“I can’t explain to you how frustrated I am,” Mikaela Shiffrin told reporters in Beijing during the recent Olympic Games. “I have to fix something but I don’t know what I am supposed to fix.”
The 26-year old native of Vail, Colorado, widely believed to be the greatest alpine skier in history, had just experienced a whopping flame out in front of an international audience.
Prior to the games, Shiffrin was heavily favored to bring home gold in at least two events: after all, she had won three medals in two previous Olympic competitions and had notched 73 wins in World Cup races. Her better days, with even more electric victories, were clearly in front of her.
It didn’t happen that way.
Shiffrin left China empty-handed. Worse, she didn’t finish three events – at one low moment, NBC cameras fixed on her as she sat disconsolately in the snow. It was truly a sad illustration of the agony of defeat.
“I had some of the best skiing I’ve ever done in training here in Beijing over the last week,” Shiffrin said. “In the race, in the moment when it counts, I didn’t make it to the finish. That’s never happened in my entire career…I tend to think way too much and that makes it hard to ski freely…right now, I feel like a joke.”
Could it be Shiffrin developed the most dreaded four-letter condition in sports — the yips?
There are a lot of other names for this predicament: choking, clutching, taking the pipe, heebie-jeebies, whiskey fingers, jitters, jumps, the willies. The terms are not interchangeable, but they are related — the sudden onset of a loss of precision skills. Out of nowhere, a talented performer experiences a catastrophic inability to execute.
Tommy Armour, the champion golfer, coined the term yips about one hundred years ago to describe why, for no apparent reason, he failed to make short, seemingly easy putts. He called them “brain spasms” that made his play an almost unendurable horror.
Sian Leah Beilock, PhD, a cognitive scientist and President of Barnard College, described it: “Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right.”
Suboptimal performance affects many people, not just athletes. In Harvard Business Review, Dr. Beilock wrote, “Countless numbers of talented men and women have bombed a job interview, botched a presentation, or failed to make (or save) the winning shot when the pressure was on…we tend to panic — about the situation, its consequences and what others will think of us — and as a result, we apply to much cognitive horsepower to what we are doing. We start overthinking something that comes naturally to us.”
The overthinking about which Dr. Beilock wrote takes place in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Many researchers now believe yips are not just based on emotional performance anxiety. There is a biochemical link, the dimensions of which we are still probing.
The anxiety, however, is as real as the other painful feelings associated with clutching: disbelief, frustration, embarrassment, depression.
Former St. Louis Cardinal Rick Ankiel, once a sharpshooting ace pitcher whose career on the mound was ended by the yips, told NPR, “You can’t get away from it, you know. I’m driving down the street and I see kids playing catch. And I’ll stop and watch them and think, man, it looks easy for them. Why can’t I do that?”
The frustration of being unable to execute, even when you understand what the physical components are, was a searing burden for Ankiel. “You know exactly what you want to do and how you want to do it and the body and the brain will not let you do it.”
Fortunately for Ankiel, he possessed hitting prowess — this allowed him to carve out a decade-plus stint in the major leagues.
Ben Hogan, one of the all-time golfing greats, developed yips while on the green late in his career. “I just can’t get the ball in the hole anymore,” he said. “It’s my nerves. I’ve tried everything and it doesn’t help.” Eventually, he became so distraught he feared he would be unable to strike the golf ball and so he retired.
Hogan had a stellar record — nine championships — so his affair with the jitters is a generally forgotten footnote.
There are athletes who have played through psycho-physiological struggles, but that path is thorny and often cruel. One of the most notable was second baseman Chuck Knoblauch.
Initially, Knoblauch fielded his position very competently: one of his nicknames was “fundamentally sound.” But in his early thirties, while playing for the New York Yankees, Knoblauch abruptly lost accuracy on his throws to first.
Soon, this defect became an object of derision. Matters reached a farcical peak when one of his errant throws sailed into the stands and smacked sportscaster Keith Olbermann’s mother. The edgy broadcaster said, “Her face is a little puffy and she expects a shiner. Her eyeglasses were broken, as was her confidence in Knoblauch.”
In due time, Knoblauch was ignominiously relegated to left field.
Can Mikaela Shiffrin learn anything from these athletes and find the way back to her gold standard?
Dr. Beilock, in a piece written for The New York Times, offered some excellent advice — what happens next is more important than what happened in Beijing.
“The key trick that the best athletes practice is to look beyond the binary of winning and losing when it comes to their performance and dwell less on moments of failure,” Dr. Beilock suggested. “To see the bigger picture.”
In Shiffrin’s case, Dr. Beilock continued, the fact that she is only “the second woman in Olympic history to ski in all six individual events — an achievement that I hope she will look back on with pride when she remembers Beijing. As I tell my students, remember to play your whole movie-– not just the clip of your latest stumble on repeat.”