Gareth Southgate is uniquely qualified to deal with England’s penalty malaise
The yips can take more than one form. Usually we think of the phenomenon in terms of an individual submitting to a technical meltdown: a golfer seizing up at the sight of a six-inch putt, a tennis player suddenly incapable of tossing the ball up for a serve accurately, or a bowler losing the ability to land the ball anywhere near the cut strip.
Jon Lester is one of the stranger variations. A recent issue of Sports Illustrated carried a long and absorbing feature on the 33-year-old left-handed pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, who mysteriously lost the ability several years ago to throw the ball to first base. Facing a batter, he was as effective as ever. Turn him 90 degrees left, and he was like a man trying to find a target while blindfolded.
Naturally he tried to cure the problem, attempting to find its source in biometrics and psychology as he moved from the Boston Red Sox to the Oakland As and on to Chicago. Nothing made a difference. So he chose to work around it, developing a system of feints and signs to keep opponents from taking advantage of that specific weakness. His coaches came to accept the occasional stolen base as the price of pitching that remained useful enough for Lester to be given a $155m six-year contract by the Cubs, and to play a part in their hoodoo-ending World Series win last year.
What makes the yips so alarming is the attack it mounts on a function that has probably never been questioned before. The fundamental joy of sport is in the satisfaction of making something go where you want it to go, whether it’s a tiny little golf ball or a 200mph racing car. That begins in childhood, with the first application of motor functions. As expertise grows, the simplest of pleasures can evolve naturally into an enriching engagement with competitive sport. It remains something against which we can continually measure ourselves, sometimes in as trivial a way as kicking a pebble into a gutter or tossing a crumpled envelope into a wastepaper basket.
Getting the yips is a horrifying experience. When it happened to me, I had been playing cricket very happily for almost 30 years. On a pleasant afternoon at a lovely ground in Oxford I’d taken four wickets in six or seven overs at fast-medium pace when the first delivery of a new over suddenly, and for no apparent reason, went vertical. The next one almost hit my toecap. And that’s how it continued, until the over mercifully ended after an excruciating number of no-balls.
Every element of natural co-ordination had vanished. It didn’t come back the next weekend or during solitary hours in the nets spent attempting to put it right. I didn’t try psychotherapy. Instead I gave up a game that had turned from a reliable source of self-validation into a generator of mental distress.
The key seemed to be in the moment the ball left the hand: the release from the fingertips. The more intense the efforts to sort it out, the more it seemed that something intervened to override the combination of physical and mental judgment that made it possible to direct a ball accurately. It was as if a subliminal flash of white light had obliterated all the parameters instinctively consulted and processed at the moment of delivery. Maybe that’s what Lester experiences when he attempts a throw to first base.
The eminent philosopher and sports fan David Papineau, who teaches at King’s College London and New York’s City University, writes interestingly about the yips in his new book Knowing the Score, subtitled How Sport Teaches Us About Philosophy (And Philosophy About Sport). “The yips,” he writes, “are the sporting equivalent of a cancer that cannot be cured but only placed in remission.” According to his analysis, my efforts in the nets were worse than wasted. “No good can come from self-consciousness about your technique. By turning your mind towards the components of your skills, you reduce yourself to the level of a beginner who is trying to play by numbers. You end up desperately stitching together movements, rather than exercising the smooth skills your hours of practice have instilled in you.”
The yips, he continues, “afflict only those actions that are triggered by the players themselves”. That includes the taking of a penalty kick, as we saw again last weekend, when England’s record of failure at shoot-outs in international tournaments was extended to encompass the team who lost the final of the European under-17 championship.
They had twice taken the lead against Spain and were 2-1 up in stoppage time when their opponents equalised again in the sixth minute of stoppage time. Using an interesting new Uefa system aimed at equalising the psychological pressure, under which one team takes the first penalty and then each takes two in a row, England’s Aidan Barlow converted the opening kick, followed by two successes for Spain. Then Rhian Brewster and Joel Latibeaudiere both missed the target for England, hitting a post and firing over the bar respectively, leaving their opponents to seal a 4-1 success with two more impeccable efforts.
It was hard to avoid the conclusion that Brewster and Latibeaudiere were undermined not by personal technical failings or by the significance of the night but by an underlying awareness of a dismaying tradition going back 10 years before they were born, to the nightmare of Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce in Turin, and featuring Gareth Southgate,, Paul Ince, David Batty, David Beckham, Darius Vassell, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, and the Ashleys Young and Cole. Gripped by fear of the shootout, England players of every type, age and degree of technical sophistication seem to fall victim to the sudden flash of white light that destroys their ability to bring mind and body together to accomplish a familiar action.
Some would define the under-17 defeat as choking: the collapse leading to the loss of a match which had seemed won. That might indeed be the effect. But the cause is a version of the yips. Although perhaps not the very worst kind, the sort that ends careers, it is the result of a syndrome that no remedy yet devised by a succession of England managers at all levels has cured.
Entire books have been written about penalty-taking, particularly since goalkeepers became taller and more agile and were permitted to move about on their line.
Someone at St George’s Park, perhaps with Southgate’s encouragement, should be taking a serious look at this problem and devising an approach applicable to all players: a method of mind management that replaces the distractions of process and outcome with a focus on something as simple as kicking a pebble into the gutter.