Tharp: Mental hurdles

We’re three events into the 2015 Elite Series season and I haven’t yet challenged for a win, which is what I shoot for every time out. To put it more bluntly, I haven’t even sniffed a check and my finishes are going in the wrong direction. At the Delta I finished 98th, so there’s not much more room to drop.

 

That’s unfamiliar territory for me. I’ve been doing this full time since 2008 and I don’t think I’ve previously missed more than two checks in a row. Of course I’m letting myself down, but I also feel terrible for my family, my sponsors and my fans. I wish there was some switch I could flip and get everything going the right way, but it’s not that easy and I’ve had a lot of time to think about how to get back on track.

 

It appears that I have some good company, as both Brandon Palaniuk and Brent Ehrler have recently blogged on Bassmaster.com about their own early-season struggles. It takes a lot of internal strength to be as brutally honest as those two were in admitting that they didn’t quite know what had gone wrong. Of course, since then they’ve both improved their situations – Brent made the top 12 at Guntersville and they both made the money at the Delta, while I continued to struggle.

 

I’m thankful that B.A.S.S. allows me to write this blog because it gives me an opportunity to air some of my thoughts, and work through the mental hurdles that are weighing on me now. We have a lot going on in our lives – some business issues, some family issues, and things like that – but I’m not going to make excuses or air out any dirty laundry here or on social media. I wish I could separate the off-the-water problems from my performance, but it’s proving to be harder than I ever expected. Great fishermen are able to take situations where their backs are up against the wall and use that to their advantage. Mike Iaconelli, for example, has always been able to channel his emotions and the things going on in his life (both positive and negative) to benefit his fishing. At the same time, the great ones are always confident. I remember last year prior to Day 2 at Cayuga, when KVD needed to do well to make the AOY championship and have an outside shot at the Classic, I heard him talk about his plans that morning and I knew that he believed he’d do well. The fact that he didn’t doesn’t make a bit of difference, because every time out he’s prepared to do what it takes to win.

 

In the past, that’s been my attitude, too. If you don’t think you’re going to win, it’s probably not going to happen. When other anglers have asked me “What do you think it’ll take to get a check?” I’ve refused to answer because I don’t want to get into that check-chasing mentality. When I’ve been on a hot streak and guys who are struggling have brought negativity around me, I’ve stayed away from them. Now I fear that I’m the one they all want to stay away from. Everyone out here is technically sound and able to catch fish. What separates those at the top from those at the bottom is the mental stuff.

 

Right now, I’m failing at the mental side of things. This past tournament at the Delta was a prime example of that. I found one area during practice that proved to be the most productive for me on day one. I never felt this area had the potential to win but still elected to start there on Day 2. After pounding it for two hours I only had one little one in my livewell. I was on one of the best fisheries in the entire world with three more hours to get it done and not a single clue how to do it. Day 1 was a disaster and Day 2 was heading down the same road so I ran to a place I knew I could put a few in the boat quick. They weighed a little more than 8 pounds. I wasn’t even fishing for a check – I was just trying to catch something so I wouldn’t have to cross the stage with just one fish in my bag. That’s a losing mentality.

 

Compare that to some other events where I’ve done well. When I won the Forrest Wood Cup on the Red River, I told my wife Sara before the tournament even started that I knew I was going to win. In fact, I’d already planned how I was going to spend the money. When it got to be 11 o’clock on the first day and I hadn’t had a bite, I didn’t change my plan. I stayed with what I knew would work and eventually things turned in my favor. At last year’s Classic on Guntersville, I had the same sort of feeling, and despite total chaos out on the water, it almost happened again.

 

The only thing I can think to compare it to is Tiger Woods. When he was in his prime he was a factor in every event and at times seemed unbeatable. Then, after all of his off-the-course problems, he became just another guy in the field. I’m not saying that I was ever as dominant as Tiger, and I know that he’s had some physical setbacks, but when you watch him now his body language seems to indicate that he doesn’t feel that he deserves to win. Maybe that’s my problem, that I’m not as hungry as I once was. We moved to the coast a year ago, and the waterways around us are teeming with untapped bass populations, but I’ve barely explored them. Whether you’re a golfer or a fisherman, you only stay at or near the top of the field if you’re constantly working on integrating new equipment or new techniques into your repertoire. If you’re not constantly evolving, you’re done. I’ve certainly proven that I have the capability to compete, but right now I look at someone like Justin Lucas and he just seems to have more fire in his eyes than I do.

 

Lots of fans assume that we just drive down the river and fish just jump in our boats. When things are going well – I call it “fishing unconscious” – it’s amazing how few decisions you really have to make. You don’t think about where to go – you just go. You visualize something and it becomes reality.

Right now, I must be pushing too hard, because I’m not making any good decisions. If I was in the NFL, I would’ve been benched. If I was a pitcher unable to find the strike zone, they would’ve sent me back to the minors. Our sport has no such options.

 

I’m waiting for some sign, whether it be a single bite, a single decision, or a single tournament, to get me out of this funk and back on track. It feels like if I have another bad tournament, it’ll just get harder to climb back up. I hope that thinking through this process will allow me to get my head screwed back on straight, but if it doesn’t maybe someone else will be able to make some sense out of it. I suppose it’s possible that I may never catch another bass, earn another check or win another tournament, but my ego doesn’t allow me to think that way, and I’m dead set on finding a way out of this mess of my own creation.