What are “the Yips” and does Cowboys kicker Brett Maher have them?

Cowboys kicker Brett Maher got the entire sports world talking about the Yips on Monday night.
Image: Getty Images

Monday night, Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher, man who made it more 60-yard field goals than anyone in NFL historyHe went one in five for extra points. With Tampa Bay basically letting Dallas hand them their ass (despite the ESPN crew’s insistence that “Tom Brady can never be ruled out!”), the topic of conversation online quickly shifted from a conversation about the game itself to a conversation about “the Jipp.” Soon names like Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel were in vogue.

What are “the Yips”?

The Yips are well known to baseball fans but are more likely to be found in golf. At the very least, there are more studies and more science applied to golfers with yips than baseball players.

The term “the yips” was coined by golfer Tommy Armor in the mid-20th century when he was struggling to put a name to what was happening to his game. In baseball, the Yips have long been commonly known as “Steve Blass’ disease,” after the Pirates pitcher who notoriously struggled with wild pitches in the early 1970s. But then along came Rick Ankiel, a pitcher who suddenly couldn’t get the ball over the plate and turned into an outfielder, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch – second basemen who developed an inexplicable inability to pitch the ball to first base , and Jon Lester , the former Cubs ace, who suddenly couldn’t throw the ball to first base — at least not in a traditional way.

The baseball yips have also made their way into popular culture. Chad Harbach’s popular 2011 novel The Art of Fielding tells the story of a generational shortstop talent whose career is derailed by the Yips. The book was okay, but not nearly as good as the episode of Pysch where Sean gets the howl on the softball field (insert obligatory pineapple).

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What are “the Yips” and does Cowboys kicker Brett Maher have them?

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Can NFL Kickers Get the Yips?

Of course, it’s not just baseball players who suffer from the yips, any athlete who needs to use fine motor skills (well, everyone) is easy prey. Golfers such as Padraig Harrington, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Tommy Miller have all suffered from Yips. NBA’s Nick Anderson lost his ability to hit free throws. Kickers Nick Folk and Roberto Aguayo suddenly couldn’t get the ball through the post to save their lives. Snooker and darts players, cricket bowlers, archers, tennis players – they are just a few of the top athletes who have taken on the Yips.

In the past, “the yips” has always been equated with choking or buckling under pressure, but now scientific evidence casts doubt on the notion that the problem is purely mental. At least not by the time the yips has manifested itself as a major problem for an athlete.

How do the yips start? Well nobody really knows. And there are different theories. Some athletes, like Steve Sax, can attribute the start of the yips to a single mistake. On opening day in 1983, Andre Dawson was on the base paths and Sax attempted to throw him onto the plate, but he made a faulty throw and the squadron bounced off catcher Mike Soscia’s shin pad. Sax says he kept thinking about the mistake for days. And before he knew it, he had nowhere exactly to throw at the diamond.

Of course, it’s possible that the Yips really IS in a player’s head. But scientific research over the last decade has shown that there is more to it than that. In fact, if you google “the yips,” one of the first things that pops up is the Mayo Clinic website with a formal definition. Here’s what it says:

“The yips are involuntary wrist spasms that most commonly occur when golfers attempt to putt. However, the yips can also affect people who play other sports – such as cricket, darts and baseball.

“It used to be thought that Yips were always associated with stage fright. However, it appears that some people suffer from Yip because of a neurological condition that affects certain muscles (focal dystonia).”

But the Yips aren’t always wrist jerks. It can also manifest itself as twitches, twitches, tremors, and tremors. Basically, it’s a loss of fine motor skills for reasons that aren’t well understood. Even more inexplicably, the yips most often happen to experienced players with years of experience. One day in 1990, Mets catcher Mackey Sasser found he could no longer throw the ball back to the pitcher without tapping his glove at least four times. At this point, Sasser was in his 4th year in the majors. Yankee Chuck Knoblauch had been in the league for 8 years when the howl caused him to miss first base so badly that he hit broadcaster Keith Olbermann’s mother in the stands.

One of the things that makes the Yips so difficult to overcome is that they are task specific or typically limited to a problem with a specific ability. NBA players who cannot hit free throws can still hit jumpers from the boundary. Golfers who can no longer putt still hit well. Pitchers who can’t pitch to first base are still able to slam hitters onto the plate regularly. As Stephanie Apstein wrote in her excellent article on the Yips in Sports Illustrated, former MLB pitcher Jon Lester “painted (C)an black with the sharpest cutter in the game, heading for the left-hander’s batter’s box before making a sharp right turn.” power. He can roll a curveball past a club, mix and match his offerings with precision, and make them all look the same as they come out of his hand. Lester is one of the best pitchers of his generation. So why can’t it turn 90 degrees to the left and do the same thing it did towards the plate?”

It’s hard to say whether the yips are more physical or mental in nature, although it’s clear that both the brain and muscles are involved. Scientists have found that while stress can make yip worse, fear alone is not at the root of the problem. Sports psychologist Debbie Crews told the New Yorker. The crews explained that the yips are often present in a golfer’s swing, whether they are fearful or not, and even when the golfer is unaware of it. “In one of the studies we did,” Crews said, “we had people attempting seventy-five putts — three feet, six feet and eight feet — and some of them would do that and then walk away and be like, ‘Me “Sorry I didn’t yip for you today.” And we had just watched her hand rotate with every putt and we could see it on the EMG. They had no idea because they don’t feel it until it gets big. But it was still there.”

Perhaps the only thing that seems clear when it comes to the yip is that it somehow originates in the brain and then physically affects an athlete’s muscles.

So how do exercise psychologists begin treating such a poorly understood condition?

Just like the Yips themselves, there are countless ideas – from medication to visualization. And scientists have also discovered that rethinking an aspect of the motor skills a player is struggling with, e.g. B. kicking a soccer ball at the right angle or judging distance to shoot a basketball, can affect other aspects of the ability such as balance and grip. So, relaxation, realignment, and relearning mechanisms can all be part of alleviating the problem.

Some players, like Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch, were able to switch positions to ease the outcry. Some players can work through their problems in private – an attempt to improve their mechanics away from prying eyes. But sometimes the Yips can force a player out of the game.

Which brings us to pitcher Jon Lester, whose struggle with pitching to first base has been well known since at least 2015 when he signed a massive 6-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. At first, Lester’s inability to throw to first base was a problem as teams rushed at him early and often. But over the years, Lester learned to adapt through a variety of tactics. Sometimes he’d run for the pocket and play the ball from close range to first baseman Anthony Rizzo. He also resorted to tossing his entire glove with the ball in it to his first baseman more than once. Towards the end of his time with the Cubs, Lester focused on bouncing or jumping the ball for the first time — more of a basketball pass than a baseball game. But it worked.

Of course, Lester didn’t have to shoot first every game, and because of that, he was able to find ways to compensate for that small part of his game. When a pitcher can’t locate his pitches over the plate, or a shortstop can’t throw right at first, that’s a much bigger problem.

There is currently no diagnostic test for Yips, but with so many researchers looking into the phenomenon scientifically, it might only be a matter of time before we have an integrated medical and psychological treatment for Yips that all works. And not just athletes. Writers, musicians, artists – basically anyone who works with fine motor skills – is also known to suffer from Yips.

But for now, the words “the yips” strike terror into the hearts of pro athletes, and every pro hopes the worst that can happen to a player doesn’t happen to them.