The Combination of Mental Strength and Optimal Environment Yields Frightening Success

Long Island STRONG

I write this from my hotel room balcony at the Park Hyatt in San Diego. The sun is rising and the warm dry air combines with a slight breeze for a perfect morning. Today marks Game 5 of the ALDS of the 2020 MLB Playoffs with the Yanks and Rays tied at 2 games apiece. The talk in the hotel is that this series between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays will be determined by the team with superior mental strength.

Jordan Montgomery displayed exceptional mental strength last night in Game 4. It was the first time the left-hander had taken the mound in the postseason and Monty hadn’t pitched since his final start of the regular season on Sept. 24. And he was facing a team that knocked him out in the first inning on Sept. 2. The 27-year-old rose to Yankee’s expectations and allowed just one run in four innings. “That was a big-time outing,’’ Aaron Boone said. “He gave us just what we needed to get it to the back end of the pen and made some big pitches when he needed to most.”

Last night’s pitching performance from Monty is just one example of mental strength amongst the pinstripes. But where and how do Yankee players develop their incredible mental strength to win championships? And can we learn from them and increase our own mental strength?

I know where I developed my mental strength. I grew up on Long Island. And when we say Long Island STRONG, we really mean Long Island MENTALLY STRONG.

I was born at Bay Shore Hospital on March 25th. My family lived in Brentwood before moving to East Northport. I attended Commack Public Schools. My street Blacksmith Lane was always filled with kids who were 2 or 3 years older than me. My brother and I played sports every day, all day, without fail. Mostly soccer and baseball, and in winter we played street hockey. We played hard, argued frequently, and occasionally some punches were thrown. I was younger and smaller so had to scrap and work extra
hard to keep up.

Competing in the street and the backyard led to a growth mindset for life. I recall the never-ending tryout and selection process during my soccer career. First I was trying out for the Commack select team. Next was the Long Island select team, then the Eastern Region select team. I was the first Commack HighSchool South soccer player selected for the Empire State Games. Long Island pride was about wearing Empire State game sweats everywhere I went, leading up to the festival of games held in Buffalo. I had fantastic teammates from Long Island, like Mark Pulisic, the father of Chelsea Football Club star Christian Pulisic, and Suffolk Athletic Hall of Famer Mark Semioli who played for LA Galaxy and the Metrostars now known as the Redbulls.

Superior focus enables peak-level performance in all situations with the ability to ignore, deflect, or make use of distractions. Elite athletes focus to a level where they enter the “ZONE” and the game slows down so they can compete at the highest level with total mental clarity, execution, and focus. Often in surgery, my focus eliminates all other thoughts and the surgery indeed slows down. I can see ahead of what I am actually doing and sequential steps move with fluid performance.

Coping with pressure is essential to avoid choking from fear or anxiety. Choking is the ugliest form of mental weakness. Failing well is about overcoming setbacks: And while you can’t always control what happens to you, you can always control how you respond to it.

We can choose with mindset and actions — whether a “set back” is just that, or instead convert it to a step forward.

Last night’s game was not easy for Monty and maybe that’s why it stands out to me. Montgomery allowed a leadoff walk to Willy Adames and a ground-rule double to Kevin Kiermaier. Monty then faced Mike Zunino and it seemed the fate of the Yankee season was held captive in this one particular hitter. After he got ahead of Zunino 0–2, Monty threw three straight pitches in the dirt. Despite what looked like a sudden nervous loss of command, Monty was sticking to a plan. “I wasn’t gonna leave one hanging and let him leave the park,’’ Manager Aaron Boone kept Montgomery in the game to face the scorching hot hitter in Randy Arozerana, and Montgomery got him to ground to third. These were not 1–2–3 innings but Monty preserved the one-run lead.

Pain endurance is the ability to extract maximum physical effort despite experiencing pain, mental & physical stress, and physical discomfort. Mental toughness enables and allows a disciplined deliberate practice to obtain physical skills. Most people watching the game 4 were not thinking what I was — Monty is competing after Tommy John Surgery on June 7, 2018. Monty wasn’t even born when Tommy John had his surgery, but he endured the mental and physical rehab challenge.

Want to Succeed, Think Environment

Let’s talk trees again. The tallest palm tree is the tallest not just because it grew from the largest acorn. It is the tallest also because no other trees blocked its sunlight, the soil around it was deep and rich, no rabbit chewed through its bark as a sapling, and no lumberjack cut it down before it matured. We all know that successful people come from strong seeds. But we often do not know enough about the sunlight that energized them, or the soil in which they put down the roots.

From the outside looking in, it is easy to focus on the achievement and dismiss the circumstances. But any person who excels, seemingly against the odds, has actually somehow benefited from an environment with a unique combination of circumstances. In other words, it is not really against the odds because under-recognized ingredients were in place to foster success.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers attributed the success of athletes and musicians such as The Beatles, not with “what they are like” but rather “where they come from.” Gladwell writes, “Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.”
Gladwell uses Bill Gates as an example. One of the strongest computer minds in history had unique access to computers. When Gates was 15 he would sneak out of his house after bedtime and walk up to the University of Washington use the computer which was available from 3 am to 6 am. No other 15-year-olds had access to computers at that time.

Daniel Coyle drove this nurture concept to another level with his research and characterization of talent hotbeds. In his book The Talent Code, Coyle describes talent hotbeds as mysterious places that bloom without warning. The first baseball players from the tiny island of the Dominican Republic arrived in the major leagues in the 1950s. Dominican players now
account for many on the Yankee roster and the Yankees now have an amazing baseball academy in the DR to take advantage of the proven hotbed.

Coyle observed a similar talent hotbed for soccer in Brazil. He stated, “Trying to describe the collective talent of Brazilian soccer players is like trying to describe the law of gravity. You can measure it — the five World Cup victories, the nine hundred or so young talents signed each year by professional European clubs. Or you can name it — the procession of transcendent stars like Pelé, Zico, Socrates, Romário, Ronaldo, Juninho, Robinho, Ronaldinho,
Kaká, and others who have deservedly worn the crown of “world’s best player.” But in the end, you can’t capture the power of Brazilian talent in numbers and names. It has to be felt. Every day soccer fans around the world witness the quintessential scene: a group of enemy players surrounds a Brazilian, leaving him no options, no space, no hope. Then there’s a dancelike blur of motion — a feint, a flick, a burst of speed — and suddenly the Brazilian player is in the clear, moving away from his now-tangled opponents with the casual aplomb of a person stepping off a crowded bus.”

Coyle explains Brazil’s greatness as a unique confluence of factors: a friendly climate, a deep passion for soccer, and a genetically diverse population of 190 million, 40 percent of whom are desperately poor and long to escape through “the beautiful game.” This recipe is similar to the baseball dominance in the DR. The environment allows those with the mental strength to develop physical acumen and great achievement.

Some games are won before the whistle is blown. Some surgeries are successful before the surgeon receives the scalpel. All successes are achieved with confidence, skill, and mental strength

The Environment of LONG ISLAND

When asked where I grew up, I respond “on Long Island”. People from Jersey do not say they live on New Jersey. Long Island is both the longest and the largest island in the contiguous United States, extending 118 miles eastward from New York Harbor to Montauk Point. Its maximum north-to-south, a distance of 23 miles between Long Island Sound and the Atlantic coast. The population of 7.8 million constitutes nearly 40% of New York State’s population. Long Island is the 18th- most populous island on planet earth. If Long Island were a U.S. state, it would rank thirteenth in population and first in population density. Long Island is culturally and ethnically diverse, featuring some of the wealthiest and most expensive beach neighborhoods in the Western Hemisphere as well as driven working-class regions.

Long Island has a diverse population, varying incomes, cultural differences, and a singular passion for sports. In 2020 well over half a million kids on Long Island are in little league and/or play soccer. With the huge number of Carvels, it is also easy to understand why parents take their kids for ice cream on the way home from games.

Long Island has a history of producing legendary athletes and other performers. In baseball, Long Island boasts Carl “Yaz” Yastrzemski who was born in Southampton. A Hall of Famer who played for the Boston Red Sox from 1961–1983. He was an American League MVP, 7-time gold glover, and 18-time All-Star. Craig Biggio is a professional baseball player who spent his two-decade-long career with the Houston Astros, collecting 3060 hits, 5 Silver Slugger awards, 4 Gold Gloves, and 7 All-Star appearances along the way. He graduated from Kings Park High School. Sandy Koufax was born in Brooklyn but learned to pitch in Rockville Centre. He received 3 Cy Young awards and became the youngest player ever elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He has been hailed as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. Finally, Yankee great Whitey Ford who passed away today grew up in Queens. The Hall of Famer lived in Glen Cove while playing for the Yanks and had his number 16 retired. Ford is a ten-time MLB All-Star and six-time World Series champion. In 1961, he won both the Cy Young Award and World Series Most Valuable Player Award.

Brazil’s soccer greatness comes from a unique confluence of factors stemming from its environment

Long Island produced the football greats of Jim Brown and Boomer Esiason, basketball genius Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and the tennis icon John McEnroe. Celebrities such as Mariah Carey, Billy Crystal, Billy Joel developed their talent on Long Island. This long list of great achievers should not be thought of by their accomplishments alone, but also by the context of where they developed their talent. The ingredients found on Long Island! With 17 colleges and universities, and well over 100 high schools, the ingredients for greatness on Long Island is perfect for our young aspiring athletes.

As Gladwell has pointed out in Outliers, “success arises out of the steady accumulation of advantages: when and where you are born, what your parents did for a living, and what the circumstances of your upbringing were all make a significant difference in how well you do in the world.” He goes on to explain that inherited traditions and attitudes, in other words, deep culture can also influence success.

Long Island has its own unique cultures shaped by the tradition of diverse people coming together for their passion of sports. Long Islanders who find success can explain it by their circumstances, their families, and their appetite for hard work. Long Island has an incredible passion for sports and consequently, young athletes thrive.

The ingredients for greatness on Long Island is perfect for our young aspiring athletes.

My Long Island Mission

There is a problem, however. While the population of Long Island is indeed physically and mentally strong and passionate about sports, the sheer volume of players, practices, and competition means our athletes are being sidelined by injuries with alarming frequency…

While Monty kept the Yankees alive with a Tommy John Ligament in his left elbow, the dreams of younger athletes playing in college or beyond college can be threatened in an instant. In my personal experience and in my research, young athletes stricken by elbow UCL injuries and knee ACL injuries are tested to their physical and emotional limits. I became a sports medicine physician and an ACL and Tommy John Surgery specialist to serve these athletes. While I am humbled to have the position of Head Team Physician for both the Yankees and the NYC Football Club, I am fully committed to serving Long Island athletes. I always feel an immediate bond with Long Island athletes. Whenever I set new goals and reflect on achievements and failures, I remind myself that I grew up in Long Island, attended public school, competed in the street, and developed a mindset of growth. It is often said that in elite sport, the margins of victory over defeat is inches…and these inches come from mindset and mental strength. As Muhammad Ali stated “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them — a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have last-minute stamina; they have to be a little faster, and they have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be
stronger than the skill”

My family still lives in Long Island and my niece was born on the same day as me, March 25, in the same hospital. I will always serve Long Island athletes and give them the same expert treatment that the Yankees receive.