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Among all the unusual terms in sports, the yips might be the quirkiest. After all, what exactly is a yip in baseball? Do known players in other sports get the yips also?
The yips in baseball refers to when an experienced player suddenly loses the ability to perform a skill (or skills), usually without explanation. For many years the yips were mysterious, but in recent years the medical establishment has made progress identifying causes.
In reality, there is little humor in the yips, which, since the naming of the phenomenon, has been deemed a medical condition requiring medical attention.
Use of the Word ‘Yips’ in Sports
It’s almost always plural, since few athletes suffer from a single yip. In fact, a problem cannot even be deemed the yips until an action is repeated several times ~ like an infielder repeatedly making throwing errors to 1st base (more on that below).
A solitary yip is just a blip in a player’s performance, which does not repeat.
In the non-sports world, a yip can be defined as a short and sharp cry out, like a yelp, caused by excitement or great amusement. The word may have come from the sound a dog makes (“Yip!”) when you step on its tail.
That’s not what it means in sports. The yips first surfaced in golf, where pro linksman Tommy Armour made it popular. It was a word he used in attempts to explain why, after being a top-tier, championship golfer, he could no longer make shots.
Armour, who was so big in his day that high-quality golf equipment bears his name to this day, did not make the yips common until after his career ended, trying to explain what happened.
The Yips in Medical Terms
In medical terms, a yip is called focal dystonia. Of the types of dystonia, focal means a condition that affects 1 part of the body. (If it involves 2 or more adjacent body parts it is segmental dystonia; affecting all parts of the body, general dystonia).
Dystonia is a movement disorder. It causes muscles to contract involuntarily, which can result in repetitive or twisting movements ~ some of which can negatively impact sports actions like throwing or putting.
Of all the sports, the word yips probably surfaces most in golf, whether to describe a medical diagnosis, or just to explain missed shots. In golf, it’s the involuntary movement of the hands, wrists, or forearms that prove to be disruptive.
It is most common in putting, though there are some cases involving swings. In terms of putting, it makes senses since according to the Mayo Clinic the malady can “worsen with stress, fatigue or anxiety.” Putting before millions of eyes, with millions of dollars at stake, certainly can cause stress and anxiety.
In recent years, medical experts have determined that dystonia can impact people in different ways. The muscle spasms might begin in a single area, like an arm, and eventually they occur while making a specific action ~ like throwing a baseball (See below).
What is interesting is the condition affects athletes well into their careers, or, rarely at early ages. Additionally, dystonia usually becomes more prominent as time passes.
In professional golf, the yips have surfaced in some of the best golfers in history including Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, and Sergia Garcia. Some like Garcia somehow recovered; others, like Hogan and David Duval, were forced from the game by their dystonia woes.
Examples of Yips in Baseball
The yips might have impacted players since pro baseball began the mid-1800s, but it was the advent of television, and mass media, that brought cases to the forefront.
In baseball, many fans call it the Knoblauch syndrome, after the star 2nd baseman suddenly could not make accurate throws a short distance to 1st base, once joining the New York Yankees.
In reality, the biggest case of the yips to be spotlighted by the sports media was that of another above-average 2nd baseman: Steve Sax of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Officially its is most commonly called the Steve Sax Syndrome.
Sax won the National League’s Rookie of the Year award in 1982, and eventually was named to 5 All Star games. However, in 1983, without warning he could not make routine throws over to 1st base. He made 30 errors that season.
Eventually, Sax learned to cope with it, and even master it apparently. In 1989 he led the American League in double plays and fielding percentage.
Sax really wasn’t the first Major League Baseball player to suffer from focal dystonia. There were probably other cases before the 1970s, but the case of star pitcher Steve Blass of the Pittsburgh Pirates was the first well-documented.
That it rather quickly knocked Blass ~ a 1971 World Series hero ~ from the game is quite sad. For Blass it was deemed some kind of failure of his basic pitching mechanics, which ended his ability to throw baseballs with accuracy. No one at the time considered it a medical issue.
The case of Blass just happened to be the first well-publicized case of the yips with a pitcher. It wouldn’t be the last.
The Yips with Major League Baseball Players
Major League Baseball players who had the yips. After Blass, Sax, and Knoblauch, the list gets rather long, including:
- For pitchers, sometimes it’s not trouble finding home plate ~ but in throwing to the bases. In the case of Jon Lester, first with the Boston Red Sox and later with the Chicago Cubs, it was pickoff throws to 1st base. It was so bad that he started hesitating to throw there at all, at the expense of allowing many more stolen bases by baserunners. To address it, Cubs’ catchers had Lester constantly change the time between releasing pitches, working as its own deterrent to steals. (It should be noted that Lester is the only pitcher in MLB history to end a World Series by picking off a runner ~ from 1st base, in 2013).
- Prior to 2013, Lester was a teammate to relief pitcher Daniel Bard, who was a dominant setup man ~ until 2012. Suddenly he could not throw strikes, to the point where he retired. It took years away from the game to fix his problem. He returned to the majors during the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, and since has developed into the best reliever for the Colorado Rockies.
- The most-recent publicized yips came from All-Star 2nd baseman Jose Altuve, of the Houston Astros, in the 2020 American League Championship Series when he suddenly had trouble throwing. Before then, Altuve had not made a throwing error that entire season.
- Speaking of playoff troubles, that’s where the end came for blossoming star pitcher Rick Ankiel with the St. Louis Cardinals. Asked to open the National League Division Series versus the Atlanta Braves, the pitcher who was dominant all season suddenly not only couldn’t throw strikes, but was throwing pitches all the way to the backstop on national television. After several seasons failing to regain his pitching prowess, in 2004 he switched to playing outfield, and by 2007 he was back in the majors, hitting home runs and throwing out baserunners in what ended up a fairly productive career.
- The careers of catchers Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mackey Sasser were considerably hindered by their struggles just throwing the ball back to the pitcher after tosses. Sasser in fact was moved to other positions including the outfield in team attempts to keep his bat in the lineup. Sasser was able to play 100 games in 1990, but never more after that and he soon retired.
- Most baseball fans know Dale Murphy as the hard-hitting center fielder for the Atlanta Braves in the 1980s who won 2 Most Valuable Player awards. However, he started as a catcher, where he had 31 passed balls in just his first 85 big league games. Most alarming were his horrific throws to second base, which might bounce off the pitchers mound, or sail way into the outfield. The Braves eventually moved him away from behind the plate, and he flourished.
- Other famous cases for pitchers include Braves closer Mark Wohlers who, like others, suddenly failed to throw strikes; and Cubs pitcher Matt Garza, who couldn’t throw to 1st base while fielding bunts;
Getting Over the Yips in Sports
Many athletes overcome cases of the yips, while others (obviously, noting Hogan and Blass) never do. How might they “cope” with it?
Golfers have found that making minor changes, like changing the trip on the club or putter, can help much.
Modern treatments have involved clinical sport psychology therapy, meaning programs to “retrain the brain” in performing specific tasks.
Another treatment is to carefully study biomechanics, to figure out precisely why a pitcher is missing the strike zone, or a golfer can’t putt. Once that has been determined, physical trainers can help athletes to avoid making whatever mistake caused it, or to change the motion entirely.
Sometimes a combination of psychology and biomechanics might be applied, where medically it can be determined what thought process causes the problem; then a different trainer provides tools or tactics for an athlete to use to get around it.
In summary, the yips are the result of a brain condition, which causes involuntary contractions of certain muscles, which negatively impact an athlete’s ability to perform to success.
It is important to note that medical experts now separate the yips from what is known as choking. Choking is just performing poorly due to stress or anxiety ~ like during big games, or big moments in games.
The yips are a medical condition with the player, existing in both stressful and non-stressful situations.