What causes the yips?
First, it's important to understand that the yips has absolutely nothing to do with mental weakness. Do not allow that label to be placed on you by anyone, including yourself.
I know this, because I graduated Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL Training and still had the yips. BUD/S is a 6 month long course. It is often referred to as the most mentally and physically difficult military training in the world.
I became a sniper, and a Team Leader and received recognition for actions in combat, yet I still could not throw a baseball without involuntary tension.
I proved that I was extremely mentally tough, at least at that point in my life, but I still had the yips. If I was mentally tough and had the yips at the same time, then the yips cannot be due to a lack of mental toughness.
The yips is caused by past experiences. Players struggling with involuntary tension usually have experienced challenging and/or traumatic events in their personal and professional lives. It's similar to post traumatic stress.
However, I must be careful with this comparison because PTS is often mistaken for a psychological response when in fact, the latest studies show it to be a physiological effect.
If you perform in life and death situations enough, your brain is going to begin to adapt. You can't stop it from occurring, no matter how tough you are.
As we move up the levels of our game from high school to college and pro, the environmental conditions also increase in their intensity of consequence from financial gain or loss, social status and opportunity for reward or embarrassment. This is further enhanced with social media.
It's also harder to maintain our career at the top levels creating an underlying, subconscious fear of losing what we love. Not a rational fear...I did not feel afraid when I was pitching.
However, I loved the game of baseball more than I loved most people. Deep down, I was terrified of losing it. I loved playing it, studying it, and it was my identity. Growing up I was shy and battled feelings of inadequacy, but the baseball field was where I gained respect.
When we first play a sport, especially when we're a kid, every success no matter how small is celebrated. Success is rewarded and celebrated.
Catching, throwing, and anything positive is rewarded as we learn, find joy and please the person teaching us. The only real consequence is our own satisfaction or dissatisfaction.
As we get older, success transitions into something to be expected, especially the small things like pitch and catch or sinking close putts and making accurate chip shots. In addition, the consequences of success and failure increase in their affect.
There is more to gain or lose in the PGA Tournament or World Series than the high school state finals which has more to lose than a regular season game which has more to lose than a pick up game or playing in the yard with your dad as a kid.
Most players experiencing the yips are self aware, of high character and really, really love the game. As authentic, genuine people, they don’t want to disappoint others, especially those who have supported their efforts such as coaches, sponsors, parents, spouses, etc.
The combination of not wanting to lose what you love doing, an identity mostly dependent on it, high expectations, not wanting to disappoint peers in terms of people or entities, mixed with traumatic or challenging events on and off of the field creates a pot of soup with all of the ingredients for the yips.
Challenging events - I rolled my ankle and had an eye surgery just before the season. I also had a frictional relationship with my coach to put it lightly. I respected him and wanted his affirmation, but I lost his respect (prior to yips) and didn't understand why.
My personal story and what I experienced on and off of the field during this time in my life is much darker than what I will write here, but I do share it in more depth and context with clients when we train one on one for the purpose of gaining effective results.
At the time I didn't think anything of it. I was a tough kid and never saw myself as a victim. I just showed up everyday ready to play ball to the best of my ability. I loved being a ball player.
When our identity or self worth is dependent on what we do and things start to go wrong, our subconscious fear is exponentiated because we don't know who we are or how to live without it. You also love the game and want to "save it" just like you would want to save a person who you love.
Our central nervous system lights off irrationally because it perceives a great sense of danger as it associates potential failure with the loss of everything you love, and everything you believe you are. You're literally losing a part of yourself.
This puts us in a defensive posture of trying to not mess up instead of an aggressive posture of attacking with freedom to fail. “I have to succeed to stop something bad from happening." is written on our subconscious.
The increased environmental pressures are similar to combat stress. In a combat zone you're not feeling fear, but you're in an elevated state because you're in an environment with a constant threat.
Year round play and specialization with less multi-sport athletes and multi-position athletes within the sport, at younger and younger ages, lessens the player's ability to get a break and let the mind "take a wrap off." Tremendous value is placed on being successful in a single sport and a single position or task within the game.
You’re not “stressed out” or “can’t handle it.” In fact, showing up each day and battling the yips is mental toughness on display.
Rather, the subconscious part of our mind simply creates a defense mechanism due to a perceived danger. It signals the body to tense up and causes stiffness and sometimes a muscle contraction. This is why relaxation and visualization is ineffective as a sole solution.
The player often doesn’t feel nervous or anxious prior to first experiencing the yips. Rather the anxiety is a byproduct of feeling the tension and having made a grossly inaccurate throw. The player doesn't know why it happened, worries about it happening again and has no solution for it if it does.
Then it compounds. The player tries to hide it. Players know it's viewed as taboo and don't want to mention it to coaches or lose stock in the draft or their scholarship.
The confusion, frustration, and shameful feelings of letting your team down can lead to extreme distress and despair. Especially if we question our mental fortitude. I know. I've been there.
But there is hope. I taught myself how to throw again and many others. I helped Tyler Matzek throw again and become a World Series Champion with the Atlanta Braves. He came back stronger than before, and you can too.
This is a great article of hope and redemption written by Jordan Ritter Conn of The Ringer: How Tyler Matzek Conquered the Yips To Become a World Series Champion.