Mariners playoff pressure could be breeding ground for ‘the yips’

Oct 6, 2022, 5:30 AM

the yips...

Manager Scott Servais #9 of the Seattle Mariners celebrates after clinching a postseason birth after beating the Oakland Athletics 2-1 at T-Mobile Park on September 30, 2022 in Seattle, Washington. The Seattle Mariners have clinched a postseason appearance for the first time in 21 years, the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

After a 21-year drought, the Mariners are finally in the playoffs, and with all that excitement comes quite a bit of pressure. Pressure that can sometimes result in a phenomenon called the yips.

“Most baseball players describe it as an alien taking over their arm,” said Dr. Patrick Cohn, mental performance coach at Peak Performance Sports in Florida. “They have no control of what they’re doing with their arm, to the point where they feel like they’ve never thrown a ball before.”

The yips is a phenomenon that affects a small number of baseball, golf, and tennis players who have played professionally for years, but suddenly lose their athletic prowess due to extreme self doubt.

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“When an athlete has a fear of making a bad throw or a bad pitch, and that leads to overthinking, overanalyzing, then they struggle mightily with their accuracy,” said Cohn. “You can also think of it as extreme performance anxiety and worry that leads to the yips.”

Sometimes it’s temporary, but it has killed careers.

“In some cases, athletes don’t get better,” said Cohn.

From 1964 to 1972, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass was an All-Star player. But in 1973, he suddenly lost his ability to throw a decent pitch. There was nothing wrong with his arm, the deficiency was completely mental. After walking 88 batters in a single season, Blass retired. Several other professional athletes have had similar experiences.

Cohn is one of the few mental performance coaches in the country who specialize in helping players rid themselves of the yips.

“We have to get them to stop focusing on their arm, which is very counterintuitive for ball players,” Cohn said. “Coaches telling them to go to the side arm or throw it more over the top, so they’re getting all of this feedback from teammates and coaches on how to fix it, which makes it worse. Our approach is to get them to free up the arm by not thinking about the arm. You have to address what the major fear is. There is always a fear behind this. Often time with the yips, it’s a fear of embarrassment. They’re scared to death of what others are going to think. Am I afraid that I’m going to lose the coach’s respect? Am I afraid of embarrassment from my teammates? That’s part of the solution, is getting them beyond the fear. A lot of times it’s irrational.”

The yips is an example of how strong the mind-body connection can be. I asked Cohn if the work he does with players is like therapy.

“It’s not therapy, we call it coaching,” said Cohn. “But it is all mental.”

He was very quick to point out that it’s not therapy.

“We’re not licensed psychologists,” Cohn said. “We’re educating athletes on mental skills that are going to help them with their performance. Athletes will shy away from therapy or counseling. It’s a lot more acceptable for them to work with a mental coach or a peak performance expert.”

I wondered if an event like a long-awaited playoff game could be a breeding ground for the yips.

“Yes,” said Cohn. “Increased pressure can lead to fear of screwing up, fear of losing, fear of looking silly and thus can create challenges for athletes.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal.” Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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Mariners playoff pressure could be breeding ground for ‘the yips’