One of the most prevalent phenomenons in sport psychology that seems to stump many players and coaches in all sports is cracking under the pressure to perform, otherwise known as “the yips”. This term was originally introduced by professional golfer Tommy Armour who had to abandon his career because of an inexplicable decline in short distance putt percentage. In different sports this occurrence has also been referred to as dartitis in darts, target panic in archery, Steve Blass or Chuck Knoblauch disease in baseball, and many others (Chen, 2015). There are two types of yips: focal dystonia (Type I) and automatic hyperarousal (Type II) (Stinear, et al, 2006). Focal dystonia is a movement disorder most likely involving the motor cortex operating inefficiently. This variety of the yips happens when there is an unwanted muscle contraction leading to an involuntary movement and an unfavorable result. Automatic hyperarousal refers to increased blood pressure and ventilation rate causing the player to have overwhelming anxiety, similar to having a panic attack. In the article by Albert Chen, he looks in depth at University of Wisconsin Madison Quarterback Joel Stave, and believes he had hyperarousal leading to his slump at the beginning of the 2014 season. Stave explained his struggle in an interview by saying:
“You start thinking about what everyone else is thinking, and that just wears on you really badly. You think, I’ll show them, and then you start trying too hard, trying to force it too much, and you get even more lost. I kind of crawled up into my own head. And I got into a very weird, weird place.” (Chen, 2015).
The pathophysiology of all kinds of yips remains a poorly understood topic despite how often research has attempted to look at different aspects of its onset and treatment. One important general agreement across the board remains that sport related dystonias are often task-specific and arise when repetitive skills are over-thought (Dhungana and Jankovic, 2013). There have been proven reports of differences between how Type I and Type II function in the body, even though it is uncertain how they come about and are resolved. There is more involuntary muscle activity, greater errors, and less inhibition of the anticipated response task in golfers who have been categorized as athletes with Type I yips. The difference between athletes with more physical impairments from stress (Type I) and those who are affected more mentally (Type II) is how their cognitive functioning is being changed. Along with greater cognitive anxiety, athletes with Type II yips have been shown to have normal operating performance of the anticipated response task in this particular study (Stinear, et al, 2006).
Even though the research done by Stinear et al suggests that Type II overstimulates cognitive functioning of athletes, but does not decrease operating performance of the anticipated response task, in other, field applicable, situations this does not appear to be the case. The Sports Illustrated article by Albert Chen goes into detail about Joel Stave’s specific situation in the 2014 football season and points out that his case appeared to have been of Type II variety. This is a likely claim because Stave did not report any kind of twitches, jitters, or jerks being the cause of his declined performance. Under the pressure of losing his starting job at the beginning of the season, he simply began overthinking the fundamentals that were once second nature to him, making routine 10 yard passes tremendously difficult to complete all of a sudden. Although Stave does not have a clue as to why his ailments came and went, he is back to true form this season, and claims his best tactic was to simply try less to compensate for his overthinking.
One of the most unusual cases of a player cracking under the pressure of high expectations was Pitcher Rick Ankiel of the St. Louis Cardinals. He was rated as one of the top 100 baseball prospects of all time at age 19. At age 20, he was the runner up Rookie of the Year in Major League Baseball. In his series opener playoff game, he walked four players and threw five wild pitches in the third inning as shown in the following video link.
After being pulled from this horrific showing, he had one opportunity to redeem himself, which did not go much better. He realized this apparent issue was more than a few minor physical mistakes after a miserable year struggling as a pitcher in AAA. After counseling for his yips, Ankiel decided it was best to switch positions to Outfield and start from the beginning of the farm system again. I admire Ankiel’s story because he successfully overcame the psychological struggle of falling from the top and made his way all the way back to the highest level in a different position by reinventing himself. Despite psychological and physical setbacks, he was a starter on the Cardinals again by 2008, less than eight years after his decline from being a premier MLB pitcher (Jaffe, 2014).
There have been many cases of athletes ending their careers because of bad cases of the yips. There have also been instances where players have bounced back from bad cases of yips to salvage their career. There has to be more extensive clinical and field research in order to advance the field in this area. In order to optimize sport performance and consistency, effective and proven strategies have to be developed and implemented in the field. I think the most effective way to go about improving this aspect of sport psychology is to look at mental skills training as a means of developing a consistent routine for all athletes.
Chen, A. (2015, September 3). Yippee Ki-yazy: How Wisconsin Quarterback Joel Stave Got Over His Case of the Yips. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from: http://www.campusrush.com/joel-stave-wisconsin-badgers-yips-1328326753.html
Dhungana, S. and Jankovic, J. (2013), Yips and other movement disorders in golfers. Movement Disorders, 28: 576–581. doi: 10.1002/mds.25442
Jaffe, J. (2014, March 5). Rick Ankiel Retires, Closing Out His Fascinating Career. Sports Illustrated. Retrieved from: http://www.si.com/mlb/strike-zone/2014/03/05/rick-ankiel-retires-st-louis-cardinals
Stinear, C.M., Coxon, J.P., Fleming, M.K., Lim, V.K., Prapavessis, H., Byblow, W.D. (2006, November) The Yips in Golf: Multimodal evidence for two subtypes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38(11): 1980-9.