The yips plague athletes in many sports, and even musicians. Hopefully sports psychologists can find a cure.
Golfers know all about “the yips.” If they’ve never experienced it themselves, they’ve probably played with someone who has. And they certainly know the stories of famous golfers whose careers were challenged, if not devastated by the phenomenon. This list includes Tommy Armour, who coined the term to describe the condition that forced him to abandon tournament play. He was hardly the only one.
Golfers seriously afflicted by the yips include Bernhard Langer, Ben Hogan, Harry Vardon, Sam Snead, and Keegan Bradley, who missed a simple 6 inch putt in the final round of the 2013 HP Byron Nelson Championship due to the condition (although he may also have been suffering from Strabismus).
Johnny Miller’s running battles with “whiskey fingers” were legendary.
It’s not just golfers, either. Baseball witnessed the meltdown of Pirates pitcher Steve Blass, who had been an All-Star, but was forced to retire when he mysteriously lost his ability to hit the strike zone. The Yankees’ Chuck Knoblauch and Dodgers’ Steve Sax suddenly forgot how to throw the ball to first base. The Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel was beginning to look like he was going to be a dominant pitcher until one day he started throwing more at the bull than he did the catchers’ mitt. (If you don’t get that reference, how can you call yourself a sports fan?)
This week’s episode of Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast features an interesting conversation about the yips, taking as its jumping-off point David Owen’s New Yorker article on the subject. (The yips discussion commences at the 32:50 mark.)
It’s a fascinating topic – what do we make of it when our brains betray us? How are we all of a sudden unable to perform a simple task that we’ve been executing without any problems for decades?
As it turns out, the yips afflict a lot more than just golfers and baseball players. The phenomenon has been observed in hoops, tennis, football, cricket, even snooker and darts. There’s also, believe it or not, a version for musicians called focal dystonia.
I can find no mention of it on Google, but there’s at least one case of a high jumper contracting a paralyzing case of the yips. During the spring of my senior year (Class of 1979, baby!), I ran high hurdles and did the high, long and triple jump for Ledford Senior High School’s Central Carolina Conference champs (Go Panthers!). I suppose I was okay by slow, non-leaping country white boy standards – I lettered in the first meet of the season and placed in both the conference and county meets, which was not bad for a guy whose most significant marks in high school had been made on the Debate team.
One day, at a practice about midway through the season, I headed over the pit to put in my high jump work. I found my mark, sprinted up to the bar, coiled to leap, and … my body shut down. Quit. What the fuck?
I headed back to the mark, repeated the approach, and again, my body would not jump. I had no clue what was happening, but several more attempts made clear that I had developed some sort of mental block. To this day it remains a mystery – my routine hadn’t changed, I hadn’t taken any kind of fall that might insinuate fear of jumping into my brain, my results hadn’t fluctuated dramatically, I hadn’t been dumped by a girlfriend, nothing.
I tried to talk to the coach about it, but I was afraid to tell him the truth, and I can’t recall what I actually said. Whatever it was, it resulted in something along the lines of “go back and practice some more.” He was a great coach, so this indicates clearly that the failure to communicate was on me. You know, the guy with all the trophies for speaking and debate.
I kept failing, and very quickly the goal became less about jumping and more about trying to conceal that I couldn’t jump. If I set the bar low enough in practice – higher than a hurdle, but not much – I could get over it. And I guess I was able to clear the lowest height in meets, but I’d crash out, sort of jumping through the bar instead of over it, when it got to anything like a real height.
By the end of the season I had managed to recover to the point where I could clear some jumps – basically I was back to where I had been when I first tried the event at the beginning of the season. But in the back of my mind, every time I approached the bar I was wondering if my brain was going to betray me again, and I never knew until I was actually in the air.
Those kinds of demons do nothing for your ability to concentrate on technique.
I guess this was the yips, although I’m not sure. There’s research afoot on the problem, and it seems concerned with involuntary, disruptive muscle movements. That’s not exactly what I was dealing with. I mean, a sudden twitch that caused me to accidentally fly off into the air another foot or two would have been a good thing for a high jumper, right? No, for me it was less about untimely muscle twitching and more about psychologically locking down.
I’m glad to hear that sports psychologists are tackling the yips. People who have never faced this bizarre phenomenon might think the whole thing is a load of hokum, and pro sports crowds aren’t always forgiving when millionaire athletes keep sailing the ball into the tenth row. I mean, who can’t throw a baseball 40 feet? Who the hell misses a six-inch putt? (Well, I do, but that has nothing to do with the yips.)
In baseball I was great on long throws – I had a natural center fielder’s form. But on anything under 90 feet my rag arm was a menace to the civil order. Playing second base terrified me because it’s nothing but short throws. Catching? The hardest part was getting the ball back to the pitcher.
It really was all in my head, and it started early. As a kid, I’d always tense up on short throws. I was afraid I’d overthrow – and I often did. Even warming up, I’d always want whoever I was throwing with to have the fence at their backs so they wouldn’t have to run so far chasing down my wild ones.
Steve Sax developed the yips. Maybe I was born with them. I can tell you for certain that my mental processes as I fielded a hit in center and saw the runner trying to go first to third was completely different than when I fielded a grounder at short and had to make the toss to second to start the double play. In the former case, it was “your ass is mine – here comes the laser.” In the latter, it was “I hope I don’t throw this into right.”
In other words, I felt Rick Ankiel’s frustration and pain. When Steve Sax fielded a routine ground ball at second I could feel him pinching the release point. He had no idea where the ball was going and he had no idea why.
The fans screaming at him, as though he wasn’t trying, that had to be devastating. I know how horrible being unable to jump over the bar was back in 1979, and nobody was yelling at me. My very career wasn’t at stake.
So yeah, I really am rooting for the researchers and psychologists here. I hope the next time one of our elite athletes begins melting down someone can step in with a therapy that fixes it. And on behalf of the millions of golfers around the world praying they don’t smack that six-inch tap-in into the pond, I’m hoping that therapy becomes widely available and easily affordable.