True story from last week’s matches: On Thursday, my partner and I won a match. Afterwards, she complimented me on my serve which had set her up perfectly at the net.
Two days later, we played another match. When it was my turn to serve, I tossed the ball and it went sailing over my head. I caught it and started again. Same thing. The third toss was almost as terrible, but how many times could I catch the ball? I hit it, and unsurprisingly, the serve landed two feet wide.
And so it went for the rest of the match. Toss, catch, toss, catch, toss, fault. I had a case of the yips.
If you’ve ever had the yips, you know the unique stress it causes. A case of the yips can seemingly strike out of nowhere. The simple motion of tossing a ball in the air suddenly becomes impossible. The previously inanimate ball now flies out of your hand, as lively and uncontrollable as a Quidditch snitch. Time is standing still, and everyone is waiting–your opponents staring at you, your partner ready at the net, your coach and teammates on the sidelines willing you to please, for the love of God, get your shit together and serve the ball!
So you try to be more careful in how you toss the ball, which is absolutely the worst thing you can do. You gingerly push the ball up, and it hangs in the air momentarily, mockingly, many inches lower than it ought to be. You’re going to need to rush your serve because the ball was already too low and now it’s dropping. You swat at the ball with your racquet. It lands meekly in the bottom of the net. You’re just lucky it didn’t bounce first.
The charismatic Serbian player Ana Ivanovic suffered from extreme yips in the latter portion of her career. In her first years on the tour, Ivanovic owned a powerful serve that won her many free points. But sometime after winning the French Open and reaching number one in the world, her serving toss went wildly awry. She eventually resigned herself to chasing her wayward tosses. After one particularly acrobatic service motion, sportscaster Mary Carillo drily observed, “That’s a lot of footwork for a serve.”
The yips don’t affect only tennis players. More than one baseball player has been driven from the game because of a sudden inability to throw the ball, missing their targets by wild margins. Professional golfer Ernie Els has been seized with the yips on three-foot putts.
A tennis player with a prolonged case of the yips may try addressing the mechanics of the toss. They might practice tossing along a wall or holding the ball in the fingertips. As good as these suggestions are for learning a tossing technique, they are less effective for overcoming the yips.
That’s because the yips aren’t really about technique. Take the same player on another day, in another venue, and they may serve just fine. I myself served just fine the day before my yip attack–and also, thankfully, the day after. I hadn’t changed anything. The curse just vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared.
Rather than a technical issue, the yips are about what’s going on in the brain. Focusing on the brain, however, doesn’t fix the problem. As any afflicted player would tell you, the more you think about the toss, the worse it will get. A reduced awareness would seem to be the better approach.
But how do you reduce your awareness about your toss at the very moment it’s humiliating you? Telling yourself “Don’t think about the toss” as you’re serving works about as well as you’d expect.
The only somewhat effective trick I’ve heard is to busy your mind with something else. One friend said that when she’s having trouble with her toss, she directs all her attention to her hand holding the racquet. Drawing her conscious mind away from her tossing arm frees her muscle memory to take over.
I remembered her advice during my yippy match, and I did have some limited success with it. My troubles didn’t go away, but my tosses were marginally less erratic and I didn’t double fault. I expect that if I ever need this technique again, it will work better because I’ll already know how to do it, and I’ll trust that it can help.
But I really, really hope I never need it again.
This will be my last post of this week. Have a fantastic, pie-filled Thanksgiving!!!