This Head Coach Is Hot

By combining the methods of two distinct, and warring, schools of sports psychology, Gio Valiante has become the shrink du jour on the PGA Tour
January 31, 2005

Ninety minutes after he missed the 10-foot putt that would have won the PGA Championship in August, Justin Leonard plopped down on the closest thing he could find to an analyst's couch--a plush leather seat on a chartered jet. Beside him, looking nothing like Sigmund Freud, sat Gio Valiante. As the plane climbed through the clouds, they cracked open consolatory Michelobs and tried to extract positives from Leonard's disappointment. ¶ Valiante's silver lining was easier to find. In the pressroom back at Whistling Straits, his name was being writ large into tournament postmortems. With two new clients, Leonard and Chris DiMarco, involved in the three-man, three-hole playoff won by Vijay Singh, Valiante was one of the week's breakout stars. Not since Jos Vanstiphout jockeyed Retief Goosen to victory at the 2001 U.S. Open had a sports psychologist made such a splash at a major championship.

A few days later the blowback from the small circle of sports psychologists who regularly work with Tour players was less flattering: They said Valiante, a 33-year-old assistant professor of educational psychology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., had worked in person with Leonard for only a week, was unqualified to coach the world's best golfers and is nothing more than a brilliant self-promoter. The criticism spoke volumes about the competition among mental coaches to become a name brand among Tour pros and about the fight between two schools of sports psychology.

Valiante first appeared on Tour in 2001. Funded by the Critchfield Foundation, his sole purpose was academic research on the psychology of pro golfers, but he quickly formed professional relationships with Tour newcomers Chad Campbell and Heath Slocum. Soon he added another young player, Matt Kuchar, and for a time, the Moby Dick of sports psychology projects, David Duval. Valiante says he has seven clients now, and also advises players such as Charles Howell and Davis Love III, who officially work with other psychologists. Says Love, "If you ask me who's on my team, I'm going to say Bob Rotella, but I talk to a lot of people, including Gio, and he's helped a lot."

No matter what one thinks about the merits of psychology in sports, this much is clear: What Valiante is selling is different and has gained acceptance on Tour. And not everyone is happy about it.

Valiante and his two older sisters grew up in Naugatuck, Conn., where his father, Fred, is an accountant and his mother, Joanne, is a nurse practitioner. Valiante played varsity football, golf and tennis at Naugatuck High and was president of his senior class. He graduated from Florida in 1995 with a degree in educational psychology. Part of Valiante's charm is his anomalous appearance: A fit 5'10" and 165 pounds, and with a permanent tan that suggests he conducts his Psych 101 classes poolside, Valiante looks more like a resort-wear model than a shrink. He's also one of the Tour's quirkiest characters. For instance, at last year's U.S. Open he bypassed the gridlock around Shinnecock Hills by riding three miles to work on a bicycle. Also, his fondness for quoting poets and philosophers makes him seem like a walking Bartlett's. By the end of their first week together, says Leonard, Valiante had cited T.S. Eliot and A.A. Milne, the author of the Winnie the Pooh books. The Eliot quote? "Teach us to care and not to care," Leonard says. And Milne? "Pooh, you silly bear!"

The root of Valiante's appeal to some golfers is the scientific basis of his instruction. Traditionally, golf psychology has been based on the synthesized wisdom of the game's great players. This still-dominant, aphoristic approach was pioneered about 25 years ago by Richard Coop and Bob Rotella, who were the first sports psychologists to work with Tour pros. As the author of golf psychology's favorite clichés--one shot at a time ... stay in your routine ... focus on the target--Rotella is the Shakespeare of his field.

Valiante is not without mantras--his signature line: Make fearless swings at precise targets--but he also draws on performance-enhancement research in biomechanics, neurology and ophthalmology. A staple of his sessions with Campbell is ocular reflex training. On the practice green Valiante shields Campbell's eyes with his hand to prevent them from wandering off the ball and down the target line. With Slocum, the emphasis has been muscle relaxation drills that, says Slocum, "help short-circuit stress, even during rounds."

A chatterbox, Valiante likes nothing better than an in-depth conversation with his clients about on-course tension or loss of confidence. Says DiMarco, "Instead of simply telling you, 'Stick to your routine, la-di-da,' he tries to make you understand the reasons why you're feeling a particular way."

On the advice of Campbell, Leonard started calling and e-mailing Valiante last May, but their first face-to-face working session didn't take place until a week before the PGA, at the International outside Denver. Valiante observed Leonard while walking with Leonard's group during the pro-am, then later on the range he demonstrated that Leonard's problems with distance control stemmed from the stranglehold he was putting on the club. "On a scale of one to 10, he thought his grip pressure was a three, but it was more like a seven," says Valiante, who immediately worked up a PowerPoint presentation for Leonard on the accuracy-thwarting consequences of restricting blood flow to the capillaries in the hands and fingers.

The diagnosis was "a real eye-opener," says Butch Harmon, who, as Leonard's swing coach, was party to those sessions at the International. "I'm not the biggest believer in sports psychology," adds Harmon, "but I really like how Gio makes you aware of the interaction between the physical and the psychological. I'm friendly with Bob Rotella and Dick Coop, and I admire their work, but what Gio does is a totally different approach. He's saying things about the swing that I've never heard before."

Such high praise comes at a price. Some see Valiante's constant presence on the practice tee as relentless self-promotion, geared toward building not only his client roster but also the kind of reputation that attracts book deals, golf-instruction articles and corporate consulting fees. Valiante denies that his work on Tour is making him rich. "With a lot of guys I talk to, I'm not charging anything," he says. "In 2004 I was on the road something like 30 weeks, but I did it on my own credit cards. After expenses I think I made $500."

The payoff comes incrementally. Valiante has been a regular on the Golf Channel for more than a year, but he wasn't paid for his appearances until after the PGA. His first book, Fearless Golf, is due out in May. Although Valiante's financial arrangements vary from player to player, he should soon be remunerated well enough to make flying coach a memory. "I still haven't paid him anything," DiMarco said after the PGA, "but if things keep going this well, a lot of us are going to be writing him big checks real soon."

A serious, though not personal, criticism of Valiante comes from a smaller second camp of mental coaches on Tour. For decades sports psychologists such as Coop, Rotella and Valiante, who have degrees in educational or sports psychology, have been embroiled in a turf battle with clinical psychologists, who are licensed to take patients.

"There has always been a war between clinical psychologists and educational sports psychologists," says Fran Pirozzolo, a Ph.D. in neuropsychology who has worked with Steve Elkington, Greg Norman and Hal Sutton, as well as serving as the staff psychologist for the NFL's Houston Texans and baseball's New York Yankees. Valiante and his peers, Pirozzolo says, "have degrees in education, but they're not licensed psychologists. The bottom line is, they have no clinical training and no [state board] licenses to practice. In my view there's a considerable ethical problem there."

Most sports psychologists, regardless of training, acknowledge that their profession has a credibility problem. "The scary thing is that players never really know who's approaching them," says Coop. "Anybody can go out and put his name on a business card." But, Coop adds, to imply that a background in education should preclude him from working with athletes is nonsense. "I've taught psychology for 30 years," he says. "If you can't grasp the research and you teach at North Carolina, there's a pretty good chance you'll be found out. Besides," Coop says, taking aim at Pirozzolo, "I don't see anything in clinical psychology that's sports- or performance-related."

"What those of us with educational backgrounds do is well within APA [American Psychological Association] guidelines," says Valiante, who earned his Ph.D. in educational psychology at Emory in 2001. "As far as clinical experience goes, well, we're not trying to treat depression or do marriage or family counseling, and we're perfectly capable of applying research in the field. If you follow [Pirozzolo's] logic, he has no business teaching motivation or skill acquisition because they're not strictly in the area of neuroscience."

Valiante bridges the two schools by fusing the traditional methods of educational psychologists such as Coop with the scientific approach of Pirozzolo. Neuroscientific techniques have been used on Tour before. Progressive muscle relaxation and previsualization were available to golfers in the late 1980s. In '92 Pirozzolo tested stress levels by putting heart monitors on Leonard and Sutton, but that sort of scientific approach never took root in the game. The reason, Pirozzolo says, was that the science was "undermined by various coaches"--swing gurus and aphorism peddlers who convinced their clients that the testing was worthless. True or not, most players did find the scientific approach unnatural. Zack Johnson, for example, once tried on a piece of neurofeedback headgear in '98 while playing on the Hooters tour. "It was, I don't know, so random," he says. "I didn't see the point."

Perhaps Valiante is the right shrink with the right approach at the right time. More and more players are shedding inhibitions they might have had to work with him.

One is tempted to think that the acceptance of Valiante's approach is a sign of enlightened thinking on Tour, but the truth is probably less noble. Says Harmon, "With all the money out here, the stakes are so high that guys are going to do whatever they can to get an edge."

Golf Plus will next appear in the Feb. 14 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

"The bottom line is," says Pirozzolo, "educational sports psychologists have no clinical training and no licenses to practice. In my view there's a considerable ETHICAL PROBLEM there."

"I'm not the biggest believer in SPORTS PSYCHOLOGY," says Harmon, "but I really like how Gio makes you aware of the interaction between the physical and psychological."

COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Bill Frakes COLOR PHOTOFRED VUICH RANGE ROVER Valiante (with DiMarco) scours the practice tee for clients. COLOR PHOTOFRED VUICH PAYING HIS DUES Valiante says he spent about 30 weeks away from home to be at Tour events last year and after expenses made only $500.