Let’s talk mental game. When the vast majority of America hears someone talk about their ‘mental game’ we generally assume they are talking about some professional baseball player or football player. Although I’m sure these professions do rely immensely on a strong mental game, as you and I both know competing alongside a 1,200-pound athlete with a mind of his own takes an incredible amount of focus, determination and mental toughness.

I get the amazing opportunity to speak with some of the most talented men and women in the sport of barrel racing. From futurity champions to divisional winners, here at Barrel Horse News I live and breathe barrel racing. My life is consumed with barrel racing results, horse stats, rider stats, who’s entered for what race, and which horse goes back to which sire. Through all this muddle of information, do you know what continually stands out in my mind? The mental strength these competitors share.

Let’s be honest, this sport that is so cherished among our community isn’t an easy job. It takes long hours and an incredible amount of hard work. So, what happens when, after you’ve spent countless hours and dollars on that champion of yours, you step into the alley and your mind explodes? You’ve unconsciously and unwillingly begun to self-destruct. All the ‘what ifs?’ and doubt and fears begin to overtake your mind. How do you cope? How do you take all the criticism, self-doubt and fear and shove it? How do you tell it to go take a hike?

Playing the ‘what ifs’ in your mind will ultimately freak you out and get you consistently underachieving. If you want to learn to stay calm under pressure you have to keep yourself from reciting the ‘what ifs’ in your head. When you start over-analyzing or thinking about what could happen or what might happen you are feeding fear. Focusing on the future when you are in the middle of competition will no doubt bring nervousness of the ‘what ifs.’ Disciplining yourself to stay in the NOW before and during your competition is the key to staying calm and composed when it counts the most.

Fallon Taylor is an unmistakable example of being mentally tough and over-coming mental handicaps. She speaks frequently in her monthly column about her struggles to become mentally stronger, and we’ve all seen how becoming so has catapulted her to the top.  She’s spoke about how eliminating negativity in her life and focusing on how to make her and her horse better has significantly improved her success. Mental game is important, not just in team sports, but in barrel racing and rodeo, too.

Everyone has different goals. The link I’ve found when speaking to barrel racers is that at every single event everyone has a different goal, a different game plan for every horse. Some people enter an event with the goal to win, some walk into the alley focused on riding quiet and making a smooth run. Either way, they all have one thing in common. They all have a mental game plan. They have all done the math and punched the numbers to find that special recipe to success at that specific moment. Whatever it is that needs done in that specific moment is what they are focusing on. Not once when I’ve asked someone to tell me about their runs or to describe their game plan have I heard them say “To win,” and then that was that – conversation over. No, it is almost 100 percent of the time followed by ‘So, I focused on being smooth and getting around the barrels,’ or ‘I really wanted to nail that first barrel.’ Or any other number of things, which required focus to make a winning run.

I read an article the other day about having the competitive edge and how to gain mental toughness. In the article it said the only way to consistently enjoy your sport is to continue to improve and become the best that you can be by learning to develop a growth mentality. You must let go of the obsessive need to solely win or beat others, because that attitude is actually limiting you. Instead, focus on being the best you can be and success will ultimately follow.

So, whether it’s eliminating the negativity from your life, focusing on horsemanship, or rearranging your priorities remember success isn’t always about having the best mount or most talent, sometimes it’s about knowing how to handle your confidence to optimize your opportunities.  There are a million and one ways to become a champion and I know there are more than five ingredients to becoming mentally strong, but I hope these five guidelines will help you along your journey to the pay window.

Five tips to help keep you on point:

  1. Make your only competitor YOU. Strive to be the best you can be by continually growing and improving.
  2. Keep the ‘what ifs’ at bay. Develop an awareness of when you mentally leave the NOW and jump ahead into the future. And then, bring your focus back to the present task.
  3. Re-evaluate your priorities. What is limiting you? Address the issue.
  4. Be prepared and have confidence. Prepare yourself for every situation before competition, that way you will have the confidence that you and your horse can handle any situation.
  5. Don’t be discouraged. Everyone fails. Everyone! Learn from the mistakes and work to overcome adversity. Success will follow.

Kailey Sullins is editor of Barrel Horse News, and an avid barrel racer and breakaway roper. Email comments or questions to [email protected]

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