Sports “yips” is a slang term tossed around loosely anytime we see an athlete perform in games nowhere near as proficiently as previously witnessed in practices, or even earlier parts of the season. For example, some professional baseball players have experienced such a high level of anxiety that throwing the ball to first base ends up becoming an almost impossible task, even though they clearly have the arm strength and knowledge how to make this kind of throw. Sports anxiety, or the yips, is easily observed but not so easily beaten, even for high-level athletes — and the yips are precisely the reason why some otherwise gifted athletes never realize their full athletic potential.
Why the yips develop
Precisely why an athlete suddenly experiences the yips is not fully understood, but it’s safe to say that confidence directly correlates with performance. What this means is that athletes who experience the yips would likely simultaneously witness a dip in confidence, prompting the athlete to play below his or her ability. But why do otherwise talented athletes lose their confidence? And why do only a small percentage of athletes who lose their confidence actually come to realize a full-blown case of the yips, often experienced so profoundly that they may have to prematurely retire form the sport?? The answers to these questions are also not fully understood.
Generally speaking, my experience has shown me that athletes who are typically more high-strung and anxious to be more at-risk for developing the yips. Additionally, athletes who see themselves as “perfectionists” may be more at-risk, as their tolerance threshold is very low, and even small mistakes spike their anxiety. Over time, these athletes begin competing with a “play not to lose” mentality, rather than playing to win, resulting in forced play and poor resiliency when things don’t go exactly right. As you might imagine, this kind of mindset only compounds matters, leaving otherwise supremely talented athletes sometimes looking like they have never played the game.
Tips to help
So what do you know if you or someone you know is developing the yips? The tips below can help you quickly bounce back to playing your best.
- Use mental toughness skills. Engaging in positive self-talk, imagery, and using deep breathing can often be the answer when it comes to minimizing anxiety and maximizing confidence. Learn as much as you can about these skills, and integrate them into your daily routines.
- Take the yips serious. If you feel like your game is slipping and you’re constantly worried about messing up, it’s important to acknowledge your developing feelings and not blow them off. In fact, you might want to consider talking to a professional sport psychologist if one is available in your area.
- Overthink, just play! The yips can become really bad if you think too much and try to become too mechanical with your approach. If you are an athlete who has played a sport over time, the muscle-memory movements are already embedded in your thinking and behaviors, you just need to relax enough to allow them to come out naturally.
- Look for a pill to help. Unfortunately, there isn’t a medication out there that cures the yips, and in some cases psychological drugs only worsen conditions.
- Buy in to the idea there is no help. Remember, just as quickly as you developed the yips you can get rid of the yips. If you have played at a high level before, you can do it again, but it will demand that you learn the skills necessary to relax your mind and body and give you the confidence needed to succeed again.
Having worked with many athletes who have struggled with the yips, it is my professional opinion that athletes are not at all doomed the first time they feel like they are experiencing this level of sport anxiety. I say this as I think that many athletes develop their own self-fulfilling prophecies by falsely believing the first time they fail terribly because of nerves, they will never be a great player again. Ironically, it is this exact thinking that often exacerbates and/or lengthens the amount of time an athlete does experience the yips, making it that much more important to be confident that this condition really can be beat.