What is the yips?
The "yips" is a slang term for involuntary stiffness and muscle contraction during the execution of an action. It is most commonly seen in throwing a baseball and putting in golf, but it occurs in other sports as well.
The yips is best understood through the example of shooting a gun. When a new shooter practices, they start by "dry firing" their gun. This means they press the trigger without bullets in the gun.
When the gun is loaded, they tell themselves to do everything the same way and to not flinch. However, the subconscious understands an explosion will take place in their hands and associates it with a threat.
Our instinctual response when our central nervous system perceives a threat is to tense up and protect ourselves. Stiffness and a slight contraction occurs moving the sights off of the target causing an inaccurate impact. Shooters call this "throwing the round"
If someone throws a punch at you or surprises and scares you, your natural response is to flinch by contracting your muscles and tense to protect yourself.
An athlete experiences the same thing. As they release the ball or bring the golf club forward, the subconscious mind perceives danger and causes involuntary muscle tension during the release of the ball from the hand or strike of the ball with the club.
It is an automated, physiological response the player cannot help once it starts occurring. The tension causes a mechanical interruption, but it's not as simple as telling the player to stop doing this and start doing that, because they have to override the tension in order to do so.
Generally, the muscles in our fingers and hand tense and cause us to be inaccurate. As the tension builds, we feel it in our forearms and a tingling sensation through our body. I felt it in my ankles sometimes.
Players experiencing the yips are engaging two muscle groups that are designed to work independently of each other, at the same time.
One muscle group is responsible for extending the wrist. Another group of muscles is responsible for flexing the wrist, hand and forearm.
When we yip, we are engaging both sets of muscles at once. Flex your forearm and wrist and try to throw or putt. That's what it feels like.
The ball squirts out the side of our hand and goes way high and arm side. Then we try to fight through it, but because we can't get dexterity in our hand and fingers, our hand wraps around the side of the ball, and we spike it low and away, sometimes into our feet. I almost hit the on deck batter once.
If the yips were due only to a psychological response then I would simply ask players to think differently, but that's not the case. If it were only a mechanical issue then I'd simply ask players to do (throw or putt) differently.
The yips is not a mindset issue in terms of “how we choose to think.” It is a central nervous system issue in how our subconscious mind “perceives.”
In certain circumstances, the subconscious perceives the environment to be a threat rather than the playground it once was. Think of it like an adrenaline hit. You don't tell yourself to release adrenaline or not, it just happens.
The central nervous system believes there is danger and involuntarily releases adrenaline, except in this case it is causing tension and a loss of dexterity. This is why you will see players be able to throw fine in some scenarios but not in others.