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Tyler Matzek, Rick Ankiel, and the Science Behind the Yips

Come to read the article, stay for the Rick Ankiel highlights.

Montreal Expos vs. St. Louis Cardinals

As the Braves made their World Series run in the 2021 playoffs, there were a number of storylines that went mainstream including some silly things like Joc Pederson’s pearl necklace and more pensive stories like how a deep playoff run would affect Freddie Freeman’s odds of staying with Atlanta. Personally, my favorite story was that of Braves’ relief ace Tyler Matzek (the Denver Post has a nice write-up of Matzek’s journey, which you can read in full here). Matzek originally came up to the majors through the Rockies system and finished his freshman season with a 4.05 ERA and 3.78 FIP in 117.2 IP in 2014. He got the call to pitch Colorado’s home opener in 2015 and made five starts in the majors that year. In his fifth and final MLB appearance until 2020, he pitched only two innings and gave up four runs on six walks and three hits. He was sent down to AAA afterward, and his first start went far worse. In one inning pitched, he faced twelve batters, walking seven of them and giving up seven runs on just one hit. Matzek spent most of the rest of 2015 in AAA, and after that bounced between the minor leagues and independent leagues, contemplating on giving up on the game. Thankfully, that’s not how his story ended.

So why the long-winded introduction about a Braves pitcher on a Cardinals blog? Well, Matzek’s fall from MLB prominence was due to the yips, and it’s hard to hear mention of the yips as a Cards fan without one’s mind jumping straight to Rick Ankiel. I read Ankiel’s book co-written with Tim Brown, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, last year and it made me curious. I’m currently working on a graduate degree in biomedical science research, and my thesis project deals heavily with interactions that happen within the brain. So, naturally, I wanted to know what was powerful enough to make a 21-year-old future ace do this (coincidentally, against the Braves):

(Credit to MLB’s YouTube channel for the footage)

So, as all good research graduate students do, I sifted through the National Institute of Health’s PubMed database. The earliest peer-reviewed publication of the yips that I could find was published in 1987, and while there’s been some progress in defining and observing the yips, a lot is still unknown about the condition and even less is known about how to “cure” it. Despite the fact that the term apparently originated with golfers, my thought was that “yips” was strictly part of the baseball vernacular, so I was surprised to find that the scientific literature on the topic used the word to describe similar conditions in people ranging from writers to musicians to golfers to cricket players. The yips are often associated with performance anxiety under extreme pressure, with the assumption being that the driving force of the yips is psychological. There is likely a psychological element to the yips that exacerbates the condition, but some researchers have adopted a continuum that has the yips on one side and choking under pressure on the other, with choking in clutch situations having more to do with the psychology of the performer.

The yips as we think of them look to have a strong element of physiology underlying them. This is borne out in more current research, and we’ll get to that, but even in the descriptions provided by Ankiel and Brown and Matzek, there seems to be more to the problem than anxiety. Matzek told the Denver Post, “‘I was pitching with fear . . . That put me into a freeze mindset, and that’s what led to the yips.” Ankiel and Brown in The Phenomenon provide a description of the yips from Dr. Mark Oakley, a clinical psychologist from UCLA: “‘The yips,’ he said, ‘can be explained in both psychological and neuromuscular terms’ . . . ‘The changes are physiological. Adrenaline, heart rate, blood pressure. And then it’s that classic fight or flight mechanism engaging. Between the two, the system starts locking up.’” The reference to fight or flight likens the player to a prey animal on the mound and Matzek takes that comparison further, describing the unspoken third choice of flight or flight: freeze. The flight, fight, or freeze response is initiated by the brain and is utilized as a survival-by-instinct mechanism. As a result, it makes rational thought extremely difficult in the moment. Ankiel details trying to slow down and think through his pitching motions with his heart pounding in his ears, but he was fighting a losing battle against designs inherent in human biology.

As far as the scientific literature goes, the yips are often referred to as focal or task-specific dystonia (“dys” meaning abnormal, “tonia” meaning tone or tension) and are characterized as involuntary movements that interfere with whatever activity is being performed. Many studies conducted on the subject are performed with skilled golfers whose games saw a suddenly increased number of strokes due to a new inability to make routine putts. Putting is about an ideal of an activity as can be for measuring effects caused by the yips as virtually every part of the body other than the arms is stationary. This allows researchers to more easily identify variations in motion, especially when compared to a pitcher going through a full windup. It also allows the performer in question to be monitored using various machinery, which would be more difficult with actions that require more motion.

The findings from peer-reviewed studies have been interesting, even if they haven’t quite nailed down sure-fire ways to treat the condition. Some researchers have claimed that personality differences may make certain people more susceptible to the yips. One study surveyed 107 college baseball players and found that players high in agreeableness (representing traits like altruism, trust, and kindness) seemed more likely to be susceptible to choking in clutch situations. Players that scored higher in neurotocism (commonly referred to as negative emotion) seemed more likely to develop the yips and had a significantly increased frequency of throwing errors when compared to the choking and non-yips control groups. Bearing in mind that self-reported data can often be misleading, it’s certainly an interesting finding.

Another publication studied brain waves in sensorimotor regions in the brains of ten athletes affected by the yips: nine baseball players and one badminton player. They reported that athletes with the yips had significantly increased brain activity in the regions of interest when compared to controls, likely due to increased focus on their movements. This would make sense, as athletes with the yips will often train themselves to the point of exhaustion or injury, focusing on and tinkering with their mechanics which in their mind are responsible for their inability to perform.

Some researchers have focused on trying to find effective ways to treat the yips. In a study published in the journal PLoS One, researchers tried to lessen the effects of the yips by distracting golfers with a secondary task while they were putting. As each subject made their putt, they also had to identify whether a tone played over a speaker was high or low, with the idea being that the secondary task would prevent the extreme focus on the golfers’ mechanics. Unfortunately for the golfers, the approach seemed unsuccessful, as they showed no significant improvement while performing the secondary tasks.

Ultimately, a lot of what constitutes the yips remains a mystery. The events that cause the onset are different for each person. Some people can overcome the yips, such as Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who for a while couldn’t throw the ball back to the pitcher) and Matzek. Ankiel found his own solution, going back to the minors, becoming an outfielder, and making one of the greatest comebacks in sports. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for the yips, but each of these players had a strong support group of loved ones and mentors that helped them overcome what Ankiel called “the Thing” and they all deserve credit for helping each player give us moments like these:

(Credit to MLB, michael681999, and Made the Cut on YouTube for the footage above)