Managing Roping's Ups and Downs with Clay O'Brien Cooper

Making it at the highest levels of the sport
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Making it at the highest levels of the sport

Making it at the highest level in any sport is tough in today’s ultra-competitive climate, and roping is one of the toughest. More than any other sport I know of—other than maybe golf, where you sometimes see the behind-the-scenes stories of a guy who finally makes it after spending 10 years on the mini tour, living out of his car and barely getting by going from tournament to tournament—it’s a tough climb to the top in the roping world. And when you rope you have another mouth to feed, even if you’re single, because you need to take care of at least one horse in addition to yourself. It’s almost like you have a family, because you have to take care of him or them, too. We don’t have the luxury of having a car that gets 25 miles to the gallon. With a truck that pulls a trailer, you’re lucky to get 12 miles to the gallon. Managing the mental strain of trying to make it, get to the next level and get to a place where you’re able to win consistently enough that it gets profitable and you can start building your business—the horses, the rig and the partner—is a pretty hard hill to climb. It’s not easy.

Credit: Lone Wolf Photo

Credit: Lone Wolf Photo

It starts with a dream. The guys I looked up to when I started out were people like the Camarillos and Walt Woodard. They were at the top of the game. They were the elite. To be able to travel, rope, compete and be successful starts with that vision; that dream of being able to do that, because it looks like a pretty cool life.

But the road to get there is challenging, to say the least. There are so many components that have to be earned through hard work, trial and error, learning to be mentally tough and learning to take defeat. You have to be able to take a butt kicking, go back to the drawing board and start over. No one is really exempt from that process.

To make it as a professional roper, you have to be able to develop a way of dealing with failure and disappointment. Trevor (Brazile) says you have to be able to forget about the failures and move forward, and that rings so true. You have to be able to put the failures and disappointments behind you and go on.

I look back, and there were some key things that happened and helped me learn, which helped me in that area. I’ve always had to build myself up, because my worst habit was tearing myself down. I was about 10 when the movie Rocky came out, and it made a real impact on me. It’s the story about a guy who everybody thinks isn’t good enough and doesn’t have a chance. Sheer guts, determination and the decision to not quit (boxing) is what propelled him to win. To get ahold of a truth like that was a dynamic, life-changing lesson that I’ve always used. It always made me get back up knowing that if I outwork everybody and don’t give up then I have a chance to succeed.

I like to read biographies on people who’ve been successful in all areas of life. One of the main themes is that most of them have a story that they failed several times before it ever started working. But their determination and decision to not give up and quit was the main ingredient in their success. I’ve basically seen four generations of ropers in my lifetime. My heroes are the Camarillos, the Walt Woodards and the Denny Watkins of the world. I’ve seen eras of great ropers, and that determination is one of the things that’s made the difference. The guys who won’t quit and have decided they’re going to make it no matter what are the guys who’ve made it in the long run. There are guys gifted with God-given talent, but they can’t outdo the guys who have made a decision and will not have their dream denied.

We all deal with disappointment, no matter if you’re at the top of the game or you’re just starting out at the bottom trying to climb the ladder. You have to develop a way of dealing with disappointment, so you can put it in the past after using it as a stepping stone to climb higher. You can’t dwell on the past. That’s just a principle of life. You have to be able to forgive and forget. If there’s something to learn from a disappointment, fine. Then get up the next morning and work on it. Put the past behind you, focus on the future and go back to work. It’s not an easy thing to do, but if you don’t do it you’re not going to be as productive as you could be without developing the ability to do that.