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Yipes, it's yips! Condition throws catcher's game

Jarrod Saltalamacchia is on his game, for the most part.

The former Texas Rangers catcher can hit, run and fire the ball on a dime anywhere on the infield – except back to the pitcher’s mound 60 feet away. This spring, those throws have either sailed over the pitcher’s head or fallen short, bouncing pathetically toward the mound. In April, he was demoted to the minor leagues, where he hasn’t been able to solve his inexplicable woes as he plays for the Oklahoma City RedHawks.

For now, Saltalamacchia, also known as “Salty,” and his coaches are blaming his inability to play a simple game of catch on a shoulder surgery he had in the fall. But some sports bloggers and commentators are touting a different idea: Poor Salty may have a case of the yips.

Yips are involuntary jerks and spasms of the wrist that inexplicably show up to ruin a pitcher’s pitch, a golfer’s putt or, in Salty’s case, a catcher’s throw. Long thought to be a mental block caused by crippling anxiety, new research is starting to suggest that, for some athletes, the problem may be neurological, comparable to writers’ or musicians’ cramps.

“For some people, it’s purely a medical thing; for other people, it’s purely a psychological thing. For the majority of people, it’s somewhere in between,” says Dr. Nick Dewan, a sports psychiatrist in Clearwater, Fla., who is currently conducting a study using an MRI machine to determine where in the brain yips occurs for golfers.

In some cases, yips may be linked to focal dystonia, a neurological condition that causes uncontrollable contraction in a specific muscle or group of muscles. Focal dystonia is often treated with Botox injections that cause muscles to contract. A 2008 study from the Mayo Clinic suggested the wrinkle reducer could be an effective treatment for golfers’ yips.

Usually, treatments for yips target the athlete’s mental issues, and may include anti-anxiety medications or sessions with a sports psychologist — a tactic Saltalamacchia is trying now. Sometimes, simply switching up the way the player throws the ball or holds a golf club can help.

“You can kind of fool the muscle into not contracting,” Dewan says. “You use a different club or you use a different throwing muscle.”

For some athletes, a case of the yips can turn into a career-ender. In 1973, Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Steve Blass suddenly, strangely, lost the ability to control his throws — he never snapped out of it and retired from baseball in 1975. Bad cases of the yips are sometimes even called “Steve Blass disease.” In 1990, yips ruined New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser’s career before he retired in May 1995. And last year, Dallas Cowboys kicker Nick Folk, one of the NFL’s best kickers during his rookie season in 2007, started consistently missing field goals and was cut from the team; he’ll give it another try this fall with a one-year contract with the New York Jets.

Good luck, Folk – and you, too, Salty!