Anxiety and neurological factors come into play for athletes who suddenly lose their ability to perform in a way they excelled at for years.
Whenever Chicago Cubs pitcher Jon Lester is taunted by a runner with a big lead off first base, baseball fans everywhere are thinking “Just throw it to first!”
But Lester can’t. His mind and body won’t let him.
And the World Series champion isn’t the only athlete to come down with a major case of what some call the “yips,” “whiskey fingers,” “the waggles,” “the staggers,” “the jerks,” or “the monster.”
Former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Rick Ankiel suffered from the phenomenon in 2000 when he suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes during a playoff game against the Atlanta Braves.
“My normal catcher was injured and so we had a catcher come in from a different team. I threw a pitch that cut, meaning it moved four inches to the right, which happens when I throw a fast ball inside, so it really wasn’t a wild pitch, but the catcher missed it. He didn’t know what to expect,” Ankiel told Healthline. “Because it was the first game of the playoffs, I think I subconsciously thought ‘Wow. I just threw a wild pitch on national TV,’ but I didn’t make much of it. Then a few pitches later everything just started to unravel.”
That game was the beginning of the end of Ankiel’s pitching career.
In his book, “The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life,” he writes about the anxiety condition, his work with a sports psychologist, and how he fought his way back to the Major Leagues for seven seasons as an outfielder.
“When I was going through this, I couldn’t find much on it, and it seemed like no one wanted to talk about it because it is so personal and frightening. Even guys who have been in baseball for 30 years don’t really understand what it’s about unless they’ve had it,” said Ankiel.
He wrote his book to help people understand the yips and to help others who may be going through something similar. Ankiel said he receives letters from people in all kinds of professions who say they experience the condition.
“I made it to the other side and so I’m not afraid to talk about it. Here I was, 20 years old, with a dream to become the best pitcher who ever walked and all the sudden this happens. It’s not like I chose it or did something to myself to make it happen. It just happened,” Ankiel said. “I want others to know they can still go for their dreams despite challenges they face, and that help is out there. Especially men. There’s a stigma that you’re not manly if you get help. I want to change that.”
The yips occurs in athletes across many sports at all levels.
Sports psychologist Nick Molinaro, EdD, PC, is known for his work with golfers who get the yips, but he has also worked with athletes who play baseball, lacrosse, and football, as well as gymnasts and dancers.
So why does this happen?
Molinaro said research shows that about 70 percent of the time the cause is psychological, and 30 percent of the time it’s neurological.
To understand the psychological impact, he said, think of your favorite fruit in your mouth. Soon you’ll begin salivating.
Based on this, Molinaro said scientists have learned that the amount of saliva you produce when you imagine the fruit in your mouth is the same amount of salvia you produce when you actually eat the fruit.
“So there is a relationship between you thinking something and your body responding [to those thoughts],” Molinaro told Healthline.
How does this relate to an athlete?
Consider this. If a pitcher throws a bad pitch and the next time he goes to pitch he begins to have thoughts about screwing up again, the thoughts themselves can produce a response in the body, causing his muscles to get tense, which leads him to throw a wild pitch.
“Sometimes there’s something called ‘one trial learning.’ It only has to occur once and now they have that reaction,” said Molinaro.
So was the case for Ankiel, who said he hadn’t experienced anxiety prior to that wild pitch in the playoffs.
“I didn’t even know what anxiety was. I was confident. I thought I was going to dominate,” said Ankiel.
However, after the pitch is when the anxiety set in.
“Then it became psychological because the fear, anxiety, anticipation, nerves, adrenaline, all that combined into one,” Ankiel said. “There were times when I couldn’t even feel the ball in my hand.”
Ankiel can remember the feeling moment by moment.
“You’re going through the mechanics and you’re about to release the pitch,” he explained. “Everything is fine until the last 20 inches when your arm is starting to move forward. It’s almost like your body has a small seizure and blacks out and you have no idea what’s going on. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but my body wouldn’t allow me to do it.”
Aynsley Smith, PhD, RN, sports psychology scientist at the Mayo Clinic, relates experiences like Ankiel’s to pressure and tunnel vision.
“All athletes can perform motor skills where their mind and body are moving together in a really smooth way,” she told Healthline. “When their thoughts start to interrupt and tell them the consequences of this particular tournament or game is so much more important they often release a lot more adrenaline, their hearts start to pound, they tighten up their muscles. Then there’s no longer smooth movement.”
One of the consequences of high adrenaline is also tunnel vision, Smith added.
“There’s quite a few symptoms that start to let the athlete down, and the more they notice them the more panicky they get, unless they’ve had good training and learn to interrupt that and calm themselves down,” she said.
In 2000, Smith conducted a study with other researchers funded by the Mayo Clinic that observed 16 golfers, some who had the yips and some who didn’t.
They looked at the golfers’ brain waves, monitored all their muscle groups and vital signs, including heart rate.
“We had putters wired so we could tell how hard they were squeezing the grips. We also randomly assigned them beta-blockers and placebo to see the effects,” said Smith.
Based on her research, Smith concluded that the yips has a “continuum,” with choking and the yips at one end and focal dystonia, a neurological disorder, on the other end.
“I was trying to differentiate the golfers with yips who had it strictly from anxiety or choking from those who had it because of dystonia, the neurological impediment that seems to accompany this from long exposure over time,” Smith said.
The Dystonia Society defines dystonia as a neurological movement disorder in which “faulty signals from the brain cause muscles to spasm and pull on the body incorrectly.”
Molinaro pointed out that most golfers who develop the yips are those who have been playing for 25 years or more. So with golfers in particular, “there’s the question about overuse and focal dystonia,” he noted.
Dystonias affect the fine motor skills in athletes, as well as other professions, including dentists, physicians, and musicians.
“Dystonias mostly affect the muscles in which we earn our living or practice with for hours and hours,” said Smith.
While dystonia is neurological, Smith noted that the condition can be aggravated by anxiety.
“The condition itself is frustrating, so when one’s experiencing it, that in itself can cause anxiety. But we don’t think dystonia is caused by anxiety,” she said.
When the yips is caused by focal dystonia, Molinaro said he works on changing an athlete’s motion.
For instance, with a golfer he’ll have them change their grip.
“This creates a new pathway in the brain so they are able to work through it,” he explained.
Smith said medication called beta-blockers can decrease anxiety and help with dystonias.
For players like Ankiel, other methods work.
After reading several self-help books, Ankiel connected with a sports psychologist who helped him manage anxiety.
While the psychologist taught him breathing strategies, Ankiel said self-talk was most effective. When he started to feel nervous or anxious, he learned to focus on the energy enhancing his play rather than debilitating it.
“Every athlete has nerves, adrenaline, and anticipation before a game. So when I got on the field and felt that coming on I’d try to tell myself ‘I was waiting on you. Now I’m going to throw harder. I’m going to be that much more sharp.’ Of course, that’s much easier said than done,” Ankiel said.
Molinaro finds hypnosis to be most effective. For example, he worked with a college catcher who struggled throwing the ball to the pitcher and second base.
“He was sending a pathway [to the brain] where his emotions are that was triggering a bracing response, and that’s why he couldn’t throw the ball,” said Molinaro.
Through hypnosis, he was able to desensitize the catcher.
“I had him picture throwing, and just before he feels tension we compete with that negative feeling with something positive. So he’s taking his arm back and his body relaxes instead of taking his arm back and his body tenses. I do this with hypnosis or through competing images in the mind so negative thoughts now produce positive responses,” Molinaro said.
Smith teaches athletes methods to relax. “By talking to them, I get them to feel like a piece of spaghetti within three minutes. When you’re relaxed your muscles are not fighting against each other like they do when you’re anxious,” she said.
She also helps athletes get back to thinking of the sport as fun.
“That’s hard to do when there’s million dollar contracts based on how you’re going to perform. You almost have to fool your mind and go back to when you were pitching in the backyard to your dad,” she said.
Smith does this through therapies that focus on confronting negative feelings.
“I have them tell themselves they’re doing this because they love it. Also, I’ll ask them questions like ‘Are you really going to die out there if you don’t do well? Are your parents going to stop loving you? Is your wife leaving you if you have a bad inning?’ Let’s put all this garbage of overexaggerating the importance of this outcome aside, and let’s go out and give a smooth performance with the mind and body relaxed,” she explained.
Having fun is how Ankiel made his comeback. When he returned to baseball in 2004, he pitched out of the bullpen.
“I did it successfully, but it took all day mental training from the time I woke to when I went to sleep. I was only focused on that. My relationships changed with my friends and family and that’s not who I am. I am carefree,” said Ankiel.
Once he switched to outfield, he said a weight was lifted.
“I thought ‘This is fun and I can go to the field and enjoy it again.’ Retiring from pitching and becoming an outfielder was my way of coping with the yips.”