My six­teen-year-old daugh­ter recent­ly played the nation­al anthem on her elec­tric gui­tar at the high school boy’s bas­ket­ball game. Halfway through her per­for­mance, her amp acci­den­tal­ly got unplugged (a janky exten­sion cord set-up) and her ren­di­tion went sud­den­ly silent. The audi­ence, con­fused as to why she only played half of the revered song, paused for a long, uncom­fort­able beat, then awk­ward­ly clapped and the night moved on.

Izzie was mor­ti­fied and humil­i­at­ed. It took incred­i­ble courage for her to vol­un­teer to play in front of a crowd and she spent months get­ting the anthem per­fect. She cried with embar­rass­ment, swore she could nev­er show her face in the halls of her school again. But people’s mem­o­ries are short and no one is ever think­ing about – or judg­ing – us as much as we assume they are. Going to school the next day was a strug­gle, but she held her head high and got through it.

That night, an ice storm hit, par­a­lyz­ing our coun­ty and clos­ing schools and busi­ness­es for a long, four-day week­end. With lit­tle else to do, Izzie played her guitars.

girl playing guitar

It went bad­ly. Horribly. Every song sound­ed like a car wreck. She blanked on chord pro­gres­sions she had mem­o­rized for years. She could no longer coör­di­nate her two hands. The next day, more of the same. The longer she prac­ticed, the worse it became. She shut off the amp in frus­tra­tion, stowed her acoustic with shak­ing hands. 

I wrapped my arms around my tear­ful and pan­icked daugh­ter. “Aw baby,” I cooed. “I think you’ve got the yips.”

The term yips can be traced to the 1930s, but was pop­u­lar­ized by the great golfer Tommy Armour to explain the twitch­ing, jit­ter­ing, or jerk­ing that mess­es up a putt or a chip. The yips can affect any ath­lete but are seen most often in golfers, base­ball pitch­ers, foot­ball kick­ers, crick­et bowlers, and ten­nis play­ers as they serve. 

Consider how humans flinch in response to the high-pitched “yip” of a small dog. Yips hap­pen when we flinch at the exact time we need a steady hand. 

For musi­cians, the cor­rect term is musi­cal dys­to­nia, which occurs when a musician’s sen­so­ry motor pro­grams asso­ci­at­ed with play­ing their instru­ment are dis­rupt­ed. It’s as if they sim­ply for­get how to play. But a yip by any oth­er name is still a cri­sis of con­fi­dence. The yips are often asso­ci­at­ed with chok­ing in a high-stakes sit­u­a­tion, but research sug­gests that the yips are neu­ro­log­i­cal in nature, as if the ath­lete or musi­cian sim­ply lost overnight all cel­lu­lar mem­o­ry they had of their sport or instrument.

The yips are painful to wit­ness and often end careers. Whether neu­ro­log­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal, they suck. There is some brain blip that caus­es one to choke. Then the yip­per feels self-con­scious and that ner­vous­ness makes it all worse. 

So what to do when the yips show up? Some golfers get Botox injec­tions in their wrists to calm the yips down. Pitchers often stop pitch­ing for a month or so; a break can often alle­vi­ate the yips. I called Steve, our beloved gui­tar teacher, and explained the sit­u­a­tion. He sent an email in reply.

Tips for the Yips:

Don’t try to play any­thing per­fect and you’ll come clos­er to play­ing it per­fect. You’re try­ing too hard. Care less how good it is. Just let it happen. 

Of course. Wu wei (無爲). Wu wei is a con­cept in Taoism some­times trans­lat­ed as non-striv­ing or non-doing. Some prob­lems are best solved sim­ply by tak­ing a deep breath and just giv­ing over to life’s nat­ur­al course. It’s giv­ing in, not giv­ing up. It isn’t a phi­los­o­phy of lazi­ness, but one that accepts that almost noth­ing is with­in our con­trol. Sometimes the amp is going to get unplugged. Sometimes your hands will not obey. Sometimes oth­ers will wit­ness your most humil­i­at­ing moment. The world will do what it wants, regard­less of our striv­ing and struggling.

The Tao holds that play­ing music is the eas­i­est way to speak to God. And if I know any­thing, it’s that God hears all prayers, even those com­ing through an espe­cial­ly trau­mat­ic ren­di­tion of I Want To Hold Your Hand

So Izzie took Steve’s advice and stopped forc­ing it. She tried to let it be a prayer. She looked for the play­ful­ness and plea­sure in prac­tice, even when the notes clashed and the amp screeched. We’re not total­ly over the yips yet. But we’re accept­ing them as part of the journey.

  • Erin Skinner Smith

    Erin Skinner Smith wants every­one to slow down, eat real food, move their bod­ies, go out­side, and hit the pil­low a lit­tle ear­li­er for a more pur­pose­ful exis­tence. She is a pub­lished writer, yoga teacher, and mind­ful­ness coach. When she’s not stand­ing on her head or typ­ing on her trusty lap­top, you’ll find her read­ing, play­ing gui­tar, enjoy­ing a glass of bour­bon, or snug­gling on the couch with her peo­ple and pets. Send her a dig­i­tal high five at erintheomplace.net.