Those of you who follow sports may have heard of the dreaded inexplicable phenomenon. In the golf and baseball worlds it’s called the yips, to dart throwers, it’s known as dartitis. It has been called by other names as well including Steve Blass disease, Steve Sax syndrome, and, more broadly in the medical world, focal dystonia.
You hear all these names, but what exactly are the yips?
According to writers of the journal The Sport Psychologist, they are “a long-term movement disorder consisting of involuntary movements that occur in the course of the execution of finely controlled, skilled motor behavior. (The Sport Psychologist).” What exactly does this mean? Basically, the affected athlete encounters a mental block that disrupts their routine skilled movements. For example, experienced baseball pitchers suddenly are unable to find the strike zone, catchers spike the ball when returning it to the pitcher, seasoned golfers find themselves missing 3-foot putts, and NFL placekickers begin to shank 30-yard field goal attempts wide left and right. Such drastic decreases in performance levels are often considered taboo in the sports world. Ex-professional baseball player Jason Giambi has commented, “We really don’t talk about it as baseball players. It’s just this unwritten rule. You feel terrible for [those experiencing it].” Dr. Charlie Maher, sports psychologist for the Cleveland Indians, refuses to call the unfortunate circumstances the yips and prefers to use other terms such as misplaced focus, to remove the implication that the player is suffering from an actual disease or ailment (Meisel).
Although the yips are most prominent in the sports world, similar performance blocks can be found affecting people from all walks of life from a surgeon whose hands begin to shake uncontrollably in the operating room to a courtroom attorney who struggles to form sentences when making a statement at a trial.
So what exactly causes this sudden inability to perform? Do professional athletes suddenly get nervous and cave into pressures when playing for high stakes? Do they randomly forget how to perform actions that they have repeated hundreds of thousands of times without issue throughout their careers?
There are a few different theories as to what actually causes the yips.
Robert Anthony Prichard, a biomechanics expert from San Francisco, CA, believes that there is a physical cause that invites the onset of the yips, and a common habit practiced by some golfers is what causes the yips when putting. He points out that restraining one’s driver when swinging causes scar tissue to build up in the forearm muscles, and that this in turn causes those same muscles to spasm when one grips a putter, even lightly. “They were gripping the driver very hard, so as to limit extension at impact,” Prichard says after analyzing the swings of golfers affected by the yips. “The driver head is going over 100 miles an hour through space and is pulling away from the golfer with 100 pounds of force. Even though this pull only lasts for a fraction of a second, it is repeated over and over again and it results in the tearing of hundreds of the tens of thousands of small individual muscle fibers that make up each muscle in the forearms (Dorman).” The spasms that arise when gripping the putter are what present as the yips in golfers.
On the flip side, psychotherapist David Grand, PhD, believes that the yips have more psychological causes and claims that “the symptoms found in the yips can more accurately be understood as a form of trauma-based dissociation (Grand).” In his case study, A Cure for the Yips: Brainspotting and Performance Blocks, Grand writes about his patient Rick, a 19-year-old division-one baseball catcher who, for no apparent reason, was unable to play simple catch and throw the ball back to the pitcher after each pitch. All of his throws either sailed way over the pitcher’s head or spiked straight into the ground halfway back to the mound.
Grand explains, “He played well in his freshman year until one night a foul tip hit the crease in his shoulder pad on his throwing side. He looked to his coach for guidance, who instead simply turned his back. When he tried the routine toss back to the pitcher after the next pitch, his arm locked up. ‘It felt like a giant hand had grabbed my arm and pulled it backward,’ he said. He compensated by forcing the motion and the ball sailed over the pitcher’s head. ‘It was weird.’ he continued. ‘On the next pitch, the runner on first tried to steal second on me and I gunned him down. But then I spiked my next toss back to the pitcher into the ground six feet in front of me (Grand).” Rick had a long list of injuries, failures, and humiliations in his career that built up as sports traumas, and Grand points to Rick’s traumatic history both on the field and at home as the root cause of his condition.
He was “dissociated from the emotional impact of his history of sports injuries, which confirmed the likely source of his throwing yips…When [Grand] asked about his parents, Rick told [him], ‘I was a foster kid. My mom was a drug addict, so they took me away when I was a baby, and my foster parents adopted me when I was 2. They weren’t the kindest people, but they saved my life, so how can I complain about them?’…His adopted father was a former athlete who drilled Rick hard, regularly pulling him out from school during lunch to hit ground balls to him on a rocky baseball infield. It wasn’t uncommon that the ball would take an errant bounce and hit Rick in the head, throat, or shins. ‘Shake it off,’ his father would tell him. ‘How was that for you?’ [he] asked him. ‘He did it for my own good,’ Rick replied. Then he added, ‘It sucked. I hated it, but I was too afraid to say anything.’ Rick’s stuffing of his emotions is common for young athletes in relation to intrusive parents, especially when their involvement approaches abusive levels (Grand).” Being ignored by his coach when he looked to him for guidance as the breaking point that led to Rick being unable to throw the ball back to his pitcher. He states, “My work with other clients like Rick has taught me that if a catcher has experienced repeated traumatic injuries, eventually the whole natural sequence of tossing a ball can shut down, even though this makes no sense to him (Grand).”
Now, it’s time to answer the big, looming question: Great, I know what it is and what probably caused it, but how do I cure it?
The short answer is that every case is different, and there is no perfect, cure-all solution . However, once the main cause of the symptoms in the particular case is identified as physical or psychological, the most effective cure can be administered. Cases with physical causes require physical cures, while psychological cases require psychological cures.
For example, for golfers whose yips are most likely caused by the buildup of excessive scar tissue in their forearms, “the cure, according to Prichard, is not a visit to a sports psychologist. He recommends two things: when preparing to drive, a golfer should change the position of the hands by raising them higher and moving them a few inches farther from the body; and the golfer should get massage therapy to connective tissue, to release the scar tissue that has accumulated (Dorman).” Some other cures that have worked for golfers are switching up one’s grip on a putter or changing the putter type or length. In baseball, players have found that switching positions usually relieves them of symptoms. One famous example of a player who was to succeed through that solution is pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel. After he sailed a pitch into the backstop way behind his catcher during a high stakes postseason game, Ankiel was never able to pitch as effectively as he had before. He could not find the strike zone, and the zip that was usually on his fastball never came back. Click here to watch the exact pitches where his rhythm began to fall apart. As a result, he tried making the switch to playing right field instead, and played extremely well there, gaining a reputation for having a tremendous arm and gunning down several runners (Ankiel).
Ex-St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Rick Ankiel.
For yips cases that seem to have psychological causes, Grand recommends a therapeutic technique known as brainspotting which is “a therapeutic approach [he has] developed over the past 12 years to access the emotional and somatic areas deep in the brain, bypassing the areas of thought and language…It focuses on using eye gaze and body awareness to access and process traumatic memories that may be difficult to bring to consciousness otherwise. But unlike other brain-based technologies, brainspotting recognizes the healing power of relationship, relying on the therapist’s ability to observe closely how clients visually orient as they immerse in their deep personal issues and to attune to what the clients say and how they say it (Grand).” He uses a Subjective Units of Distress Scale (SUDS) that ranges from 0-10 and asks patients to rate the amount of somatic activation, or physical uneasiness, that they feel when he asks them to conjure up memories of a certain trauma. By asking the patient to follow a pointer slowly moving across his visual field, the therapist can determine which areas in the field of vision are hot spots that trigger emotionally intense memories and cause greater body activation. “Once [the spots are] located, clients are guided to maintain a gaze on these spots while mindfully observing their internal experience (Grand).” Usually, the patient will relive the intense memories for some time, and then the intensity will wear off. The goal is to reduce the reported SUDS activation number after focusing on that spot. This relief after the intensity and decrease in distress is what rectifies the mind-body connection that was previously disturbed, causing the yips.
There are several ways to combat an onset of the yips, but it is important to keep in mind that the yips can be caused by physical factors, psychological factors, or sometimes even both. Using therapeutic techniques cures that align with the categories has proven to be the most effective way to relieve one’s symptoms.
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be affected by the yips, don’t hesitate to consult a sport psychologist or sport performance expert.
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- Ankiel, Rick. “How Rick Ankiel Dealt with the Yips, Anxiety.” SI.com, Sports Illustrated, 7 Apr. 2017, www.si.com/mlb/2017/04/27/rick-ankiel-book-phenomenon-the-yips.
- Dorman, Larry. “Cause of the Yips Is Debated, but the Effect Isn’t.” The New York Times, 11 June 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/06/12/sports/golf/the-yips-bane-of-golfers-may-be-muscular.html.
- Grand, David. “Case Study, A Cure for the Yips.” Psychotherapy Networker Nov 2015ProQuest. Web. 6 Aug. 2018.
- Meisel, Zack. “The Yips: Difficult to Understand, Difficult to Cure.” MLB.com, 10 May 2013, www.mlb.com/news/the-yips-difficult-to-understand-difficult-to-cure/c-47124896.
- Roberts, R., Rotheram, M., Maynard, I., Thomas, O., & Woodman, T. (2013). Perfectionism and the ‘Yips’: An Initial Investigation. Sport Psychologist, 27(1), 53-61.
Written by David Kau, 2018 COR Summer Intern.