Meeting, Coping, and Overcoming the Yips

the yips
Photo credit: Marianne Bevis on Best Running / CC BY-ND

Once thought the scourge of choking, recent studies have shown that the yips’ symptoms correlate with the extent of focal dystonia affecting the muscles in question – suggesting a neurological basis for the yips.

The yips is defined as the occurrence of involuntary movements during the execution of a fine motor skill, and it is a common phenomenon, with a reported prevalence ranging from 28 to 48%

Martin Karl Klämpfl et al

The unexpected and unexplained loss of skills or simply “the yips,” had former Major League All-Star Chuck Knoblauch, once make three throwing errors in just six innings and eventually make a move to Left Field.

And while some elite athletes were forced to end their careers prematurely, others managed to recover their abilities after meeting with sports psychologists and dealing with their performance anxiety.

Check out how different athletes in distinct sports overcame the yips.

The yips are not choking under pressure.

A single short putt is needed to seal the victory, but suddenly the golfer’s hands cramp up, and the putt sails wide. According to numerous studies, as many as 48 percent of serious golfers experience these motor skill failures, known colloquially as the yips. Most often used to describe golf-related errors, the yips can strike athletes in any sport.

Yet there is still no clear explanation of why pro athletes, who frequently encounter high-stakes moments, choke under pressure. But a neurological condition called focal dystonia may change that perception.

The condition involves involuntary muscle contractions when performing specific frequent and repeated motor tasks. That researches believe provide an unfortunate companion

Although previous investigators concluded that the yips is a neuromuscular impediment aggravated but not caused by state anxiety, we believe the yips represents a continuum on which ‘choking’ (anxiety-related) and dystonia symptoms anchor the extremes.

A M Smith, et al

Moreover, overthinking appears to heighten the yips during critical times. Psychologist Debbie Crews found that golfers who performed poorly when putting under pressure have a tendency to exhibit heightened activity in the brain’s left hemisphere, typically responsible for analytical thinking, and diminished activity in the right hemisphere, associated with coordination and visual attention.

Yips affected golfer starts a phenomenon

The term yips in golf were introduced into pop culture vernacular by the late golf legend Tommy Armour. He inexplicably could not make putts. Only one month removed from winning the US Open in 1927, Armour found himself on the 17th hole in the Shawnee Open, needing 23 shots, as opposed to the average five – to complete the hole. Calling them a “brain spasm that impairs the short game.”

And over the years the term has been known by many names and athletes.

  • ‘freezing’
  • ‘the waggles’
  • ‘the staggers’
  • ‘the jerks”
  • ‘whiskey fingers’
  • ‘the yips.’

And that last turn of phrase is the one that’s almost universally used on every putting green today. 

High-profile professional golfers, like Sam Snead and Bernhard Langer, have suffered the same affliction. Moreover, the long-shafted putter – AKA the belly putter – may it rest in peace, was designed to help golfers overcome the yips.

The yips is a multi-etiological phenomenon consisting of involuntary movements during the execution of a skill (e.g., a golf putt). Reinvestment, the conscious control of a movement that detrimentally affects automated movements, is thought to be a potential mechanism leading to the yips. The data do not support the assumption that there is a link between the yips and reinvestment, likely because of the yips’ multi-etiological nature. Other psychological or neurological mechanisms such as conditioned reactions may better explain the yips and should be investigated.

Martin Karl Klämpfl et al

Pitcher Luke Hagerty commanded the yips in baseball

In 2002, the Chicago Cubs drafted a young fireballer, Luke Hagerty, in the first round of the major league baseball draft (#32) and gave the future stalwart a million-dollar signing bonus.

After Tommy John surgery in 2003 and the requisite rehabilitation, Hagerty’s pitching promise was picked up by the Florida Marlins in 2004.

But during spring training of the 2005 season, Hagerty’s incredible throwing skills inexplicably vanished. He “simply forgot how to pitch,” Hagerty said in an interview with ESPN.

The following two years, he worked tirelessly to regain his old form but couldn’t overcome the wild pitches. Five short years after being drafted in the first round, Hagerty was out of the majors.

While away from the baseball mound, Hagerty turned to teaching the game to others, a new mental routine, and a renewed focus as a means to cope. And the deep dive seems to have worked out.

Fast forward a decade, in a room full of scouts in Seattle, Hagerty attempted an audacious comeback. And succeeded. After never making it out of Single-A Ball, Hagerty would throw 99 mph fastballs for the Cubs.

And now 2020 NL Comeback Player of the Year, Daniel Bard, is back after not having pitched in the majors for over seven years after dealing with a bad case of the yips.

Alexander Zverev’s second serve at a first try

Few players moved up the ranks as fast as Zverev did. At just 19 years old, he was ranked third in the world. Able to boom first serves and with a return game to match Nadal. The tennis world was witnessing the arrival of the Next Gen.

But soon after that, the proud ATP world champion stalled out on his meteoric rise. Zverev, currently number 7 in the world rankings, couldn’t put his second serve in the court during the most critical match points.

Now a bundle of nerves for most of the 2018 and 2019 tennis season, the Zverev second serve is fighting what appears to be a mild case of the yips. And in tennis, yipping is likely only with serves and high lobs because, unlike other shots, both leave plenty of time for overthinking the swing.

Inexplicably as they arrived in early 2020, after serving nearly three second serves per game at the ATP Cup, Zverev caught fire at the Australian Open and nearly cut that number in half.

With his semifinal showing at the Aussie Open, it seemed like Zverev had overcome his second serve yips. But his recent showing in the finals of the US Open seems like his confidence is once again shaken as his second serve repeatedly appeared to breakdown.

And even more recently Zverev battles the yips to see off Schwartzman when during a three-set win over Diego Schwartzman, “Zverev stepped up when it mattered, though, winning five of the last six games to end the match.”

A Markelle Fultz free throw couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn

The skill acquisition from novice to expert – requires tens of thousands of specific repetitions with a high degree of precision to make movements automatic. But Markelle Fultz lost it seemingly overnight.

In June 2017, Fultz was drafted #1 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. By January 2018, the can’t miss rookie’s shot was hopelessly broken; his shooting accuracy like that of a weekend warrior at the YMCA not an NBA superstar in the making.

No answer in sight, his NBA trainer diagnosed him with a severe case of the yips. Fultz’s free throw percentage was lower than Shaq’s. During the 17-18 NBA Season, it was an abysmal 47.6% after shooting 65% in college.

Instead Fultz recieved a change of scenery and a second diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome to steady the hands and the stroke. After a trade to the Orlando Magic, Fultz’s free throw percentage is up to 72.3%. And his remarkable talent is finally visible again, including his famous jump shot. 

And he seems to have avoided the plight of Nick Anderson, who after having the chance to close out Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals for the Magic inexplicably bricked four consecutive free throws to kick off a finals sweep. From there his free throw percentage fell to a dismal 40% the next season.

Cure for the Severe Yips?

The common theme? It would appear that these elite athletes achieved a perceived status at a very young age. Only to have that ripped from them on a national stage. By physical and/or psychological issues during their careers.

Be careful with timing pressure. Yes, it can create heightened awareness, but routine plays can become involuntary movements that undermine tens of thousands of well-intentioned repetitions. Unbridled enjoyment that ingrains the fine motor patterns of elite performance. While also laying the groundwork to thrive in the competitive environments that seek to humble greatness with pressure and stress.

To this point, it has generally been assumed that the yips are primarily psychological as critical moments have plenty of time to think about the outcome(s). However, it now appears that some persons have them due to a neurological condition affecting specific muscles (focal dystonia). And it is a learning process to manage them.

Moreover, it is most likely to experience the yips are those that have heightened:

  • fear of negative evaluation
  • individual differences
  • anxiety sensitivity
  • self-consciousness
  • perfectionistic self-presentation
  • perfectionism

Now suppose a coach’s style is predicated upon punishing failure, “tough love” and yelling. In such an environment, the perfectionists and other behavioral types already discussed might be unable to merely change a target, technique, or equipment to make the yips go away?

Instead, find answers to superficial problems. Use layered solutions to clearly review expectations with players at practice, because the evidence is real. Countless athletes have come face to face with the yips. And to find a new feeling that overcomes the lost power, shaky swings, and missed kicks takes time, mental fortitude, and like many things – a little bit of luck.

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