What are the yips? Explaining the unfortunate phenomenon apparently affecting Cowboys kicker Brett Maher

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What are the yips? Definition, origin, history in sports originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

In Monday night’s wild card matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Dallas Cowboys kicker Brett Maher missed a staggering four of his five extra point attempts, the most misses in any NFL game -- regular season or playoff -- since 1932.

It didn’t end up mattering as Dak Prescott and the rest of Maher’s teammates took care of business in the 31-14 rout, but Maher’s 20% completion rate drew considerable criticism and concern how a 33-year-old veteran who made all but two of his 129 attempts heading into the playoffs shanked the ball four times from 33 yards out. 

The performance even prompted Merriam-Webster to tweet out the definition of the word yips.

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The irony of such a short, silly-sounding word is that the crippling fear can strike athletes everywhere.

What are the yips?

Yips are the sudden and unexplained loss of skills typical to an athlete’s ability. Sometimes described as “mental static,” it affects athletes at every level and on some of the biggest stages.

What is the origin of the word “yips”?

The word is said to have been coined by 20th-century Scottish-American golfer Tommy Armour, who used it to explain his decision to abandon tournament play. 

The term is most common among golf and baseball circles, but it entered the everyday person’s vocabulary back in the summer of 2021 when Simone Biles withdrew from four of her five events at the Tokyo Olympics.

Biles eventually returned on the final day of competition to win bronze in the balance beam and became an advocate for prioritizing mental health in sports.

What are some notable examples of the yips?

Biles’ experience in Tokyo was probably the most notable example of the yips, but she’s not alone in the crippling mental block. 

NFL kicker Mike Vanderjagt famously developed a case of the yips during the 2005 playoffs when he missed a 46-yard field goal with 18 seconds left that would’ve brought his Indianapolis Colts even with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite having an 87.5% accuracy through eight seasons up to that point, Vanderjagt was ultimately cut in the offseason and never truly returned to form. In the following season with the Cowboys, he went 13-for-18 before eventually leaving the NFL for the Canadian Football League.

While Vanderjagt’s tale is a harrowing reminder of the impact of yips, there are plenty of comeback stories, such as second baseman Steve Sax. After winning NL Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Sax struggled tremendously throughout his sophomore campaign, particularly when attempting routine throws to first base. He finished with 30 errors that season and even earned became synonymous with this breakdown of mechanics as many in baseball called it “Steve Sax Syndrome.” Fortunately, Sax bounced back and finished his 13-year career with five All-Star nods and two World Series wins.