Fighting the Yips: Can they be Vanquished?

The Yips are what you get in sports when your muscles seem to lose the ability to perform despite possessing mastery in said sport.  The term can be used to describe a simple choke or jitters, but it also describes a more serious condition known mostly to golfers but also to other athletes. The yips are a complete loss of the ability to perform a repeated action for a brief moment (a choke) or maybe longer. In the worst cases the yips can be permanent and last for the remainder of a career.  A batter in baseball, for instance, who goes into a prolonged dry spell and can’t seem to hit anything thrown at him is probably suffering from the yips. If you’ve ever watched How I Met your Mother you know all about The Yips.  Barney seemed to lose entirely whatever mojo he had prior to the affliction that allowed him to pick up women.  He becomes a shadow of himself because it’s like his whole identity changes overnight.  It’s funny, and surprisingly accurate.  The writers of that show, though, didn’t originate the term.  It was probably coined by Tommy Armour (Wikipedia), a golfer, which is not surprising since golfers are some of the worst affected.

The worst case of the yips I ever witnessed was the egg that Greg Norman laid at the 1996 Masters.  It looked like aliens had abducted the man and replaced him with a bag of Greg Norman shaped deli meat.  He looked completely like an amateur golfer for that one fateful round.  If his abductors allowed him to watch the debacle from his orbiting prison, he was surely enraged at their severely deficient replicating technology.  Mr. Norman, an otherwise outstanding golfer, experienced a full blown, hugely public, unexpected cased of the yips.  It was then that I realized that I wasn’t alone in my battle with nerves.  If it can happen to pros it can happen to anybody.  It was also right then that I determined to consciously be aware of these jitters and to try to repress them – easier said than done.

The Cure for the Yips is Finding your Zone

In tennis we sometimes see new professionals go out onto Wimbledon grass for the first time and look pretty bad at first. The announcers, witnessing this, invariably say something like “He’s working out the jitters in this first game.” And it’s always the first game or two.  But after some initial bumps the player finds his (or her) stride, and it seems like a switch turns on in his head and he suddenly starts playing well. What is that switch?  It’s the zone (or partial zone) and the experienced player can find it sooner rather than later.  The Zone is a state in which you stop thinking and allow your muscles to operate entirely on memory and experience.  Thinking to much, as counter intuitive as that sounds, is a recipe for failure.  With balls traveling at over 100mph there is no time to think, only to react.  A 135mph serve gives you only 2/10 of a second before it arrives, violently, at your racquet (if you’re lucky).  You can try to logically work out where that ball might go based on some probability algorithm.  But, while you might pick the right direction in which to jump, there’s no way you’ll get there on time.  The only option is to stop thinking entirely and just start doing.

How to Get there

AP Photo/Michel EulerNovak Djokovich bounces the ball 10-20 times before every serve.  Rafa Nadal spends precious time aligning his water bottles in front of his bench into exactly the same configuration for every match.  He also yanks on his pants before every serve.  Maria Sharapova always takes a few seconds to face the back wall before coming in to start a point.  Why do they do it?  It isn’t superstition if that’s what you think.  No, they do it to help them get into the match.  To concentrate on one neurotic behavior helps them to drown out the crowd and it gives them tunnel vision.  They have to have control, in some way, and neurosis like that is how they do it.  Zen monks focus their minds by sitting in uncomfortable positions because to concentrate on a single point closes the mind to distractions.  It’s the same in sports.

Masters know that an overactive mind is a useless mind when it comes to sports.

To overcome jittery yips you must clear your mind of distraction.  Pick something, anything, to help with that endeavor.  Your body, if properly trained, knows what to do without your brain consciously telling it anything.  Hum your favorite song before a point, think of just your right foot, arrange the contents of your bag the same way every time (like Agassi).  Do something to prevent over thinking.  You’ve felt the zone before.  It’s when everything is going right; your serve is going in and you don’t know why, your forehands all seem to hit the baseline, and you never miss a volley.  Don’t question it, don’t force it, and especially don’t try to maintain it – or you’ll be stuck, instead, with the yips.  The cure for the yips is to find the zone, but you can’t get there without a Zen like approach to the game.  Like I said, easier said than done.  Koan #36 to leave you:

Flower Shower

Subhuti was Buddha’s disciple. He was able to understand the potency of emptiness, the viewpoint that nothing exists except in its relationship of subjectivity and objectivity.

One day Subhuti, in a mood of sublime emptiness, was sitting under a tree. Flowers began to fall about him.
“We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,” the gods whispered to him.

“But I have not spoken of emptiness,” said Subhuti.

“You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,” responded the gods. “This is the true emptiness.” And blossoms showered upon Subhuti as rain.