by Katie Baker
Each point in a tennis match begins with a serve, and each serve begins with a ball thrown into the air. It’s probably the most overlooked move that a player will make over the course of a game: it looks so simple, seems so rote, and is usually followed by a far more captivating big serve or long rally. But while it may be basic, it’s also foundational. You can’t play a big match without that little lob.
David Foster Wallace detailed the motion in the opening paragraph of a 1996 Esquire piece. “The tossed ball rises,” he wrote, “and seems for a second to hang, waiting, cooperating, as balls always seem to do for great players.” Or do they? Another tennis story, this one by Tom Perrotta for The Atlantic 14 years later, opened with a far less orderly scene:
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.
Wallace was writing about Michael Joyce, a player who at the time was ranked 79th in the world; in comparison, you’d think that Perrotta was describing, well, me. But his feature was actually about Ana Ivanovic, who won the French Open in 2008 and was, for a time, the no. 1 player in women’s tennis — until her confidence deteriorated, her mechanics unraveled, and she found herself unable to so much as toss the damn ball.
Ivanovic’s story was jarring, but it also wasn’t all that unique. The phenomenon of athletes suddenly and swiftly losing the high-level consistency that once defined them is one that can happen in places ranging from the putting green to the infield to the service line.
Golfers have called the uncontrollable forearm tremors that can torpedo their short game “the yips” for as long as even the old-timers can remember. Dart enthusiasts, crippled by a strange inability to let go, talk about their “dartitis” with despair. Professional baseball players who have been hurling pinpoint lasers since they were athletically precocious toddlers suddenly can’t execute a routine flip to first base. (Athletes aren’t the only ones who suffer these maladies, either; musicians have been known to have similar issues with curling fingers or shaky lips, and the term “writer’s cramp” is a cousin of all of this.)
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.”
The yips are often wrongly conflated with the inability to “perform in the clutch,” but what is most insidious about the condition is that it doesn’t just strike during high-pressure, big-game moments; it’s not what we think of as “choking.” More often, and more disastrously, it seeps down into the drab everyday bedrocks of a sport.
For a hotshot baseball catcher like the New York Mets’ Mackey Sasser, chucking the ball back to the pitcher after backstopping a ball or a strike was not exactly a high-stakes, put-it-all-on-the-line endeavor. Still, shortly after a collision at home plate left him with tender ankles, Sasser became increasingly incapable of performing the rote motion that he’d done without a second thought since he was a boy.
At first, the problem was that his ankles hurt and he had to adjust his throwing motion. But adjusting meant thinking, and thinking meant overthinking, and soon he was double-, triple-, sometimes quadruple-clutching the ball. When he finally would release it, his form looked more like that of a college kid trying to get that perfect high-off-the-fingertips Ping-Pong ball arc in a game of basement Beirut than it did a career MLB catcher returning the ball to the mound. (As Sasser’s problems worsened, pitchers started walking toward him to meet halfway.)
In the same game, Sasser might cut off a base-stealer at second with the speed and precision that Mike Piazza never did have … before going on to botch a simple, rudimentary toss. The juxtaposition made me think of a passage from Chad Harbach’s college baseball novel The Art of Fielding, in which one of the main characters, a quiet star shortstop named Henry, stops being able to deliver the ball to first base. “Instead of rifle shots fired at a target,” writes Harbach of Henry’s newly mangled throws, “they felt like doves released from a box.”
In the book, several major league scouts come to watch Henry perform and, observing the condition his game is in, begin naming his troubled predecessors. “Blass,” one says, referring to Steve Blass, whose pitching problems in the 1970s wound up being forever referred to as Steve Blass Disease. “Sasser,” he continues, as in Mets catcher Mackey. “Wohlers. Knoblauch. Sax.” It’s a litany of major leaguers who contracted a case of the yips. (And, in Chuck Knoblauch’s case, of major leaguers whose yips caused him to accidentally hit Keith Olbermann’s mom in the face with a throw, shattering her glasses.)
The school’s president, sitting next to the scouts, asks what became of those guys.
“Do they ever recover?” Affenlight asked. “The players with this disease?”
“Steve Sax did. Of the big names, he might be the only one. Knoblauch moved from second to the outfield where the longer throw gave him less trouble. Ankiel moved to the outfield too.”
“But a longer throw is harder,” Affenlight pointed out.
Dwight shrugged. “Sometimes harder is easier.”
Earlier this month, the Wisconsin football program announced that it would “shut down” quarterback Joel Stave indefinitely. According to a report by Fox Sports, “coaches noticed something wrong … he could no longer throw a simple pass. He could uncork a 40-yard bomb, no problem, but time and again, he would short-hop a basic 10-yard pass in drills.”
Stave himself tried to put the feeling into words. “I’ll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long,” he said. “One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve got to hang on to it longer.’”
In The Art of Fielding, a character named Pella grows fed up with all the attention paid to Henry’s predicament. “Being occasionally unable to throw a baseball from one place to another with perfect accuracy didn’t exactly qualify as tragic,” she silently fumes. “Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run, silly when compared with global warming … silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly.”
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.
Charles Barkley’s beyond-awful golf swing makes for a rollicking YouTube viewing, sure, but it’s also kind of distressing to see just how powerless such a big and bold man can be against the murky vagaries of the spirit and flesh. Mackey Sasser’s problems didn’t stop when he left professional baseball; even as a college coach, he could barely throw batting practice.
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.”