Maddy Wood was an incoming freshman at Western Kentucky last fall, on scholarship, in shape and elated to pitch for the Hilltoppers. The feeling lasted only a few days, before that old, insidious anxiety gripped her. Wood could no longer throw the ball to the catcher’s glove.
Her pitches skidded in the dirt, bounced off home plate and soared over the catcher’s head as onlookers snickered and grumbled. The game that had been Wood’s passion was now her torture.
“I had lost all hope, honestly,” Wood, 19, said in a recent telephone interview. “It wasn’t fun. I hated going to practice. I was considering quitting, until I spoke to Eileen.”
Eileen Canney Linnehan knew the emotional pain that was shattering Wood’s life. A standout pitcher at Northwesternin the 2000s, Canney Linnehan had lost the ability to make routine throws to bases. She could fire pinpoint, unhittable pitches, and she crafted an illustrious college career, including an appearance in the N.C.A.A. Division I final. But in four years, she never made a single successful overhand throw to a base.
“So many nights I cried myself to sleep,” Canney Linnehan said.
Both players suffered from the yips, a condition that has plagued far more athletes than just the handful of famous cases in Major League Baseball. The number of players with the yips is hard to discern because many deal with it at amateur levels and in relative anonymity and silence. But they are there, and Canney Linnehan has used her intimate understanding of the problem to become a consultant, helping players at various levels of different sports overcome the devastating, and at times debilitating, hindrance.
“I had lost all hope, honestly,” Maddy Wood said of her bout with the yips. She considered quitting until she spoke with Canney Linnehan.Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
“The biggest thing was having someone to talk to that understood and had a shared experience and wasn’t going to judge me,” said Lacey Waldrop, the 2014 U.S.A. Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year, who got over the yips after speaking to Canney Linnehan. “If you haven’t been there and felt it, you don’t really know what’s going on.”
Sports fans may have seen a handful of professional basketball players struggle with beguiling hitches in their free-throw form. Many baseball fans know about so-called Steve Blass Disease, Steve Sax Syndrome or Sasseritis, the latter named for Mackey Sasser, the former catcher who had difficulty tossing the ball back to the pitcher.
But some high school, college and even younger softball and baseball players and athletes in other sports can also develop the yips, where the easiest, most familiar plays become virtually impossible to execute.
In technical terms, the yips is the inability to perform a previously learned movement, often, but not always, because of a mental inhibitor. The problem manifests in embarrassing public fashion that can ruin careers.
“There are people that still don’t believe or understand that it’s real,” said Canney Linnehan, who earned a bachelor’s degree in human development and psychological services at Northwestern.
She is not a psychologist, but she gained insight into her own mental capabilities through trial. She had to contend with teams bunting to exploit her weakness and fans in the stands mocking her. She managed to work around it, either by making underhand throws to bases, or by perfecting her rise ball to strike out many would-be bunters. Her team knew of the problem, because Canney Linnehan learned early that it helped to talk openly about it, and her teammates were supportive.
Once, against Michigan, Canney Linnehan was in such a rush to throw a batter out at first that she made the overhand throw, and it was caught. The runner was safe, but much to the surprise of the Michigan players and their fans, the Northwestern players cheered as if they had gotten a key out. They were just happy Canney Linnehan had completed an overhand throw.
During Canney Linehan’s professional career in Japan, the team worked out a play in which she would flip the ball to the shortstop, who would make the high-velocity throw.
After retirement, Canney Linnehan was named to the Northwestern Sports Hall of Fame in 2013 and coached at the University of Illinois Chicago. There, she met a pitcher named Bridget Boyle, who also suffered from the yips. Canney Linnehan, an assistant coach, helped Boyle through the problem by encouraging her to address it with her teammates and to employ a few useful tricks to break down the mental barriers that prevent players from executing the most routine plays. Openness, she believes, is essential to resolving the problem.
When a reporter recently stammered through a question about the “issue” during a telephone interview, Canney Linnehan interjected, “You can call it the yips.”
Boyle was so pleased by the results that she encouraged Canney Linnehan to help others. Canney Linnehan spoke about it at a conference of softball coaches and soon word spread. At Florida State, Waldrop had developed the yips in her pitching motion after she hit two batters in a row with fastballs to open her senior season. Frightened she might do it again, Waldrop almost instantly was unable to execute the same pitches she had made her whole life.
Compounding the issue, Waldrop had put impossible pressure on herself to surpass her fabulous junior season in 2014.
“That somehow became a mental and internal battle that manifested itself physically,” said Waldrop, who now is a softball video coordinator for Synergy, a company assisting college coaches with recruiting. “My arm started to feel like Jell-O halfway into my delivery.”
Waldrop’s coach at Florida State had heard about Canney Linnehan and put them together. They spoke three or four times on the phone and Canney Linnehan recommended Waldrop tell her teammates what she was going through. She also recommended a few tricks, like squeezing her glove hand to put pressure on a different side of the body, allowing the other side to relax. Waldrop said it resolved the problem.
“If you haven’t been there and felt it, you don’t really know what’s going on,” said Waldrop, who also played four years with the Chicago Bandits of National Pro Fastpitch.
Canney Linnehan said she has worked with more than 60 clients over nine years in several sports, including softball, baseball, golf, tennis and track and field, and boasts an enviable success rate.
“Incredibly high,” she said. “I’ve seen so many people get over it. One of the most beautiful things I get to see is people sorting through the muck.”
Earlier this year, Canney Linnehan spoke to Sax, whose infamous case of the yips in 1983 was as debilitating as it was short-lived. A second baseman, Sax struggled to throw to first base, committing 24 errors in the first half of that season. He overcame the problem relatively quickly after a talk with his father, who was very ill at the time.
“It was actually the last conversation I ever had with my dad,” Sax said in a telephone interview. “He told me I didn’t have a mental block, that I was suffering from a loss of confidence and he said I should practice more.”
Sax did, at all hours at Dodger Stadium when no one was watching. In the second half of the season, he committed only six errors, and he played 1,349 more games at second base in the regular season over his final 11 seasons.
Sax, like Sasser and the pitcher Rick Ankiel, whose well-documented case of the yips was so bad beginning in 2000 that he had to convert to playing the outfield, offers informal guidance to yips sufferers, some whom may be in high school or college. Other pupils are more well known. Sax recalled that when the second baseman Chuck Knoblauch had the yips, the Yankees invited Sax, then retired, to talk to him.
“They hid me in a back room so no one would see me,” Sax said. “It was like I was stuffed into a broom closet. That only makes it worse by stigmatizing it.”
Sax applauds the work that Canney Linnehan does because of her open approach. “Deal with it head on,” he said. “That’s how I got over it.”
But Sax’s was a unique case. For many sufferers, extra practice does not help. For Canney Linnehan and others, the problem never even appeared in practice — only in games. That was the case for Wood, the pitcher at Western Kentucky. After speaking with Canney Linnehan, she came to recognize that playing softball is something she does, not who she is. That eased the pressure.
Team psychologists and coaches did not help, Wood said, because they could not relate. Canney Linnehan had been in the pitcher’s circle, and could accurately describe the embarrassment, frustration, confusion, the nights spent crying in bed.
“I hated going to practice and I was ready to quit,” Wood said. “But after talking to her, I’m excited for the upcoming year. I can’t wait.”