Mental toughness is increasingly acknowledged as a vital ingredient across athletic disciplines, and a growing body of ropers are making mental fitness a part of their conditioning and training programs. From professional ropers whose livelihood is on the line every time they back into the box to recreational ropers who spend their hard-earned dollars in high-pressure situations, mental errors can be the difference between a payday and monumental disappointment. The Team Roping Journal enlisted the help of Kathy Korell-Rach, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in rodeo, to examine some common mental blocks that ropers of any competitive level might face and some tips for addressing them in and out of the arena.

[Anxiety]

Anxiety is a common problem for most ropers—it just affects each competitor differently. Many are familiar with being overly anxious, which can manifest as rapid heart rate, increased sweating, trembling muscles, hyperventilation, distractibility, decreased concentration, and changes in reaction time. While this is a short list of potential symptoms of anxiety, these translate into any number of mistakes in your run. You might cue your horse to leave the box too soon or too late, you might hesitate or anticipate your throw, or you might just lose a precious thumb with a fumbled dally.

However, anxiety is important. It serves as a warning sign that you need to be prepared and helps you execute the task. If you nod your head when your level of anxiety is too low, you are bound to be behind. According to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, a psychological principle that has been empirically supported by multiple experiments over the last few decades, performance is best with moderate anxiety.

To accomplish this, 2013 #12 World Series of Team Roping Champion Header Mike Grant tries to embrace his nerves. 

“I look forward to getting nervous,” Grant explained. “I know if I’m nervous, this is what I’ve prepared for.”

Grant exercises his ability to deal with nerves by recreating pressure situations, no matter how small the entry fee is for an event. He also makes sure to utilize the same pre-game routines during practice, $5 roping events, and high-pressure championship runs to create a sense of readiness and foster being in the zone.

Three-time Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifier Clay Smith has a similar approach to mastering anxiety.

“A lot of people practice by just running steers to get the job done,” Smith said. “I make the practice pen not seem like the practice pen.”

Smith pretends to be somewhere where money and glory are on the line each time he backs into the box at home. He intentionally practices being nervous to train his body and mind to handle the extra jitters that are bound to happen in high-intensity situations.

To work with your own anxiety, first identify and track your anxiety levels in various roping situations and realistically rank your anxiety on a scale of 0 (“I couldn’t care less about this run”) to 100 (“I’m having a panic attack”).

Next, employ strategies to reduce or increase anxiety so that you are at around 50. When you are at 50, you should experience some muscle tension, a slight increase in heart rate, increased focus and concentration on you and your horse, decreased attention to distractions, and a sense of readiness to make your run.

[Self-Worth]

Positive self-worth is not just a feel-good issue; it matters in competition. While someone with overall low self-esteem is certainly capable of winning, the likelihood of persistence in the face of adversity is low. Therefore, working on how you perceive yourself is important. We are machines that scan for information pertaining to us so that we can understand and make judgments about ourselves. The criteria for making these judgments are Contingencies of Self-Worth (CSW).

Internal CSW are core aspects of ourselves that are based solely on whether we are living up to our own values. They do not depend on external circumstances. Some examples include: religious devotion, honesty, reliability, and kindness. Conversely, external CSW are derived from outside of ourselves, such as awards, approval from others, and notoriety. When we are winning, we obtain external CSW data, and it is easy to feel good about ourselves.

The key is making sure that you have several robust internal CSW that are resilient and unwavering that can keep self-worth high, even when there is no gold buckle to remind you of your value. This allows you to more easily weather the notorious ups and downs on the roping road.

Nine-time WNFR qualifier Charly Crawford understands this well.

“A huge goal of mine is to not let a run define me,” Crawford said.

Instead, define yourself by the attributes you want to portray. To get you started, take a few minutes to think of the kind of person you want to be in this world. Do you value integrity? Creativity? Adventure? Compassion? Learning? Notice that I didn’t list “Champion Roper” on that list. Write these attributes down and take inventory of whether you are acting in a way that honors them. If you are, let your self-worth be based primarily in living a good life and allow success in the arena to be the metaphorical icing on the cake.

[Self-Talk]

Closely related to self-worth is self-talk. Those who have positive self-worth also talk to themselves favorably. What do you say to yourself if you miss a steer? If you berate yourself, believe you are “loser,” or feel excessive guilt, you are not doing yourself a favor. It is important to take information from less-than-stellar performances and use it to maximize future success. However, the outcome will be much more promising if you are able to separate emotion from the equation. If you have a bad go, you are going to feel angry, frustrated, or disappointed. If you don’t feel something unpleasant, you may not have a pulse!

The key is to give yourself a timeframe to be upset. Find adaptive, helpful ways to express that emotion, such as physical activity or journaling. Then, use a scientist’s mindset to investigate what went wrong. Was it just a bad draw? Anxiety got in the way? Your horse made a mistake? Simply note what it was without judgement and create a game plan. Do you need the practice dummy? More visualization? Some practice runs? Use this plan to move forward, expecting better results from targeted hard work.

Crawford fosters self-awareness of how he talks to himself and problem-solves his difficulties to prevent falling into a negative self-talk spiral when things are not going his way. One of his methods is to not worry about a problem until it shows up more than once. He also makes a conscious effort to change negative self-talk.

“If I wouldn’t talk that way to someone else, I can’t talk that way to myself,” Crawford said.

Crawford is also prepared for situations that make him more vulnerable to unhelpful thoughts.

“It can get to you when you are out on the road, lacking sleep, and wore out,” explained Crawford. “When you can’t practice and have to rely on only mental strategies, it gets tough.”

It is important make an effort to avoid being vulnerable in the first place and also have a plan for when those inevitable situations arise. When charting your rodeo course, factor in time for sleep for you and your horses. It is better to have five rodeos in a week where you pull checks than 10 rodeos where you do not. Pack nutritious food to keep your mind and body functioning at full capacity and take mental time-outs when needed. Even 10 minutes of mindfulness can help you to re-center.

[Finances]

A more pragmatic concern is how we finance our fun. When the two nickels in your pocket won’t fill the diesel tank and you have an opportunity to pad your bank account, the pressure rises considerably. You may feel desperate to do well in this particular go.

If you experience the financial fear, try following reigning PRCA World Champion Heeler Jeremy Buhler’s advice for overcoming these hard times. His answer to success is to spend your off season and every spare minute in the practice pen, working to improve yourself continually. Knowing that he is prepared physically, mentally, and with the right horsepower assures him that he is not wasting a run in competition. If he has a poor go when money is on the line, he knows that the result was not for lack of trying.

Buhler also has relied on good old hard work when roping is not paying the bills. When he found himself broke in the past, he picked up the phone, got a job, and made money until he was stable enough to hit the road again.

“If you’re not scared to sweat in a different avenue, it takes the pressure off,” Buhler said.

[Realism]

If you focus solely on first place every time you saddle up, you are bound to be disappointed. Second place pays pretty darned well too. And being too upset about a few bad go-rounds can easily set someone in a tailspin and corrupt future performance. Giving yourself a reality check of assessing performance overall, rather than on a few less-than-desired placings or losses, allows you to weather these runs instead of taking them as a negative reflection of yourself.

“You can’t win every single time,” Buhler said. “That’s just not how it works.”

Two-time WNFR header Tom Richards echoed these sentiments.

“These days, everyone is fast, and that makes winning tough,” Richards said.

Richards keeps a complete record of his competitions. He uses this as a way to evaluate whether he is catching frequently and fast enough to be fruitful. Richards believes a successful ratio is to cash a check approximately half of the times he throws a loop.

“I really listened when I heard Clay O’Brien Cooper say that everyone goes through two bad weeks. If you let it build, it keeps lasting and you’re done,” Richards said. “It’s hard to look back at the bad and then do good.”

Megan White, 2015 #10 WSTR Reserve Champion and 2016 WPRA Reserve Champion Header, highlights the special consideration of teamwork in this sport. It can be disheartening when one half of a team is in a slump and the other half is roping well. Regardless of who is struggling, White seeks to rope horns to increase the likelihood of putting a run together.

“I try to do my job on every steer and take one steer at a time,” White said. “I let it play out like it is supposed to, however that is, but it’s nice to win a little something at the end of the day.”

White believes that if you do your part, are confident, and think about what you need to do to catch instead of the outcome, you will taste success.

[Team Roping Triad]

Something that most champion ropers can agree on is the importance of what I’d like to call the Team Roping Triad. It is composed of solid horsepower and horsemanship, physical roping ability, and mental focus. While many ropers make practicing the first two a priority, the mind element can be more elusive for some.

“Roping is about being able to rope well and maintaining and understanding your horses,” Crawford said. “Mindset is what ties the two together.”

Grant similarly sees all three aspects as being connected. Grant believes that the mental game is at least one-third of his success, and he works hard to fine-tune his mental skills right alongside horsemanship and physical ability. To accomplish this aim, he reads sport psychology books, videos, audio transcripts of books, and articles.

If you find yourself struggling with your mental game, consider seeing a sport psychologist. Many times, this custom-made intervention is effective in just a few sessions. While we all get something positive from studying videos of great ropers’ technique and reading about horsemanship principles, it is almost always more helpful to practice with a brilliant roper or attend a clinic with your idol. The mental side in roping is no different.

Mastering the mental game of team roping takes time and training. Be patient with yourself and the process. The best in the game are working at it every day, too. n

Disclaimer: This information should not be considered a therapeutic intervention and no client-therapist relationship is established by reading this article.

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Dr. Kathy Korell-Rach is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and owns Country Counseling, LLC. For more information, see her website at countrycounselingllc.com. She competes for Bar Three Stables by running homegrown horses sired by nationally-ranked barrel horse sire Smoke N Sparks. See more at smokensparks.com. Please make sure to “like” both on Facebook. 

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