Week #22: Texas Hold 'Em Tapering

Feb 6, 2004
Week #22: Texas Hold 'Em Tapering

Taper anxiety. It happens at the end of every season, and it affects coaches and athletes alike. I think it comes from the extra rest. Too much time to think. As a coach, I experience a great deal of anxiety because it is my job to prepare each individual athlete for success. To do that, I have to be aware of the anxiety level that each one of THEM is experiencing. And THEIR levels of anxiety have a multitude of mental and physical factors. The permutations of figuring this all out can be mind bending.

To help understand the levels of anxiety, imagine that taper is like the World Series of poker. Don�t get me wrong. I do not consider a bunch of overweight people sitting around a table slinging cards a sport. Surely everyone must have seen some of the footage of high-stakes poker at some point this year. Poker is becoming one of the biggest spectator events in this country. Championship swimming is like the final table where only a few cardplayers are left.
Hey look... the clip-art came in handy!

The game that is played at the World Series of poker and at most high-stakes games is Texas Hold �Em. In Texas Hold �Em, each player is given two cards, which only they can see. The players complete one round of betting knowing only the cards they hold. After this first round, three additional community cards are played by the dealer. This is called the flop. An additional round of betting commences based on five cards -- the three showing and the two that are in each person� hand. A fourth card, called a river, is turned over by the dealer, and more betting goes down. The dealer then turns over a final card (called fifth street), and the hands are set. The betting continues until there is a winner. At each table the spectator gets to see raw human emotion and how people deal with anxiety, both good and bad. What makes poker a great spectator event is that you get to see what all of the players are holding, while they don�t. This is sort of like coaching during taper. I know what each athlete has done throughout the season because I�ve observed every practice from on deck. They�ve been in the water and don�t have the same overview.

To continue the analogy, let� say that each swimmer gets two cards, which only they can see. The two cards are representative of their preparation all season and their chances of succeeding. Mental preparation will also be a factor in what cards they are dealt.

Some of the swimmers (and these will be the least anxious taper/poker players) will be dealt Pocket Aces as their two down cards. With Pocket Aces you really don�t have to worry too much about the flop because you are sitting on the strongest hand. The thing that sets these athletes apart from all of the other athletes is peace of mind. They have the comfort of knowing that they have been doing everything they need to do to succeed � and they�ve been doing it all season. Their preparation has ensured a successful taper. Of course, they will have a slightly higher-than-normal anxiety level, because all swimmers will experience some anxiety. Anyone who has trained for six months straight in preparation for one meet, where they will have the opportunity to compete in three to seven events, will experience a little discomfort. This is a good thing for these athletes because it will give them the edge they need to push themselves. They know that they have done the work and that the anxiety is coming from expectation. They want to see just how fast they can go. There is no substitute for having this going into a big meet.

The Play:

Pocket Aces should stay cool and lull the other players into the hand. The chances of you losing with Pocket Aces are slim to none. Keep focused on what you have and not what the others have. In cards and swimming, they have the ability to go all in, which means that they can put all of their chips into the pot when it matters. This will give you the greatest ability to win it all. For the duration of their taper, they just need to keep doing what they are doing, and it is my job to keep out of their way. They will succeed; I just need to reassure them that they will succeed.

Some of the swimmers will be what� called Queen/Jack Suited. They have been dealt a Queen and a Jack. This is a very good hand to have going into the flop. You have the ability to get a high pair, a flush, a straight, or even a straight flush. There aren�t too many hands that can beat you if you have these cards. The anxiety level is slightly higher because someone could have Pocket Aces, and the community cards could bring you nothing. These athletes are usually well prepared physically. The component that sets them apart from the Pocket Aces is the mental component. They have put in the same amount of work but they have some self-doubt creeping into their psyches. This lingering self-doubt hurts their ability to win in the pool. If they step to bet or step up to the blocks with self-doubt, others can see it. They still have a strong hand but their competitors can see that they don�t wholeheartedly believe they can win.

The Play:

As a Queen/Jack swimmer, you know that the odds of winning are pretty high. You have the high cards with multiple outs. Confidence is the key for winning with this group. Believe that you have put in the work and that you cannot hold back. Half of being a winner is knowing you are a winner. There is still a chance that you will get beat, but it is up to you to play your hand strong. With these athletes my primary job is to convince them that they are capable of winning. They have to BELIEVE. This is easier said than done. It� why sports psychology has become a major field of study. Even if by some chance they don�t win, they will still have the notion that they did everything that they could.

A third group of swimmers will be what I call 7/2 Off Suit. Your chances of winning with this hand are very slight. Your biggest hope lies with no one else having a hand at all. You have the outside chance at a straight draw, but more likely you are looking at a low pair that won�t win the hand. This is never a comforting feeling to have in the pool or at the poker table. It� like stepping up in your heat so unprepared that your only hope of success is that the other seven athletes will have bad swims. This is the hand that is dealt to athletes who haven�t done the work they are capable of doing throughout the season. They are sitting on a weak hand and are thinking about folding before the betting begins. �We aren�t doing the right taper� or �I am not going to hit my taper� is their way of safeguarding themselves. These are just excuses, and when they are said in the pool, I think, �this swimmer has just folded.� They always have someone else to blame for their lack of preparation. Without a hand, they will have to rely on bluffing and luck if they want to stay in the game. Bluffing on the poker table works for seasoned professionals. Swimmers, unfortunately, can�t bluff their way into a big swim. Big swims are earned throughout the year. As Glenn says, �luck has nothing to do with it.�

The Play:

You can�t make up for what wasn�t done all year. You have to make the most out of the hand that is dealt to you. If, and in all likelihood when, you lose, you will have to realize why. This is not an easy thing to do for athletes or people in general because you have to eat a healthy slice of humble pie. You have to realize that you didn�t get it done all season and that is why you drew a 7/2 Off Suit. If you have eligibility left, you can come back next season and make it happen all year and replace your 7/2 with Pocket Aces. If you�re a senior, then you have no opportunities left and you will have the feeling of discontent ending you career. These are the athletes that I feel I have failed as a coach. Somehow or someway I always feel that I could have done something different to motivate them or get them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

In the sprint group, we are trying to battle these levels of anxiety by convincing each athlete that he/she can succeed. We are continuing to follow the advice of Dave D� posts about broken swimming. This week we assigned a set that was very achievable and that allowed each athlete to think BIG. The set was 4 x 75 from the blocks. We had three heats of swimmers, so each swimmer got about 3 minutes rest between each 75.

1. Goal Time
2. Goal Time minus :04
3. Goal Time minus :06
4. All out�as fast as you can go (this will be goal time minus approximately :10 to :15)

�Goal Time� is the time the swimmer wants to hit for a 100 at Championships. The first swim should be very easy to hit. For example, if a swimmer� goal is to hit :60 for the 100 back, she should hit :60 on her first 75 of this set. It� an EZ swim, but�he should make it a clean swim, with a perfect start, perfect turns, and perfect finish. On the second 75, she should aim for :56 � still a very manageable goal. Again, it should be a clean, perfect swim � just faster. The third 75 gets a little tougher, but the goal is not unreasonable (:54 for our hypothetical backstroker). She should still keep all the elements clean, while notching up the effort. The last one is ALL OUT.

After the last 75, I explain to the group that their splits for that 75 are the splits they are capable of holding for the entire 100 when they are fully tapered and shaved. Let� say our backstroker went :45 on the final 75. That� :15 per 25, and that equates to :60 for her 100 backstroke at Championships. Right on target. If a male freestyler went :33 for his final 75, that� :11 per 25 and equates to :44 for his Championship 100.

I want the athletes to think BIGGER than normal. A female athlete who has gone :58 this season in the 100 fly told me before the set that her goal time is :57 (she is holding a Queen/Jack Suited). I told her that was not a realistic goal for her -- that she is capable of much more. Her readjusted goal time became a :55, much better

After the set, almost everyone in the pool felt that he/she could go faster than their �Goal Time� by the end of the season. The set gave them confidence in their ability. This is the last set that I will do with a stopwatch for the rest of the season. I want the athletes to put their effort solely into what they are doing -- not in the end result.

As far as our duel-meet season is concerned, we have kept the momentum rolling. Last weekend, the men and women both had convincing wins � and lost only three total events. Their times are not as fast as I would like them to be at this point in the season, but they are racing well. Our attention to the details of starts, turns, and finishes were right on. These are the details that will make all of the difference in the sprint events.

This week we are continuing to rest, to give the athletes the strength they need to hit their times. This weekend we face another league rival in what will be our final test before league championships. The meet is at the rival� home pool, which will add an extra challenge. Our men� team has not won in this pool since 1990. The women will have their best competition of the second semester this weekend. I will keep everyone posted.

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