Congratulations to all of the 2020 Wrangler National Finals Rodeo qualifiers, including this year’s first-time finalists—headers Andrew Ward, Nelson Wyatt and Jeff Flenniken, and heelers Logan Medlin, Paden Bray and Levi Lord. It’s always a grind to get there, and this year’s complications and cancellations sure didn’t make it any easier. Based on my 29 years of backing into the NFR box, success at the world’s biggest rodeo all boils down to mental state of mind.

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No matter if you’ve been to the Finals 29 times or never before, you’re going to be emotionally and mentally excited when you get there. I remember my early years, and that excitement is something that challenges you in the beginning. You’re wanting to go tear ’em up and prove yourself. That’s only natural, and that’s how I went there the first few years.

What you realize when you leave there the first time is that despite all the extra excitement it really is just another competition. So when you go again, you start thinking a little harder on strategy. You learn to get all of the emotion out of your head, and to put yourself in a mental state of mind where you have a good game plan based on your team’s situation. Then you just need to go stick to that strategy and execute the plan.

I found it helpful to keep reminding myself to take it one night at a time, 10 nights in a row—to try and be consistent, and just do what I could do on every steer we drew. I learned to be diligent about keeping my mind and emotions where I wanted them. That’s not easy to do as you’re riding down the moat and they start lighting up the board with smoking runs. It’s easy to get caught up, change your plan spur of the moment, and think to yourself, “I’m trying this son of a gun on, and when he wiggles in the corner I’m firing.”

If that’s your plan, go for it. But if you started the night with a different plan, and are now changing things up as you back in the box, you’re letting head games get the best of you. When Steve Northcott won his championship (in 1996), he made a comment when it was over that after being there a few times he finally just made himself slow down and stay in under-control mode. He learned to ride to the right spot and just go rope his steers. The result was a gold buckle.

Clay O'Brien Cooper: Keep Challenging Yourself

I heard the same thing out of Wesley Thorp’s mouth last year. Let yourself see the steer and see the shot, then make the shot. It’s the same simple theme that brought me success. When we learn not to let big circumstances overwhelm us, it allows us to obtain our goals. And this applies to World Series ropers the exact same way.

The Thomas & Mack Center is a grizzly bear. It’s a blur, because everything happens so fast in that little building. If you let your emotions take over, you can ride in the box, then out of the arena moments later wondering what in the world just happened. You have to slow things down to be successful. This year’s Globe Life Field is a bigger arena, but the same basic principles will apply.

When you get to the level of roping at the NFR, you’ve roped so many steers and made so many great runs that the physical preparations have been made. Everyone there ropes so good that it becomes a mental battle. So that’s the challenge, and it needs our attention. We see it in all sports. And whether the competitor is a rookie or a veteran, the guys who stick to the game plan and just go execute are the ones who get the W. 

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