Yips, Slumps and Streaks

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“Baseball is ninety percent mental and the other half is physical.”–Yogi Berra

This is a primer for parents who did not play sports or even follow sports, but whose children are participating in youth sports activities and on teams. The terms yips, slump and streak are often associated with phenomena in sport that have a psychological component and possibly a physical one as well. If you are around sports long enough you will become familiar with these aberrations.

What are the yips? Matsuda et al describe their research in “Relations between the Experience of Yips and Athlete’s Psychological Growth,” May, 2018. Their definition includes “sudden inability to perform a previously natural action.” Imagine a young shortstop with proven ability spontaneously losing his capacity to throw a fielded baseball to the first baseman. This happened to my husband as a young player. It was an event of finite duration, but very upsetting during the time it lasted. No matter how he tried, he would bounce the thrown baseball in the dirt or throw wide. His coach suggested an underhand throwing motion for a while, but his dad overruled that approach. Eventually it just went away. My husband said, and Matsuda agrees, it did not help to try harder to avoid doing it. What was helpful was the positive encouragement of his dad and a tincture of time. Yips can also occur in the professional ranks, where the stakes are much higher.

When analyzing the yips, Mayo Clinic focuses on overuse in certain muscles from repetitive motion, in addition to anxiety. Baseball and golf are both mentioned in the literature, so the common use of the arms in both sports lends credibility to the presence of physical factors. Yips can wreak havoc for as long as they last. A reassuring parent can be tremendous support for his young athlete for as long as it takes to return to normal.

Another term, slump may sound more familiar.  Either an individual athlete or a team of athletes begin to perform below their established standard lasting for a span of time.  Again, this can be very upsetting and emotionally depleting.  According to Sports Psychology Today, Mike Edgar writes that the cause of slumps may have both psychological and physical components.  Injury, overuse, fatigue, burnout, and distraction are all possible causes of diminished performance.  In Edgar’s article he suggests that a positive approach is to stay in the “present,” attending to the actual act as opposed to focusing on the outcome.  Also, celebrate increments of success, and avoid comparing oneself to other athletes.  Slumps, too, go away, and sometimes as quickly as they emerge.  A parent who remains a consistent support, supplying a calming influence may be the catalyst for a cure.

On a more positive note, additionally there are streaks in sports. Sustained success, whether shooting baskets, throwing strikes, kicking field goals, winning games…all of these are examples of streaks. Again, what interplay might there be between the mental and the physical in these occurrences? On Smithsonian.com, Rachel Nuwer’s article “In Sports, Winning Streaks are just Flukes,” she offers an explanation which emphasizes a more random nature, in contrast to the way many athlete’s view streaks. I know this much, once a team has a streak underway, many athletes will refuse to wash their uniform, change their hair, any number of ritualistic decisions designed to “keep” the streak alive. There is a famous quote by a character in the baseball movie classic “Bull Durham,” where Crash Davis, the team’s mentor and voice of reason, emphatically proclaims, “Never (mess) with a streak.” I do think the psychology of the streak impacts a team’s performance, not always for the better. Pressure can begin to mount over time.

As a parent, be consistent in your support through the ups and downs of the youth sports journey, whether yips, slumps, or streaks. These occurrences are not uncommon in sport.

Key Tips

  • Reassurance and calm are your best tools during yips and slumps

  • Streaks always end so enjoy them while they last!

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