In September 2014, then-Wisconsin head coach Gary Anderson announced that quarterback Joel Stave was out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
Well, not so much an injury. There was nothing structurally wrong with Stave’s throwing arm.
Instead, as the media would learn through more and more interviews with Anderson and Stave, the issue was not a physical injury, but rather a case of the yips.
Stave had been expected to compete for the starting role at Wisconsin during fall camp, but ultimately lost the season opening start to Tanner McEvoy. It was a strange turn of events. Stave had first started for the Badgers as a redshirt freshman in 2012, going 4-1 before breaking his collarbone. He led Wisconsin to a 9-4 record in 2013 as a sophomore, throwing for 22 touchdowns along the way (which is a lot for Wisconsin). So the decision heading into Stave’s junior season — that he would not be the starter — was a shock to everyone.
Stave would not appear during the Badgers’ 28-24 loss to LSU in the 2014 opener, despite McEvoy connecting on just eight passes for 50 yards and two picks.
The communication itself was strange. The locker room knew the shoulder injury story wasn’t real. Anderson was hesitant to say what the issue really was — likely owing to the stigma around mental health which was even more prevalent in 2014. Stave was keen to clear the air.
“I kind of crawled up into my own head. And I got into a very weird, weird place,” Stave said in 2015. For all Stave’s hard work — how he’d always managed to get out of funks before — he just seemed to get more and more challenged, progressively overthinking the simplest passes. The yips continued.
So what are the yips? Narrowly, the yips refer to involuntary movements of the wrists, and are often associated with performance anxiety, though they can be neurological in nature. More broadly, the yips can be seen as a loss of basic skills like, for example, being unable to throw a simple 10-yard pass or connect on a short field goal or extra point.
We often see the yips in golf, especially when golfers are aiming for a putt and experience involuntary movements that cause them to miss, but it’s not uncommon in sports like baseball or football — as we saw with Stave in 2014.
This conversation is even more relevant now, with Simone Biles, the best gymnast of all time, withdrawing from several Olympic events after experiencing the twisties during the team vault event last week.
We’ve all learned a lot about the twisties in the last week (many, including myself, after never having heard the term before), but once Biles mentioned that’s what she was experiencing, many gymnasts rushed to validate her experience, expressing just how dangerous this condition could be.
Gymnasts describe the twisties as a mental block that can lead to a loss of spatial awareness — which can obviously be very harmful when gymnasts perform maneuvers that would be challenging even under the best circumstances.
I cannot even imagine having the twisties. Sometimes, standing up too quickly after tying my shoes makes me dizzy. Experiencing such spatial disorientation while upside down and 15 feet in the air is a whole different matter, and it’s extremely fortunate that Biles was able to end up on her feet at the end of the event.
Imagine being a quarterback with the yips. It’s not just the challenge of being unable to throw the ball straight. There’s also the challenge of the other players on the field — specifically the defense — who might accidentally injure a confused and flustered quarterback. Stave described himself as overthinking every part of his passing and ultimately being unable to execute. Imagine putting him in front of a defense that he’s no longer able to read effectively.
When it comes to team sports, it’s easy as a viewer to want to pull a player because he or she is not playing well. There are backups who can step in, as McEvoy did for Stave. As fans, we’re often quick to forgive coaches who pull these players, and may have been calling for players’ removal for long before for not meeting our own high standards (or maybe we should just not have such high expectations for college athletes?), but the players themselves should also be able to make that call if they recognize that mental challenges are impacting their on-field safety — something they might recognize well-before their coaching staff.
Treatment can take time. Biles stated that she didn’t know when she would be able to return to competition. It’s one thing to be in peak form for the Olympics, with every maneuver fine-tuned to perfection. It’s an entirely different scenario to feel comfortable doing even the most basic routines. Biles would need to be comfortable with both situations before getting back out there, but she can’t start the former without having the latter.
Stave had several weeks in 2014 before he was named starting quarterback. He used that time to incrementally work on things that were going wrong, maintaining a positive mindset and building on things he was doing well. He never went to therapy or sought a psychiatrist, despite promptings from some of his teammates.
While it might be sad as a fan to not be able to see our favorite athletes compete, taking the time needed means players can return to peak form. More importantly, it means that athletes can stay healthy. Just as we wouldn’t expect a quarterback to compete with a broken thumb, we should not expect someone to compete with the yips or twisties.
Of course, there is something of a double standard here. As alluded to above, football players who play poorly often have fans calling for their removal (which, by the way, doesn’t help their emotional state that’s impacting their situation), whereas we’ve seen criticism of Biles’ decision to not compete in her individual events.
We, lay people with absolutely no athletic talent as compared to Simone Biles and maybe just a little bit compared to Joel Stave, would have challenges to understand the experience of having the yips or twisties. When the average fan cannot throw an accurate football pass or complete a Yurchenko double pike, it’s hard to identify the finer points that impact sports performance — and how feeling off (yes, even mentally) can amplify the danger of taking the field or the mat.
(On a related note, when Bears kicker Cody Parkey missed a 43-yard field goal against the Eagles that knocked Chicago out of the playoffs in 2019, Chicago-based brewery Goose Island set up a “Cody Parkey Challenge” so fans could attempt a 43-yard field goal in similar conditions. No one made it.)
Biles has stated that her experiences have made her feel like she has “the weight of the world” on her shoulders. Michael Phelps has echoed this sentiment. These pressures to compete can further compound mental health challenges for athletes.
There’s been much conversation this summer on if it is better for the sport when players are able to treat their mental health in the same way they treat their physical health. It’s tragic when it happens, but we accept that if football players get hurt, there is little expectation for them to play. We’re also fortunately moving away from praising players who play injured, recognizing that the long term health implications outweigh the benefits of playing hurt. Hopefully we are moving in the same direction with mental health.
Stave was able to recover. Biles has a plan that may take her out of the Olympics, but which will keep her safe from injury as she gets back into it. Incremental steps which simultaneously allow athletes to focus on the positive while taking the pressure off can support positive mental health while they recover from the yips or the twisties or whatever they are dealing with.
If it needs to be said, these athletes’ bodies are not ours. They, and no one else, should have control over if they choose to compete, because they, and no one else, know where their heads are at and what the risk of injury is due to those factors.
Also if it needs to be said, Simone Biles does not exist for your entertainment. And if you think she is selfish for not competing, perhaps you are selfish for demanding that a Black woman risk breaking her neck in the name of patriotism (but really just for your enjoyment) while you sit watching on the couch.