Mental skills coach makes pros tougher

As he does every year when pro golf events come to the Houston area, mental-game expert Fran Pirozzolo invites some of his clients to stay at his home. A few weeks ago for the Champions Tour’s Administaff Small Business Classic, that meant plumping up the pillows for Bernhard Langer, the Tour’s leading player this year, and Joey Sindelar, No. 26 on the money list.

Unfortunately, when his guests arrived, Pirozzolo was otherwise engaged at Yankee Stadium in New York. In addition to working with a dozen PGA Tour and Champions Tour players, he is a full-time coach for the Texas Rangers — the team’s "mental skills" specialist, hired last year by pitching legend and team president Nolan Ryan for the express purpose of helping to toughen up the team, both mentally and physically.

So instead of talking about pre-shot routines and tournament strategies, Langer and Sindelar hunkered down with Pirozzolo’s wife, Priscilla, to watch the Rangers play the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. Occasionally they caught glimpses of their absent host, in uniform, sitting on the Rangers’ bench. The Rangers were on their way to their first World Series.

The border between Pirozzolo’s baseball work and his golf work is remarkably fluid. "It really is all the same. It comes down to your ability to find the motor programs you need under pressure, by blocking out of all the distractions," he told me this week. "As the competitions get bigger and bigger, like the World Series, or the Masters and the U.S. Open, there is more noise to deal with, white noise as well as meaningful challenges and threats. Mental toughness is clearly the key. The tougher you are, the easier it is to control your central nervous system and your peripheral nervous system, to control your stress response and make adaptations."

Pirozzolo, who unlike some of his peers doesn’t court publicity, typically gives new golf clients a book called Mental Toughness in Baseball that he has put together from more than 20 years in the field, first with the Houston Astros (when Ryan was the ace), then with the Yankees from 1996 to 2001 (he has four World Series rings from that period), and now with the Rangers. Many of his golf clients have hung out with his baseball teams, and a few have even taken batting practice — not for fun, but as a learning experience. He urges them to try to make each golf shot a "quality at-bat," rating them afterward not for the result but for the depth of commitment and for thinking about the right things at the right time.

Conversely, he uses golf extensively with his baseball clients, especially pitchers, whose pre-pitch routines are similar to pre-shot routines in golf. When he was with the Yankees, he sometimes skirted a team rule prohibiting players from traveling with their golf clubs: He’d stash a few bags in the trunk of his car for road games in Philadelphia and Baltimore. He believed golf was useful to the pitchers as a tool for inoculating themselves against distractions.

For the Rangers, Pirozzolo spent a lot of time last winter helping C.J. Wilson in his transformation from a mid-inning relief pitcher to a starter. They began by attending two PGA Tour events in California. He wanted Wilson to observe how the top pros repeated their pre-shot routines with precision, shrugged off bad shots and reluctantly accepted that sometimes, when a part of their game wasn’t working well, they had to hit more conservative shots than they wanted to.

"For a pitcher, a similar situation might be accepting that he has to throw a strike on a 2-0 count when he really doesn’t want to, when he’d rather play around with the corners" of the plate, Pirozzolo said. Over dinner after watching golf, he and Wilson would talk about such things and in that way began to build an understanding. (Wilson went 15-8 as a starter this season.)

Much of what Pirozzolo does, he said, is standard for sports psychologists, but he differs in his relative emphasis on toughness. "Instead of focusing on, say, the first round Thursday and how to make everything just right, we start at the other end and work back, by imaging how chaotic and stressed out the player will be on Sunday afternoon coming down the stretch and how he needs to respond," he said.

A correlative in baseball is dealing with the incredible crowd noise at a World Series game. In the run-up to the World Series, Pirozzolo had Rangers players wear earphones pumping out high-decibel din as they practiced fielding and other routines in super-slow motion. "The idea is to get them used to hearing their own self-talk despite, or through, the noise," he said.

For golfers he creates a similarly chaotic atmosphere, mimicking final-round pressure, on an audio CD of guided imagery, the visualization technique. From this riled-up state, the players practice easing themselves back down to calmness, using the cues and phrases that they and Pirozzolo have developed together. "That is the nature of mental toughness: ‘I’ve got something I can take care of every problem with.’ A player is confident when he knows he can handle whatever is thrown at him," he said.

Pirozzolo’s Ph.D. is in neuroscience. He previously taught in the neurology department at the Baylor College of Medicine and also worked for NASA, studying stress and team-building for astronauts. "The exciting thing in my field right now is that a lot of the ideas about enhancing human performance that we suspected were true are being proven correct through the use of the latest technologies in brain imaging," he said.

The research also is proving that the Old Masters of golf knew what they were doing. Pirozzolo co-authored a book with Sam Snead called The Game I Love, and was surprised at how often the golfing great talked about the importance of breathing. "Pay attention to your heart rate," Byron Nelson once told him as a final piece of advice before playing in a tournament.

"I didn’t want to hear those things; I wanted something sexier that would be a breakthrough. But the fact is, they were exactly right," he said. Pirozzolo’s athletes all take deep "cleansing" breaths — in through the nose, out through the mouth — before making a pitch or a swing. Some also train with a biofeedback tool to learn to control their heart rates.

Alas, the Rangers lost the Series. "We’ll get over the pain," Pirozzolo said. "They are mentally tough."