Although everyone has heard of Rodeo, not many people realize it is a sport that tests human performance in very unique ways. Here I’ll share a window into my journey in the world of Rodeo, as well as provide some insights as to why elite bull riding has surprising parallels with disciplines like ballet and martial arts.
Shooting for the Stars
I am a Bull Rider a Saddle Bronc Rider and a 3rd generation cowboy. When I entered the rodeo world at 7 years old, I started riding calf, and from there graduated to steer riding, then junior bull riding, and finally at 16 years old I started riding big bulls! Since I turned 19 years old this past year, I’ve been travelling to compete across Canada and the USA as a Professional Rodeo Athlete. My goal in 2020 is to be able to make it pro full-time, live from what I love doing, shoot for the stars and past them! My ultimate quest is to become the world champion.
A Rocky Road
In 2017 I had an accident where I suffered a major head trauma. In extreme sports this is part of the risks you have to be ready to accept. Initially doctors were predicting that I would never be able to live normally. However, from already having done years of training and competing, I was in the truly fortunate position of having a team of masters in my corner, both in the physical and mental side of performance. Using a combination of sports science based neurotechnologies, I was able to actively train to heal my brain completely. In just 8 months I was climbing on the back of a 2000 pounds animal athlete again.
Being able to get through that episode of my life taught me that I was blessed with God on side and that anything is possible. Even at 19 years old, I’ve faced many challenges, but they have only made me better, stronger and more serious about training hard both mentally and physically, to prepare myself for the next season. In fact, looking back to before the accident, I now enjoy life much more, really living at 110% with the confidence to match.
The Extreme Demands of Riding
Rodeo is an extreme sport, which means there are no half measures – you have to totally commit to riding or go home. Bull riding is judged on 100 points. It’s 50 points per judge, with a maximum of 25 for the bulls (his kick, agility, explosiveness, the changing of directions, speed), and a maximum of 25 for the rider (his control, style, technique, agility). You need to ride the bull for 8 seconds, at which time a buzzer goes off to dismount. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but when you think of watching the Olympics 100m final, you’ll realize a lot can happen when things are moving fast!
Though people usually see riding as a struggle or a fight between man and bull, the truth it is really a lot more like ballet, where you actually are dancing with the bull. There is certainly a form of art to it. Your focus, balance, power, speed and agility all need to be synchronized with the bull’s every movement.
Reaction time has to be extremely fast and precise at the top level of Bull Riding. Just a micro decision-making error gets you in trouble very fast…before you know it, it’s over. This is why years of dedicated training is crucial – the fundamentals have to be in place, so that it becomes an automatic skill.
Perception is Key
Proprioception, bodily kinesthetic intelligence, and visual perception get tested to the Nth degree in this sport. When a bull spins and changes direction it can happen extremely quickly, so you need to be reacting faster than you can actually think. This includes having a sixth sense about when you should get off. Dismounting needs to be synced very closely with how the bull bucks…otherwise you won’t be landing on your feet!
Believe it or not, we face up to 10G of gravity force when we ride bulls. This means your sensory perception has stay lucid enough to know how to remain exactly in the right position on the bulls back. Otherwise it’s simply be impossible to hold on.
A competition bull weighs around ten times a rider’s body weight – trying to out-force a bull is just plain impossible. What’s really tough is that we always need to keep tracking the bull as it goes from jump to jump. This includes adjusting to the bull’s rhythm and leveraging it’s gravitational forces, so we go with its tremendous power, rather than against it.
When you factor in demands of acute sensory perception combined with precision timing and reactions, there are similarities with the disciplines of eastern martial arts. No matter how intense the ride is going to be, it’s paramount to be ready, calm, and ‘in the zone’ right out of the gates.
Being in the Moment
As well as having fast reactions, bull riders need to be razor sharp mentally. Accuracy in every micro decision is vital. This means you really need to be in the present, utterly existing in the moment. In this way you have to rely on your trained subconscious mind to relay all your mental preparations and channel them into 8 seconds of pure focus.
The subconscious mind has the ability to manage thousands of events at a time, sending nerve signals at over 100,000 mph, with enough computational bandwidth to process an average of 4,000,000,000 bits of information per seconds. Like it’s been shown that top tennis players have to execute serve returns, literally before they are conscious the ball is in the air, riders also have operate in a realm where the subconscious mind is primary.
Originally I used NeuroTracker to help me regain competitive sharpness after my injury. As you can imagine from the demands of competitive riding that I have been talking about, I realized this was a great tool to improve many aspects of my performance.
In particular, I find it helps me train that all important skill of being able to get in the zone when I need to. This is because it is an incredibly efficient method for developing sharper perceptual-awareness, and to be able to process at lot of things happening all at once, without being overwhelmed. I can see how this tool can help athletes in any sport climb to a higher level. Conditioning your mental game is probably more important even than physical conditioning.
From my own experiences I also see it as a valuable way to assess performance readiness. Like other extreme sports, Rodeo can be very dangerous, especially for risks of concussions. When you make that decision to get back on the bull after recovering from injury, you have to be sure you are bringing along your A-game. Otherwise, chances are you’re going to get injured all over again. Because I know my NeuroTracker baselines in peak performance state, if I’m not 100% ready, then my speed threshold shows me.
I feel blessed to have NeuroTracker on my side, and I’m looking forward to seeing what I can achieve this season!
About Zac Bourgeois
Zac was national high-school bull riding champion, and is now a young and fast-rising professional Rodeo Athlete. Zac has a great Instagram page, where you can follow his story as he endeavors to make Rodeo history in 2020!
If you are interested reading more on extreme sports, then also check out this MMA Experts Corner blog by Dr. Roman Velasquez.
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