Pain is just weakness leaving your body.
—Slogan of The John Hopkins University crew team
During the 1998 and 1999 baseball seasons, while he was being sued for
divorce, Atlanta Braves relief pitcher Mark Wohlers had difficulty getting
the ball anywhere near the plate. In ’98, his earned-run-average (ERA) was
10.00, which is terrible; in ’99 it was 27.00, which is unheard-of awful. “I
convinced myself the reason I couldn’t pitch straight was because I blew out my
elbow,” Wohlers said, “even though deep down I don’t know what it was. The mind
is a powerful thing.”
Karl Newell, a kinesiologist at the University of Illinois, says,
“Consciousness gets in the way. If a pianist starts worrying where his fingers
go while he’s playing, it will change the performance.”
Atlanta Braves catcher Dale Murphy made a few bad throws to second
base during a spring training game in 1977. The next day, when an opponent
tried to steal second base, Murphy threw the ball to the outfield fence on one
hop. Later that year he twice hit his own pitcher in the back on throws to
second base. “Your mind won’t let your natural abilities flow,” he said. “Your
mind interferes, and you start thinking, ‘Where am I throwing? What am I doing?
Instead of just throwing. Your mind starts working against you.” Unable even to
return the ball to the pitcher, he was forced to move to the outfield, where he
became a perennial All-Star.
At age 19, Steve Gasser was one of the stars of the Minnesota Twins’
minor-league system. In 1988, traded to the New York Mets and pitching in Class
A ball, he walked 11 batters and threw 7 wild pitches in one inning, walked 21
batters and threw 13 wild pitches in six innings. He never pitched again.
Allan Lans, the Mets’ psychiatrist, says, “Everybody brings their
personality to the game. It all comes down to an anxiety response. In baseball,
people talk about someone getting wild. Then everyone comes rushing to the
rescue to fix it and they just make the problem worse. ‘Just throw the damn
ball,’ I tell them. ‘Stop thinking too much.’”
In I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, Rodolfo Linás
writes, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of
Science writer Brian Hayes agrees: “Only organisms that move have
brains. A tree has no need of a central nervous system because it’s not going
anywhere, but an animal on the prowl needs to see where it’s headed and needs
to predict, even envision its future place in the world. The poster-child for
this close connection between motricity and mentality is the sea squirt. This
marine creature starts life as a motile larva, equipped with a brainlike
ganglion of about 300 neurons. But after a day or two of cavorting in the
shallows, the larva finds a hospitable site on the bottom and puts down roots.
As a sessile organism, it has no further use for a brain, and so it eats it.”
Baseball players suffer mental blocks far more often than athletes in more
frenetic, less rote sports, such as football or basketball; in baseball,
there’s too much time to stop and think. Shortstops and third basemen rarely
suffer from the problem, since their throws are nearly always somewhat rushed.
For second basemen, it’s the easy throw to first base that’s usually the
culprit, not the difficult, rushed throw from deep behind second base; for
catchers, it’s the even easier throw back to the pitcher. And it happens by far
the most to pitchers, who, of course, have the most time to think.
Pat Jordan’s memoir, A False Spring, chronicles his experience
as a minor-league pitcher whose arm went haywire: “I could not remember how I’d
once delivered a baseball with a fluid and effortless motion! And even if I
could remember, I somehow knew I could never transmit that knowledge to my arms
and legs, my back and shoulders. The delicate wires through which that
knowledge had so often been communicated were burned out, irrevocably charred,
I know now, by too much energy channeled too often along a solitary and too
fragile wavelength. I lost it all that spring.”
Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia,
makes a distinction between “implicit learning”—what the body knows—and
“explicit learning”—conscious knowledge. In cases in which athletes develop
mental blocks, a switch has been flipped from implicit to explicit. I played
high-school tennis, and I remember this happening to me once, in the district
finals. I won the first set against someone who was an obviously superior
player, and when I realized this fact, I suddenly couldn’t get my right arm to
stop moving in jagged, pixilated slow-motion. I felt like a marionette operated
by some unknown other. I lost the last two sets 6-1, 6-0.
Hayes says, “None of us knows—at the level of consciousness—how to
walk, or breathe, or throw a baseball. If we had to take charge of these
movements, issuing commands to all the hundreds of muscles in just the right
sequence, who would not collapse in a quivering mass?”
“I’d never heard of throwing percentage before I came to the big leagues,”
Texas Rangers catcher Mike Stanley said. “I got here, and that’s what
catchers are judged on. We had a very slow staff, but I started thinking it was
me.” Although he was fixated on the percentage of base stealers he threw out,
Stanley—his body in full rebellion against his mind—threw soft, high-arcing
tosses to second and third base whenever anyone tried to steal. “I never
realized how much of the game is mental. You can see it when guys walk up to
the plate, which guys are afraid. I’m sure they could see the fear in my eyes.”
Rod Dishman, the director of the Exercise Psychology Lab at the
University of Georgia, says, “When thinking interferes, it physiologically,
neurologically leads to inappropriate tension. That causes change in velocity
and delivery. It wouldn’t take much tension to throw it off. Just that
split-second thought—‘God, am I going to do it again?’—can affect it.”
In 1997, Rick Ankiel, whom USA Today named the High School
Player of the Year, signed with the St. Louis Cardinals and received a $2.5
million bonus. In 1999, he was the Minor League Player of the Year. In 2000,
his first full season with St. Louis, his won-loss record was 11-7, and in the
last month of the season he was 4-0 with a 1.97 ERA. At age 21, he started the
first game of the National League division series against Atlanta. In two
starts and one relief appearance in the 2000 playoffs, against the Braves and
the Mets, Ankiel walked 11 batters in four innings and threw 9 wild pitches, most
of which sailed 10 feet over the batters’ heads. In a game against the Mets, he
threw 5 of his first 20 pitches off the wire screen behind home plate. He’s no
longer in major-league baseball.
Ankiel says, “I was always the smallest kid. I was terribly shy. Maybe it
was because my dad yelled at me so much. I was afraid to mess up. If I swung at
a bad pitch in Little League, he’d make me run wind sprints when I got home. It
was always, I could’ve done better. He always said, ‘Do what I say, not what I
do.’” Rick Ankiel Sr. has been arrested 15 times and convicted 7
times—burglary, carrying a concealed weapon, and most recently, drug smuggling.
Ankiel says his father instructed him “never to show emotion on the mound,
which I always thought was strange because I was never like that anyway.”
At 14, Ankiel told his father, “I’m never going to be in the major leagues,
so I’m going to do stuff with my buddies, hang out on the beach, go surfing, go
fishing” in Fort Pierce, Florida.
Ankiel’s father said, “That’s not gonna work. If you love the game, good
things will happen.”
In The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity, Anson
Rabinbach writes: “Neurasthenia was a kind of inverted work ethic, an ethic
of resistance to work in all its forms. The lack of will or energy manifested
by neurasthenics is the incapacity to work productively.”
When Ankiel started to have trouble throwing the ball over the plate during
the 2000 playoffs, his father, Ankiel’s pitching guru his entire life, had
recently been sentenced to prison for six years, and his parents had just
gotten divorced. With his father gone, Ankiel made sure bad things happened.
Asked how he would treat Rick Ankiel, sports psychologist Jack Llewelyn
said, “You pull out vintage throws, and then you repeat those throws 8-10 times
on videotape. What you’re doing is bombarding the system by showing them what
they’re capable of doing. They’ve almost forgotten over time about how good
they are, since they’ve been bombarded lately with all the negatives. If he’s
strong, young, and healthy, and he’s thrown well in the past, then he can get
past it. But anybody who thinks he can get rid of it and not think about it
again probably is kidding himself. I think it’s always there. I think you can
do some things mentally to push it to the back. But the worst thing you can do
when you start to throw better is to start to get complacent and say, ‘Well,
I’ve got that licked.’”
Shawn Havery, a sports psychologist, says about players who have
suffered this problem: “I believe that they come to, kind of first off, doubt
their ability. They start to overthink something that should be really
reflexive. They begin to take too much time to consider all the machinations
that go with that. It destroys their ability to do what they’ve been practicing
Mets catcher Mackey Sasser had to pump the ball two or three times
into his glove before lobbing the ball weakly back to the pitcher, which drove
Mets pitchers to distraction and allowed opposing base runners to make delayed
steals. During one game between New York and Montreal, Expo players counted
Sasser’s tapping of the ball into his glove, then Bronx-cheered when he finally
threw the ball back to the pitcher.
When Sasser struggled in spring training in 1992, Jeff Shames wrote,
“The root of Sasser’s problem and mine is that we think too much about
performing an ordinary chore. I stutter when I think too much about the act of
speaking. All of us have difficulties in daily life. Sasser’s and mine are just
a little more obvious. We do what we can, even if it’s not as quickly as some
Former major-league manager Chuck Tanner says, “You can’t be afraid
to fail. If you worry about failing, you will. The biggest reason behind these
throwing mysteries is players trying not to make mistakes.” The same is true of
stuttering. Stuttering consists of nothing but the attempt not to stutter.
Growing up in a maniacally verbal family, I placed so much pressure on speaking
well that I developed a stutter. A similar thing happened to many of these
guys: they’re almost all hypersensitive, hypertensive types; they wanted it too
badly, and then their overstressed body rebelled.
In “On Sickness,” E.M. Cioran writes, “Flesh freeing itself,
rebelling, no longer willing to serve, sickness in apostasy of the organs; each
insists on going its own way, each, suddenly or gradually, refusing to play the
game, to collaborate with the rest, hurls itself into adventure and caprice.”
A lot of these guys also had overbearing stage-fathers; the moment the
father was dead or in prison or non compos mentis, the sons’ bodies celebrated
their freedom from tyranny by self-destructing.
I’ve never heard of a stutterer who couldn’t talk fluently to himself; it’s
a psychosocial disorder, as are athletes’ mental blocks. In both cases, the
person is unable to exist in easy dialogue (conversation, catch) with another.
Mental meltdowns of this kind are not unrelated to stuttering—the blocked
individual becoming self-conscious about a routine activity that everybody else
takes for granted—and I think that's part of why I'm interested in the
phenomenon, sympathetic to it.
The ritual of rituals, playing catch with Dad, gets problematized and so
suddenly you can’t make the throw to first base, because you’re thinking too
much. It's as if at age 22 or 24 or 28 or 31, these athletes newly discovered
the activity (worry, contemplation, self-scrutiny) that the rest of us do all
the time, or at least I do all the time. For some reason, they're thinking
about something else—some failure or sadness or guilt or weakness—and now can’t
perform without thinking about performing.
Kansas City Royals catcher Fran Healy (who, like Sasser, developed a
mental block about throwing the ball back to the pitcher, and who, like
Wohlers, is a native of Holyoke, MA—that mindful town) said, “The easiest thing
a catcher has to do is throw the ball to the pitcher. It’s a thing that should
be as easy as opening a door. But having to think about something that simple
makes it a problem. The problem, to a degree, existed through my career. But I
was able to hide it. I’d just flip it back real easy to the pitcher. I’d walk
out after every pitch and say something like ‘Stay low’ or ‘Keep on it’ or ‘Bad
call.’ As a catcher, you can disguise a problem like this. Pitchers can’t.
Their careers are over.”
Dick Radatz, a Boston Red Sox relief pitcher, once threw 27
consecutive balls in a spring-training game.
Playing second base for Minnesota, Chuck Knoblauch made only 8 errors in
1996 and won the Gold Glove in 1997, maintaining a 47-game errorless streak. In
1999, playing for the Yankees, undergoing a divorce and watching his father
(his high-school baseball coach and lifelong mentor) succumb to Alzheimer’s, he
made 26 errors, including 14 throwing errors, most of which were on routine
throws to first base. On plays on which he had to hurry, Knoblauch virtually
always threw the ball fine. His throwing problems inevitably occurred on
routine ground balls when he had too much time to think.
“I really think, deep down inside of me, something is going on,” Knoblauch
said. “Something, somewhere along the line in my life, has affected me, and I
don’t know what it is. It’s frustrating and it’s puzzling. I don’t ask, ‘Why
me?’ because I’m a firm believer that everything in life happens for a reason.
But I just have this feeling that whenever this thing stops, I’ll know it
without even picking up a baseball and throwing it. When I get to the root of
this problem, I’ll know I’m better without even walking on a baseball field. A
lot of people have suggested that my throwing problems are going to be fixed
simply by my going to left field for a while. I don’t think that’s going to be
the case. That says this is something I can consciously correct. I know for
sure it’s not.”
E.M. Cioran says, “Without pain, there would not be consciousness.”
“If we can just get the mental part out of this thing,” Yankees’ manager Joe
Torre said about Knoblauch’s throwing problem, “we’ll be okay.”
David Grand, the proponent of a system known as EMDR (Eye Movement
Desensitization and Reprocessing), says, “The problem appears out of nowhere.
It can happen a few times and go away or it may never go away. People think
what when you add ‘sport’ to ‘psychology,’ the reasons change. People, even top
athletes, bring to the plate all of their life experiences. The public openness
of the problem, for all professional athletes, makes it much worse. EMDR reaches
deep into the nervous system and lets people work on releasing traumatic
memories. Patients begin to make a connection between the memory and what they
are experiencing in the present. Unless you deal with the traumas, you’re
pulling up the weeds without the roots. Every time Ankiel makes a bad throw, it
retraumatizes him. Give me three days with Ankiel and he’ll be back to where he
was. Give me a week, and he’ll be even better. I have no question that
Knoblauch can go back to second base without the yips and return to his Gold
Another psychologist, asked how many athletes overcome these mental blocks,
replied, “Very few. Almost none.”
In 1957, at age 18, Von McDaniel won the first four games he pitched
in the major leagues, pitched 19 consecutive scoreless innings, including a
one-hitter, a two-hitter, and a perfect game for six innings. He finished the
year at 7-5, with a 3.22 ERA. In 1958 he pitched two innings in which he walked
seven batters; he never pitched again in the major leagues.
Lindy McDaniel, who pitched for many years in the major leagues, said
about his brother Von: “He lost his coordination and his mechanics. There was
no real explanation. Some people thought it was psychological, but who knew
about those things then? They sent Von down to the minors, but he couldn’t get
anyone out. He kept sinking further and further until he couldn’t pitch
anymore. It depressed him for years after he left baseball. But he couldn’t
talk about it.”
None of these guys can talk about what’s really bothering them. That’s the
problem. They’re all repressive depressives, strong-silent types.
A student in my class, feeling self-conscious about being much older than
the other students, told me that he had been in prison. I asked him what crime
he’d committed, and he said, “Shot a dude.” He wrote a series of very good but
very stoic stories about prison life, and when I asked him why the stories were
so tight-lipped, he explained to me the jailhouse concept of "doing your
own time," which means that when you're a prisoner you're not supposed to
burden the other prisoners by complaining about your incarceration or
regretting what you’d done or, especially, claiming you hadn't done it.
"Do your own time": it’s a seductive slogan. I find that I quote it to
myself occasionally, but really I don't subscribe to the sentiment. We're not,
after all, in prison. Stoicism is of no use whatsoever. What I’m a big believer
in is talking about everything until you're blue in the face.
Daniel Wegner, a professor of social psychology at Harvard, says,
“People will develop an obsession not because there’s anything interesting
about it, but because so much energy is paid in trying to suppress it. For
some, the cure is to think about it on purpose. The thing to do is tell everybody
you see. Talk about it, even laugh about it.”
Detroit Tigers third-baseman Darnell Coles said about the 1988
season, “The first six games of the regular season, I had three errors. Then
disaster really struck. I had a three-error game in Kansas City, then a few
weeks later I had three more in another game. It got to the point where I
wanted to cry. I really didn’t want the ball hit to me. I wanted to die. Just
crawl in a hole.”
In 1980, when Philadelphia won the World Series, Phillies relief pitcher Kevin
Saucier—possessor of a 7-3 record and a 3.42 ERA—was named by fans the most
popular Phillie. He said, “I’m a hyper person and I’ve always had a funny walk
on me. So when I did a good job or we needed to keep loose, I wasn’t afraid to
show a little emotion.” Traded to Detroit, he pitched even better in 1981; he
had 13 saves, a 1.65 ERA, and was the best reliever in baseball at retiring the
first batter he faced. In 1982, though—while his marriage was nearly
unraveling—he gave up 17 walks in 16 innings. Sent to the minor leagues, he
gave up 23 walks in 22 innings, had an 0-4 record, and an ERA of 7.36.
At the Detroit training camp, the next year, Saucier said, “That strange
feeling hit me again, and it seemed like things were twice as bad as before. I
wasn’t just missing high or low. I was missing side to side. I was throwing
pitches twenty feet behind hitters. I could have hurt somebody, but then again,
I never got that close. I just didn’t feel right. It was like I was under a
spell. It was a feeling of being lost, like trying to type with no fingers.
What do you do? You’re lost. You can’t help yourself. You try, you try to
relax, and you can’t.”
Deborah Bright, a sports psychologist, says, “Too often, athletes
with natural ability are not aware of what it is they do that makes them play
well, and when they get off track, they don’t know what to look for. Also, few
realize how much their private lives can affect their public performance.”
Interesting that a female psychologist points this out, since it’s not a
problem women are likely to have—failing to realize that their private lives
can affect their public performance. So, too, women athletes are far less
likely than men to be reluctant to talk about whatever might be plaguing them.
It’s nearly unheard of for a woman athlete to suffer from the yips. (So, too,
it’s also nearly unheard of for a black athlete to suffer from the yips. Absent
other pressures, other oppressions, white men have a tendency to oppress
themselves by overthinking.)
In James Joyce’s story “The Dead,” which takes place at a Christmas
party, the protagonist Gabriel Conroy remembers a phrase from a review he
wrote: “One feels that one is listening to a thought-tormented music.” Later,
when he gives a toast, he says, “But we are living in a sceptical and, if I may
use the phrase, a thought-tormented age.”
On routine plays, Texas Ranger minor-leaguer Monty Fariss, a rare
shortstop with this particular mind-body problem, threw timidly to first base,
often allowing the batter to beat the throw, although on difficult balls into
the hole at shortstop he would still make strong throws across the diamond.
“Everybody wants to help solve the problem,” Fariss said, “or help create one.”
In the bullpen, Oakland A’s pitcher Bill Mooneyham was so afraid of
throwing a wild pitch, which could roll onto the field and delay the game, that
while warming up he was able to throw only changeups.
David Mamet says, “It is in our nature to elaborate, estimate,
predict—to run before the event. This is the meaning of consciousness; anything
else is instinct.”
In 1987, a year after throwing a no-hitter, Joe Cowley of the Chicago
White Sox gave up 21 hits, 17 walks, and 20 earned runs in less than 12
innings. He never regained his form.
In 1971 Steve Blass won 15 games for the Pirates, with a 2.85 ERA. He
won games 3 and 7 for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1971 World Series. In 1972,
he won 19 games, lost 8, pitched 11 complete games, had an ERA of 2.48, sixth
best in the National League, and was an All-Star. Throughout his career he had
allowed less than 3 walks per 9 innings.
During spring training in 1973, he walked 25 men in 14 innings, throwing a
pitch that was so wild it nearly landed in the third-base dugout. In the 1973
season, Blass was 3-9 with a 9.85 ERA, walking 84 batters in fewer than 89
innings. He tried pitching from the outfield. He tried pitching while kneeling
on the mound. He tried pitching with his left foot tucked up behind his right
knee. He tried Transcendental Meditation. He studied slow-motion films of his
delivery. Warming up or throwing on the sidelines, while working alone with a
catcher, he pitched well, but the moment a batter stood in against him he
struggled, especially with his fastball. Blass was permanently out of baseball
the next year.
Blass recently said, “I still can’t pitch, not even at my own baseball
There were many theories about Blass: he was too nice, he lost his will to
win, his mechanics were off, his eyesight deteriorated, he was afraid of being
hit by a line drive, he was afraid of injuring a batter with a fastball, the
death of his superstar teammate Roberto Clemente incapacitated him, a
slump led to a loss of self-confidence, which led to a worse slump, which led
to less self-confidence…
Dave Giusti, Blass’s close friend and fellow pitcher, said about Blass, “He
is remarkably open to all kinds of people, but I think he has closed his mind
to his inner self. There are central areas you can’t infringe on with him.
There is no doubt that during the past two years he didn’t react to a bad
performance the way he used to, and you have to wonder why he couldn’t apply
his competitiveness to his problem. Last year I went through something like
Steve’s crisis. The first half of the season, I was atrocious, and I lost all
my confidence, especially in my fastball. I began worrying about making big
money and not performing. I worried about not contributing to the team. I
worried about being traded. I thought it might be the end for me. I didn’t know
how to solve my problem, but I knew I had to solve it. In the end, it was
talking to people that did it. I talked to everybody. Then, at some point, I
turned the corner. But it was talking that did it, and my point is that Steve
can’t talk to people that way. Or won’t.”
In Intoxicated by My Illness, Anatole Broyard writes: “The
patient has to start by treating his illness not as a disaster, an occasion for
depression or panic, but as a narrative, a story. Stories are antibodies
against illness and pain. When various doctors shoved scopes up my urethral
canal, I found that it helped a lot when they gave me a narrative of what they
were doing. Their talking translated or humanized the procedure. It prepared,
strengthened, and somehow consoled me. Anything is better than an awful silent
Los Angeles Dodger second-baseman Steve Sax—after overcoming such a
severe case of the yips (30 errors by mid-August in ’83) that it became known
for awhile as Steve Sax Disease—said, “It’s a matter of eliminating all possibility
of error as far as mechanics go. Get that down pat, make good throws, and get
your confidence back.”
The Dodgers tied a sock over Sax’s eyes and made him throw balls to first
The Tigers had Coles throw sidearm.
The Mets had Sasser practice throwing from his knees.
When Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Bruce Ruffin lost his control in
1988, a fan suggested that he take the can of chewing tobacco out of his back
Everybody tells a player with a mental block not to think about it.
Sax said, “It’s like a big elephant in front of you. You can’t ignore it.”
Sasser said, “I’ve been working with people on visualization. But either the
throw’s going to come or it’s not. What can you do? Just pray.”
Mike Stanley said, “All I could visualize was making an errant throw. I
couldn’t even visualize making a good one.”
In the Land of Pain is Alphonse Daudet’s diary of the
disintegration of his body (and fellow sufferers’ bodies) from neurosyphillis.
“No general theory about pain,” he writes. “Each patient discovers his own, and
the nature of pain varies, like a singer’s voice, according to the acoustics of
A magazine editor putting together a “How-to” issue asked if there was any activity
about which I wanted to write a “How-to” article. “How about a ‘How-not-to?’” I
replied. There are so many things I don’t know how to do properly—just for
starters: blow a bubble, dive, whistle, snap my fingers. My former writing
teacher, the novelist John Hawkes, often used to say, "Failure is
the only subject.” “Winners” (Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, the
Yankees, et al.) bore me silly; there’s nothing compelling to me about them,
because there’s so little of the human predicament in their shiny glory.
Woody Allen says, “Basically, everybody is a loser, but it’s only now
that people are beginning to admit it.”
Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan.
The mind is a powerful thing.
Everybody’s an expert.
Nobody knows anything.
“We work in the dark,” Henry James wrote. “We do what we can. We give
what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is
the madness of art.”
In the fairy-tale, sport is supposed to be some sort of transcendence, a
lift-off from life’s travails.
The director John Cassavettes supported himself by acting in
commercial movies. He said that he could take almost any line and make it
interesting as long as he was allowed to put pauses in.
In other words, to insert thinking.
David Shields's Body Politic: The Great American Sports
Machine is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in May 2004. He's also
the author of “Baseball Is Just Baseball”: The Understated Ichiro and Black
Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book
Critics Circle Award.