Aaron Judge’s Mental Conditioning Routine Is Awesome

The new Yankee captain balances brain with brawn

Aaron Judge stepping to the plate
No. 99 focuses on positive things before stepping to the plate.
Getty Images

Brand-new New York Yankees captain Aaron Judge seems to have picked up right where he left off last year. The reigning MVP homered in his very first at-bat, then strung together six more hits and an OPS of 1.209 over baseball’s opening weekend.

Few around the game seem surprised that Judge is already this locked in at the plate. He showed up to spring his typical hulking self, and after battling an injury bug at the beginning of his career, has found some consistency on the health front. (Of the Yankees’ last 334 games, he’s played 319.) Still, Judge has expressed publicly that he wants to get better, a sentiment that has mystified sportswriters. Sure, he can abandon his veteran plate discipline from time to time, and a championship obviously still eludes him. But how do you improve upon breaking the American League single-season home run record and missing the Triple Crown by .05 points in batting average?

In quiet and unconventional ways, it would appear, beyond the gaze of most media or fans or even Judge’s own teammates. According to Judge’s recent interview with ESPN, the 6’7″ outfielder is a devoted student of the school of mental conditioning, investing as much energy towards his brain as he does his famous brawn.

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Judge reads books like Ryan Holliday’s Stillness is the Key, Gary Mack’s Mind Gym and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. He plans to steal his wife’s copy of James Clears’ Atomic Habits soon. He’s inspired by Kobe Bryant’s “Black Mamba” mentality, the idea that the second you step into the arena of play, you can assume a cutthroat, hyper-confident alter ego. (For those who think Judge is ever-chummy and charming, watch this video of him muttering to himself after throwing out a runner at home: “Fuckin’ run on me?”)

In order to become No. 99, Judge watches a specialized video before every single game, stitched together by the Yankees’ mental conditioning department, which features him doing a variety of spectacular things: making a great swing, diving for a catch, trotting around the bases, etc. According to ESPN, “Sometimes there will be a clip of an iconic athlete, like Michael Jordan or Peyton Manning.”

Why does Judge watch the greats or watch himself doing great things directly before a game? It’s visual manifestation of the highest degree. Like any superstar, Judge knows there’s a whole lot of hopes (and dollars) riding on his performance. Watching his best moments reminds him what he’s capable of — especially during periods when he’s fighting a slump or a losing streak.

“Even days that I don’t want to, days where I just want to get the game started, I still go in there and watch the video,” Judge told ESPN. “Because I need something to help me switch…like, I’m in here right now, and I’m Aaron — I’m hanging out with you, right? But you know, when I step out there, you have to be somebody else. Because maybe Aaron, in this moment, might be scared. But No. 99? He isn’t afraid at all.”

It’s an awfully refreshing interview, not the least because Judge has historically taken a Jeterian approach to the press: chuckle, defer to the team, repeat. But mainly because superstars are rarely so candid about their approach to mental fitness. They’ll talk training, or X’s and O’s, but acknowledging a mental conditioning routine requires admitting that one needs mental conditioning in the first place — not particularly alpha wolf, no?

Take Judge’s routine as reminder that everyone, no matter how gargantuan or rich or successful, is afraid of failure. And take inspiration, if you like, from the fact that he’s committed to interrogating those fears before every single game. Talent can get you far, but it’s the tinkering that keeps you there.

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