Performance Blocks in Tennis – the Serving "Yips"

Article first published in the Long Island Tennis Magazine | August 18, 2010 | By Rob Polishook

Photo Credit: John Foxx

Editor’s note:  With the US Open moving into the quarter finals – this brief article is both timely and offers an additional reminder of how performance blocks can rear their ugly head even amongst the most seasoned and competent of professional athletes.  These difficulties, sometimes referred to as the “yips” or nervous tics have ruined great careers in several sports.  Macky Sasser’s in Major League Baseball woes are legendary – yet little is known about there derivation and how best to treat them.  Stay tuned to a series of articles soon to be coming your way on “Brainspotting” – a cutting edge approach combining neuroscience, and forms for working with visual-sensual-and-cognitive perceptions in a body centered therapeutic treatment modelThe results show great promise for these types of performance problems.


Will you know it when you see it? In fact, we have all seen it when watching tennis. To most, it is the pink elephant in the room that we do not know what to name. Last year, Karen Crouse of The New York Times began naming it when she wrote an article called “Toss the Ball, Hit the Ball, Oops, Oops!” during the 2009 U.S. Open. The piece referred to the abundance of double faults in the women’s game and by writing it, Crouse began to explore a silent epidemic, which was happening to many professional players: They could no longer serve consistently. How has a motion that they grew up doing in their sleep become so difficult?

The “pink elephant” is called a “performance block,” or specifically as it relates to the serve, the “serving yips.” They are an athlete’s worst nightmare because the athlete becomes frozen and unable to perform to a standard in which they were once able to. The block usually rears its head when players perceive high-pressure situations and experience feelings of helplessness.

Performance blocks go by many names depending on the sport. In baseball, for instance, it has been referred to as, “the yips,” or “the monster,” or even “a glitch.” New York baseball fans named it “Sasser-itis” after former New York Mets catcher Mackey Sasser’s throwing difficulties. In golf, it’s commonly referred to as the “putting yips.”
The word “yip” originated between 1400 and 1450. According to Random House Dictionary, it is a noun defined as, “A sharp bark or yelp, especially of excitement or delight.” Although many athletes who have experienced the yips can relate to the idea of a sharp yelp of distress, they certainly do not experience delight! American Heritage Dictionary defines the yips as, nervousness or tension that causes an athlete to fail to perform effectively, especially in missing short putts in golf (probably imitative of jerky motions caused by tension). In order to incorporate the word into more colloquial terms, I created an acronym for the yips: “Yelping in Painful Silence,” or, taking from Karen Crouse’s terminology, “the Oops,” which can be understood as, “On again, Off again Performance Syndrome.”

In tennis, performance blocks are most obviously observed with service tosses and serves. In the men’s professional game, Guillermo Coria was known to have the “serving yips” in 2006 and was known to serve over 20 double faults in a match.

Today, the service yips are most notable observed in the woman’s game with Dinara Safina, Ana Ivanovic and Elena Dementieva. Each of these players has struggled with their toss, rhythm and motion. In the 2010 French Open, Safina and Ivanovic had 17 and nine double faults per match respectively.

Strange as it may seem, performance blocks and the yips have been affecting athletes of all ages and sports. What is important to remember is the athlete is not broken. They still possess the skills necessary to perform and get back on track. In fact, and in my experience, once the root cause to the block is uncovered and resolved, the person and the athlete will rebound stronger, be more resilient, and perform better than ever.

About the Author

Rob Polishook
Founder and Director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group

Rob Polishook, MA, CPC is the founder and director of Inside the Zone Sports Performance Group. As a mental training coach, he works with athletes and teams at the middle school, high school, national, collegiate and professional levels. His work focuses on helping athletes and teams gain the mental edge, often the difference between winning and losing. Rob has spoken to athletes, coaches, parents both nationally at USTA, USPTA, ITA conferences, and has conducted international workshops and has worked with top-ranked juniors in India, Israel, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He was awarded the 2008 USPTA-Eastern Division High School Coach of the Year Award. He may be reached by phone at (973) 723-0314, e-mail [email protected], or visit www.insidethezone.com.

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