championship season. That means racing suits, fast times, shaved heads (check that, it's not still 1996) and the end of the season tradition all coaches hate. That's right, I'm talking about the swimmer who worked their butt off all year and falls apart on taper.

The great Jim Steen once said, "you can't miss a taper but you can miss a season". He was right, but how do we explain the swimmers who seemingly follow the process all season long but falter when it is time. Why do some of the most dedicated athletes in our sport actually face what should be the funnest part of sport, resting and swimming your absolute best, with dread?

The reason falls with how many of these athletes have motivational and emotional wires crossed in their brains. I have suffered from taper dread in my lifetimes, and with the power of hindsight can see where it all went wrong. Like anything else for the big meet, you need to start working on this wiring early and often to be successful when the pressure is on.

As coaches, we love motivated athletes. We want them to feel drive to work hard "internally", without much prodding for us. What if I told you that some of that internal motivation is the reason why a swimmer really struggles to compete?

I was one of those strongly internally motivated swimmers. But my motivation came from a yawning emotional crater inside of me. I was constantly worried that coaches and teammates were disappointed in me. I believed that at the slightest failing, they would turn on me and question my dedication.

That "internal" motivation drove me to do a lot of things that were counterproductive to my swimming, like training when I was sick. I once developed a habit of going to the pool by myself on Sunday nights if I felt I had a disappointing meet and forcing myself through a practice as punishment.

When it came time to rest, I wouldn't be able to give myself credit for what i'd done. Instead, the easy practices would allow me to fixate on whether or not I had done enough. Even as my body grew stronger, my mind grew more tired from foreboding approach of that day I would find out whether or not I was a disappointment.

You've probably read several times over about how well exercise works for treatment of anxiety and depression. It's better than drugs, they say. I agree with a lot of the research in this field, but suppose you are an athlete that is using exercise to treat your depression and/or anxiety. Then suppose you cut your "medicine" in half? Do you think that would have a positive effect? 

Coaches should be aware of whether swimmers are using their negative emotions and life experiences to feed their motivational furnace. It's imperative to find these athletes and try to help them find the right kind of internal motivation. Y

You want athletes not training or racing scared, but swimming because they love the sport, because they want to do well and improve themselves. You want to use sport to help people who are anxious and depressed, but not as the sole treatment to paper over their anxiety and depression.

So coaches, my plea to you, please never shake your head at the end of the season about how an athlete is a "headcase" or just isn't "mentally tough". Do the work for your athlete all season long to improve their motivational and emotional health.

Want to learn about how to identify and change unhealthy motivation in swimmers? Write me to find out more.