Give me a Hand Here! Dealing with the “yips” in Sports

No matter what the outcome of the fictional match described earlier was, 'The Yips' is something that operates just like fiction on real life sports events. Yips are the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition occurs suddenly and without apparent explanation usually in mature athletes with years of experience. The eye-hand co-ordination more often than not goes for a toss. In sports, it’s like the elephant in the room; everyone knows of its existence but no one actively discusses it. It’s also called the Steve Sax syndrome, after the baseball player whose career was left in the lurch after the yips found a way to get to him. This syndrome affects not only baseball players, but basketball, golf and sometimes even cricket players. Sometimes all that differs is the name of the suffering. When the reasons behind the yips are explored, there are no clear answers. As Dr. Richard Crowley, a sports psychologist and the author of Mentalball says, "Even if you knew exactly what caused your yips, what the heck do you do with it? It's just information. It doesn't change it."

Probable causes however need to be explored for finding a way to deal with it and some people are doing just that. What are the yips? What’s going on that a highly skilled athlete can suddenly and inexplicably lose the fundamentals of fielding? The usual explanation is that these players start to “overthink” their automatic, highly-tuned visual and motor skills, and sabotage them in the process. But this has never been proven, nor is it clear just what this means on a basic cognitive level. There are no direct studies to prove this; however, in a research paper ‘When Cognitive Control Is Not Adaptive’, Bruno R. Bocanegra and Bernhard Hommel (2014) stated that exerting mental control in a predictable situation, when automatic response was enough, actually impaired performance. For instance, when trying to spell a simple word, if you over think it, you may just get it wrong! The unneeded mental effort appeared to interfere with what is a perfectly adequate automatic performance. In another multi-disciplinary study on the yips in 2003, Smith et al proposed a definition of the yips as a “continuum,” with choking at one end and a category of neurological disorders called focal dystonias at the other. The defining symptoms of focal dystonias are involuntary movements that affect specific actions made by specific parts of the body.

Dr. Crowley strongly believes that The Yips are caused by a sportsperson’s imagination and the cure lies therein. In his book, Mentalball, he cites example after example of how he has helped players from all positions solve this growing problem. He does this by enlisting a player’s imagination with a process he created almost two decades ago. He has one-to-one telephonic sessions with the players wherein he actively deals with the thoughts and emotions that they have about the whole issue, rather than focussing on their fine-motor abilities. He believes that rather than blaming themselves, the players need acceptance of the situation to move on. He said to many people trying to find the why around the yips, “You’ve been trying to solve an irrational, inexplicable problem with logic found in your left brain’s hemisphere. But the player’s problem can only be solved by tapping into his imagination located in the right hemisphere of his brain because that is where the problem originally infiltrated –– in his imagination.” He is right maybe. In this case, he feels the cure may be important than the cause of the problem. And that cure he feels lies in the right hemisphere of the brain, in the thoughts and emotion, in the imagination and unconscious of the player.

While the cause and cure to this syndrome are being debated and the people working on them agree to disagree, we all can surely say that the Yips are something that we actively need to look out for. Be it in real life instances of crucial matches where a team with excellent players chokes (like Sri Lanka in all world cup knockouts) or in fiction, like Harry Potter where Ronald Weasley turns from being a pathetic keeper for the Gryffindor Quidditch Team to a fabulous one the moment Harry plays with his imagination, making him think he has swallowed the Felix Felicis or liquid luck.