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Monday, June 5, 2017

Service Yips

The mind is your greatest weapon. Its also your Achilles heel...

After the Low Country tournament, I wrote about my partner having the service yips. She came into the tournament worried how it would impact her/our game. When mixed doubles rolled around on Sunday, she had already played in women's doubles where she got only about 50% of her serves in. In our first 3 games, she was nearly 100% but the serves were largely ineffective as they were soft and short. Then, in the playoff round, the referee called her for a service fault. Game over.

At the time, all I could do was offer support. Having partnered in the past, I knew she was very capable of the physical act of serving well. I figured it had to be a mental issue but was not sure how to help. I have been researching the issue ever since and we will discuss it over the next several days.

The yips happen in all sports and to the best in their games. Steve Blass was an all-star pitcher who suddenly could not throw a strike and was forced to quit baseball. Ana Ivanovic was the top female tennis player in the world. Shortly thereafter, she got the service yips, eloquently described by Tom Perrotta for The Atlantic:
Her left arm jerks upward and the ball veers off to her right. Rather than swing, she extends her racket and catches the ball on the strings. Restart. Bounce it. Take a quick breath. Go. 
This time, the ball flies forward and out of reach. She lets it drop, then gathers it up.
Grantland had a good article titled The Yips Plague and the Battle of Mind Over Matter from 2014 that goes into a lengthy discussion of how devastating the yips can be. Some highlights:

These situations are not just a lost step or a bad look or the inevitable aging out of one’s prime. They are public, Richie Tenenbaum–style meltdowns; they are frustrating indignities; they are spasms and hitches and triple-pumps that are viscerally painful to watch. The worst part isn’t even always the jerky throws or twitchy strokes, it’s the subsequent look of helplessness — and, after awhile, hopelessness — in the bewildered players’ eyes.

“If you, let’s say, as a talent or as an an athlete, cannot hole a putt from half a meter away, which every grandpa or grandma could do, then this is hard to describe in words,” wrote one yips sufferer in a 2012 study compiled in The Sport Psychologist. “Thus, a competence that accompanied you all your athletic life is gone all of a sudden … It ranges between frustration, resignation, disappointment, anger. Well, it is the whole range of emotions from A to Z.”...

There’s nothing silly, though, about the horror of someone’s body and mind turning on him or her all at once. In an essay about Tracy Austin and athletic supremacy, David Foster Wallace argued that “the predicament of a dedicated athletic prodigy washed up at twenty-one differs in nothing more than degree from that of a dedicated CPA and family man dying at sixty-two.”

What makes the yips so wholly dispiriting is the negative-feedback death spiral they create: It’s not all in the brain, but the physical manifestations sure do have a way of exacerbating anxiety. It’s not all in the muscles, but once you get the thought on your mind, here come the uncontrollable seizes and jerks...

But there are ways to move on. Some righty golfers are told to start putting left-handed; the more novice you get, the safer you are from the yips. (Recall the grandma and grandpa above who could sink the hypothetical putt.) Mackey Sasser, thanks to the psychological and physical treatment he recently underwent (as detailed in the ESPN 30 for 30 short), was able to learn how to quiet his mind and control his fears.

And Ana Ivanovic, who once explained that “if you start thinking about how you come down the stairs and think about how each muscle is working, you can’t go down the stairs,” beat Caroline Wozniacki in the finals of a tournament just this week. One postgame report noted that in a second-set tiebreak, Ivanovic “played almost flawlessly.”

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