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Beneath the mystery of Tom Brady’s greatness is a modest secret: Self-discipline

Tom Brady motions to the Tampa Bay bench during an October win over the Philadelphia Eagles. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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If you’re offered $400 now but you can have $550 by waiting three months, which do you take: the quick cash or more money later? The answer to that question says something about your ability to compete with Tom Brady. Because he will wait. And then he will wait some more. He will give up today’s fun for tomorrow’s reward, and eventually he will bury you with all the loose change that is the difference between his self-discipline and your itch for immediate gratification.

At 44, with most of his peers retired, limping or clutching at the disks in their backs, Brady is on a blitzing pace to throw for more than 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns this season as he and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers approach Sunday’s game with the Washington Football Team. This is a feat worthy of gaping incredulity, and it raises the question of what makes Brady’s clock tick. It would be sooooo convenient to think Brady came preloaded with some unattainable, far-fetched genetic gift not relevant to you. The simple truth may be more banal — and exposing — than that. His longevity may just be the product of better habits than yours and mine.

The behavioral-science term for the inability to reject immediate gratification in favor of a bigger gain is “delayed reward discounting.” People who delay-discount tend to perceive something as less valuable the longer they have to wait and work for it. Whereas others are stronger at setting and attaining more distant-horizon goals. This is “one of the most relevant predictors” of long-term success, according to Michael Sofis, a senior scientist with health services consultant firm Advocates for Human Potential. And it’s undoubtedly a contributor to Brady’s sheer longevity. He was in his 30s when he started training for his 40s, quitting sugar and white flour, among other steps. And he works in May for what might happen in February. Consider this story about him.

In the spring of 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, Brady participated in the Match II, the made-for-TV golf exhibition with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in Florida. It was hot and raining. Nevertheless, a couple of hours before tee-off, Charles Barkley saw Brady in the parking lot of the golf club. He was running sprints. “What the hell are you doing?” Barkley said.

“I’m trying to win a Super Bowl,” Brady replied.

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Brady’s unquenchable ambition is of course a mystery — but what really separates him is that he marries it to method. Without that method, year-round rigor, he would be just another guy with big aspirations who couldn’t live up to them. “If I don’t really work at it … and if I don’t play to my strengths, I’m a very average quarterback,” he said years ago, and it’s true.

Trainer Dana Cavalea, who spent 14 years as a performance coach for the New York Yankees and now works with business executives, observes that great athletes have a fundamentally different outlook that the rest of us could learn from: “You don’t judge the worth of an activity by how it feels in the moment,” Cavalea says. “You judge the worth of an activity by how you feel when you are done.” They work for the delayed reward. It’s a crucial distinction many of us fail to make, especially with negative behaviors that feel awfully good at the time.

For two decades, Cavalea relates, Derek Jeter went to bed at the same time every night during the season. No matter what town they were in or whom he was with. The best players Cavalea saw were not spectacular specimens but those with the steadiest and most unvarying habits.

“Discipline is a muscle. It can be built,” he says. Cavalea likes to quote former Yankees equipment manager Rob Cucuzza, who would watch a player on a streak and say, “He’s hot right now, but let’s see who he really is in the next three months.”

In training business executives and writing books such as his forthcoming “Habits of a Champion Team,” Cavalea has met dozens of get-rich-quickers with high short-term yields and Cohibas in their fists, who folded or failed because they have no habits or poor ones. Cavalea points out, “I don’t care who you are today if you can’t be that same person tomorrow.”

Sofis, the scientist, has long suspected that conditioning can help people improve willpower and sustain it over time, given neuroscientific evidence that exercise profoundly affects cognition and mood. In a clinical study at the University of Kansas, he and fellow researchers put 16 volunteers of varying ages with sedentary habits through a seven-week jogging program. Before, during and after the training, they gave the subjects a 27-item test called the Monetary Choice Questionnaire, a standardized evaluator of delay-discounting willpower.

They published their findings in the journal “Behavior Modification”: Thirteen of the 16 participants showed markedly more self-control in financial decisions at the end of their training. Not only that, the effect was lasting. They showed greater self-control when they tested a month afterward.

Sofis believes that showing up habitually for even a simple workout leads to enhanced willpower and better professional performance, no matter who you are — and that the effects will build, much like Jeter’s batting average or Brady’s records over time. “It’s like a self-control future valuation multiplier that can spill over into decisions in other areas of your life,” Sofis says.

“We are faced with these little decision trials many times each day,” Sofis says. “And sometimes the delayed reward is months or even years removed, but each choice is impacted by previous ones and impacts future ones.”

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Brady’s performances have become so regular — and technically proficient — that he has passed into a state of perpetual taken-for-grantedness — and fundamental misunderstanding. He has to constantly remind us, “I wasn’t born a prodigy, like a 3-year-old the world bestowed greatness on,” as he observed last spring. This is not false modesty. It’s indisputable, evidenced by one glance at his attenuated limbs and slow feet. He’s the product of a will to work over the long term, and his current form, as Sofis suggests, is the result of years of compounding interest on small choices.

“The more good behaviors you have, the better things turn out,” Brady has remarked. “It’s just, do people have the discipline to repeat those behaviors? That’s the tricky part.”

It’s not the most electrifying explanation for why Brady keeps winning — and maybe that’s why more people don’t copy him. To work the way he does is tedious, monotonous. “It can make people feel sort of expired,” Cavalea observes. Maybe the hardest thing about it is that the daily reward is so small — it’s about incremental improvements over time. Brady’s throwing coach Tom House has observed, “What separates these elite athletes, the Hall of Famers, is that they try to get better every day not by 20 percent but just 1 or 2 percent.”

How many people are willing to give up what they love to eat for just a 2 percent gain? Among other things, that kind of commitment means inviting a certain amount of mockery and skepticism. “When you’re disciplined, with it also comes friction,” Cavalea says, “because you’re not just doing what everyone else is doing.”

But if you’re willing to pile enough of those 2 percents together over 20 years, they can turn into seven diamond rings.