The Yips are a complicated and difficult subject to discuss. There isn’t much information on where they come from and even less on how to get rid of them. I don’t claim to have a secret formula for curing people of the Yips, but I’ve recently had a few successes that have helped me understand them better and I wanted to share my experiences with you.
First of all, I’m only writing about ideas for helping catchers right now, specifically catchers having trouble throwing the ball back to the pitcher. In my experience, throws to bases aren’t a problem for most catchers with the Yips and that can be explained by the speed of the game taking away the time they have to think about making their throws. Time, awareness, and embarrassment are contributing factors to these mysterious throwing problems and I’ll do my best to explain how these forces work together to make such a simple action into an impossible task. Ultimately, it’s an excess of awareness that creates the Yips and a change in focus that can make them go away.
Where Does a Throwing Problem Start?
The common theme among catchers I’ve worked with that have encountered throwing problems is that they begin with an innocent mistake, often a bad throw in a non-game setting. Sometimes, it’s a strange bullpen location that creates the problem. At one park, the bullpen home plate area was almost touching the fence that separated the Leftfield Bleachers down the line. The catcher I worked with had no room to stand up and throw or he would come close to hitting fans leaning on the fence when he brought his arm back. His awareness of the crowd breathing down his neck and lack of space to throw caused him to spray balls back to the pitcher he was warming up. He became embarrassed as he took the pitcher out of his rhythm and people started to notice his mistakes. This turned into an almost immediate inability to get the ball back to the pitcher with anything more than a lob.
In another instance, a college catcher I worked with was doing a summer camp and catching balls for a drill with a pitcher. There was a coach standing on the mound explaining the drill and 100 or so campers and parents directly behind the mound, with no screen or any kind of protection for the audience. The catcher started thinking about making sure his throws were perfect so he didn’t hurt anyone, and of course, he completely lost his feel and command and couldn’t throw back to the pitcher. This problem only got worse when he started thinking about how to get back to throwing normal playing catch the next day and it turned into full-blown Yips by the time he played in his next game.
Most starting points are similar to these, with the catcher over or under-throwing a ball and suddenly becoming aware and embarrassed from the mistake. Then, having lots of time to think about what he’s doing, he gets fixated on controlling the ball and ends up making things worse. After a bit of confusion, the focus turns solely to how the ball feels coming out of his hand and he overanalyzes grip and can’t think about anything but his fingers, wrist, forearm, elbow, and so on. The elevated emphasis on “feel” adds fuel to the fire.
Four Channels of Focus
Our brains pay attention on four distinct channels that are made up combinations of two factors: scope and direction. Your focus can be broad or narrow, external or internal. I’ve written a full description of how these channels work in an article on Slowing The Game Down, so I won’t go into too much detail here. However, the important part about the four channels has to do with the embarrassment caused by the initial error that takes catchers into throwing problems. When conditions are normal, we don’t really think about throwing the ball, we just aim at a target and throw. This becomes an automatic process over time and uses a narrow-external channel of focus we call “The Action Channel” because most execution of skills happens there. When a catcher throws a ball away, suddenly, his awareness expands and he is pulled into the broad-external channel. Under successful conditions, we use awareness to get a feel for our surroundings, to take in information about our environment so we can make good decisions and set ourselves up for execution in the action channel. But when we use awareness instead of action, this “feel” takes over and can’t be turned off. That’s why we feel like everyone in the stadium is looking at us, why we perceive embarrassment and undue importance on the unimportant act of returning the ball to the pitcher. It’s also why so many baseball players report a loss of feel or that the ball doesn’t feel right coming out of their hands. In my company, Winning Mind, LLC, we explain that as pressure increases, it becomes difficult to change from channel to channel and people get “stuck” in one channel, usually the narrow-internal channel. Feelings of doubt overtake them and they can’t think about anything except continuing to fail.
In order to get back to throwing the ball well, I’ve found a way to help catchers get “unstuck” by narrowing focus to a specific productive thought. It uses the narrow-internal channel of focus and replaces both awareness and negative thinking. I call this method “Attaboys.”
A Catcher’s Most Important Responsibility
Before I explain what an “Attaboy” is, I must first explain my own starting point for the method. In my first few attempts to help catchers who had come to me with throwing problems, I tried to rationally discuss how unimportant throwing the ball back to the pitcher was to everyone on the field and in the stands. My point was to help the catcher see that this had nothing to do with his skill set and shouldn’t even be critical to winning a game. In it’s simplest form, throwing the ball back to the pitcher is doing nothing but returning it to the person everyone really IS watching. Next, I wanted to help the catcher understand his most important responsibility. In my opinion, the catcher’s relationship with his pitcher is most important and it is tested the most when a pitcher gets into a jam. At that moment in the game, the pitcher should be able to rely on his catcher to call the right pitches, to set a good tempo, to visit the mound to encourage him, slow him down if necessary, and get him through the toughest times. This is especially true when the pitcher is having trouble with his own command.
When I had conversations like this with my clients, they all agreed that this was the most important job they had, more important than throwing runners out, blocking balls, or even being productive hitters. This is a big part of why so many catchers make great managers…because they are able to lead their players with a firm and confident style that helps them get through the big moments in the season. However, just the idea that a catcher needed to be there for his pitcher didn’t give my clients anything they could work on and, in some ways, made them feel like they were letting their teammates down even more by struggling to get the ball back. I needed a way to connect the concept with an action that could be practiced and repeated.
One day, I was having this discussion about being there for your pitcher with a catcher and I came upon the answer. I asked him to imagine that his pitcher was struggling to throw strikes, that he had just thrown eight straight balls. The catcher had come out to give him a breather and the pitching coach made a mound visit after the second walk, but I asked my client to see this pitcher’s fear in his mind. He calls another fastball, the pitcher comes set, checks the runner, and finally delivers a nice strike down the middle. I asked my catcher what he would say to his teammate after receiving that strike.
“I’d say something like, ‘hey attaboy! Good job! You’ve got it!” he excitedly answered, having no trouble visualizing this scenario.
We went through a few more pitches and situations. What would he say if the pitcher was close, but just missing off the plate?
In each of the hypothetical situations, the catcher would shout some kind of encouragement back to his pitcher, whether it was a strike or a ball. He would mix in some “dugout chatter” between pitches, too. Dugout chatter is anything from a simple “c’mon big guy” to repeating a name or a number or any combination of supportive comments we all make from the dugout and our positions when trying to be good teammates. My simple term for this chatter is “attaboys”.
The idea for catchers with the yips is for them to silently (or even out loud) say these “attaboys” while throwing the ball back to the pitcher. This can be done from the crouch or standing up, whichever way the catcher is most comfortable. The important part is that he is thinking about his pitcher while throwing back to the mound instead of thinking about his throw. In doing this, he takes his focus off of himself, off of his fingers and grip, off of his arm motion, off of the eyes in the stands and the dugouts, and puts it completely on his pitcher. When the focus is removed from the throw, it happens naturally again.
Here are a few sample Attaboys:
“Attaboy! Nice pitch!”
“Hey looked good. Keep it right there.”
“C’mon now, you’re okay. Stay with me. Right to the glove.”
“That’s it! One more, just like that.”
Make sure they are simple statements you would actually say to a pitcher when trying to be supportive of him. Make them be yours or they will sound funny in your head. And make them long enough that you’re thinking them or saying them most of the time, if not the entire time, you’re throwing the ball back.
Why it works
Saying Attaboys while throwing back to the pitcher makes your focus narrow and internal. Strangely, we typically think of actions happening on the Action channel, which is narrow and EXTERNAL, but I think Attaboys work for three reasons. First, by narrowing your focus, you put a stop to the excessive awareness that started the problem in the first place. Second, you replace a narrow, internal negative thought with a narrow, internal positive thought. Finally, this process helps you genuinely think about your pitcher instead of about yourself. By taking the focus off of yourself, you get away from the overanalyzing of your mechanics and get back into the flow of the game.
Share the Experience
I haven’t tested Attaboys with more than a few people, but each has had moderate to complete success in getting back their throwing. I’m not putting this method out in the world claiming I have scientific proof that it works and guaranteeing results. I’m putting out there as a suggestion and hoping it will help people who are struggling and don’t know what to do. And, by the way, I did mention at the beginning of this article that I don’t believe this method will work for pitchers or infielders. That’s because pitching and throwing to bases happen at game speed instead of between plays. Thinking about Attaboys while trying to deliver a pitch feels very confusing and unnatural to me when I think about it. Guess I’ll have to keep brainstorming!
I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this to find out how well it works for you. The more knowledge we all have, the more we can learn from each other. Please don’t hesitate to contact me with your experiences if you try Attaboys for yourself or with your players. I’ve seen catchers quit the game because they couldn’t throw a baseball 55 feet. I don’t want to see that happen again. I hope this is a step in the right direction.
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Geoff Miller’s book, Intangibles: Big-League Stories and Strategies for Winning the Mental Game — in Baseball and in Life, was released in August, 2012. For more information and free sample chapters, please visit:
For more information, please contact Geoff Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org