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The Curious Case of the Yips: Both Psychological and Physical for Pitchers?

Written on September 3, 2013 at 7:13 am, by Eric Cressey

There may not be more perplexing phenomenon in the baseball world than a pitcher with a case of the yips.  For those of you who aren't "down with the lingo," this term refers to an extended period of time when a pitcher simply can't throw the ball where he wants to throw it.  And, the yips can certainly extend to position players, as there are countless instances of catchers mysteriously struggling to throw the ball back to the pitcher, and infielders who can't make clean throws to first base – in spite of years of doing these things successfully. Perhaps the two most noteworthy cases of the past few decades were Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch, who were both forced to change positions because they couldn't overcome the issue.

Clearly there is a heavy psychological component to this issue – and that's a big part of how the yips have historically been managed.  Whether it's visiting with sports psychologists or chatting with pitching coaches, the powers that be aim to modify the thoughts that go through the pitcher's head prior to throwing.  And, there's certainly nothing wrong with that approach, as it's clearly part of the problem.  However, in today's article, I want to view the yips through a bit of a different paradigm.

One thing that nobody ever seems to mention is that the yips don't happen in high school players. Why?  It's because the frame of reference is different.  You see, high school kids don't throw enough strikes normally for us to even perceive when something is out of whack.  I've spoken with a ton of professional pitchers and they universally agree that they weren't able to repeat their mechanics consistently until they were in the 18-20 age range.  Until that point, their bodies were changing dramatically and they hadn't had sufficient throws under their belt to master the pattern and consistently repeat it.  Plus, they were pitching off different mounds each time out, and the quality of the mound can have a dramatic impact on one's delivery.  With these factors in mind, I think we can all agree that the yips are a problem confined to the college and professional ranks.  If a high school kid or pop star is missing wildly, we just chalk it up to poor skill or inexperience.

Drawing parallels in other sports proves to be difficult, though.  Among athletes who need to accurately project an object from a consistent release point, you just don't see the yips outside of baseball players.  Quarterbacks don't get it, and I've never seen a track and field thrower accidentally fire an implement into a terrified crowd.  Olympic archers and biathlon competitors don't miss targets by large margins, and I've never heard of a tennis player whose career ended from double faulting over and over again.  Certainly, if all these issues were purely psychological, we would have found cases of the yips across other sporting disciplines, right?  There simply have to be examples of other professional athletes' minds being so jumbled that tens of thousands of reps worth of motor control and precision would be seemingly wiped clean from the slate, right? 

Nope. It doesn't seem to work that way. So what is so unique about pitching, then? 

Stress and adaptation to that stress.

You see, throwing a baseball is the single fastest motion in all of sports – and that means serious stress on not just the arm, but also the rest of the body.  Additionally, the Major League Baseball season is among the longest in professional sports – lasting from mid-February to some point in October (depending on post-season play) – and eight months is plenty of time for things to go in the wrong direction as players may get more and more detrained.

Rotator cuff strength drops over the course of the season. Scapular upward rotation diminishes.  Tissue quality gets "gunkier" with each throwing session. Some players lose hip, shoulder, and elbow range of motion. Others acquire more ligamentous laxity and become increasingly unstable. Body weight may drop, and lower body strength and core stability fall off.  And when these issues collectively build, elbows, shoulders, lower backs, and any of a number of other areas may even become symptomatic. 

To be clear, what I'm saying is that guys don't magically forget how to throw strikes after tens of thousands of reps.  Rather, their bodies often let them down and don't enable them to physically get to the positions needed to repeat the mechanics to which they've grown accustomed.  They're like the teenagers who are growing into their bodies all over again.

If you need further proof, check out this great study from Kibler et al. Researchers noted that in the tennis serve, a 20% decrease in kinetic energy from the hip and trunk means the shoulder must generate 34% more velocity to get same force to the racket. It's safe to assume that the stress of pitching in this context is even higher because arm speed must be greater.  If you're 10-15 pounds lighter and have lost a bunch of your lower body strength, how can we know if your issues are purely psychological and not physical? In attempting to maintain velocity and compete, you have to compensate in any of a number of ways – and that's how physical problems quickly become mechanical and psychological ones.

As another example, it's not uncommon to see pitchers get hurt when they've been quickly transitioned from relieving to starting roles without adequate time to build up their pitch counts.  And, I wouldn't be surprised if the incidence of the yips is much higher among those who don't get hurt.  When you throw fatigue in the mix, altered mechanics (whether they appreciate it or not) are the only way guys can continue to try to compete.  This is one reason why it's so important to bring guys along slowly and methodically with this transition.

When we see a guy who is struggling with his command or velocity, the first thing we ask is, "Is he hurt?"  Yet, when he responds "No," nobody ever asks if he feels fatigued or weak.  So, maybe it's a paradigm that needs to shift?  I can remember chatting with a major league pitcher a while back roughly 2/3 of the way through his season.  He told me he'd had outings when he had absolutely no idea where the ball was going, and had actually developed a new pitch by accident because his mechanics were so off. Not surprisingly, the evaluation I then performed revealed a lot of things he needed to address physically – and he was clearly fatigued.  Nobody had even touched them, though, because his velocity, command, and numbers were good. This is like refusing to change the oil and tires on your car proactively because it seems to be running fine. Maybe the yips are just the equivalent of breaking down on the side of the road after ignoring those routine service appointments?

With all these factors in mind, I think it's safe to say that there is a definite role for physical shortcomings and both acute and chronic fatigue in the development of the yips.  It just may not be easily "diagnosed" because a) symptoms may be absent and b) many athletes aren't assessed appropriately when they're doing well, so there isn't a standard against which to compare.

Here is where I think so many players have struggled to overcome the problem.  They think that throwing more to "re-master" their mechanics is the way to fix the problem.  In throwing more, two things happen:

1. If each throw isn't right on the money mechanically, they're simply re-engraining those problems.

2. With each passing throw, they're imposing more fatigue – especially when those throws are off the mound (and if you want to re-master your mechanics, you want this level of true specificity).

Conversely, my first suggestion to athletes with the yips is always to simply take the ball out of their hands for 7-10 days.  I think it's important not only because it's a chance to acutely avoid reaffirming bad habits, but more because it's a chance to temporarily remove fatigue so that one can build up strength and stability in the right places, improve tissue quality, and normalize body weight. When that happens, "muscle memory" can kick in. 

Imagine driving your car after someone has adjusted all the mirrors, moved the seat up, lowered the steering wheel, messed with the alignment, and changed all the pre-set radio stations. It feels brutally awkward in spite of the fact that it's the same car you've had for years, and you might even be a danger on the road.  This is what pitchers often feel and look like at the end of a long season if they haven't been managed correctly on the physical side.  If you fix all these issues with the car, it goes back to feeling normal; you don't just forget all those years of safe and "natural" driving.  You wouldn't just call your driver's education instructor for a pep talk and then hop back into the funky new version of your car, would you?  The only differences are that you can easily recognize everything that's out of whack with a car, and a quick tune-up at the mechanic only takes a few minutes. Conversely, it's hard to self-assess physically, very few people truly understand how pitchers should move, and physical adaptation takes time.

This isn't a knock on sports psychologists or pitching coaches, as they are absolutely, positively a huge part of the process with getting a pitcher with the yips back on track.  However, it'd be extremely ignorant to overlook the pronounced physical adaptations and detraining that often take place with pitchers – and how this might interfere with one's ability to repeat mechanics that until that point had become second nature.

Wrap-up

A lot of you will read this article and think that it doesn't apply to you.  And, while you may not have experienced the yips yourself or in one of the players you coach, my hope is that this article effectively served as a call for you to establish baseline evaluations of movement quality.  If there isn't a thorough preliminary assessment against which to compare when things go south, you're really just guessing about how much is physical, psychological, and mechanical. If you're not assessing, you're assuming – and if assuming worked, this wouldn't be a problem that had shaved years off a lot of careers.

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12 Responses to “The Curious Case of the Yips: Both Psychological and Physical for Pitchers?”

  1. Carl Says:

    Yips is a big problem in golf too, another sport where you have to put the ball in motion with a highly technical, full body set of movements.

  2. Lantz Wheeler Says:

    Eric,

    Another great article. I’ve noticed that players who attempt to make major mechanical changes such as attempt at changing arm action during a competitive cycle often suffer from the issue. They lose awareness and perspective and soon it goes from physical to mental. In other words, they have confused the hell out of their CNS.

  3. Baseball Specific Says:

    Eric,

    Lots of great information in this article. I think there’s more to the psychological side of things when dealing with a true case of the yips. Check out articles and videos by Dr. Tom Hanson at http://www.YipsBeGone.com – pretty interesting material regarding what actually occurs in the brain when players lose the ability to effectively throw a baseball.

  4. Joe Kearney-Argow Says:

    Eric,
    I just finished up reading your article on the “yips,” and found it very interesting that you put so much emphasis on the physical aspect of it. I experienced the yips for about two years and I cannot argue that it stemmed from physical issues but what prolonged it was most definitely psychological.
    Between my senior year of high school and my sophomore year of college I lost 80 lbs from increased exercise and eating better. My sophomore season was really when I started seeing issues, I had no idea where the ball was going even though my mechanics felt as they always had. Halfway through the season I had somehow managed to keep my starting pitcher job, probably because I battled through my situation. The games were not pretty tho, I recall one game where I walked 5 batters and hit 5 more but did not give up a hit and somehow made it through 4 innings with no runs. I had begun thinking on every single pitch “what was I doing wrong” and trying to feel my release point on each pitch instead of just throwing. It got to the point where it felt like I had never thrown a baseball before, and in reality I was sort of right. Losing the 80 lbs had my entire body out of sync, and it was literally like throwing with a brand new body.
    My solution to fixing everything was to completely stop thinking because I had become so worried about hitting and walking guys that I would be shaking on the mound. I started fixing things while long tossing, because everything seemed ok when I aired it out, then I would slowly bring it in, still throwing at 100% until I was about 30 ft away. I obviously wasn’t throwing as hard as I could at this point but u get the idea. I also would tell myself “throw through the target rather than to it.”
    Reflecting on my situation, I definitely agree that the problems originate from a physical issue. What I believe prolongs it is guys letting it get in their head, because you can take 10 days off and fully recover but if you step back on the mound thinking about every small aspect of your mechanics it won’t matter how recovered your body is.

  5. Karen in AZ Says:

    My entire golf game is one giant yip.

    That aside, nice informative article, approaching a curious situation with our pitchers.

  6. Jamie Says:

    It is common in AFL for players to get the yips when taking set shots on goal. Sometimes it could be attributed to physical fatigue however there are numerous examples of players getting the yips and battling with them for extended periods of time, sometimes months on end.

  7. Mike Says:

    I had Tommy John surgery in April of 09, my 2nd year in college. I got drafted in 2010 in the 21st round as a redshirt sophomore, 6’5″ Lefty topping at 94, healthy and feeling good. Declined the offer bc I had 2 years of eligibilty left and the offer was not where I would have liked. Had a good summer in 2010, had a good spring in 2011 in which I started as a reliever and ended the year as a started(4-0 sub 3 ERA still throwing as hard). Went undrafted. Was one of the best pitchers in the Coastal Plains League posting a 5-0 record with a 1.5 ERA as a starter. Prided myself on attacking the zone and going after guys. Didnt get picked up. Went back to school for my 5th year as the Ace, worked as hard as I could in the gym and throwing wise to prepare for the season. With being a reliver most of my carrer I wanted to make sure my body and arm was in the best shape. Had a great winter leading into the season, sitting 88-92 topping 93. I got the yips the first game of the year, I wasnt someone to give up so I kept trying to work it out, try different things and it just got worse and worse. I couldnt have a 20 foot catch without spiking it or sailing it. It was like I never played before. Reading this article would have been a huge help that year. An example of my workout in the meat of it was 3 sets of 25 throws at around 90%, then about 30-40 pitch bullpen, jobes, band work,then lift and run after. And my arm was able to bounce back the next day and do a variation of the same thing. I obviously mixed in light days on my arm and body here and there, but I didnt want any regrets so I worked hard everyday. Reading this article makes a lot of sense to me, I feel being a reliever most of my life then putting my body and arm through such hard work that I compromised myself. I lost my rotation spot after about 4 weekends, didnt come out of the bullpen, and went undrafted and unsigned again. You beat yourself up because you or the people around you cant figure you out and this article really makes a lot of sense. Great article; hope someone in need finds this.

  8. Matt Says:

    This is just one reason why we must periodically assess athletes in all sports. If you’re lucky you’ll see a preseason, without a postseason assessment. Forget about seeing something mid-season at the high school and college level. The first assessment they get is usually with a doctor.

    Fatigue has plenty of time to build over a baseball season and symptoms seem to come out of nowhere (building blocks to dysfunction) in far too many cases. Looking for a deviation from a specific player’s norms can be an indicator of fatigue and may lead to catching something before it becomes a problem. It all comes down to information.

  9. Big Joe Says:

    I personally experienced a different kind of “yips”. I had an experience in the minor leagues in the 9th inning of a game where I must’ve made six consecutive pick off throws to first and couldn’t stop myself. I couldn’t make a pitch home. I finally had to step off the mound and on the fly come up with a method to get myself to make a pitch home. I had to start with the ball in my right (throwing) hand then toe the rubber with the right foot and preset my left foot before taking the sign. Then I had to tighten up my entire body and totally concentrate on setting my hands (slowly) before then making a pitch home. It was the craziest experience and after that I adopted that method every time there was a runner on first to prevent myself from continuously turning and throwing to first. Strangely nobody was aware of the inner struggle I was going through and never did it result in a problem throwing strikes. Oddly enough I have come across a couple of other right handers who went through the exact same thing. I don’t know if this qualifies as yips but it was definitely a combination of high adrenaline and anxiety that caused the “disorder”. As far as your yips examples I can’t think of anybody besides Ankiel at the major league level who completely lost it the way he did. I’ve seen guys lose confidence and try to be too fine causing them to miss location out of the zone but nothing like Ankiel. And I can think of 3 position players who had career changing problems with making short throws; Sasser (Mets catcher) and Knoblauch and Sax (both 2B). And I’ve seen pitchers on many occasions experience yips after fielding a come backer and throwing softly (and wildly) to first. And another reader mentioned golfers (most notably Garcia) who had a severe case of the yips. Again what is noticeable to me was that the golfer yips tend to occur on short shots and puts, the one requiring a soft touch and finesse to execute. For pitchers tossing to first on a come backer (and Knoblauch Sax Sasser) it is a fear of making an overthrow and for the golfer it is the fear of hitting the ball too far. These athletes as I see it are high performance guys used to letting it all hang out. They usually swing hard and throw hard so to me its a psychological hang up that turns into physical failure. Once they throw soft and it goes wild they can’t clear their mind of that experience and it can become chronic. To this day I can’t throw a baseball softly and be accurate but I can toss bp for an hour putting a little something on it and be right around the plate all day. I can’t comment on how to deal with golfer yips but for a catcher or 2b or pitcher throwing to 1B on come backer the options are throw it hard or if too close throw it underhanded. I’ve never seen anyone yip it over there underhanded. As for Ankiel clearly a psychological issue. Not sure what approach could’ve been taken to resolve that one. But glad to see that things worked out well for him as a big league OF and hitter. Talented guy. Good guy. Happy for him.

  10. Eric Cressey Says:

    Great post, Mike!  Thanks for your contribution.

  11. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hilarious, Karen!  I feel your pain. :)

  12. Jodi Murphy Says:

    “Certainly, if all these issues were purely psychological, we would have found cases of the yips across other sporting disciplines, right?”

    Interesting point. I feel like each sports has it’s own version of the “yips.” Like a football receiver who just can’t hold onto the ball, a tennis player who freezes up on the court, etc. Maybe it’s just not as noticeable in other sports simple because a pitcher has so much attention on them every second of the game.

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