Keeping Your Cool in the NFR Pressure Cooker

The (Wrangler) National Finals Rodeo is home of the ultimate pressure in the rodeo game. For me, pressure was never really about the size or significance of a competition, though for a lot of people those things carry the most weight. At times, I’ve had a wave of pressure hit me at insignificant competitions, where there wasn’t much money or prestige on the line. That tells me that pressure is just a mental equation that hits your mind in the emotional realm.

The first thing pressure provokes is a fearful reaction to what’s going on. I first encountered that when I started competing as a little bitty guy going to junior rodeos when I was 8 or 9 years old. We all need to learn to deal with that, and work through it so we can do our best and achieve our goals.

It’s helpful when you start competing at a young age, because you get a lot of practice at handling pressure. When you’re climbing the ladder at junior rodeos and jackpots, and keep upping the ante at bigger, more prestigious events, you learn how to press through emotional anxiety and fear, and take pressure in stride.

When you compete, it’s almost like there are two things going on simultaneously. There are the physical skills you’ve trained yourself to do at a fast pace to the point you know you can execute consistently, and there’s the mental side. If you let fear or emotions overtake you to the point where you can’t physically perform like you do in the practice pen, your mind doesn’t allow you to do it.

We see it in all sports. There’s a boogie man there for a lot of people. I was raised by the older generation. My stepdad, Gene O’Brien, was really old school, which is now sort of a lost philosophy in our society. The way those guys of Gene’s generation saw it, a man bows up, faces his fears and goes at it with all he has. You do not succumb to fear, and you do not back down.

That mindset was instilled in me as a little kid, and if I showed weakness, I got my butt kicked. So I learned early that backing down to fear was not an option. I had to blast through it. Lack of confidence was just something to conquer.

We all feel emotions, like fear and uncertainty, and we all deal with those feelings in different ways. People who learn to be successful find a way to press through pressure and fear. They take that on as part of the competition, and they don’t back down.

I started taking the time to listen to a lot of different faith-based tapes and cassettes early on, because I was pursuing life’s journey along with my rodeo career. I wanted to be the best person I could be, and I knew God had the answers. I heard a teaching one time that said, “Do it afraid.” It was talking about faith, and stepping out on limbs that can break.

There’s an apprehensiveness and fear to stepping out in competition. Everyone feels the fear and emotions hitting them, yet you have to make a decision to, “Do it afraid.” That coincides with Gene O’s philosophy, which was to just bow up and, “Do it afraid.” You feel the emotions and fear, and you just do it anyway. That’s what faith is—stepping out where you aren’t certain.

The NFR, The American and the George Strait are some of the competitions that have historically carried the most weight because of everything involved—the notoriety, prestige, hype and monetary value for guys who make a living with their ropes to feed their families. Those were some of the big stages where I could feel that wave of emotional and psychological pressure.

Every time you put yourself in stressful situations like those you’re going to feel the heat. But there’s a strategy to embracing the opportunity and succeeding in those high-pressure circumstances. Keep breathing, slow things down in your mind, relax, loosen up and make the choice that you’re going to go stick your best run on them.

If you’re prepared, the odds are in your favor that you’re going to be successful. There are failures along the way for all of us. But if you learn from your failures, it’s a win whether you win something this time or not. 

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