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Fans of professional tennis let out a collective cheer two days ago.
On the other side of the world, Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus won the Australian Open women’s singles championship, the first Grand Slam of her stellar career.
It also represented a victory over “the yips,” one of the most debilitating frailties in the world of sports. Beginning three years ago, Sabalenka, who has one of the biggest serves on the women’s tour, suddenly couldn’t get the ball over the net. Last year alone she committed 400 double faults, far more than any of her competitors.
The yips is a catch-all term for the sudden, unexplained inability to execute a basic skill – an activity of one kind or another that a highly trained athlete has performed with ease literally a million times before.
Seemingly out of the blue, a golf champion like David Duval can’t sink a six-inch putt. Or the first player selected overall in the 2017 NBA draft, Markelle Fultz, can’t hit a free throw.
Steve Blass, an All-Star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1964 to 1972, suddenly lost his ability to throw strikes. Within two years he was out of the league. Observers called his struggles Steve Blass Disease. In the late 1990s, Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankees’ Gold Glove second baseman, had no trouble fielding ground balls. But for no discernible reason he lost the ability to consistently do something he had done all his life – throw the ball to first base. Sometimes things went well. Other times the ball missed his teammate’s glove by 20 feet, or sailed over his head into the stands.
Fans of Simone Biles – widely recognized as the greatest female gymnast of all time – were stunned when a bad case of the “twisties” compelled her to drop out of her signature events at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021. The twisties are a version of the yips where a gymnast suddenly feels disoriented and may “forget,” in the moment, how to execute a safe landing.
Fans of the Dallas Cowboys stared incredulously at their screens the past two weekends as Brett Maher, their outstanding placekicker, missed five consecutive extra points. During the regular season he had converted 50 of 53 attempts – and two of those had been blocked. How could one of the best kickers in the world suddenly implode?
The yips – also known as freezing, the jerks, the staggers, and the waggles – are a mystery.
Neurologists point to the phenomenon of focal dystonia, involuntary spasms that affect just one part of the body – perhaps a part that experiences repetitive movement (like a kicker’s leg or a tennis player’s arm). Athletes, coaches, and psychologists agree that performance anxiety in the big moment (popularly known as “choking”) is also likely to be in the mix. If fear of failure in front of one’s peers and a national TV audience isn’t actually caused by the yips, such fear undoubtedly makes the yips worse.
In the face of such public embarrassment, highly trained athletes may lose their composure. Then their confidence. Then their careers.
Aryna Sabalenka faced all of that. When she doubled-faulted on her very first opportunity to serve last Saturday (something that might have filled her with self-doubt in the past) she calmly refocused. When she finally won the match, she burst into tears – no doubt a combination of joy, relief, and the peculiar anxiety that comes from finally standing at the top of the mountain – knowing she will have to do it all over again in the next tournament.
The yips also affect non-athletes.
Musicians may suddenly find it impossible to play a Beethoven sonata or a Chopin nocturne. Keyboardists may lose the simple “muscle memory” required to type a sentence. People who rely on handwriting may discover, to their horror, that they cannot hold a pen.
And then there’s what we might call the spiritual yips – the sudden, unexpected, and disheartening inability to trust God.
Out the blue, I cannot seem to pray. Or sense God’s presence. Or believe that my out-of-control life is going to turn out OK.
It’s like a spiritual panic attack.
Perhaps it comes after experiencing a personal setback. Or losing a loved one. Or reading a book that calls into question everything I ever thought I knew about God.
Worst of all, who can I tell? In a community of people who believe, it’s tough being the person struggling with faith. If I’m a pastor, teacher, small group leader, or parent – knowing there are people who are counting on me to help steer them through life’s minefields – how can I ever admit that I have serious doubts of my own?
The answer is that God is merciful to those experiencing the spiritual yips.
In the middle of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is confronted by a frantic father. His son is afflicted by a demon. “If you can do anything,” the father implores, “take pity on us and help us.”
“’If you can’?” says Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” The father immediately replies, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24). Whereupon Jesus heals the boy.
This is an extraordinary text. It should demolish forever any basis for the so-called Name It and Claim It theology advocated by certain preachers – that all we need to bring to a perfect God is a perfect faith, after which God will be perfectly willing to shower us with the health, wealth, and wholeness we seek.
What does the father bring to Jesus? All he can offer is a mixed bag of doubt, trust, and sheer desperation. I want to believe. I cannot believe. Please help me believe.
But that is enough.
Our ability to perform spiritually is not the point. Our inability to perform spiritually is not the point. God’s gracious willingness to provide everything we need is the real point.
“The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27).
Even if we should lose, for a time, the ability to do the simplest things – trust, pray, and persevere – we can never fall so far that God cannot catch us.
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