Escaping Your Head, One Shot at at Time

As the NBA playoffs begin, we should all be Philadelphia Sixers fans, even if we (you) are not basketball fans. I know it’s hard. Before last month, I had a hard time cheering for any team from Philadelphia.

I mean, consider: after the 2018 Super Bowl, Eagles fans celebrated their win by cheering on one of their own as he, with great bravado, knelt down and ate some horse shit off the street (don’t click that). This was entirely in keeping with my understanding of the Philadelphia sports scene.  These were, after all, the same fans who had once booed Santa and pelted him with snowballs at halftime.  If sports is about communal bonds, it’s just hard to relate to Philly fans.

But it’s been impossible for me not to relate to  the Sixers 19-year-old backup point guard, Markelle Fultz. Despite playing only a few games, Fultz was the most interesting player in the NBA this year. For months it appeared as though Fultz’ career would be over before it began because of a season (and perhaps career) ending injury. But not a physical one — Markelle Fultz lost the season as a result of a bizarre psychological condition called the yips. I have come down with the yips on more than a few occasions, so not only am I a member of the Markelle Fultz booster club, I am actively recruiting new members.

Markelle Fultz may be a 19 year old multi-millionaire basketball star. But if you have ever suffered self-doubt that you feared may never leave, then Markelle Fultz is the home-team player for you.

***

This is a description of Fultz written shortly before the 2017 NBA draft.

“….he is the one. Fultz is on a tier to himself at the top — a player both talented enough to come in and change an entire team’s game plan from day one of practice and malleable enough to fit into pre existing systems.

Fultz was incredible in college. Strong, fast, and a creative playmaker. He was a point guard with a 6’ 10” wingspan who could handle the ball and also knock down three pointers.  He was widely considered the best amateur basketball player on the planet.

The 76ers traded up to pick him first overall in the June 2017 NBA draft.  

But that was 2017. By January of 2018, this year, Fultz had missed essentially an entire season. When 76ers head coach Brett Brown was asked if Fultz needed to be 100% in order to return to the team. What he needs … to be, is able to shoot a basketball.”

The injury, or illness, that had benched Fultz was not a torn achilles or ACL. It was in fact much worse. Fultz appears to have the yips. The yips is a brutal condition where a flicker of self consciousness and doubt spreads into a bonfire and you just can’t get out of your head. But it’s not just a lack of confidence or fear of blowing a game. Most athletes have felt that at some point.  Many have also had that doubt affect their play.  

What makes the yips different is that you are unable to forget how powerful that doubt can be. You start anticipating the doubt.  Eventually a mere thought about the doubt is enough to block the muscle memory that has been built up by endless practice, and you are left strategizing about how to perform fundamentals that you had mastered long ago.

In essence, Fultz’ injury was unchecked self-consciousness.

***

In Chad Harbach’s novel the Art of Fielding, prodigious shortstop Henry Skrimshander’s effortless throwing motion all of a sudden becomes filled to the brim with mental effort.  “The distance called for a casual sidearm fling — he’d done it ten thousand times. But now he paused, double-clutched. He’d thrown the last one too soft, better put a little mustard on it — no, no, not too hard, too hard would be bad too. He clutched again. Now the runner was closing in, and Henry had no choice but to throw it hard, really hard, too hard for Ajay to handle from 30 feet away.”

Fultz appeared to be in the same boat. As the season approached his free throw shooting became a source of alarm for 76ers fans.  Instead of the natural shooting motion he exhibited in college, he looked like a 6th grader who, with each shot, was trying to think through his coaches instructions while also feeling out what felt right to him.

When I read these reports I couldn’t help but empathize with Fultz.

The first time I really experienced the yips was as a kid shooting free throws in my neighbor’s driveway. I wouldn’t allow myself to leave the court until making five free throws in a row. That fifth free throw started to feel like some type of existential crises.  It didn’t matter that nobody else was even aware that I was shooting free throws; it was a question of whether I could control my fear or it would control me. What kind of (7 year old) man was I, after all? I assumed the first four free throws would go in. But that fifth was different.  I understood the doubt’s power and the thought of doubt rippled through my elbow, my wrist and my index finger as the ball rolled off my hand. And so I would start over at zero again. It was not the last time overactive metacognition would replace my muscle memory.

I read the first 80 pages, of the Art of Fielding, thought it was a beautiful novel, and then put it away because it hit too close to home. I have played more than a thousand hours of baseball in my life but last year before a co-ed recreational softball game I went into a dead end alley in downtown chicago and threw a softball over and over again against a concrete wall as hard as I could.  I was trying to outthrow the yips.  The day before while playing catch the simple question “do you want to play third?” had led me to start thinking about whether I would think too much and all of a sudden I started bouncing throws at my friends feet and sailing them over his head.

Most people have felt that fear of fear at some point. Have you ever thought, what if I just can’t finish this essay just because I just can’t, because the words won’t come?  Ever clinched up when you were trying to say something clever to someone you wanted to impress?  Ever wondered if you will be too nervous before a long anticipated sexual encounter?

Now take that memory and imagine that you are 19 years old, one year removed from high school, you play for the most hostile fan base in America, and your team traded up to get you. Some of the guys who were picked after you are already budding stars.  You are being paid millions of dollars to become the final piece in the 76ers transition from bottom dwellers to a team on the rise. People are talking about you regularly across every sports media platform in the country.  

Now you have to go out there and play 82 games and then step it up a notch in the playoffs to show that you belong among the best. And whatever you do, don’t think about the fact that if you start thinking about it, about the doubt, it may all fall apart.

***

I am undoubtedly projecting onto Fultz, but this season it was hard not to. After the free throw shooting came under scrutiny, he played four timid and unimpressive games.  He passed up shots and missed many of the ones he had taken. It was announced that he had to have fluid drained from his shoulder and was playing through pain, but that story was quickly replaced by a correction that he had in fact had a cortisone shot.  Whether fluids were going in or out of his shoulder soon became a moot point as his absence stretched into weeks and then months that corresponded with a murky silence from the 76ers and Fultz’s agent that made it clear they were no longer comfortable defending the illusion that this was all about his shoulder.  It’s hard to put “crippling doubt” on an injury report.

***

Stories of fear and self doubt are more present in baseball, a game filled with time to mull over and anticipate mistakes. Mets Catcher Mickey Sasser (1988-1992) had to tap his glove 3 or 4 times or pump his arm repeatedly before he could throw the ball back to his pitcher, a fact which base runners (and the New York sports media) certainly recognized and played to their advantage.  Chuck Knoblauch was a four time All-Star who stopped being able to throw the ball from second to first on routine grounders.

Rick Ankiel was a top tier pitcher in the majors who felt “invincible” on the mound until he threw a wild pitch in a playoff game that should have been caught by his catcher. After that wild pitch Ankiel’s brain stepped in and he walked four and threw five excruciating wild pitches and was never quite the same. At a certain point the yips consumed him.  “You can’t get away from it, you know. I’m driving down the street, and I see some kids playing catch. And, you know, I’ll stop and watch them and think, man, it looks easy for them. Why can’t I do that?”  

Prior to that wild pitch, Ankiel hadn’t been nervous.  His team had a 6 run lead and more importantly, he was fucking good!  Ankiel, like Fultz, was surely the best athlete on every playground he stepped onto as a kid.  A lifetime’s worth of success built upon success in sports.  Before Ankiel’s first meltdown he was unbeaten in his last ten starts. Shortly before Sasser stopped being able to throw the ball back to the mound he was one of the hottest hitters in baseball.

Sometimes the yips are ruthless in one part of the game but non existent in other aspects.  Cubs pitcher Jon Lester has great control when he pitches to the plate, but no control at all when throwing the exact same distance to first.  Ankiel abandoned his pitching career but returned to the game as an outfielder with possibly the best outfield arm in baseball. Throwing 300 feet to home was easier than throwing 60 ½ feet to home for him.

 

I can’t really remember not understanding the yips. But I can’t pretend to know what the yips are like for these guys. It must be particularly terrifying to have your defining ability in life and the basis for your family’s income all of a sudden stripped from you, without any real explanation. To have the fear that you will lose the game you love become the reason you lose the game you love.

***

The yips are rare in the NBA. It helps that everyone is missing shots all the time. If you screw up, you can just try and burn off the frustration by doubling down on defense and trying to get the ball back, which you inevitably will in 30 seconds.

So Fultz case was essentially unprecedented.  Videos leaked of him trying to shoot left handed threes. There were stories of him using virtual reality goggles to try and visualize shots going through. There was genuine concern that his career would last no more than four games.   

It was hard for me to believe that Fultz would bounce back.

But he did! Without any warning or build up, the 76ers announced he would play for the first time in late March after being out since October. And he played well.  

 

 

After the game his emotional coach said “It was his decision…It’s been fluid. I get goosebumps telling you all that. I’m so proud of him.”

Out on the court again, he has reminded folks why he was the number one pick.  In the last game of the regular season Fultz became the first teenager in NBA history to have a triple double.

***

Fultz has not fully addressed his absence or what it is that allowed him to return. But he surely benefitted from athletes talking about mental health in new ways.  Five time all star Kevin Love left a game because he had a panic attack earlier this season.  He wrote publicly about the incident in an essay for the Players Tribune called “Everyone is going through something. ” In the article, he attributed his frankness in part to the fact that Raptors star DeMar DeRozan had also just opened up about his battles with depression and anxiety and described how “Sometimes . . . it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Another shift in sports might be helping too: increasingly, coaches focus on improvement rather than results.  Blake Griffin’s shooting coach gave him M&Ms to emphasize “mechanics not makes.”  A  practice of focusing only on what you can control — your effort and preparation, not your ability — was a key part of the 2016 Cubs philosophy as they overcame an entire city’s century long expectation that they would choke away another opportunity to win the world series. Jon Lester didn’t throw a ball to first the whole series. But, yips and all, he was a big part of the championship.

The world of sports radio hyperbole, where everyone is at their core either a choker or a winner, has given way to a broader understanding that people can improve, decline and then improve again.  Players can be a weakness on one team but excel on another team that better highlights their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.  

***

I don’t know when Fultz will tell his full story.  He surely has not forgotten that sense of fragility that kept him out of games from October to March. Talking about it might feel as though he was tempting fate, or in this case, tempting doubt.

But as the 76ers enter into the playoffs you should cheer for Markelle Fultz because his struggle is a reminder that we can be absolutely crippled by doubt, but then come back, improve, get better. We can heal.  

Mark Mesle: Sweaty Soldier