COUNTDOWN

Mental Game

Mar 2, 2023

Mental Game

            Through the years, I’ve watched a lot of rodeo and met a lot of contestants. The mental game has always interested me and in my opinion, Cody Ohl was one of the toughest mentally that ever competed.

            With 20 NFR qualifications — even while battling and coming back from injuries – and 6 gold buckles, he held nothing back.  His mental game seemed to come naturally. Others have to work at it. 

            Each event in rodeo has its own set of challenges, but the commonalities involve animals, grit, and determination. It takes mental toughness to stay the course amidst miles of driving, facing bad draws and dealing with missteps. In tie-down roping, you can’t win if you don’t catch. If you don’t catch, you can’t tie the calf. If the calf doesn’t stay tied, you don’t get a time. The reverse of that is catch, tie, stop the clock. Sounds simple. Throw in the variables of the horses and calves and it can get interesting in a hurry. 

            Last year we saw four NFR rookies in the tie-down roping, Zack Jongbloed, Riley Webb, Macon Murphy and Kincade Henry. Kincade had barely qualified, finishing the regular season in 15th place. He won $1,715 at the Pasadena Livestock Show & Rodeo putting him $554 ahead of Cooper Martin to get to Las Vegas. 

            Kincade’s journey to Las Vegas started as a youngster where rodeo was a family endeavor. His parents, his older brother, Jace, and sister, Keely, all competed. There was rarely a weekend when the family wasn’t loading up horses, packing a trailer and going to a rodeo or playday. That changed in 2009. 

Jace, Keely and Kincade Henry grew up in a rodeo family and horses have always been an important part of that. 

            As a baby, Keely was diagnosed with a heart condition that required open-heart surgery and the installation of a pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat. She was released to have a normal childhood. Rodeo was a big part of that. 

            Then when she was nine, she was competing in the barrel racing, passed out and came off her pony. She laid in the arena and an anxious family waited as she was loaded into an ambulance and taken to the hospital. When her original cardiologist saw her, it was not good news. After an 8-hour surgery to install a cardio defibrillator, Keely got the news that she would not be competing in rodeos or any kind of activity that would get her adrenaline running too high. 

            The family could have taken it in stride and kept going. Instead, they decided if she couldn’t compete neither would they. Horses and trailers were sold. Keely turned her focus to Jr. FFA and showing lambs and the boys turned to baseball, thinking the rodeo arenas were part of their past. 

Kincade competed at his second CNFR in June of 2022. It was special as his sister Keely also qualified in the breakaway roping. Their parents, Chad and Melody, were on hand for all of the competition and when Keely won a scholarship all of them were in the arena for the presentation. 

            Five years later, Keely’s heart doctor gave her the unexpected news that she could compete in rodeos again. They immediately started looking for horses and the journey began all over again. For her never-give-up attitude, Keely Henry received the Nothin’ But Try Scholarship at the 2022 CNFR honoring NFR bull rider Shane Drury. She and Kincade were both there competing. Kincade and their parents, Chad and Melody, walked into the arena with her for the presentation. Two nights later the family watched as Kincade won the national championship in the tie-down roping. 

Kincade Henry’s horse Duals Crescent Boon both earned titles at last year’s CNFR. Kincade was the tie-down roping champion and “Mario” was the AQHA horse of the year. 

            Life had certainly given this family an opportunity to work on their mental game. Kincade learned to rope from his father who learned from the late R.E. Josey. He is proud to list R.E. as a mentor and used knowledge gained from him to finish in 31st his first year competing professionally and then 18th in 2021. While those were big steps towards his goal, he had fallen short and not making the NFR two years in a row was a “punch in the gut.” 

The late R.E. Josey contributed a lot to Kincade Henry’s success in and out of the arena. Kincade got a photo f R.E.’s wife, Martha, after winning the fifth round at last year’s NFR. 

            He started doing more, going to the gym, practicing, and listening to books about the mental game of sports. He focused on greats like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Tom Brady. His father found a book called “It Takes What It Takes,” by Trevor Moawad, a sports psychologist who worked with elite athletes. It focuses on neutral thinking.

            That book resonated with Kincade so much that he read it over and over. He was competing in the championship round at the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo in February of 2022 and came up short. He stopped the clock in 9.6 seconds. It took an 8.5 to place. 

            His uncle, Doug Nussmeier, who was the QB coach for the Dallas Cowboys at the time was there to watch. When it was over, he told his nephew to get back to neutral and that the best is ahead. 

            “As soon as he said that I knew that he knew Trevor,” Kincade said. Doug was the offensive coordinator at Alabama when the Crimson Tide had assistance with their mental game from Chad Bohling, who had been a partner with Trevor. Chad has been the mental conditioning coach for the New York Yankees for 18 seasons. Now, he’s delving into the rodeo world with Kincade. 

            “When we first started, he wanted me to send him videos of every run so he could learn about it,” Kincade said. “He understands it now and knows me well enough to know what is in my head and how to get my mind right.” 

Kincade during Round 5 of the 2022 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo By Click Thompson

            During the 2022 NFR, Kincade and Chad had a conversation every night. The lessons from Chad helped him get there, and they added to his success in Las Vegas. Kincade was the fourth high money earner in the tie-down roping and won more money that any of the other tie-down ropers that were in the Thomas & Mack for the first time.

            “People ask me if I was nervous, then they don’t believe me when I tell them no,” Kincade said about roping his first calf in the electric arena. “Before it started, I was in the hotel room, I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t drink anything. I was sick. It had hit me that I was about to rope at the NFR. I talked to Chad, just like we had planned. He reminded me to look at this as an opportunity and to just have fun. It’s not going to dictate life or death, it’s what I do for a living, and it’s what I love doing.” 

             That was before the first night where Kincade finished in second place. He placed second again in round 3, sixth in round 4 and won rounds 5 and 7. Before he backed his trusty horse into the corner, win lose or draw, he had the advice of a mental coach that is used to working with elite athletes to depend on. 

            “It brings the real-life confidence out in me,” Kincade said. “If I’m thinking negative or have something negative in my head, I talk to Chad. It keeps my mindset on winning, still doing this to have fun and to quit taking it so seriously.”

Kincade during Round 7 of the 2022 Wrangler NFR. | PRCA Photo By Phil Doyle

            Kincade moved from 15th place to ninth in the world standings for 2022. People who don’t know him may have been surprised to see him do so well at his first NFR. I was not. I watched him through the past two years and knew it was just a matter of time until he made his mark in the arena. When I learned about his mental coach, I was excited to watch his plan and preparation put into action. 

            Rodeo is not like other sports. There isn’t a game clock to tell us we have two minutes to plan our final plays. Everything happens in split seconds and there is rarely an opportunity for a do-over. There are coaches within our industry and that goes beyond the competition. So, stay tuned as I delve into the mental side of rodeo.