There is a regrettable incident involving a dog, a pigeon and a free kick. A soccer player loses his mojo. His coaches try to name the problem.
"I think we know already what it is," Coach Beard says in the second-season premiere of "Ted Lasso," the Apple TV+ comedy series about a British football team's folksy American coach. He writes the words down on a piece of paper.
"What are the yips?" someone asks.
After a lot of shushing — it's bad luck in pro sports, apparently, to even say those sometimes career-ending words aloud — Coach Beard explains: "It's when, just out of nowhere, an athlete suddenly can't do the basic fundamentals of their sport."
"Yeah," Lasso adds. "You know, like Chuck Knoblauchs's throw to first, or Charles Barkley's golf swing."
Or, I thought this week, it's like Simone Biles's struggle during her vault at the Tokyo Olympics. The preternaturally talented gymnast's intention had beento do an Amanar, a difficult maneuver with two and a half twists. But somewhere in midair, she said later, she got lost. Minutes after that, she withdrew from competition.
Biles called it a case of "the twisties" and offered an informative Instagram tutorial on how terrifying and perilous they can be at her level of gymnastics. As a Washington Post article put it: "The twisties are essentially like the yips in other sports. But in gymnastics, the phenomenon affects the athletes when they're in the air, so the mind-body disconnect can be dangerous, even for someone of Biles's caliber." A teammate of Biles's from 2016, Laurie Hernandez, described the feeling to NPR: "Hated it so much," she said. "It actively makes you feel like you're not the caliber of athlete that you are."
It's heartbreaking to see this happen to Biles, whose strength and grace have been inspirational. But the twisties aren't unique to sports. Anyone who has ever tried to do something great has also experienced doubt, uncertainty and the loss of faith. These are the struggles that make us human.
Some pundits lost no time in attacking the young athlete. The conservative podcaster Charlie Kirk called Biles a "sociopath": "We are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles," he said in a widely shared clip. "Simone Biles just showed the rest of the nation that when things get tough, you shatter into a million pieces."
The media personality Piers Morgan pushed back against the many who have praised Biles for prioritizing her own health over winning a gold medal: "Well sorry if it offends all the howling Twitter snowflake virtue-signallers, but I don't think it's remotely courageous, heroic or inspiring to quit," he wrote. (That's despite his own on-air quitting of his job co-hosting "Good Morning Britain" — a display, arguably, of the yips for blowhard chat-show hosts.)
People shatter all the time, and anyone suffering from anxiety deserves compassion and love, rather than cruelty and judgment. This is no less true for a famous gymnast than it is for a midlevel manager or, say, a conservative podcaster. Wait long enough, and surely the yips will come for every one of us.
There are other words for it. In golf — the sport that gave us the term "the yips" — it has also been known as "the staggers," "the waggles" and "whiskey fingers." In a New Yorker essay exploring the yips in 2014, the writer David Owen cataloged the affliction in a wide variety of sports: "cueitis" in snooker; "target panic" in archery; and in baseball, "the creature," "the monster" or "Steve Blass disease" (named for the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who lost the ability to throw into the strike zone).
Ted Lasso refers to Chuck Knoblauch's case of the yips while playing second base for the Yankees. In 1999 Knoblauch had 26 errors; one of his wild throws in 2000hit Keith Olbermann's mother in the face as she watched the game from the stands. (Her glasses were broken, but she was otherwise unharmed.)
We've seen this in other arenas, too. Carly Simon was so overcome by panic at a concert in Pittsburgh in 1981 that audience members climbed onstage and tried to soothe her by rubbing her arms and legs. "It's terribly paradoxical, because I do enjoy doing it," she told The New York Times later. "But when the anxiety comes on, the adrenaline is so strong it topples me. I never know when it's going to happen, except that the larger the audience, the more I feel I've got to lose."
Even if your work does not take place in front of a live audience, the yips can get you. In my world, it's called "writers' block." That condition can refer to either the inability to compose, or — even worse — the inability to even sit down at one's desk.
Truman Capote published "In Cold Blood" in 1965 and waxed rhapsodic about his next project, a novel called "Answered Prayers." "Oh, how easy it'll be," he said. "It's all in my head!" But by the time of his death in 1984, the novel had not been published. There is stillsome question as to whether it exists in a safe deposit box somewhere. The morning before his death, Capote gave Joanne Carson (an ex-wife of Johnny Carson) a key to a box he claimed was in a bank in California; he did not specify which one. "The novel will be found when it wants to be found," he reportedly told her. Thirty-seven years have gone by, and the novel apparently does not yet want to be found.
The title of Capote's unfinished novel was taken from a line attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, a 16th-century Carmelite nun: "More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones." Maybe that's what the yips are — a moment when you realize that the thing you have been praying for is a complicated gift.
Whether we respond to the yips with scorn and self-flagellation or with grace and acceptance says a lot about us as human beings. It is one thing to pray for excellence on the vault or the uneven bars. But embracing one's vulnerability, the very frailty that makes us human — well, that demands a very particular brand of wisdom and humility. I'd call it Olympian.
By Jennifer Finney Boylan, New York Times, July 30, 2021
Ms. Boylan is a contributing Opinion writer. She writes on L.G.B.T.Q. politics, education and life in Maine.
July 31, 2021
Voices4America Post Script. Jennifer Finney Boylan supports Simone Biles. I do too. Boylan puts the Twisties in other paralyzing contexts. The fact is Simone Biles’ “twisties” could really paralyze.