Maybe you are like me? Whenever I look for information about a mental game of sport’s situation, most articles leave me shaking my head with psychological problems myself. They are way over my head, with words and ideas even NASA scientists may not even understand, or maybe it’s just me? What I know is baseball, athletes, and how the mind works when on the field. Anyway, if you want to understand a mental dilemma like the yips, and how to beat them, read on.
Try to imagine having done something a million times or so, and then suddenly, you cannot pull the trigger to do it anymore, or when you do, the results are as a child just beginning to play the game. Maybe the million is a little of an exaggeration, but it feels like that amount to a professional athlete.
I’ve witnessed the yips at the highest level of the game. It isn’t pretty to see, to say the least, unless you are the opposition and gain an edge from your nervous opponent. Even then, it is difficult to watch the best players in the world being unable to do something that usually is routine.
What are the Yips?
“The yips” is an extremely nervous condition that causes a routine action to become challenging to perform. In other words, a mental block prevents one from doing something one has done routinely and repetitively without any problem for their whole career, before now. Or, players overthinking something so much that it leads to a negative result. Or, an extreme fear of failure or loss of confidence before engaging a simple action. Or, the pressure of the moment causes their body to tense up to the point of inability to move freely. But the best definition is, an evil ghost has put a curse on them. Yes, that last definition is how it must feel because its coming is so mysterious and daunting.
Big League Yipsters
A once teammate of mine could not throw the ball to the pitcher without starting and stopping many times and then finally tossing it without any confidence of where the ball would go. That would not be that big of a deal if he weren’t the catcher. Because of that, after every pitch, he would walk the ball halfway to the mound when a runner was on base, so they didn’t take off for the next base. When no one was on base, he would lob the ball back in a high arc to the mound. Kind of funny to watch. But the amazing thing was that if a runner tried to steal a base, he could fire the ball on target and nab the runner. It was throwing the ball back to the pitcher when he had time to think about the process, which proved problematic.
Then, there was another former teammate who also got the throwing yips in baseball at the highest level for the whole world to see. He was so hexed that he could not throw the ball from the second base position to the first baseman without putting the fans in the stands behind first base in danger of being hit by his throws. Ah, scary indeed. The wiser fans began bringing their gloves to games to make the plays. That is virtual reality at it’s best because the fans behind first base felt like they were in the game. The ironic thing was that he could make the throw during practice with no issues, time after time, and even with his eyes closed. However, with the pressure of the game, everything changed.
Of course, it usually takes the big stage to recognize the yips in baseball, or any sport, because when the average Joe may get them, no one knows besides a few friends, and they probably are not in a million attempts category. People blow it off as “choking” at the moment. Often, the yips are associated with golf, and especially with putting. I must admit I have been in the situation of blowing a few very close putts from seeing evil demons lurking in my head beforehand, but seeing how I practice little and don’t care that much, it’s not really a yips situation, at least that is my story that I stick to after I may blow a foot and a half “gimme.”
Ok, much of the above is somewhat tongue in cheek, when the yips are no laughing matter, at least not to the perpetrator or his team. However, even those it happens to must admit it can be humorous to watch when one is paid millions to perform a skill, and they cannot do something even amateurs can do.
Causes of the yips?
SO, what causes one to get the dreaded spell? Who knows? OK, not much of an answer, but even the experts have trouble identifying the exact cause of them, and predicting who might eventually attain the dreaded voodoo is even more unpredictable. I know they tried everything with the second baseman to try and rid him of the yips, from physical adjustments to mental training. If someone out there knows the cause and who it might be a candidate to get them, they could become rich, I suppose.
There is good news, though, and it gets back to something I tell my hitting students – “You don’t need to know what you are doing wrong, you only need to know how to fix it.” For example, when they are hitting nothing but ground balls, which means striking the top of the ball, they must practice hitting the bottom portion of the ball. In time, the muscle memory change and mental approach can change their actions enough to fix their problems.
The same goes with the yips, one may need a psychologist to figure out the root cause, but moving into the fix-it stage without knowing why it came on is possible, even if not knowing the origin of the disorder.
So, now that you know I am not an expert or a scientist, the one bit of expertise I can add is that I work with youth athletes. Of course, with youngsters, it may not qualify as the official yips, but many have the same have similar confidence and mechanical issues. I have coached numerous players who can rip the cover off the ball in practice only to get in games and never swing the bat. And pitchers who can paint the corners of the plate while warming up before the game and then proceed to get in games and fail to throw a ball near the strike zone. Perplexing, to say the least, but I have turned some of those players around. Patience and time are necessary, but having enough of both can be tough. It’s always a race against time.
How to overcome the yips in baseball
- 1Do not show frustration with the athlete because that will only make things worse and by all means, never, repeat never, tell them “It is in their head,” or “It’s all mental.” The minute players begin to believe its mental, they will be on the road to giving up the game. The less made of their condition, the better, even if everyone knows it’s mental.
- 2Do not let other players show frustration or make an issue with the apparent problem. Stifle any mention of that as soon as possible.
- 3Often there is a mechanical issue that is incorrect, even though they can overcome it in practice when there is less pressure. Try to convince the player that the problem is physical because that gives them something concrete to practice. Any fundamental change, whether you know what the glitch is or not, can help.
- 4Simulate game type conditions as much as possible in practice.
- 5Along the same line, have the player use different equipment, a friend’s bat or glove, for example, can give them a different perspective.
- 6Give the stricken player verbal cues to clear the mind of past actions. “Ok, today is a new day, the past is past, I cannot change it, it’s time to move on.” The player must get rid of any negative mindset, but of course, it is never easy once the yips have set in.
- 7Along the same line, teach them positive self-talk to repeat before every play, at-bat, or pitch. “I got this,” and “I can do this,” are confidence building examples.
- 8Teach smaller focus skills. Instead of saying, “Watch the ball,” ask them to see the seam on the ball, or instead of looking at the first baseman before throwing, have them try to zero in on the target’s eyes.
- 9No different than with any athlete, helping them have a consistent and regular breathing pattern before game action can help.
- 10Teach players to attend only to the process of doing, not of thinking how they do it or the possible outcome.
- 11Ask them to picture times they have performed well. Visualization should be a part of every athlete’s pregame and pre-play routine. Visualization exercises at home are necessary, too. When one can see themselves do it over and over in their mind, they may convince themselves they can do it in games.
It may only take a few successful moves that help them on the road to mental recovery, but just as not making a significant point of the problem, act without great emotion when they do it right again. Proceed as if it was not a surprise or a thing in the first place, which is another thing that is easier said than done.
Finally, I often use a phrase from MLB manager Joe Maddon to help athletes who put a lot of pressure on themselves, “Never let the pressure exceed the pleasure,” which is another way of saying to an athlete, “You are taking things too seriously, relax, enjoy, it’s only a game.”
Jack Perconte has dedicated his post-major league baseball career to helping youth and their parents through the complicated world of youth sports. Combining his playing, coaching and parenting experiences he continues to help create better sporting experiences for both athletes and their parents. He has dealt with coaches as a parent and parents as a coach while raising three kids and details much of these in his books. Jack gives coaches the coaching philosophy and coaching strategies that keep the fun in the games and the stress out of it. You can follow or reach Jack Perconte at https://baseballcoaching.tips/
Jack has a baseball hitting course for coaches and parents of kids of all ages at https://lead-the-league-how-to-teach-baseball-hitting.teachable.com/p/lead-the-league/?preview=logged_out
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