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Getting your head right

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Yips_Cricket_Choke_bowlingIt began as my red-letter season. It ended as possibly my last.

My contentedly hapless career in the lowest reaches of league cricket followed a pathway familiar to the many hundreds of enthusiastic club players up and down the country. Bagging a few runs here and claiming the odd wicket there with the type of impossibly slow, loopy lobs we older bowlers try to kid ourselves are off-breaks, I eagerly anticipated my weekend fix of the highs and lows that only cricket, that unique hybrid of individual and team sport, can provide.

In return, the cricketing gods had always been fair, allowing me to experience just enough triumph to keep me believing and just enough failure to keep me realistic. From time to time there were occasions when I found myself selected – yes, actually selected - for the dizzy heights of the Second XI, even at times when other players were available. That was fine. Often I was not and so took my more honest place in the Thirds. And that was fine too - like Ronnie Corbett in those old sketches, I know my place.

But this season was different. With bat I was still pretty hit or miss – quite literally – but with ball, suddenly and inexplicably, I found a magic something which previously always eluded me.

I had found a little luck. Catches found their way to fielders. Charges down the track and wild swings-and-misses brought me stumpings. Batsmen caught in two minds missed straight balls. The wickets were mounting as quickly as my career bowling average was falling to a number, at last, some way below my age.

And then one warm, Sunday afternoon at the back-end of the season, the wheels came off.

I came on to bowl my first over with our opponents eight wickets down but only a dozen or so runs away from victory. A grandstand finish, and on my third delivery their batsman went back onto his stumps, the ball held up, he played across the line and was bowled. We huddled together and took in the situation. Only one wicket required for a famous – for my team, that means pretty rare - victory.

But as their last man was walking reluctantly to the crease something had changed. It wasn’t nerves – I’d felt the nerves of this sort of situation before but this was very different: a wave of sudden, overwhelming unease. My mind fogged. I tried clearing it, to visualise the perfect delivery like all the coaching books say you should, but I couldn’t even picture how I was going to get the ball from one end to the other let alone make it a good one. The ball itself felt strangely sticky in my tense fingers as I attempted, unsuccessfully, to spin it from hand-to-hand. As I started in again I completely lost my run up – all three paces of it – and had to begin again. Although I had never felt this way before I knew, immediately and with certainty, exactly what was happening.

Ball four stuck in my tensed-up hand and landed practically at my feet. The next was a wide so big it missed the cut strip, followed by another. Then a four-bouncer as I again couldn’t release the ball cleanly. My teammates exchanged sideways glances as they continued to shout encouragement. I somehow managed to finish the over, I don’t know how, but the damage had been done. We lost the game but in those few deliveries I had lost much more. In the next match, I bowled one over of the same excruciating, and costly, length.

The following week it happened all over again. I haven’t bowled a ball since.

 

As I had discovered to my cost, the Yips strike without warning. There seems to be no specific trigger and certainly no dependable cure. It usually occurs in experienced sportsmen across a variety of sports and tends to manifest itself as a series of spasms and freezes which interfere with the finely-honed motor skills required to perform a precise action such as putting a golf ball, throwing a dart or releasing a cricket ball.

Little is known about the cause. One theory is that the condition results from certain biochemical changes in the brain that accompany aging. Others suggest that thought overtakes instinct; that the well-practised movement shifts from being a subconscious right-brain function into an analytical left-brain one – essentially, that sufferers start to think about what they are doing. There is probably some truth in both of those theories. Whatever the cause, though, it is evident that success, even at the very highest level, offers no protection.

Five-time world darts champion Eric Bristow had to retire from the sport after developing ‘dartitis’, a variation of the Yips which interfered with his release of the arrows. Seven-time major winner Sam Snead, double Masters champion Bernhard Langer, and Ryder Cup-winning captain Sam Torrance are just three names in a lengthy list of high-profile sufferers from the world of golf, a sport in which the Yips are so common that a new piece of equipment, the long-handled putter, was developed to try to combat them.

In 2010, snooker champion Stephen Hendry, who dominated the sport through the nineties with seven world titles, revealed his struggles with the condition.

"On some shots I don't even get the cue through. It's so frustrating, it's like giving these guys a 50 [point] head-start," Hendry said.

"It's got gradually worse for 10 years. I think I need to phone Bernhard Langer to see how he got over the Yips because that's what I have."

In cricket the condition usually affects bowlers, with left-arm spinners appearing to be particularly susceptible. Fred Swarbrook, Phil Edmonds, Ravi Shastri and Maninder Singh all had issues with the Yips, an unwelcome roll-call joined more recently by Simon Kerrigan, the Lancashire left-armer who suffered a nightmare international debut during the 2013 Ashes.

The case of Kerrigan, though, is an interesting one. A surprise selection for the final Test of an Ashes series already won, Kerrigan’s spell fell apart in a sequence of full tosses and long-hops as his eight first-innings overs were plundered for 53 runs.

But did he, as was widely surmised at the time, actually experience the Yips or was it something else?

In his blog ‘Choking, The Yips and Not Having Your Mind Right’ David Papineau, Professor of Philosophy of Science at King’s College London, identifies the Yips as one of two sub-species which belong to a wider condition. He cites choking as the other and cautions against confusing the two.  

“Not Having Your Mind Right is a generic phenomenon covering all cases where mental fragility undermines sporting performance,” he writes. “Choking is folding under pressure. The Yips involve an unhealthy focus on the mechanics of your actions.”

Papineau refers to the case of Jonathan Trott, whose well-publicised struggles on the last Ashes tour culminated in an early return home with a ‘stress-related illness’.

“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.

“Trott’s problem was simply that he did Not Have His Mind Right.”

 

What bowlers have in common with snooker players, golfers and dart-throwers is that they are initiators, putting a movement into motion from a standing start and so with ample opportunity to overthink their actions in doing so.

“While it is crucial to concentrate on your intended basic actions, it is fatal to start thinking about the mechanics of those actions,” writes Papineau. “Here be the Yips.”

Batsmen, in contrast, are reactors – the split-second the ball takes to travel from bowler to batsmen simply doesn’t provide enough time for the latter to get tangled up in thinking about what he is about to do. The pressure of the situation might bring on a choke, yes, but not the Yips.

Tennis player Jana Novotna’s collapse in the final set of the 1993 Wimbledon Final came about, says Papineau, because 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. This in itself was enough to stop her thinking about what she was supposed to be thinking about, namely hitting the ball hard to where (Steffi) Graf didn’t want it hit.”

By this definition Novotna suffered a choke, a mental breakdown under the stress of a found situation. Anxiety and tension, amongst other things, have a profound effect on concentration. Novotna’s mind wasn’t right that day, and the unfortunate shot selection of Jonathan Trott in Australia could be put down to a similar reason.

And perhaps Kerrigan’s bowling at the Oval too. Only time will tell if he is selected for England again, but his recovery since – he took ten wickets for Lancashire in his most recent County Championship appearance – suggests that rather than the Yips, it was the overwhelming magnitude of the occasion, amplified to eleven by a brutal innings from Shane Watson, which got to him that day. With the worst possible timing he had, as Papineau would put it, Not Got His Mind Right.

 

Choking and the Yips, then, are related but not the same. One can exist without the other, but the disruption to motor skills brought on by the Yips can be most profound in the long term. Once the Yips surface, the loss of confidence that comes with them is notoriously difficult to restore.  

Sports psychologist Mark Bawden has worked extensively with the England team.

"I found that the overriding factor in the Yips was a massive decrease in self-belief," Bawden told BBC Sport. "The bowler starts thinking about cricket skills that he hasn't thought about for years."

Many Yippers find that they are able to bowl without problem in the nets, proving that the phenomenon is exacerbated by the pressure of match play, and Bawden feels that removing the psychological triggers connected with the competitive environment is key to rebuilding confidence.      

"You have to video the player bowling well in the nets then get him to watch the video, so that image becomes stronger than that of bowling with the Yips.

"Then you gradually put a batsman in, take the net outside, then remove the net and introduce fielders until you get back towards that match situation."

Slowly, painstakingly, it is about getting the mind right again. For Yippers like myself hoping for a magic bullet, though, Bawden strikes a cautionary note.

"It's been fairly successful but the Yips can still come back," he says.

"They tend to be fairly ingrained."

 

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Jake Perry is a freelance cricket writer. He writes regularly on Scottish cricket for Cricket Scotl...

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