On the latest episode of the Stick and Hack Show, Mike and Adam chat with Dr. Gio Valiante, a renowned sports psychologist and author. Listen here to learn more about “the yips” and what qualities make the greatest athletes the best.

The following excerpt has been edited for space. Check out the full interview here.

Stick & Hack: Your job reminds me of Wendy Rhodes from Billions on Showtime. Her job was to sit in an office and talk with these traders for Axe Capital and make sure they were trading at their absolute peak performance. Is that truly what you do and how close does that relate to your actual job?

Dr. Gio Valiante: You know real life is sometimes stranger than fiction, adam. It is what I do. I work with a lot of portfolio managers. I’ll tell you a very recent story from the last six weeks; I had a portfolio manager- who are the the people who invest the money, they’re the ones who pull the trigger and are sleeping on risk and they can make or lose sometimes 10 million dollars in a day- a portfolio manager called me, he was in a slump, he hadn’t made money in two months. We retooled his brain, he made money the next seven days in a row and now 20 out of the last 30 days. It’s all by tweaking psychology. The interesting thing about investing in the capital markets is, the psychology is very similar to the game of golf which is why working with golfers and investors a lot of times… it’s very similar conversations. The physical component is different, but in both games, they really are mental games and like the proof is in the pudding. Like I said, he hadn’t made money in two months. He made money the next seven days in a row, and this is him telling me this, and then 20 out of the next 30. So it’s a mental game and that is what I do, believe it or not.

S&H: Dr. Gio, you work with not just athletes, but high performers in the business world as well. Are there any traits in high-performance performers that trend toward being a negative, and then can actually hinder them in the long term? 

Dr. Gio Valiante: I’ll start with the positive side of that equation. When you talk about high performers, you know one of the things I often say is, Steve Cohen- the billionaire who, in fact, they profiled for the tv show Billions- is arguably the best traders, one of the best investors in the last hundred years. He’s got one of the best art collections in the world, he sort of wins at everything, he’s great at picking golfers. He’s a savant, he’s gifted, brilliant, hardworking, tenacious… but what I always say about Steve is, Steve has more in common with Tiger Woods than Tiger Woods has in common with Sergio Garcia, or that Tiger Woods has in common with Adam Scott. The only thing that Tiger Woods has in common with Sergio and Adam Scott is the game of golf. What Tiger and Steve Cohen have in common is being the best in the world at something, and the psychological traits cluster more around being amazing than they do the domain that you’re amazing at. 

Being average at something looks the same everywhere you go. Being an average podcaster, being an average trader, or being an average writer, they’re all the same. The work ethic is the same, it’s all the same. But at the very tail end of the curve, there’s a profile for the Kelly Slater’s of the world, for the Yo-Yo Ma’s of the world, for anyone who’s living in the tail end of the curve. To your question, for people who live at the tail end of the curve, there are negatives where they tend to be. What happens is, there’s a blending of the vocation in advocation. One of the things they say in psychology is, “you are not your work,” you know, who you are and what you do are separate things. That is generally a healthy way to go through life, but try telling that to the best of the best. Try telling that to Kobe you know when he was around, try telling that to Michael Jordan. It’s the opposite. They are what they do, their identity and their craft is fused. They are one and the same. So, the dangers are that when you lose the career, you lose your identity, you lose your sense of self. So the danger for these super high achievers, they pour so much of themselves into the work that when the work goes away, they lose who they are. 

Stick and Hack: The book Fearless Golf written by you is a phenomenal book, it really talks about that fear factor that creeps into someone’s head right before they’re supposed to do something remarkable, in some cases something they’ve done ten thousand times in their life. Have you studied the greats that have gone through these things and the problems that they had, and what did you find in your studies? 

Dr. Gio Valiante: When people think about success and failure, they tend to think of it in binary terms- that they’re opposite things, because the brain tends toward binaries. We like things to be convenient, and so things are true or they’re false, they’re good or they’re bad, and you fail or you succeed; and that’s not actually how success happens. One of the terms that we use in psychology is called “normative failure.” The idea of normative failures is when failure becomes the norm and resilience becomes second nature. So, failure is actually baked into success, it’s built into it, you can’t have the success without the failure. One of the things that you often find out of people who don’t quite make it is they spend a lot of time trying to avoid failing. They don’t put themselves in situations to fail. They stay safe, and as a function of that, they create their own artificial feelings. So you can only go so far. Essentially we condition ourselves as golfers toward fear, we’re conditioning our own fear because we don’t want to live with the consequences of when we beat ourselves up for making mistakes. One of the things you come to find that the best are able to push themselves to the point where they actually do make mistakes, they want failure. It’s like in working out, you’ve got to push the muscle towards failure to grow it, but that’s true. In every domain, you have to get comfortable with putting yourself out there and failing and then learning the lesson from the failure without the corresponding emotional abuse.

S&H: Can you tell us why you think the pandemic has had such a massively positive impact on golf, and how vital has it been for us to use this sport as a mental saving grace for the everyday golfer?

Dr. Gio Valiante: A lot of people that haven’t been in the game (are entering golf) because the game opened up earlier, because it’s easy to social distance. As I always say, you just need to expose people to the game, you’ll let the game do the rest of the work. Just put a golf club in their hands, let them start hitting- it’s happening with my children right now. It’s a game because it’s social, it’s a net positive toward mental health. When people are not social, their mental health degrades. We know that motion creates emotion, it’s a game where you’re moving so it’s literally a situation where you’re outside, moving, and social. As somebody in the mental health profession, those are the big three things you’re looking for- get people moving, get them social, get them outside. So golf is a net benefactor from the pandemic. But I think the real winners are the people being introduced into this awesome game.


Listen here to learn more about Dr. Gio talk more about mental toughness, overcoming fears, and why people with identical upbringings approach sports in different ways. 

Check out the episode’s Show After the Show below to hear Adam and Mike reflect on some of the mind-blowing revelations from Dr. Gio.