According to wikipedia, “the yips” are defined as:
Yips or the yips is the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition occurs suddenly and without apparent explanation usually in mature athletes with years of experience. It is poorly understood and has no known treatment or therapy. Athletes affected by the yips sometimes recover their ability, which may require a change in technique. Many are forced to abandon their sport at the highest level.
Golf is a sport where the yips come in at times. A professional golfer, who has spent decades mastering the sport, suddenly can’t make a putt. Something happens and that golfer gets the yips and the putt goes askew. Here’s an article about the 10 worst cases of the yips in golf.
The interesting thing about the wikipedia definition is that it focuses on the physical aspect of the yips, while ignoring the mental aspect. Which is a mistake. The yips are fundamentally a mental issue — something happens in the ol’ synapses that causes that momentary hesitation, that questioning doubt — that belief that may those finely tuned mechanics that have been worked out over years of practice will fail now, in the most critical moment of an athlete’s career. And so, the athlete … yips.
It happens in baseball as well. A sport I’m more familiar with. One of the most famous cases in recent years was Steve Sax, who grew up in West Sacramento, just across the river from my home of the last 50+ years. Sax was a Rookie of the Year and an All-Star second baseman several years, and won the World Series with the Dodgers in 1981 and 1988.
But something happened in the course of all that stardom. In 1983, he suddenly lost the ability to consistently throw the ball to first base. Which is a huge problem for a second baseman. They even named it the Steve Sax Syndrome. And he struggled with it for years before finally getting back to normal in the late 80’s.
He is not the only baseball player to have experienced this problem.
Jon Lester is a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. He won the World Series with the Red Sox in 2007, won the World Series with the Cubs this year, and is considered one of the best starting pitchers in the game. And he apparently is incapable of throwing the baseball to first base. Incapable of throwing the ball to first base. A distance of approximately 63 or 64 feet. Meanwhile he can throw fastballs and curveballs and who knows what else and paint the lines with those pitches on a postage size strike zone that hovers over the plate just more than 60 feet away.
Yes. The yips are a very real and powerful thing.
Last night I had a dream. It’s one of those dreams that I either had over and over and over again last night, creating the sense that I have been having this dream for awhile. Or I really have had this dream a number of times over the weeks and months and years. It goes like this.
I’m playing softball (something I did for a few years back in my early 20’s). I love baseball. I love playing it. I loved playing the outfield, running after fly balls. I could spend hours shagging fly balls if you let me.
In my dream, I’m in the outfield where I belong, the ball is hit out to me. I catch it and try to throw the ball back into the infield and I fail miserably at it. I can only throw the ball 10-15 feet. Where it lands and bounces a few times before dying in the outfield grass.
The ball is hit to me again and the same thing happens. The hit is a line drive that bounces once or twice before I field it. The ball is in my glove. I transfer it to my throwing arm and wind up to fire the ball back to the infield and something happens. There is a hitch in my giddyup. A yip rises to the surface. And I absolutely cannot complete the throw in anything resembling an athletic manuever. The ball leaves my hand and skids through the grass and stops far away from my intended target.
And it happens over and over and over again.
I got me a bad case of the yips.