LAS VEGAS – Tyler Willis took a deep breath, then excelled. It was a sigh of relief.
On Wednesday night at the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo, the Wheatland, Wyo., bull rider marked his first qualified ride of this year’s championship, scoring 74.5 points on Rafter G Rodeo’s Barabbas to finish fifth in the seventh round. He pocketed $4,808.
“I felt a lot better going in last night than when I started,” said Willis, now in his second qualification to ProRodeo’s championship. “My finals wasn’t going the way I planned, so I just started from scratch.”
The NFR features only the top 15 cowboys in each event, and Willis earned the right to be in the City of Lights because of how well he competed through the regular season. He earned better than $75,000 heading into the 10-day championship, so he knows what it takes to stay on the backs of the nastiest bucking beasts in the business.
So when he failed to do so for the qualifying eight second through the first few nights of the NFR, Willis’ confidence was shaken. He had to reach down into his gut, and reflect on the season, to gain that swagger back.
“It’s just remembering what got you here,” he said. “Also the other guys in the locker room were trying to be so supportive. Everybody wants everybody else to do good, so you just keep trying and doing what you did all year long to get here.”
Riding bucking bulls is tough in the first place, but Willis admitted that he was trying a little too hard. In an athletic competition, especially a championship like this, the mental game can help or hurt. So what was the main difference to Wednesday night?
“The main thing is not thinking about it,” said Willis, who says his sponsorship agreement with Wyoming Tourism and Cowboy Outfitters USA is what helped him succeed throughout the year. “I was trying too hard, and my muscles were too stiff. Last night, I was riding more like I need to ride.
“The biggest mistake is over-thinking things. It can be pretty simple, but you can make it pretty hard on yourself, too.”
Now that he’s found the formula that works, the Wyoming cowboy hopes to follow that same approach heading into the final few nights of the NFR.
“I’m down to three rounds, so it’s just one bull at a time,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what bull I get on. I’m just going to go at it like I did last night and see how it works.
“I don’t have anything to lose, and that’s fine with me. I’ll just try to win.”