The same man, revealed to be the team’s sports psychologist, was then shown boarding the Jazz’s private jet as the team flew out to face the Los Angeles Lakers, where he was sitting on the court at The Forum – right behind the bench – eating popcorn and sipping soda.
“As a 17-year-old kid from rural South Carolina, I’m like, ‘They pay this guy?'” Pickens told CNN.
“That’s funny. I want to do it because it doesn’t feel like a job.”
Thus began a journey in which Dr. Mo helped train professional athletes in sports ranging from the NFL to Nascar. But his real home has always been on the fairway.
A keen golfer in his youth, Pickens wrote his dissertation on “Gaining Confidence” on his way to earning his Ph.D. in sports psychology from the University of Virginia. He has since established himself as one of golf’s leading psychologists, working with some of the game’s biggest stars over a 27-year career.
Accordingly, both players won in an exciting four-hole playoff. For Pickens, trying to reproduce the pressure of a game day is the biggest challenge he faces as a sports psychologist. No matter how hard he tries – to talk about it and conduct complex exercises – Pickens simply does not have the opportunity to simulate the psychological tension of the event, not to mention the decisive playoffs.
“It’s almost impossible – because it’s a physiological thing – to get their adrenaline going the way it will on Sunday,” Pickens said.
Still, the psychologist’s efforts seem to be making the most of Johnson, a self-proclaimed hyper-competitive man who enjoys Pickens’ practice betting, which places small sums on the outcome.
“I always try to do what I do in my practice so that when it comes to competing, week after week on tour, I know I’ve been there before. I’ve seen it, I’ve felt it, and I can succeed.”
The ability to train effectively affects what Pickens considers the two most important mental qualities that elite golfers need: discipline and the ability to control the mind.
It may seem paradoxical, but Pickens says the biggest psychological problem golfers have with swinging is simply that the ball is still.
Whereas in football or tennis players’ thoughts and corresponding actions are instinctively occupied with the moving ball, golfers who are forced to consciously fill this mental silence must instead train to “occupy their mind.” Comparisons between sports can be found in free throws in basketball and pitching in baseball.
Essentially, that’s what Pickens’ role is all about – helping players control their minds, especially in the critical five or six seconds before a swing. As with meditation, players need to know exactly what thoughts are going through their mind.
“Some players count,” Pickens explains. “Come in. One, stick behind the ball. Two, feet down. Three, look at the target. Four, back to the ball. Five, swing back. Six, through swing.
“If you have consistency in your inputs from your thinking, you are more likely to get consistency from your outputs to hit the target.”
For Johnson, who suspected there was something wrong with his game before working with Pickens in 2006, the advice caught on immediately and remained in place throughout his 24-year professional career.
“I thought I had a good routine, I thought it was consistent, I thought it could be repeated, but it wasn’t at all,” Johnson said in a video on Pickens’ website.
“It was extremely inconsistent, it wasn’t thought through, it didn’t allow me to play at my best and didn’t give me confidence and stability from shot to shot.”
Techniques like these have helped Sink clear his mind of being too obsessed with results, the American says in a video on Pickens’ website. At 49, Sink continues to add to his eight PGA Tour wins with his third RBC Heritage title in April 2021.
Mind control, meanwhile, was a lesson that the fiery young Glover – the 2009 US Open champion – quickly learned when he began working with Pickens after graduating from Clemson University in 2001.
“I knew right away that my temperament was affecting my rounds too much,” Glover said in a video on the psychologist’s website. “Dr. Mo basically taught me that it’s okay to get upset and angry, but to quickly let it go and not let it affect the next frame.”
However, the ability to engage the mind is nothing without disciplined practice, Pickens argues.
Instead of going out and just hitting the ball, the top pros should focus on the laser in their training. Crucially, as with the pre-swing routine, players must remove emotion from their practice—not just by reflecting on a good or bad day, but by dispassionately analyzing their play.
For Pickens, this is one of Johnson’s most revealing assets, although it is often misunderstood.
“It’s not that Zack doesn’t have emotions. Sometimes people misinterpret it and think he didn’t have them,” Pickens explains. “He just handles them really well and focuses on what he wants to focus on.
“And he’s incredibly good at saying, ‘OK, this is what I want to do and this is how I’m going to do it.’
“Many people call themselves professionals, but they still just play golf. Guys who do this understand, “I have to treat this like a job.”