[This is my first blog post. I'm aiming to write about a range of topics that will be of interest to both philosophers and sports fans, from countries all around the world. Tricky. Future topics may include Mutual Aid and the Art of Road Cycle Racing and Why You Can't Just Decide to Support a Team. But to kick off I want to look at the mental side of sport. There are lots of relevant empirical data that I might come back to in future posts, but here I just lay out my overview of the whole area. If you would like an e-mail notification of future posts, enter your address in the Subscribe Box below this post and click 'Submit'.]
When Jonathan Trott was struggling in the first two tests of the current Ashes tour, some cricket commentators suggested that he was suffering from The Yips. This didn't make sense to me. You can’t get The Yips when batting in cricket, nor for that matter in baseball, for reasons explained below. Rather Trott’s problem was simply that he Did Not Have His Mind Right.
The mental side of sport is poorly understood, especially by philosophers. Over the last few years there has been a heated debate between Hubert Dreyfus and John McDowell on the significance of ‘Choking’ in sport. I fear most of it was too abstract for my taste, and what's more they muddled up Choking with The Yips.
Here is how I see the territory. Not Having Your Mind Right is a generic phenomenon, covering all cases where mental fragility undermines sporting performance. Choking and The Yips are sub-species which do not exhaust the genus. Choking is folding under pressure. The Yips involve an unhealthy focus on the mechanics of your actions. Choking and The Yips sometimes occur together, but they can also dissociate, in both directions.
As anybody who has played competitive sports will know, concentration is of the essence. It really isn’t a good idea to relax and go with the flow, whatever Hubert Dreyfus says. You’ll only end up doing the wrong thing. However, while you must concentrate, you do need to be careful what you concentrate on.
Most sporting skills derive from hours of practice. After a while, practice makes perfect, and you come to be able to do new things at will—hitting a forehand slice, fading your iron shots, throwing a curve ball. In philosophical terms, you have extended your range of basic actions, the things you can do without thinking about how to do them. Sometimes, in fast-reaction sports, like cricket, tennis, and baseball, the basic actions can be pretty abstract—batting defensively, hitting to the backhand when possible, taking a pitch unless it is over the middle of the plate. When you are actually competing, you must hold firmly in mind which basic action you have committed to. If you Don't Have Your Mind Right, and you start thinking about tonight’s date, or Gödel’s theorem, you will become hostage to passing fancies, and fail to stick to your plan.
While it is crucial to concentrate on your intended basic actions, it is fatal to start thinking about the mechanics of those actions. Here be The Yips. The term was originally used for golfers who twitch and miss short putts because they start fretting about their putting technique. Some golfers never recover, and others only do so by changing their putting style completely. (Who can forget Peter Alliss on Chris DiMarco’s ‘claw’ grip, live on Master’s television? “Goodness me, I haven’t seen anything like that since they closed the old gents' lav at King’s Cross.”) The Yips can be truly horrible. Sam Snead’s putting in his later years was said to be “difficult to watch”. (I trust we are all familiar with the seminal “Yips (My Baby’s Got The)” by Half Man Half Biscuit—“She goes out in 32 but comes back in 54” http://www.hmhb.co.uk/.)
This is why you can’t get The Yips while batting at cricket and baseball. The half-second the ball takes to reach you isn’t enough time to get tangled up thinking about your movements. In these games it is only the ball-launchers who are vulnerable. In baseball it is called “Steve Blass disease” after the All-Star pitcher who succumbed to a terminal case after eight successful years with the Pirates. And in cricket there is a long history of slow left-arm bowlers who have suffered, most recently poor Simon Kerrigan in the final test last summer.
When Dreyfus and McDowell talk about Choking, they really mean The Yips. (Dreyfus argues, and McDowell denies, that the disabling effect of worrying about your movements shows that skilled action needs to be ‘unthinking’.) In general parlance, though, Choking simply means crumbling under pressure. The special significance of some competitive occasion stops you focusing properly on your plan of action. Sometimes this may involve The Yips—the stress may make you start fussing about the mechanics of your actions, rather than focusing on your intended plan. But The Yips needn’t always be involved in a Choke.
Jana Novotna had no history of The Yips when she collapsed at 4-1 up in the last set of her Wimbledon final against Steffi Graf in 1993. There is no reason to suppose she started agonizing about her movements. I’d say she was simply overwhelmed by the thought that she was about to win her first Grand Slam—and then by the thought that she was about to throw it away—and this in itself was enough to stop her thinking about what she was supposed to be thinking about, namely hitting the ball hard where Graf didn’t want it hit.
Not only can there be Choking without the Yips, but also The Yips without Choking. Sometimes The Yips get such a grip that their poison remains even when there is no competitive stress. Perhaps the most striking example is Mackey Sasser, successful catcher for the New York Mets, who became twitchy about flipping the ball back to the pitcher between plays. There’s nothing stressful about returning the ball to the pitcher—it’s not even part of the game, who cares how you do it?—but Sasser became so mixed-up about this mundane task that he ended up quitting baseball.
If you have The Yips or are Choking, then you Do Not Have Your Mind Right. Anxiety about your movements, or the stress of the occasion, is distracting you from your intended plan. But other things can also distract you from your plan. Not all cases of Not Having Your Mind Right need involve Choking or The Yips. Sometimes troubled personal relationships can make it impossible for players to concentrate. Or other issues, nothing to do with the sport in question, can disturb their minds. There is no rule that says that competitive athletes can’t worry about anything except sporting success.
Jonathan Trott would be a case in point. As we now know, he had to leave the Ashes tour because of a “stress-related illness”. We haven’t been given the details, but this by itself seems quite enough to explain his dismal shot selection in the first two tests. Despite the journalists, there is no evidence that The Yips had anything to do with it. And Trott’s record suggests that he would be the last person in the world to Choke. The only thing wrong with him was that he Did Not Have His Mind Right.
[I have written a couple of longer papers covering these issues, In the Zone and Choking and the Yips.]