Using Neuroscience to Get Over the Yips in Baseball
Have you ever found yourself puzzled by an athlete’s sudden difficulty with a certain skill? Maybe a pitcher who loses control over the ball? A catcher who suddenly can’t throw a quick, hard throw to the pitcher’s mound? Or a batter who “chokes” under pressure?
Steve Blass, who pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates, is a well-known example of an extreme case of the yips. From 1964 to 1972, he was a dominant pitcher and an All-Star. Then, in 1973, he suddenly lost his command over the ball. He issued 84 walks in 88+2⁄3 innings pitched. He retired in 1974 after failing to overcome the loss of his pitching ability.
“Steve Blass Disease” as it was called, is another name for the yips and has been attributed to many great athletes, including as two talented second basemen, Los Angeles Dodger, Steve Sax, and New York Yankee, Chuck Knoblauch, both who lost their ability to throw the ball accurately to first base.
New York Mets catcher, Mackey Sasser, is another well-known example. He was good behind the plate and at bat, hitting .285 his rookie year with an on-base percentage of .131. In 1990, in100 games as the primary catcher for the Mets, he hit .307/.344/.426 and was “the hottest hitter in baseball.” However, he started to struggle with throwing the ball to the pitcher. He would sometimes tap his glove before throwing. Over time it got worse. It got to the point where he would sometimes double, triple or even quadruple tap his mitt before releasing the ball. Once he did let go, it was a soft flip rather than a hard throw. (More on Sasser later.)
Lacey Waldrop, the 2014 USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the year, describes her battle with the yips like this:
All of a sudden, what once felt commonplace to me felt so foreign. My arm felt like jello as it went into a whip (the last half of the arm circle). My release felt forced and stiff and I had to hope and pray that the ball might land somewhere near the strike zone.
What is going on with these amazing athletes? What are the yips?
What Are “The Yips?”
The yips can be defined as the sudden inability to perform a certain skill when there is no physical reason for it. In baseball and softball, it tends to be most noticeable in pitchers and catchers because they touch the ball the most, though it can also affect position players.
Players with the yips often describe feeling detached from their bodies or their hand or arm feeling numb. Other symptoms of the yips include performance anxiety, negative or over-thinking, and difficulty focusing
The yips are universal in sports, though each sport has their own terminology for these types of performance problems. In golf, tennis, and basketball, as well as softball and baseball, they’re called “the yips,” meaning the player develops a “hiccup” in their movement. In shooting sports they’re called “target panic” and in gymnastics, cheerleading, and diving they’re called “balking.” They are also referred to as “mental blocks,” and can also manifest as a general slump in performance.
In the past, the yips have been extremely difficult to overcome, sometimes even career-ending, as it was for Blass, because no one understood the root cause. Dr. David Grand, however, has unlocked the mystery and provided us with a method to combat the yips at the same time. Before we get to how he made his discovery, let’s look a little more at the yips.
What an Athlete with The Yips Experiences.
Typically, the yips seem to come out of nowhere – the onset makes no sense to athlete, coach, or parent, although at times there is a specific event that triggers it. It may be sudden or come on gradually. They are dogged, defying the best efforts of athlete, coaches, and parents to fix them, and the athlete may get labeled “mentally weak,” “a head case,” “not motivated,” or “a choker.”
Someone with the yips may perform inconsistently. Waldrop explains:
Looking from the outside, you might not have realized anything was wrong. My stats were still good, and I pitched often. Watching certain games, you may have even seen a strong performance in the circle because there were still a few great games thrown in the mix. That was the hardest part, there were games of success, of feeling completely myself, and there were games where I had no idea where the ball would land once it left my hand.
For the athlete facing the yips, it becomes a vicious cycle which Dr. Grand calls “The Slump Cycle.” It starts with the performance issue, which confuses and embarrasses the athlete, who attempts to fix it by trying harder, but he or she is met with more failure. This causes the athlete to redouble their efforts and they start to over-think and worry about the issue, which creates increased anxiety, tension, and disrupts the athlete’s concentration.
The performance problem continues or gets even worse. The athlete, coach, and parent are more confused and frustrated than ever. Athletes often react by altering their mechanics in a misplaced attempt to fix the problem, which can create new problems. The repeated failure despite everything begins to eat away at the athlete’s confidence. Not understanding what’s wrong, athletes, coaches, and parents may feel helpless and overwhelmed.