The path is winding, and not even Joel Stave can know where it leads. He is a man without a rudder, fighting to move up stream against a current of confusion, unaware of the reasons behind a bizarre affliction in which the quarterback can no longer complete simple throws.
The story has been well-documented over the past week. Stave, a two-year starter at Wisconsin, found himself engaged in a fierce quarterback competition with teammate Tanner McEvoy for the starting job this fall. Through two weeks of fall camp, Stave appeared to be in the lead. And then, for causes unclear to anyone, he lost his way.
Passes that Stave had spent years perfecting became more difficult than ever. Basic slant patterns or out-route throws sailed high and wide of his target or nosedived into the turf. When Stave began to think about his mistakes, it only compounded the problem, which led to more mistakes.
"I’m throwing the ball after practice and everything like that just fine," Stave said. "Right now, my arm is just not working the way I’d like it to, I guess. I don’t know what it is."
One of the general terms used to describe his condition is the yips, which is a sudden, unexplained loss of fundamental motor functions that has affected athletes at all levels, including Major League Baseball and the professional golf circuit. The origins of such an affliction vary from person to person. One traumatic experience in the heat of battle has been known to cause the problem in some instances.
It is uncertain if Stave’s throwing issues stem from a similar traumatic event because the timeline of the setback is equally murky. Some believe Stave’s throws began to suffer once he learned McEvoy had earned the starting job over him. Others have suggested Stave lost his job once he could no longer consistently make simple throws.
Plenty of people have their own viewpoints on what has happened to Stave and where he goes now. Here are some whose perspectives could lend some guidance.
An ’emotional hijacking’
Stave has described his bout with passing control issues as the result of him being a perfectionist — a quarterback who wants to do everything right from a technical and mechanical standpoint. But one of the leading authorities in sports psychology and athlete performance says Stave’s predicament actually stems from him being an imperfectionist.
"He’s focusing on the things that aren’t perfect, and that’s what costs him," Dr. Tom Hanson said. "The human body is so extraordinary, if you try to wrestle control away from the unconscious, you pay a horrible price.
"Every athlete will tell you they do their best when they’re not thinking at all. They just see and connect and they’re able to get their conscious mind out of the way.
Hanson has spent the past seven years working with athletes who have experienced the yips, and he founded the website YipsBeGone.com in 2008. He was the full-time director of performance enhancement for the New York Yankees in 2001, and he also has consulted with the Texas Rangers, Anaheim Angels and Minnesota Twins.
On his website, Hanson has a 16-minute, 55-second video that details the basics of what happens to the mind when an athlete’s wires are crossed. He says the human brain makes 10 percent conscious decisions and 90 percent unconscious decisions. The No. 1 priority the brain has is safety.
In Stave’s case, according to Hanson, he is experiencing an "emotional hijacking" of the body, in which Stave believes he is not safe when he loads up to pass. That creates an atmosphere that makes Stave tense up before he throws, which is the opposite result he is looking for.
Hanson says he works with roughly 50 to 60 athletes a year that encounter bouts of the yips. But Stave’s case is unique, he says, because it is the first football player he has heard of that has experienced something similar.
Could a quarterback truly have the yips?
"Oh, 100 percent, yes," Hanson said. "The yips, to me, is not a standalone thing. It’s on a performance continuum, really. On the one end, you have total freedom and trust, and on the other end, you have the yips."
The way in which Hanson suggests Stave can work through his problem involves changing memories and pairing previously bad thoughts with good thoughts. Helping Stave — or any other athlete — recognize his mistakes are in the past and not in the present or future are equally important.
"The only place his bad throws exist is in his mind," Hanson said. "It’s all in how he’s holding the past. Previously, when he held a ball and he brought it up to throw, his mind said, ‘Am I safe? Yeah. I’m the freaking quarterback at Wisconsin. I can throw the ball to that guy. I’m totally safe.’ So he’s got full access to his talent. Now, he brings that ball up and it’s, ‘Am I safe? No. Why? Because of this throw and this throw and this throw. When I made this throw, that coach yelled at me and all those guys booed me. So, don’t throw it.’"
In order to combat the issue, Hanson has developed a system in which people can tap certain parts of the body to ease their mind. It is a method that has worked for some athletes, though not all, he said, because every individual has his or her own code to crack. The idea is to disrupt communication with the mind and fill it with something new.
Hanson asks people to take their index and middle fingers and tap four different spots on the body: One inch above the eyebrows, immediately to the side of either eye so fingers feel the bone over the eye, one inch directly below the eye and then one inch below the collarbone, where it meets the sternum. Individuals are asked to tap each spot two or three times per second for two to three seconds before moving on to the next point. While doing so, Hanson has the individual repeat, "Let it go," to create a belief that making such a change is safe within the body.
"After two or three rounds of that, you grab your wrist, like a football referee calling holding," Hanson said. "Take a deep breath in and as you exhale say, ‘Peace,’ and think of something that makes you feel really happy."
Hanson recognizes the tapping system may seem silly to some. He said he was skeptical when he first heard someone try it. But he noted he also saw immediate results with his athletes.
"The first athlete I did it on went from a 7 to 10 frustrated to zero in about 90 seconds," Hanson said. "I’ve been a tapping fool ever since. People ask me why I do it because it’s so weird. And I say because it produces the best results. It blows away anything I learned getting a Ph.D. in sports psychology."
A confidence issue
Steve Sax was a starting second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had been named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1982 and earned a World Series ring one year earlier. Life for Sax was good.
That is, until the ninth inning of an April 8, 1983 game against the Montreal Expos in which his throwing accuracy completely abandoned him.
Sax had drifted into right-center field to take a relay throw on a triple off the bat of Andre Dawson. When Sax collected the ball, he whirled and one-hopped a throw that bounced off his catcher’s shin guard. Dawson scored easily on the play, and the trauma of the moment quickly set in.
"And that was it," Sax said. "I started thinking about it. Pretty soon, that was it."
What transpired over the next three months could only be described as strange for Sax. He had developed what would become one of the most well known cases of the yips in sports history.
Sax committed eight errors in April and 11 errors in June. By the all-star break, he had tallied an astounding 24 errors, and fans mocked him by wearing helmets in the stands behind first base.
"It’s the loneliest feeling in the world because it’s something you’ve done your whole life," Sax said. "It’s something that you can do blindfolded. It’s one of the most rudimentary things you can do in sports, to throw something. Throw a football, shoot a basketball, throw a baseball.
"It’s a really easy thing to do and you can do it in your sleep. So that’s where the frustration comes in."
Unlike some who suggest an athlete with the yips is experiencing a mental block, Sax insists the only significant issue is a lack of confidence. He also believes Stave is experiencing the same thing.
"People think it’s a mental block and it’s not," said Sax, a motivational speaker who lives near Sacramento, Calif. "These athletes — and even myself when I was going through this — you can function right. You can speak correctly, you can write, you can judge distances, you can drive.
"There’s nothing to do with the mental capacity at all. All that’s happening is the young man lost his confidence. And that’s all this is. It’s right in front of your face and people try to make a big deal about it. They try to make it too hard. It’s not a mental block at all. It’s just a loss of confidence."
Sax did not see any specialists or psychologists and instead practiced harder than ever to work through his throwing issue. He knew the time required for a hitter to run down to first base was roughly four seconds, so he attempted to field every ground ball and throw on to first within that time frame.
One of his coaches, Monty Basgall, tried to change Sax’s throwing motion and arm angle to no avail. Sax opted to maintain the same motion he always had until he fixed the problem. He noted the way in which infielders could bare-hand groundballs and make off-balance throws to nip runners at first was an example that perfect technique was less important than confidence.
"Game time was almost trivial because I had just done it in practice," Sax said. "So I started building my confidence back and pretty soon that’s all it took. My game was back to having fun again, and my stats showed it."
Sax does not remember the specific date when his throwing issues were cured. But he recalled a play in which he dove to his right and made a stellar throw back across his body to beat a baserunner, which helped his confidence begin to soar.
In 1989, Sax played for the New York Yankees and led the American League in fielding and double plays. He appeared in five All-Star Games and would never make more than 22 errors in any other season.
"It’s nothing to do with your arm or your head or you at all," Sax said. "You’ve just got to get your confidence back one day at a time. It’s a process. It’s not an event. I started working at it in practice. That’s why practice is so important."
Joel Stave stood on the Camp Randall Stadium field Saturday morning, lobbing passes at half-speed toward the sideline before Wisconsin’s home opener. From a distance, one could never tell the internal struggle he was enduring. But up close, teammates could feel his pain.
As several offensive players exited the field before kickoff, including the entire tight end group, they approached Stave one by one and embraced him in a brief hug. Stave’s control issues had hindered him so much that he could not even participate in live warmup drills with receivers, forced instead to watch three of the team’s other quarterbacks.
It is an agony that teammates cannot fully comprehend. But they are doing their best to be supportive nonetheless.
Badgers wide receiver Jordan Fredrick has tried to work with Stave, staying late each day while his friend searches for a cure.
"Me and Joel are pretty close," Fredrick said. "I’ve been throwing with him after every practice. He looks great. He throws great. It’s very shocking as to what is happening, really. He’s going to turn it around. It’s one of those phases, I guess, every athlete goes through at some point. Unfortunately, it’s coming at a time when Joel’s not wanting it to come. And it’s lasting a little longer than he’s hoping.
"Hopefully it will turn around now. It’s something mental. He’s got one of the best arms I feel like in this country, so we’ve just got to get him back."
Fredrick said he first noticed Stave’s throwing troubles the Saturday before Wisconsin’s season opener against LSU — a day in which the Badgers practiced indoors to prepare for the dome stadium in Houston.
"It was very humid, very sweaty," Fredrick said. "It just kept slipping out of his hands. On the Monday afterwards, he said, ‘I’m feeling like it’s going to slip out of my hands.’ I think it messed with his emotion a little bit and that’s when it kept on. And then it just became a mental thing."
Fredrick insisted Stave’s struggles had nothing to do with McEvoy being named the starting quarterback. But the reason is less important to him and his teammates than the ability to provide comfort and encouragement when they can.
"We’ve all tried to talk to Joel," Badgers running back Melvin Gordon said. "He’s in a tough position. Many of us haven’t been through it, so we probably can’t understand the full extent. But we know how he feels.
"To lose the job like that and knowing you have the ability to come out here and make plays, it’s tough on him. But I have complete faith in Joel. He’ll continue to work and continue to get better. If his opportunity comes, I’m 100 percent sure he’ll make the best of it."
A mother’s love
Much like Sax, Barb Stave believes that if her son simply works hard enough, his mysterious throwing troubles will disappear. Joel has put in so much time and effort already, she said, and he isn’t about to give up now.
When Joel was growing up in Greenfield, Wis., Barb said, his piano teacher would give him a "ridiculous piece" of music to learn. Joel never complained and never batted an eye.
"He didn’t quit until it was done and it was good," Barb said. "That’s just who he is. I have all the confidence in the world in him, honestly."
Joel himself has said his confidence is not the issue. If he were asked to enter a game, he noted he would be "100 percent" ready. His mother, meanwhile, agrees.
"He loves to play," Barb said. "And (former coach Bret) Bielema said this about him. He said he’s a gamer. That he kicks it in when he’s in the game. So we’re just waiting for his opportunity, and I’m sure it will come."
But Joel Stave also may not fully grasp the forces at play in his own head. He acknowledges that one poor throw makes him think, which leads to more mistakes. And right now, he is not in a good enough place to earn repetitions during Wisconsin’s team drills, instead opting only for individual work on the sideline in practice.
"This game is so incredibly important to me that when I maybe miss a throw, miss something like that, then I start to think, ‘OK, well what can I do to fix it?’" Stave said. "Sometimes I maybe tend to overthink things, being I like to think a fairly intelligent kid who can a lot of times figure stuff out. Sometimes you just tend to overthink things."
For Stave’s family, the most exhausting aspect of his situation has been coming to grips with its significance. Stave spent the offseason working with NFL quarterback Drew Brees and former NFL quarterback John Beck. He drew praise for his talent and work ethic, and all seemed to be right.
That makes Stave’s current situation even more difficult to grasp.
"As far as what’s going on, I just really don’t understand it," Barb said. "I just don’t understand what’s going on. Everybody has off days. But you don’t find a more easygoing leader than Joel. His heart is just in this. So I just don’t think it’s really any big deal. He’s going to keep on fighting. He’s going to keep on working. We couldn’t be more proud of him."
Barb said Joel told her last week that he threw footballs at 100 targets during an individual workout and hit 95 of them. She also insists there is nothing wrong with him.
The reasons for Joel’s recent struggles are unknown to everyone. But Barb and her husband Karl’s main message to their son has been to remain positive and continue working. Barb said that mindset worked when their daughter, Rachel, a sophomore diver on Wisconsin’s women’s swimming team, sustained a neck injury last year during a dry land training session. She underwent surgery to repair a chip fracture of vertebrae but is healthy and ready to continue her diving career.
If Rachel can overcome, Barb said, so can Joel. And though opinions vary on what is wrong with Joel and how to fix it, Barb is convinced all that’s left is time and faith.
"It’s just another step in life," Barb said. "Life happens. They’re all survivors. They’re good kids, hard workers, and everything is going to work out great. I’m just not concerned.
"He’s a positive kid who believes in himself. We’re behind him."