What are the Yips?
The yips are technically defined as sudden motor skill failure. A perfectly executed pitch is necessary to strike out the opponent at bat; a football kicked in between the goal posts can be the game winning goal; or a single short putt is necessary to win the tournament. Suddenly the athlete's hands or feet cramp up, and the shot or pitch goes wide. There is no clear explanation as to why pro athletes become inflicted by the yips, but studies suggest the yips are due to abnormalities in the electrochemical dialogue that occurs between neurotransmitters in the brain.
From a mental health perspective, overthinking appears to intensify the yips. In other words, concentrating too much may overshadow other important areas in the brain activated during sport, such as balance and timing. From my experience, athletes have a unique responsibility to compartmentalize on and off the field. With this in mind, sometimes the mental real estate being occupied and compartmentalized become overwhelmed. Thoughts, stressors, traumas, and underlying mental health issues such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder begin colluding with the areas of the brain that are focused specifically on sport performance. In my professional opinion, this is where I have found to be the sweet spot where athletes will get in his or her own way of performing a skill.
From my experience working with many athletes who have struggled with the yips, it is my professional opinion that athletes are not all doomed the first time they feel like they are experiencing this level of sport anxiety. I encourage coaches, athletes, and sports personnel alike to talk about the yips and mental health. Working with a mental health professional, or coach for the brain and body can greatly help athletes address the underlying issues causing the yips so he or she can get back in the game.
Signs and symptoms of the Yips:
-Physically responding in sport with jerking movements or freezing on a skill that was previously easy to execute
-Muscles feel tight or sore, interfering with ability to complete a skill
-Anxiety, tension, and feeling overwhelmed about completing a skill or task
-Performance anxiety about what others will think
-Repetitive and intrusive thoughts about the outcome of a skill and/or incompletion
Most frequently, the first line of defense is to search for quick fixes, promising lasting results with high rate of failure and relapse.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a clinical psychotherapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.