The yips are one of the most devastating and embarrassing afflictions that an athlete can experience. Stories of athletes plagued with the yips occur in a variety of sports, including tennis, golf, gymnastics, football and baseball. Chuck Knoblauch, the Gold Glove Award winning second basemen for the New York Yankees, suddenly lost his ability to throw to first base. Tiger Woods and Ben Hogan, two of the best ball strikers in the history of golf, suffered with the yips in golf. Placekickers in football can come down with the yips. In tennis, Guillermo Coria, Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic, Elena Dementieva have all suffered with serving yips which led to as many as 17 double faults in a match. In this column, I will explain what symptoms of the yips look like, explore the reasons put forth to explain their occurrence, and discuss how I treat an athlete suffering with the yips.
The yips are defined as “A sudden loss of fine motor skills that comes on without apparent explanation and is usually suffered by mature athletes with years of experience.” Often, the athlete experiences them when under great pressure and they report feelings of being frozen, helpless and ashamed. They will often change techniques in order to avoid the issue. Musicians often get this condition, as well as athletes.
When you get the yips, it’s like a firecracker exploding in your body
Causes of the yips
Medical researchers call the yips “Focal Dystonia” and they believe it is a neurological disorder due to overuse or extreme repetitive stress. Twitches can occur anywhere in the body. I have seen golfers with leg yips, baseball catchers with throwing yips and gymnasts with vaulting yips. A milder form of the yips is referred to as “choking.”
Over the years, I have treated athletes with a variety of yips and this is what I learned. The precursors to the yips occur long before their arrival. It’s like a train that finally arrives at the station … it does not suddenly appear out of thin air. The train has been traveling a long way before its arrival. I have seen an athlete with tennis yips and as we discussed how it developed, he finally realized that the actual cause was related to the tennis team he was on. The social atmosphere of the team was condescending and made him feel inferior and unwelcome. Since the athlete was sensitive, the social atmosphere slowly and inevitably seeped into his mind and his body, and that’s when he developed the serving yips. More generally when serious athletes face year after year of increased competitive pressure, this invariably produces tension in the body which can easily manifest itself as the yips. All high level sport performance requires smooth, graceful execution, with poise and relaxed muscles, and when you begin to introduce repetitive muscle tension due to stress, pressure or social negativity, sooner or later you will be faced with performance problems.
Playing with the yips is like having a boulder on your back and having to get over a big fence
Forms of treatment
What I have seen is that on the professional level, when athletes are experiencing chronic anxiety, they turn to either alcohol or marijuana to alleviate their stress. This is typically ineffective and can even cause more harm than good.
Their next step is to enlist a sports medicine doctor to prescribe either beta blockers, tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Dr. Gary I. Wadler’s classic text, Drugs and the Athlete, shows that these are demonstrably ineffective in helping performance in any way.
The next step is to see a sport psychologist who has experience in this area. Uniformly, the first step in the psychological treatment of the yips is to help the athlete to understand the underlying causes of their career-threatening affliction. Over time, this helps them to rebuild their psyche, relax and gain more ego strength. During this phase of exploration, support and insight occurs, as the athlete also gains familiarity with their natural way of performing and are then given drills which instill that memory into their consciousness once again.
The yips is all about the build-up of emotional pressure which turns into a silent scream
The cure for the yips is always a two-phased approach
It is my belief that this delicate combination of both Phase One, insight into causes, and Phase Two, interventions containing mental drills, is the only real cure for the yips and for choking. Insight alone is not enough. Mental drills alone are not enough. What is needed is a slow, unhurried approach which gives the athlete a chance to ventilate, get solace, gain understanding of how this developed, and by doing so, they develop confidence, more pride and ego strength along the way. When that happens, they are better able to use mental drills that help them grow familiar with the most effective mental cues during performance. Often, inexperienced practitioners forego the first phase of treatment and rush into Phase Two, which only leads to failure because the athlete must understand what has happened and build up ego strength first.
The yips are always embarrassing and depressing for the serious athlete, but despite common belief to the contrary, there really is a cure. The athlete back on track, and return to their winning ways, smiling and having some fun once again.