No, Skip Bayless wasn’t right. Neil Cohen tells us the secret is mental, not physical.
Yogi Berra once said that “baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical.” A wise man, Berra couldn’t have been more correct.
Baseball is a game of failure. Being successful in a game in which arguably the greatest living ballplayer, Willie Mays, failed 7 of 10 times he batted (not including walks) in front of thousands of people, requires a player to be incredibly strong between the ears.
Flashback to last year’s post-season. The Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez – formerly known as one of the best players in baseball history – is completely lost at the plate. He’s an easy out before he even steps into the batter’s box. We blink and he’s in an 0-2 hole and everyone watching knows that it doesn’t even matter what the pitcher throws next. In two post-season series, Rodriquez goes 3-25 with 12 strikeouts. He’s both pinch hit for and benched. His mind (and likely his body) completely fail him.
What was most unfortunate for Rodriguez was that, just a few feet away from him, one of the games mentally toughest players, a player respected by one and all, had just finished one of his best seasons at 38 years old and would go on to hit .364 in the Division series against the Baltimore Orioles. The contrast between the two players couldn’t have been more stark.
Unlike Rodriguez, Derek Jeter uses a secret weapon that perhaps he might not even be able to describe. A sauce more powerful than whatever Rodriguez has allegedly been putting into his body. His secret sauce is unwavering optimism—more specifically a strong optimism bias that causes a person to believe they are less at risk of experiencing a bad outcome compared to others.
Tali Sharot, a leading expert on optimism bias, points out in this great TED Talk, that optimism bias causes people to grossly underestimate their chance of getting divorced, losing their job or being diagnosed with cancer, for example. In Jeter’s case, I would contend that he’s mastered the mental part of the game by convincing himself that despite the reality that he’ll fail 70% of the time, every time he goes to the plate it’s more likely that he will succeed and the pitcher will fail. The difference between Jeter and Rodriguez (and many other players) is that Jeter never wavers in his belief; he’s always a tough out because he’s always locked-in.
Sharot and others have also shown that optimism not only relates to success, it actually leads to success—it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman stated, “One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles.” In other words, Jeter’s steadfast belief that he’ll be successful no matter the circumstance actually helps him be successful.
In an era of advanced statistics and players reviewing video between at-bats, Jeter is decidedly old school in his mental approach, “That’s exactly what my approach is: See the ball, hit the ball. I try not to cloud my brain with too much else,” he told ESPN.
On hitting in pressure situations, Jeter again emphasizes in a Men’s Health article that he’s not going to get in his own way, “I remember going from rookie ball to A, to double A, then to triple A. At every level it seemed like the game was faster. The bigger the situation, the more the game speeds up. That’s all mental. It messes people up. You think, ‘I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that’ when in reality, all you have to do is the same thing you’ve always been doing. Slow it down. Realize you’ve been in this situation before. You’ve been successful in this situation before. Be calm. The more you can do that, the more pressure you take off yourself and the easier it is to perform.”
There exists, however, as Sharot points out, a major downside to optimism bias, if it is left unchecked. The same optimism that can drive a person to achieve something they didn’t think possible could also lead to disaster via unrealistic planning or forecasts. The housing market bust in 2008 when investors bet blindly that housing prices would continue to go up is a good example. Or, (because I imagine Jeter would want me to use a Boston example) the Big Dig, a massive infrastructure project estimated to be completed in 1997 at a cost of $2.8 billion, but which wasn’t completed until 2007 at a running tally of $22 billion and counting, when payments on its outstanding debt are factored in. Our belief that we can be successful can often cloud our vision when it comes to the real obstacles in our way.
In Jeter’s case, optimism that he could play and contribute through his clearly debilitating ankle injury during September/October of last season led to him breaking his ankle on a routine play in Game 1 against the Detroit Tigers in the League Championship Series, and major off-season surgery.
Since that surgery, though, Jeter has been steadfast in his belief that he’ll be ready for Opening Day when the Yankees face the Red Sox on April 1.
Only a fool would bet against him.