Julie Elion’s nickname on Tour is “Stealth,” because the most in-demand psychologist in in the game doesn’t disclose her clients or grant many interviews—until now. Wyndham Clark, Max Homa and Justin Thomas are just three of the Tour’s best to have recently reveal that they are working with Elion on their mindset using her holistic, goal-driven approach to building self-belief. Over her 25-year career in golf, Elion’s clients have earned more than $500 million on the golf course and won 150 PGA Tour titles, including 26 major championships.
Just a day removed from working with all three at the Ryder Cup in Rome, Elion joined host Casey Bannon on Mind Game to discuss her how her approach differs from traditional sports psychology, how self-belief is built, how to reverse engineer the things you want to achieve, and what she was thinking when Max Homa stood over that now-famous 7-footer. The following is excerpted from the full podcast, which you can listen to below. It has been edited for clarity.
Casey Bannon: I’ve heard your clients talk about your goal-setting system during tournament week. Can you tell me about how that works?
Julie Elion: So today, it’s Wednesday, they tee off tomorrow morning (at the Sanderson Farms Championship]. They’ll all be texting me their goals tomorrow. Wyndham, Max and Justin aren’t playing this week, but my others are. So they’ll text me goals such as something like “confidence,” or “free swing,” or “free swings to specific targets,” “relax,” “enjoy.” It can be anything based on our longer conversations earlier in the week, whatever is going on for them, whatever they’re feeling about this week: pressure, less pressure. It’s always pressure. I’m really into creating goals. They create them, we go back and forth, and then we debrief after the round.
CB: What would you would consider to be a bad goal?
JE: Well, I remember Fluff [Cowan] telling me, “We never say don’t.” I never want a goal that has a negative, like “don’t stress out,” or “don’t get angry.” We put it in the positive.
CB: So in the yardage book you wouldn’t write, “Don’t hit it here,” you would write, “Hit it here?”
JE: Yes, that’s so smart.
CB: Where do you see most of the pressure on professional golfers coming from? Is it internal or external pressure?
JE: Gosh, all of the above. If somebody is talking to me, they want to be in the top 10 in the world. They have to organize their lives around that goal. It’s hard on the road. It’s hard week to week to take care of your body, take care of your family, take care of yourself. So the pressure is all of it: money list, FedEx points, internal, family.
I had a client this morning I spoke to who just went to his mother’s birthday party and then went to one of his best friend’s wedding. He was feeling like he wasn’t prepared this week. We talked about how actually that wedding was recovery. When do you hang out with your best buds?
CB: So it sounds like the framing of that pressure and emotions is important?
JE: Everyone’s unique and my work is to really help someone discover what that is for them. The clients that I had at the Ryder Cup, all three of them had the same goal: how do we make this fun? How do we work with your nerves to reframe them as exciting? Yes, you might have first tee jitters, but how do you calm down and just love the opportunity of playing at the Ryder Cup?
For this player who went to the wedding and the party: how do we make it that you’re not walking into the next event feeling unprepared? It is a lot of reframing, but I’m also a believer to not lie to yourself. He was feeling unprepared. We talked about what does that actually mean? My job is to acknowledge that he was feeling unprepared, and then talk about reframing how to make that work for him. Because maybe that wedding could have just been recovery.
CB: Are nerves something you talked about a lot during Ryder Cup week?
JE: Actually, we started talking about it a few weeks before. Then the week of we start trying to channel it into positivity. Like, “Sure, we know you’re feeling the pressure, but how can we make your goals about embracing all that, and being a role model and being a great teammate? What does being a great teammate actually mean? Like, you might be really bummed that you just didn’t have a great hole, but your teammate’s in it, so how do you be a great teammate?” That was a goal for all three of them that week.
CB: What were you feeling as Max Homa stood over that seven-footer to not lose the Ryder Cup?
JE: I have total faith in Max Homa and I’m not surprised of any of that that went down. But then again, it doesn’t matter that I have total faith in Max Homa. We need Max Homa to have total faith in Max Homa. I’ve seen him do amazing work in the last few months. I didn’t even blink when I saw him do it because I knew he could do it. He’s just becoming the champion that he is.
CB: The champion everyone else sees?
JE: That’s right, and I think he’s starting to see it.
CB: He’s a fascinating guy, because he can go from this regular, very approachable, very funny, very calm person to just an absolute killer on the golf course. Then he also has this mode where he’ll admit he’s trying too hard. When you have a player that’s obviously incredibly talented and they’re struggling with the self-belief piece, where do you start to build that self-belief from?
JE: I really create a place for them to have confidentiality, to have a way to talk about everything that’s going on, and we just start digging. What are you carrying out on the golf course that we can let go of? If you’re getting angry at yourself on the golf course, do we need to explore why you’re getting so angry or frustrated? We dig deep and then we create goals that they want to feel. I often say, “What do you want to feel at the end of the day today? When we’re talking after the round, what do you want to tell me? What do you really want to tell me?” You want to tell me that you played with confidence and you were so sure of yourself and you had a great time. Then we make goals around that.
CB: You’re almost reverse-engineering the solution?
JE: Oh, I like that a lot.
CB: It’s such a simple concept when you think about it: what do you want to have happen and how do you get from point A to point B? Instead of just stumbling around in the dark like a lot of us golfers do.
JE: That’s the crux of a lot of my work: goal setting and taking it seriously. Do you want to keep repeating the same feelings every day on the golf course? Disappointment? Frustration? Or do you want to change? If you want to change, how are you going to actually change and do the work?
CB: I don’t think a lot of people were taught how to properly set goals. What’s too big of a goal? Where are the intermediate steps? What is the art of goal setting?
JE: If the average 15-handicap wants to change, or a pro wants to change, how are we going to create little steps, little victories on how to get there? One of the things that I’ve noticed in my practice is, we tend to make agreements with ourselves and then break them. “I’m going to do dry January.” “I’m going to read more and watch less TV.” And then you watch a lot of TV, but you don’t realize you’ve just broken an agreement with yourself. I say, “if you had a friend you are going to meet at Starbucks on Wednesdays at 1:00 and they kept showing up Tuesdays at 2:00, you wouldn’t trust them anymore to show up at Starbucks on Wednesday at 1:00.” Well, we do that with ourselves a lot. We break agreements with ourselves a lot, and it creates distrust. It’s toxic.