No Pepper Games: The Yips
Post by Cincinnatus Van... on 12/24/2012 12:18pm
The crowd holds its breath. TV cameras focus. Careers, money, fame hang in the balance. An athlete prepares to do - the thing.
Somewhere in early childhood this athlete showed the magic genes, gift of the sporting Gods, and since that time, the athlete has prepared to do - the thing.
Dates have been missed. Schoolwork sloughed off. Friendships broken. Hours spent in weight rooms and on tracks. So much sacrifice in service of - the thing.
The thing may be putting a golf ball. The thing may be running 1,500 meters. The thing may be pitching a baseball. The thing may be kicking a leather ball between two uprights.
This pursuit of the thing is the lifelong quest for these athletes. Like all good quest tales, there are demons. Some athletes bring their own inner demons, some have them supplied by grasping parents and martinet coaches. Sometimes, the demons arrive unannounced and unbidden.
The thing no longer works. Short putts roll wayward. Free throws sail off course. Pitches go wild. Field goals clank off uprights. Neurologists call it "focal dystonia." Golfers call it "the yips."
No mantra will soothe the yips. No amount of extra practice will work them away. Once sighted, the yips rarely disappear for good.
In baseball, they call the yips "Steve Blass disease." Mr. Blass, no doubt, wishes to be remembered for something else. Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankees second baseman, suddenly lost his ability to throw to first base. Rick Ankiel of the Cardinals inexplicably threw five wild pitches in a single inning of a playoff game. Both men moved to the outfield. Neither was ever quite the same player again.
The yips can strike in football. So it is with Mason Crosby, the Packers placekicker.
The thing that Mr. Crosby has trained his leg to do, it will no longer do. He is a miserable 58.6% for the year. He was 2-for-2 yesterday, but one of those was a lucky bounce that clanked off the uprights. That mauling of the Titans was as low-pressure as an NFL kicker's life will ever get. The playoffs are coming. Pressure is increasing. The yips respond to a peculiar Boyle's law of their own.
As fans, stockholders, ticket buyers, we call for Mason Crosby's head. We want only the NFL's best wearing the green-and-gold.
As human beings, one cannot help but feel for Mason Crosby. This is a hard-working man, who has reached the pinnacle of his peculiar profession. One hopes for a Lourdes in the tunnels of Lambeau, and may he find his miracle cure.
The yips come on suddenly, and attack in high pressure situations. There are lower profile sports, and slower-acting demons.
Suzy Favor Hamilton is a legend among Wisconsin athletes, holder of nine NCAA running titles. She fought bulimia and depression the whole way.
She is also possibly the greatest runner never to win an Olympic medal, despite three trips to the games. The pressure, the spotlight, the inner demons got to her every time. In the 2000 games in Sydney, her last, she lost her lead with 200 meters to go. The pressure to win was too great. When she saw she couldn't win, she fell deliberately.
It came out this week that Suzy Favor Hamilton has been working as a high-priced call girl.
This is not a sexy story. This is a cry for help, writ large in neon.
I do not know Mrs. Hamilton. I do not judge Mrs. Hamilton. As an athlete, a Wisconsinite, a human being, I hope she's getting the help she needs. If she does, there will be no thanks due to her corporate partners.
Every one of the companies she sponsors has clutched the pearls, fainted on the couch, and disavowed any knowledge of Suzy Favor Hamilton.
Is what she did so terrible? How many NBA stars have a DUI to go with their sneaker deal? Hertz Rent-A-Car kept O.J. Simpson on the payroll after his first domestic violence arrest. If Suzy were merely violent, she could keep her endorsements. But she has touched the Puritanical third rail, S-E-X, and now the trollope must wear a scarlet letter.
Even her volunteer work will be stopped. Suzy has mentored high school runners as part of a Foot Locker racing series. Peter Henkes, overseer of Foot Locker's Midwest regional running series was widely quoted as saying, "Unfortunately some bad decisions have hurt not only her but kids in the future because she can't be that role model again."
Who appointed Peter Henkes the guardian of distance runner's morals? Maybe, you sanctimonious heel, she's a better role model for girls now that her foibles are on display. Maybe our girls need one less perky, perfect unattainable ideal and one more gloriously complicated human being. Maybe the kids need to see what a long struggle looks like. Here's fervently hoping that future kids will work with a Suzy Favor Hamilton who has won.
Suzy Favor Hamilton's battles aren't sudden stuff. She has fought a long battle. She has much farther to go. We will root for that win harder than we ever rooted for her in Sydney. That's the meaning of "role model" and Foot Locker should be ashamed of its cowardice.
The math should be simple. Talent plus hard work should equal success. The line on the graph should be straight. "What is straight?" asked Tennessee Williams. "A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it's curved like a road through mountains."
We do not know what goes on in the hearts of famous athletes. We do not know what goes on in the hearts of those closest to us. Hell, we barely know our own hearts.
Everyone you know is battling some kind of inner demon. That annoying co-worker has an unfulfilled ambition. The know-it-all neighbor has a secret shame. We're all a mess of self-doubt and scar tissue walking around pretending we know what we're talking about and hoping we're not found out.
This holiday, may you have shoulders to cry on and willing ears for your troubles. May you be the shoulders and ears for someone else. My Christmas wish is that we take each other with a little less judgment and a little more humility. We are the human race. We are complicated animals. Each one of us, in our own way, has the yips.