How To Inspire Others by Example: What Tommy John Can Teach Us About Behavioral Change


Tommy John is often regarded as one of the most tenacious and well-rounded baseball players in major league history. A technically-sound sinkerball pitcher (a rarity for a leftie), John’s 288 career victories (the seventh highest among left-handers in major league history), has secured the former All-Star’s place in the record books.

However, as impressive as the athlete’s accolades are, it’s his never-say-die attitude, undying love for the game and refusal to quit in the face of adversity that’s hushed critics and inspired fans.   

In 1974, mid-season and at the height of his career, John blew out his arm; permanently damaging the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow and side-lining him with an injury.

Nursing a “dead arm” injury (as it was known), was considered career-ending.

Tommy John was out. At least, that’s what others had him believe. John disagreed.

He knew he had it in him to return. Injury or no injury, he wasn’t calling it a day yet. Like a Thomas Edison or a Michael Phelps, he knew how to overcome his obstacles.

In his book The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage, Ryan Holiday comments on John’s determination.

He got really good at asking himself and others, in various forms, one question over and over again: Is there a chance? Do I have a shot? Is there something I can do? [1]

John visited American Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Frank Jobe. Jobe, a pioneer in UCL reconstruction surgery, suggested an experimental procedure: Replacing the ligaments in his pitching elbow with a tendon from his other arm.

It had never been performed before and the chances of a comeback were slim. One in one hundred to be precise. And without it? Not a chance.

John weighed up his options and opted for the surgery.

The risk was worth the reward of returning to his calling.

John returned to his former glory (sporting a new triangular scar for his efforts) and won 164 games over the next 13 seasons.

His surgery was once known as ulnar collateral alignment (UCL) reconstruction surgery. It’s now known as Tommy John surgery.

Tommy John and the surgery he made famous, became a household name. 

An Inspiration to Others

Decades later, a rookie by the name of Johnathon Harmyk was cutting his teeth, hoping to make the majors as a pitcher like John. Harmyk showed promise in the minors, but an injury brought his career to a grinding halt.

Disappointed, but determined to re-join his team as soon as possible, Harmyk had Tommy John surgery. The story was popular with players, especially recently injured ones.

One year later, after months of rehabilitation and determination, Harmyk made a full recovery and returned to the mound. [2]

This isn’t an uncommon occurrence; since the success of Tommy John’ surgery, hundreds of players have had it. In fact, in 2013, one third of MLB pitchers had gone under the knife (124 out of 360 to be exact). [3]   

Granted: You could argue that’s an alarming number. You could even argue (depending on your opinion) that surgery has unfairly changed the game and how it’s played, but you’d be hard-pressed to deny the cataclysmic effect John’s surgery has had on the players who have succeeded him.

He became more than an inspiration; he became an example of what’s possible, a spearhead for change and a change that others have sought to create themselves.

Lead Others to Change by Example

There are many reasons for wanting to replace negative behaviours; doing so helps us invest in our futures, feel better in and about ourselves and move us closer towards our goals. But none are more powerful than doing it to be the change we want to see in the world; to set that example we want ourselves and others to follow.

Occasionally, that example can be accidental. In John’s example, it’s unlikely he had the interests of others at heart before his own; he had his own motivations to return to his Life’s Task.

But never could he have anticipated the influence it would have on his successors. His Commander’s Intent was “there’s always a way” and he followed it. Once he did, others weren’t far behind.

And when it isn’t an accident and is premeditated, it becomes a code of conduct you hold yourself to; no longer is it about “me” you acknowledge, but “them”. How can I inspire others by my own transformation?

Your actions become an inspiration and motivator for new behaviours in others. Your improvements speak volumes – and people listen.

We all need role models in life; not to motivate us, but to motivate us to motivate ourselves. To demonstrate that our obstacles can be overcome. To instil the “if they can do it, so can I” mentality. By volunteering first, we become that role model.

If you’re currently changing your habits, be clear on your reasons for change. Changing to merely please others (“I’m dieting at my wife’s request”) may motivate you (albeit reluctantly), but changing to exemplify to you yourself and others what’s possible (“I dieted and loss 14 pounds in one month despite working 40 hours a week, what’s stopping you?”) becomes a tiny, powerful idea. A new identity takes shape. You become an agent of change. You set the example.

Parents will understand this; in the eyes of your children, you’re their hero. Your behaviours become the basis for theirs. If you’re trying to quit smoking, what better reason to change than the peace of mind you’re safeguarding their future?

Strike Two

John’s career had its fair share of challenges. In addition to an unprecedented comeback to baseball and overcoming the near-death of his son when he tragically fell out of a window, John faced a new obstacle: In 1998, he was cut by the Yankees, end season, at age forty five.

Baseball officials argued he was an old timer. A “has been”. A player who’d passed his prime. But John wasn’t ready to hang up his glove yet. Not on his watch.

His coach scoffed at his request: A fair look if he showed up at spring training as a walk on. But with John’s persistence, he had no choice but to concede and promise him a fair look.

That was all he needed.

Training multiple hours a day, John became the first to arrive in the locker room and the last to leave. He drew from every experience, both positive and negative and persevered.

His hard work didn’t go unnoticed and he re-joined his team – as the Yankee’s newest (oldest) player.

He started the season opener – and won.

A Final Word

Changing our habits is understandably difficult; cigarettes, sugary foods and television appeal to most of us and resisting them summons all our willpower. And when our reasons are our own, we’re more open to temptation (“once won’t hurt, will it?”). No one else’s health is at stake.

But refocusing our reasons for change from what’s in it for us, to what’s in it for those we have an influence on (our children, our peers, our readers), it takes on a new life of its own. You inspire others by your example and it becomes a role you won’t want to ease up on.


[1] Holiday, R. (2014) The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage, London: Profile Book Ltd.

[2] Sato, K. (2013) A Pitcher’s Perseverance: From Tommy John to College Scholarship, (Accessed: 17th September 2014).

[3] Carroll, W. (2013) The Alarming Increase in MLB Pitchers Who’ve Had Tommy John Surgery(Accessed: 17th September 2014).


Ryan Holiday for introducing me to Tommy John and the Tommy John surgery.