Success in baseball, as in all sports, is not just about ability; as importantly, it is a function of mental toughness. Derek Jeter, the great Yankee shortstop, has exhibited that mental toughness many times, but he has never exhibited great leadership ability. Friday night, during the Indians vs. Yankees playoff game, his failure to lead may have cost the Yankees the game.
The type of mental toughness that I am talking about is exhibited by someone who practices hard, but then is quiet and focused during the game.
During the game, such a player is in what is called the “zone.” The “zone” is characterized by the absence of mental chatter. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” for being in the “zone.” He explains that flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
Bill Russell, the legendary center for the Boston Celtics described how it felt when he was in the “zone”: “I could almost sense where the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘It’s coming there!’ except that I knew that everything would change if I did.”
Back to Jeter. In 2003, Jeter was named the Yankees’ captain—only the 11th player in history to hold that storied post. Despite his post, reports persist about Jeter’s inability to get along with teammate Alex Rodriguez.
Friday night the Yankees were ahead 1-0. Their rookie sensation Joba Chamberlain was on the mound. Almost out of nowhere, Jacobs Field was infested with seemingly millions of bugs called Canadian Soldiers. These bugs are a nuisance, but they do not bite.
Chamberlain was clearly rattled. The Yankees trainer repeatedly came out of the dugout to spray him with bug spray. Rather than helping the situation, the bug spray seemed to provide a sticky surface; the bugs landed and stuck to Chamberlain.
Where was Jeter during these repeated stoppages of play? Was he talking to his rookie pitcher and helping him get back into that inner flow that is so necessary for success?
No, Jeter was busy spraying himself. As New York Times correspondent Joe Lapointe writes, Jeter “constantly waved his hands in front of his face and to the sides of his head. He brushed the front of his uniform shirt rapidly and repeatedly. He looked like a third-base coach giving signals on video tape fast-forwarded.”
Again, these were not biting bugs. They were a nuisance. My family and I once sat on top of a mountain and ate lunch while surrounded by these bugs. I’m not telling you it is pleasant, but I can report that the battle of the bugs is a game to be won only in the mind. I would expect a rookie to be distracted; but I would not expect the captain of the Yankees to be. And I would expect him to put the needs of the team before his own need to spray himself.
A leader “shows the way by going first.” On Friday night, Jeter failed to remind himself that the real distraction was in his mind and not in the world. Returning to the “zone” he could have helped others return too.
I am not advocating a mindless exhortation that simply tells someone to buck up and not be bothered. If you believe something external is having an effect, exhortation will only go so far.
Instead, a leader demonstrates a deep and profound understanding of their ability—and the ability of others—to make another choice. First, by making their own choice, they provide a living example for others. Then, sometimes, a gentle reminder of the choice to be made is necessary. If this is done with respect for the person who is having a hard time, often there is immediate relief.
Friday night, Jeter did neither. He was of no help to the rookie Chamberlain. It is a mystery to some why talented teams sometimes do not succeed. Often it is a simple failure of leadership.