Developing Mental Toughness In The Roping Pen

It’s your first run of the day.  You are up in ten teams.  You feel that familiar adrenaline start to set in.  Your heart starts to pound a little harder than normal.  You feel it first in your chest, then it slowly starts to set in all over your body.  You feel it in your throat and in your gut.  It feels like you pounded a Red Line on an empty stomach.  You swing your rope several times and double check your cinch.

Three teams to go…

You swing your rope a few more times.  You adjust your coils.  You quickly go over your game plan for the day: Make consistent runs, feel your pinky through your swing and delivery, cover both horns, control your slack, handle your cattle, try not to get too excited.  This is just like practice.  Just go make good runs and have fun.

The announcer calls your name…

You take two deep breaths as you ride into the box.  You back your horse in the corner.  You check the steer.  You check your rope again.  You adjust your coils and pull your reins up a little tighter in your hand, focusing on the fact that your right rein is slightly tighter than your left.  You check the steer again, breathe, and nod your head.

They say the first run is always the toughest.  For a lot of ropers, that first run will set the tone for the rest of the jackpot.  So how do you control your adrenaline so that you can not only make a good first run, but so that you also don’t fall apart later on in the roping?

It all comes down to mental toughness.  You hear a lot about mental game, but very rarely do you find good tips on successfully managing your emotions during a jackpot.  Here are some common reasons that team ropers tend to fall apart during a jackpot, along with suggestions on how to overcome those issues.

  1. First Run Jitters.

Whether you are #3 or a #9, at one point or another, you are going to experience “First Run Jitters”.  The feeling is that of which was described above.  Your heart is pounding.  Your palms are sweaty.  You just want to get it over with.  The difference between winners and losers is how you apply that adrenaline.  Most of the higher numbered ropers have mastered controlling that adrenaline and using it to their advantage.  But how?

The first thing you need to learn to do is put pressure on yourself in practice.  Whether you need to make a friendly wager with your buddies, challenge yourself to do pushups if you miss, or simply imagine yourself at a big jackpot roping for money, you have to learn how to feel that familiar pressure while practicing so that you can feel 100% comfortable at a jackpot.

You also need to learn to BREATHE.  I’m going to be very transparent for a second.  When I was 23 years old, my dad passed away.  In the years that followed his passing, I experienced a lot of anxiety.  I spent a lot of time reading and talking to professional counselors who taught me that breathing was the #1 thing that you could do to counteract anxiety (this includes performance anxiety and adrenaline).  Whenever you feel your heart start racing, close your eyes for a second and focus on taking 2-3 deep breaths.  Inhale for 5-7 seconds and exhale twice as long.  This will slow down your heart rate and help you to feel calm, cool, and collected.

If you make a mistake and your first run doesn’t go as you would have hoped, remind yourself that it is just the first run.  You still have other runs to make and you can’t let that first run affect how the rest of the jackpot will go.  Stay positive and focus on the things you did right, rather than what you did wrong.

Finally, use those first run jitters to your advantage.  When you experience an adrenaline rush, your senses become heightened.  You will be able to see clearer, hear sharper, and feel more.  Use those heightened senses to laser focus in on your steer, feel your rope in your hand, and control your run.  Once you manage to channel your adrenaline and use it in a positive way, you will have mastered one of the hardest aspects of team roping.

  1. The Barrier.

I see so many team ropers fall apart after breaking the barrier.  What’s even worse is that I see it happen in ropings where even a run with a barrier has a good chance of winning money.  If you want to become a mentally tough competitor, the first thing you need to do is know how to win…and to know how to win, you need to have a good understanding of jackpots.  If you are roping in a #8 roping and only 20 teams out of 80 have caught in the first round, there is a good chance that you could win with a barrier or even two.  So often, I see ropers break out, panic, take one swing that isn’t even close to pointing at the target, and then throw.  They hear that buzzer, a sense of urgency comes over them, and they take the worst shot imaginable…taking them out of the roping completely.

Know your jackpots!  Pay attention to what is going on during the roping so that you can have a legitimate game plan in place every time you back into the box.  Now, I am not telling you to tell yourself that you can get away with breaking the barrier.  Scoring is, hands down, the number one way to get a leg up on your competition.  If you can develop a knack for watching the steer out of the chute and getting out every time, you will automatically put yourself in a good position to win.  BUT, if you know your ropings and you are paying attention, you will KNOW whether or not a breakout is going to ruin your chances of winning a check.  There will be times where you will break the barrier and you will need to make up for it by making a fast run. In that instance, yes, you must take your first possible shot.  There will be other times that a barrier will take you out no matter how quick of a run you lay down.  But, if the roping is similar to that which I described above, then you should focus on making a good, solid clean run and not blow your chances of winning a check because you panicked and threw your rope as soon as you heard the barrier break.

Finally, shake it off.  Regardless of whether or not a broken barrier takes you out of the roping, you have to shake it off.  You are allowed 1 minute of misery over messing up and then you need to move on.  If you continuously beat yourself up over a failure, then you are simply going to continue to fail.  Try to shift your emotions in a positive direction.  For example: I broke the barrier, but my horse rated off really well and I was able to get a good shot.  I also gave a really nice handle and my horse faced really well.  If you continuously practice shifting both your emotions and self-talk in a positive direction, you will find that some of the pressure that you feel while roping will be eliminated.  Then, something magic happens…you start having fun again!

  1. A Bad Run.

Bad runs…maybe you broke the barrier.  Maybe you completely whiffed it and never even hit the steer.  Maybe you got overly excited and jerked the steer down on the corner.  Maybe you got outrun.  Maybe you split the horns for the 50th time in a row.  Or if you are like me, maybe your horse tried to buck you off and you are a little bitter about it.  No matter the circumstance, bad runs happen.

Just like with breaking the barrier, you have to shake off those bad runs.  As I said previously, you are allowed 1 minute of misery and then you need to move on.  Focus on the positive aspects of the run…and if there are none, then focus on a positive goal that you can work towards.

  1. Partners Who Miss.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard a team roper say that their partners are their biggest challenge, then I would be a very rich woman! “If only my partners would catch.” “Headers/Heelers will starve you.” The list of complaints goes on and on.  To be a mentally tough competitor, you need to stop placing the blame on others.  Just like you, your partners are going to have bad days.  Rather than dwelling on the fact that you haven’t won a check in 8 years because your partners never catch, perhaps you should reevaluate what it is that YOU are doing.

Which ropings are you entered in?  If you only rope in the #8 roping, then you really can’t expect your partners to catch every steer.  If they were catching every steer consistently, then they probably wouldn’t be able to enter the #8!  If you want better partners, then you need to enter in the higher numbered ropings.  I also recommend roping with people you know, if possible.  If you are entering low numbered ropings and only getting in the draw, then you are taking a chance on partnering up with some ropers who are potentially very inexperienced.  I am not saying that drawpots are a bad thing.  I actually really enjoy them because I recently moved and I don’t know a lot of people who rope where I now I live.  But, as a #4 header who is confident in my ability to score well and consistently catch my cattle, I like to enter the #11 draw because I am able to draw higher numbered, more consistent heelers.

You also need to self-reflect.  Are you doing anything that is making it hard for your partners to catch.  For example: if you are a header, are you handling the cattle down the arena or are you setting your heelers up with a nice corner by controlling the steer’s head every run?  If you are a heeler, are you hazing the steers for your header or are you letting them run up against the fence?  Self-reflection will help you determine if there is something more that you can be doing to help your partners.  After all, this is TEAM roping!

Becoming a mentally tough competitor is probably one of the hardest aspects of team roping.  It is so easy to get caught up in the negativity of a bad run or feeling upset or angry when all of your partners miss or you make a silly mistake.  But, a mentally tough competitor focuses on the positives.  A mentally tough competitor sets goals and works towards them.  Most importantly, a mentally tough competitor doesn’t sweat the losses, but uses them as motivation to win.

Lacey Maddalena

Lacey grew up on a cattle ranch in Northern California where she learned to ride and rope at a very young age. Her dad was an avid team roper, and unlike most little girls who dreamed of the adrenaline of chasing barrels, Lacey dreamed of being a team roper just like her dad. She won her first jackpot at just 13 and has been hooked ever since. She is not only a passionate team roper and a writer, but also an artist and an outdoorsman. When she is not in the arena, she enjoys painting, archery, fishing, hiking, and traveling the world.

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