Television

What Simone Biles Can Teach Ted Lasso About “the Yips”

Naming the problem is only the first step on the path to wellness.

Ted Lasso and Simone Biles.
Ted, Simone. Simone, Ted. Photos by 27th Annual SAG Awards/Getty Images for WarnerMedia and Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images. 

One of Ted Lasso’s favorite pieces of advice is “Be a goldfish.” He frequently coaches the players of AFC Richmond to adopt this mentality, meaning to put the negative, as well as anything else that happened more than a few seconds ago, behind them and just play the game. But some things aren’t so easy for people to shake off. We aren’t fish leading meaningless lives in glass bowls; we’re humans with complex emotions, and there are times when it is simply impossible to forget.

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The premiere of Ted Lasso’s second season featured star footballer Dani Rojas in exactly such a situation. Dani lines up the winning goal with seconds to go, and lets loose a perfect kick … only to accidentally execute the Greyhounds’ mascot when the pup comes bounding out of nowhere to meet the ball in midair. How does one “be a goldfish” when confronted with such uniquely ridiculous, yet soul-crushingly sad, trauma? Spoiler: He doesn’t. Dani comes down with a dreaded case of the “yips,” and Ted and his coaching staff get to work on solving the problem.

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The show introduces the concept of the yips— when a top athlete suddenly and unexpectedly loses their ability to perform—via a scene in which Richmond’s coaching staff weighs their options for getting Dani back on his game. Newly installed coach Nate coldly suggests that they show Dani “his goddamn paycheck” as motivation, while Higgins, the team’s affable head of operations recommends a more sympathetic approach, saying, “The first thing we need to do is find the issue.” But this call for understanding is (at least initially) unheeded by the Americans, Ted and Coach Beard. They’re quick to identify Dani’s condition, but don’t really have a concrete plan to address the situation.

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Ted Lasso’s second season debuted on the same day as the delayed Tokyo Olympics, in which the yips—more specifically, the gymnastics variant known as “the twisties”—have taken center stage. On Tuesday, celebrated gymnast Simone Biles unexpectedly dropped out of the women’s all-around competition, citing a need to “focus on my well-being.” On her Instagram, Biles subsequently showed footage of herself in practice, missing the high bar and landing in several precarious positions, explaining, “My mind & body are simply not in sync.

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While the cause of Dani’s yips is made quite clear in Ted Lasso—it is, after all, a work of fiction—the cause of Biles’s twisties is not exactly known to us at this time. Or, perhaps it is. We’ve all been living through unprecedented times in a deadly pandemic, and things are taking a marked toll on everyone. That includes people who the general public see as untouchable or unsinkable, like Biles.

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Maybe it’s the crushing toll of the pressure we put on elite athletes in this country. Maybe it’s a personal issue. Maybe it’s all of the above. It literally could be anything. We can speculate all we want, but we don’t know and, honestly, it’s not our business. What we do know is that Biles experienced a form of the yips and, instead of trying to shove down the negative and accentuate the positive like one of Ted Lasso’s beloved goldfish, she bravely stepped back and identified that something deeper was driving her performance issues.

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Unlike Biles, Ted Lasso and Coach Beard approach the concept of the yips as a terrifying and mysterious affliction. They superstitiously refuse to even say the word out loud, and when other people dare to utter it, they proceed to have a full-on freakout. Historically, the term has explained the face of the issue—athlete can’t perform—but not the core problem causing the athlete to falter, let alone how to reverse its course.

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The yips  are a nebulous concept. The term was coined approximately a century ago by golfer Tommy Armor, and given how long it’s been around, it’s understandable that it completely ignores the more complex psychology of athletes. Talking about feelings wasn’t really a thing in the early 1900’s—even Freud’s woefully outdated theories were just beginning to make a splash. And since mental wellness is a difficult issue to broach even now, the sports world continues to embrace the yips as a valid concept, even though it truly doesn’t explain much of anything.

This becomes quickly apparent in Ted Lasso. Ted reluctantly agrees to have Richmond’s new sports psychologist to come in and treat Dani, but while they wait for her arrival, he soldiers on with his own yips cure-all. He corrals Dani, gives him a patented pep talk, and encourages him to just “have fun” playing. This approach immediately and literally backfires, with Ted taking a painful errant kick to the keister.

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Ted’s skepticism of talk therapy curiously seems to dovetail with his relentless positivity. While he is a coach who leads with kindness and understanding, he’s also a man who doesn’t like to focus on the negative. Even though this approach is meant to protect his players, positivity only goes so far before it becomes potentially toxic.

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Extremes aren’t good for anyone, especially in an environment in which athletes can be seriously injured. Biles’s recent announcement brought up old memories for many elite gymnasts, including Dominque Moceanu and Kerri Strug. Both women came out on social media in support for Biles, recalling the horrific emotional abuse, and physical neglect that they suffered at the hands of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi during the 1996 Olympics.

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At the time, the United States felt a triumphant pride in the “Magnificent Seven” for taking home the gold at those games, but looking back, that team stands in stark contrast to Biles’s courageous decision in Tokyo. When Strug badly injured her ankle on a failed vault, and then anted up for another go, viewers cheered. The nation celebrated her as she played through the pain, applauding her grit and lauding her fortitude instead of worrying about her well-being. This “just push through it” mentality toward pro athletes doesn’t just apply to the Olympics. It is still alive and well today. We can see it in the NFL’s worrying track record with concussed players and the increase in injuries in the NBA, as athletes are encouraged to solider on with inadequate rest.

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Ted Lasso, of course, would never.

Ted would care for a physically injured player like he was nursing a baby bird back to health. He would shower them with praise, biscuits, and ’90s pop culture references until they reached 100 percent. Yet for all his extreme positivity, and even his focus on helping his players become the best versions of themselves, win-loss records be damned, Ted shies away from directly addressing distressing psychological issues that his players might experience. Like so many people in this world, he wishes for easy explanations and solutions to solve multifaceted issues. When he diagnoses Dani’s yips, he feels that he will be well on the road to solving the problem. But while attaching a commonly understood term to a given problem can be a useful tool, it’s merely the first step on the path to wellness. In the field of psychology, a diagnosis provides a communal language for both providers and patients to utilize in the search for the right form of treatment. Ultimately, even when working in a world of shared terminology, a diagnosis is just a jumping-off point for further exploration.

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People often want simple answers, but in both sports and in mental health, sacrifice and pain must come before success. Dani comes out of his session with sports psychologist Dr. Sharon Fieldstone as a new man. He bounces onto the field and makes a corner kick with flair, causing the team to rally around him in excitement. While the idea of a single session with a psychologist entirely curing a man of his doggie death trauma is a bit simplistic, it’s a step in the right direction for the depiction of pro sports on TV.

The second season of Ted Lasso firmly plants a flag for mental health as, simply, health. As many viewers might be coming to the season on the heels of Biles’s culture-shaking announcement, these prominent depictions of sports figures taking mental health seriously might serve to shift the narrative surrounding seeking help when it is needed. Stoicism as a response to distress can only take an individual so far before serious consequences can potentially occur. As the current season of Ted Lasso continues to unfold, viewers might be surprised to see a continued emphasis on the risks of ignoring psychological warning signs before they become dangerous.

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For a series that’s been perceived as a comfort binge, some may feel that this type of storyline is incongruous or out of step with the show as a whole. Yet, a sea change seems to be upon us. Earnest messaging in regards to mental health is clearly becoming an emerging trend in sports, documentaries, comedies, and dramas, and Ted Lasso is poised to further advance a much-needed conversation that Simone Biles has already cracked wide open. And as Ted himself begins to look inward, rejecting his inner goldfish, he would certainly benefit from looking to a more advanced form of life for inspiration. Perhaps a GOAT.

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