Michael's Monthly Column "Throwing My Loop"

Throwing My Loop…    

By:  Michael Johnson    

The Mental Side of Rodeo… 

     Somewhere in America right now, a dad or mom is taking a child for a lesson to learn how to do something.  Somewhere, a twelve-year old is putting golf clubs in the back of an SUV, a thirteen-year old tennis prodigy is lacing up her athletic shoes, and a nine-year old is putting resin on his violin strings.  Somewhere – at this moment - a sixty-year old physician is saddling his horse preparing to listen and learn from a man who will tell old “Doc” how he might rope better.  We will never know most of them - even though all are trying to become better - but some will become household names.  Why is that?
     In every case, the mom, dad, and student would tell you the trainer/teacher is an expert – indeed, that they are a “professional.”  And of course, they are – else they would not be the kind of person who receives payment for dispensing knowledge about their particular skill.  Sooo…we naturally assume that if we listen to that person and do what they say, our performance will improve. Right? 
     And actually, I think it will.  The process described above about learning from the teacher does work.  We learn from the teacher about how to physically do the thing - certainly that works.  After all, what else is there?  So much more.  That’s what else there is.  So much more.  That more has to do with the way we think about the task.  Even though all those parents would claim they understand the importance of the mental side, how many parents do you know who ever took their child to a professional thinker?  I’m not talking about psychologists or psychiatrists…but true thinkers. 

     As I grow older, seems I’m obsessed with looking back.  (Isn’t that the way we all are?)  Seems now days I constantly think about one particular thing, and that is…what really helped me in my life?   What really improved my performance?  I struggle with that question and do not yet have a clear answer, but I do know one thing.  Those who helped me most weren’t people who told me about the physical things.  While instruction about how to do the physical side of things does help us all, what helped me most…were people who told me about the mental side of things.  And their first of order of business was to encourage me to stop and think about what I was doing.
     Perhaps my favorite story in the Bible has to do with this fellow who is riding his horse down the road.  (I liked him right off.)  Suddenly, a light knocks him to the ground and asks Saul a simple but powerfully profound question… “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”
After failing for years in school, an angelic teacher took me aside, and posed the same question … “Why are you doing this?” she asked.
     “I’m just stupid,” I answered, looking at the floor.
     “No,” she said.  “The real reason you are failing is that you are not thinking correctly.  The first thing you need to do is get your head up.  Get your eyes on a higher prize,” she hissed in a stage whisper.  “There is nothing you can’t do.  We can’t do it for you, but if you will learn to try and fail, and try again…then we can help you.”  She paused for a moment and said, “Go and reflect on these things I’ve told you.  Make an internal decision that you will do better.”
      When young tennis star, Billie Jean King, began to win, a reporter asked her, “How did you get so much better?”  Here was a person we can certainly assume had vast experience and endless instruction about the physical side, but her answer had little to do with the physical act of hitting a tennis ball.  Her answer was, “Because I read Gallwey’s Inner Game of Tennis.”  Her answer had to do with the mental side.  Gallwey suggested in all matches, there were really two battles – one with your opponent and the other inside you.  Gallwey believed the one inside was of far more importance.
     Of course, I am not suggesting we ignore practice, repetition, instruction, and what we might call “the grind.”  We must do those things.  The hardest workers win the most.  As we all know, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.”  What I am suggesting is there are two sides to think about.  One is physical – the mechanics of the golf swing, the fluid backhand, or the delivery of the rope – but if we wish to reach our true potential, we must not ignore the mental side.   That may sound obvious, but so many fail to prepare how they plan to think come crunch time.  To improve our performance at any activity, we must include how we approach the task internally – how we think about the thing.    

      I overheard a conversation years ago that proved to be a life-changing moment. 
     “How did you get so much better?” the young rider was asked.  “How are you staying on so many more bulls?” 
     “I read a book,” he replied.
     “A book about bull riding?”
     “No,” came his answer.  “A book about not defeating my self.”
     The young rider was Gary Laffew who would later became a world champion.  The book was Psycho-Cybernetics – a book about how we might think better. 

     Later, I had a conversation with the great roper, Walt Woodard, who told me about how he failed when he turned professional.  This was difficult indeed for a person who had so much success as a youth.
     “How did you eventually turn things around?” I asked him.  His answer had little to do with the physical delivery of the rope.
     “I had to change my attitude inside,” he said.  “I had to change the way I thought about things.”  Certainly Walt possessed great physical skills, but even he had to learn there are two sides to every story of success. 

     The teacher caused me to think about why I was really failing.  While it’s true I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the package, it was also true I often failed to show up for class – and when I did, I sat on the back row looking at the floor, not listening.  When – like Gary Laffew – I began to give my self a chance by being there every day and focusing on the task, I began to do better.  At ropings when I rushed and stressed, I missed.  My internal thinking – what little there was of it – was consumed with being quick, beating other people, and being in an awful hurry.  Bronc encouraged me to calm down, focus on riding my horse, and stay within myself - to only do what I could do.  When I began to think better – then, I began to do better.   

     The path to improvement in roping begins with a focus on the mental side of rodeo… and so it is in every other walk of life.   

Michael's latest release, Reflections Of A Cowboy, is currently available in audio book form. The two volume set consists of articles, essays and excerpts from radio performances about good people and good horses in the life of an Oklahoma cowboy. Approximately 8 hours in length. Reflections Of A Cowboy in printed form is scheduled for release in the summer of 2005. Order from Michael's website.

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