Our Town: There’s a cure for the yips

Hall of Fame golfer Gary Player once said that at least 75% of all golfers have had the putting yips on sometime.")

When Simone Biles, the world’s greatest gymnast, had the yips in vaulting, many athletes could sympathize. The yips are a familiar plague in sports. Tennis players suddenly can’t get a serve over the net. Catchers mysteriously lose their ability to release the ball back to the pitcher. A talented golfer can no longer make an easy chip from 10 yards off the green or in the case of Ernie Els, can no longer make a one-foot putt.

The yips is referred to as a neurological disorder and often referred to as focal dystonia. Current wisdom provides a variety of ineffective and short-lived solutions to this problem, including medication, rest, a change of equipment or a swing change of some kind.

And God forbid anyone label it for what it is. The simple truth is that the yips are a sign of a long buildup of suppressed anxiety that can no longer be held down and finally explodes into view at the worst of all times. It is often expressed during the phase of athletic movement that requires an easy relaxed and casual attitude. A pitcher is just warming up and gets the yips by throwing the ball into the dirt. A catcher suddenly can no longer make an easy throw back to the pitcher which is what happened to Mackey Sasser and ended his career.

Chuck Knoblauch lost his career as a Golden Glove second basement for the Yankees because all of a sudden he could not get the ball to first base. A golfer can no longer take the club back and keeps starting and stopping, as with Kevin Na of the PGA. Many NFL place kickers, NBA foul shooters, figure skaters and gymnasts have experienced the yips. The yips do not discriminate based upon sport, age, race or gender. It is an equal opportunity unemployer.

And as in all anxiety disorders like phobias, obsessive compulsions or panic states, the cure is to be found in the roots of the problem. As in most illnesses such as the common cold, a sore throat or the flu, the yips are multi-determined. You do not get a cold because you were exposed to a germ. You must also be run down, underfed, lacking in sleep for a few days, overly stressed and mildly depressed and viola! Your defenses are so weak that they can no longer hold back the disease.

Athletes who are prone to the yips are those with obsessive compulsive personalities. These are the athletes who are brighter than normal, perfectionistic, exceptionally hard on themselves, overly scrupulous, overworked and detail-oriented. These type of personalities are predisposed to a slow developing process though it seems that the yips arrive quickly. Like skin cancer, which emerges from skin damage done 20 years earlier, the yips have their roots in earlier experiences. Let me walk you through a typical case study.

This is a case of a teenage girl I once treated from California who was a national level softball catcher and was being recruited to many Division I colleges. Her problem was that she kept hesitating as she was about to throw the ball back to the pitcher. Like Mackey Sasser of the Mets, she started to tap her glove five times with the ball as a magical way to get her to release the ball back. Of course, this method had questionable effectiveness in that it delayed the game and produced shame and embarrassment in her.

Through her analysis, her problems were eventually traced back to a serious loss from her past. Her mother passed away from cancer when the athlete was 10 years old and during that process of watching her mother slowly die she developed a compulsive ritual of tapping her fingers eight times on the side of a chair before she got up. This ritual subsided a few months after the funeral, but it was a sign that her defenses had been shattered by the traumatic loss.

And five years later when she was faced with escalating competitive pressure, her defenses broke down once again. But the compulsion now took the form of a hesitation to throw rather than a hesitation to stand up from a chair. And just as before when she developed a magical compulsive ritual in order to stand up, now she developed a magical ritual to tap her glove eight times before she could threw it back to the pitcher.

Although the process of cure is straightforward, almost no sport psychologist seems to want to spend the time to explore these past dynamics. Instead, they all make ill-advised mad rushes to “fix” the problem by teaching some form of deep breathing, self-talk, meditation, hypnosis mumbo-jumbo combined with prayer and a tranquilizer. Good luck with that. When you start giving elite athletes drugs to fix problems, you are most certainly adding to their problems rather than curing them.

The actual cure for the yips is something we have known since the time Freud wrote back in 1896. The yips are a sign of unresolved anxiety that has been repressed and has come home to roost. To cure this anxiety, one must take the time to explore the traumas from their past so that they can finally be resolved. It’s as simple as one, two, three yet in our speed-crazed rush to fix things fast we have lost sight of this.

Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have reminded us that athletes are human beings, too. And as humans they, are exactly like you iiand me in that they too have suffered traumas from the past that has caused self-doubt, fear, hesitation and exaggerated anxiety to set in. These traumas will often tenaciously return to us and remind us that, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein monster, they must be faced and addressed or they will most surely burn down the house. In other words, go find yourself someone who listens more than talks. Someone who hears rather than tells. Someone who will give you the time to talk it all out. In other words, go find yourself a psychoanalyst.

TAGGED: Dr. Tom Ferraro

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Dr Tom Ferraro

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