It came to me last night as I, like so many Green Bay Packers fans, was tossing and turning, unable to sleep while my team’s franchise quarterback is struggling.
Aaron Rodgers appears to be acquiring a condition that we most often see in other sports, such as golf, baseball, and tennis. Our quarterback presents the classic symptoms of “the yips.”
It’s one of those words that isn’t easy to define, but you know it when you see it.
The yips is most often used in reference to golfers – aging golfers – who are unable to smoothly complete delicate golf swings such as putting or chipping strokes. Golfers with the yips usually display minute jerking or shaking hand or arm movements. It’s estimated that 30 percent of golfers get the yips at some point.
Rodgers’ symptoms more closely resemble baseball yips. These are less common, but they’ve affected a number of talented players in their prime. I’m not talking about all the batters who fall into slumps when they get a glitch in their swing mechanics. In baseball parlance, “yips” usually refers to throwers who quite suddenly and wildly lose their accuracy.
The best article I’ve found is one from 2013 by Zack Meisel on MLB.com, “The Yips: Difficult to understand, difficult to cure.”
Here’s a summary of his key points:
Inside the clubhouse, the yips is a taboo subject, confined to the office of the team psychologist or the wall encompassing a player’s brain… To those enduring it, there are no answers, only a proliferating number of questions… For reasons unknown, infielders suddenly can’t find the first baseman’s glove on routine throws, and pitchers wildly miss the strike zone… One sports psychologist uses the term “misplaced focus” rather than the 4-letter word – it downplays the notion that one has some sort of daunting ailment… The misplaced focus gets a player away from the fluidity of the process of the game… It snowballs, the player starts to tense up, and the ball suddenly stops going where it’s supposed to go.
Several infielders and pitchers have gotten the yips when trying to make routine throws to first base: Steve Sax, Mackey Sasser, Chuck Knoblauch, Ryan Zimmerman, and Matt Garza are examples.
Knoblauch had to be permanently relocated from second base to left field. Current Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Matt Garza throws fine to the plate but has had the yips when making the simple throw to first base for much of his career.
Pitcher Rick Ankiel had perhaps the most famous case of the yips. After five years on the mound, he could no longer get the ball in the strike zone – often throwing wildly into the backstop. He spent the last nine years of his 14-year career, which ended in 2013, as an outfielder.
Indians pitcher Chris Perez is quoted in Meisel’s article as saying players’ minds only get in the way. “They’re telling themselves before it’s hit, ‘Don’t throw it in the dirt,'” he says, “And of course, they throw it right in the dirt.”
But that’s golf and baseball, two totally different sports, you say? It’s happened in football too and it’s happened close to home.
Any Wisconsin Badgers fan will remember when quarterback Joel Stave suddenly lost the ability to throw accurately in 2014. It got him benched. The Badgers initially played it off as an injury, but later admitted it was indeed the yips. Stave did eventually recover and started again.
In the past two games, Rodgers has thrown a number of passes into the dirt or at receivers’ knees or feet.
Most baseball players are able to cure their throwing yips. Pitcher Steve Blass, who was second in the Cy Young balloting in 1972, is an exception. In 1973 he unraveled, could no longer get the ball over the plate, and was out of the majors at age 31, before the 1974 season ended. The term “Steve Blass disease” was coined to refer to a player who suddenly loses the ability to accurately throw a ball.
The final word goes to Dr. Richard Crowley, who wrote a book on overcoming the yips. He says it’s not worth anyone’s time to look for the cause of the yips, because that doesn’t change anything. Instead, Crowley takes players through a set of mental exercises until their anxiety and concerns dissipate. He admits, however, there is no strict set of instructions to follow to conquer the condition.
Does the best explanation of Aaron Rodgers’ current woes lie within this realm of sports psychology?