December 5-14, 2024


Look In The Mirror

Jul 14, 2023

Look In The Mirror

The intensity of bareback riding and Tim O’Connell.

Sometimes you need to take a long hard look in the mirror.

            That’s exactly what Tim O’Connell did after finishing as the reserve world champion in 2020. It was a mere $6,657 that stood between him and a fourth consecutive world championship. He saw Kaycee Field win his fifth and become one step closer to being the greatest bareback rider of all time. 

            While finishing number two in the world is a great accomplishment and earning $270,991 goes a long way in supporting your family, it simply wasn’t enough for Tim.

            I first met Tim, like a lot of other rodeo athletes at the College National Finals Rodeo in 2012. Then I watched him in action his rookie year, 2013, I knew that I would be writing about him a lot in the future. For journalists covering rodeo, Tim is one of the best interviews ever. It might help that he has his public relations degree from Missouri Valley College, but mostly it’s because his comments are real. 

Tim accepts his gold buckle following the 2018 Wrangler NFR. | Photo by Pic Anderson

            So, it was a bit of a surprise to me when he told me that after earning that reserve world title he considered retiring from rodeo. Really? He had just won three consecutive world championships from 2017 – 2019. Then the pandemic hit and 2020 was not the best measuring stick for rodeo, let alone an individual contestant’s success. 

            Tim had entered the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas in first place. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that he would leave with his fourth gold buckle. Kaycee Field was hot on his trail in second. By the end of 10 rounds, they had swapped positions. That was a life changing moment for the man who grew up in Zwingle, Iowa, and now lives in Marshall, Missouri with his wife and two boys. 

            “I talked to a sports psychologist after the 2020 NFR,” he said. “I was pretty distraught. That was a changing point for me to start letting things go. I’m glad I didn’t retire and I feel like I’m a changed person because of that. I had a lot of rage going on and we talked that rage out. It was nothing that Kaycee did. The 2020 thing for me was the perfect storm of craziness.”

            After every storm, there is opportunity for growth and Tim has definitely experienced that. In a game that he says is 90% mental, continuing to work on that aspect can make a big difference in and out of the arena. 

            “At some point you have to go through the fire on your own,” he said. “When you dedicate yourself to the craft, it creates a mental game for you. Figuring out when to turn it on and when to turn it off can be a challenge. It’s something that I’ve been working on recently.” 

Tim O’Connell on Beyond Bugs during the first round of the 2018 Wrangler NFR. | Photo by James Phifer

            Bareback riding has been described as the most physical event in rodeo. Tim says it’s like getting in a fight every time you get on. Being mentally tough to allow your body to take a beating takes preparation and a will to win. It’s like going to war with 120 battles along the way to the NFR. Then for 10 consecutive nights it’s like being in a car wreck. The best bucking horses in the business are putting pressure on every joint and muscle for eight bone-jarring seconds. 

            “I’d much rather be in a going to a war state of mind before I get on and then calm when I get into the bucking chutes,” he explained. “Before I never wanted to turn that state of mind off, ever. That wasn’t great either. It’s the kind of competitor I am. We talk about flipping our switch and taking your mind to another place. Some people figure out how to do it 15 minutes before they get on. Others will be joking until they get in the bucking chutes. It’s different strokes for different folks.”

            There is no doubt that Tim is one of the most intense competitors in the sport, even after working to dial it back. That intensity came out this year at the 104th Cody Stampede in the cowboy state of Wyoming. He hadn’t been having a great Fourth of July, drew an awesome horse from Frontier rodeo named Breaking News, scored 89-points to win the rodeo and nearly $10,000. 

            “I was fired up when I got to Cody,” he said. “I felt like I was more intense at Cody than I had been in a long time. The week hadn’t gone very well, and it was time for the intense person to come out.”

Tim fired up after a great ride in the Thomas & Mack Center. | Photo by Tim Donoghue

            That intensity has changed since becoming a father. Before that he had a hard time dialing it back and shutting off the competition. And when you can’t shut off the competition even when you’re not at the arena, that’s mental. 

            “Everything about the mental game goes back to the hours you’ve put into your craft,” he said. “I’ve dedicated every day for the last 13 years of my life to bareback riding. Literally, there is something I have done and will do every single day to make myself get better.”

            Along with that was a good long hard look in the mirror after 2020. The sports psychologist asked him a simple question. “How do you want to be remembered?” 

            That took some thinking and along with it she asked how he wanted younger generations of rodeo competitors to see. Then she sent him to look in the mirror and go back and watch videos and see what others saw in Tim. 

            “I knew I wanted people to see me as a fierce competitor that loves bareback riding and has dedicated their life to it. But at the end of the day, I wanted them to also see a Godly man. I didn’t see any of that. I had let rodeo consume me and partially steal my identity. That was a changing point for me.” 

            He had been preparing his body for the fight of bareback riding. That was how he worked on his mental game. Now he prepares for the individual battles in the fight and that’s how he has dialed back his intensity level. 

Tim O’Connell and Sage Kimzey have some fun in front of the Bellagio Fountains. | Photo by Tom Donoghue

            “I always thought I had a lot of friends in the NFR locker room, and I didn’t. I was over the top and I didn’t realize how much I got into people’s faces. I pace a lot on the back of the chutes there and I could have cared less if that was your bucking chute or not. But I darn sure cared if it was my bucking chute. I had no respect for everyone else’s bucking chute. I’ve dialed that back a lot and have more respect from my competitors and more actual true friends.” 

            He has been through the fire and looked in the mirror. He’s won three consecutive world titles and that has led to higher expectations. That can lead to listening to the wrong voices. Listening to the right voices and being prepared builds a tough mindset. 

            “A lot of preparation leads to confidence and confidence is going to radiate in high-pressure situations,” he said breaking down his mental game. “The game itself isn’t that hard that we play, but 90 percent of it is mental. From the outside looking in, I think Stetson Wright, Hailey Kinsel and Kaycee Feild are some of the most mentally tough competitors in our sport. They are all multiple world champions, but they are multi-time world champions for a reason. They are prepared and confident and surround themselves with winners. They work really hard at their craft and they show up to win. That’s mental.” 

            Go look in that mirror Tim O’Connell – I think you could say the same about yourself and more.