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

Posted Sep 03 2013 9:13am

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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