Did Simone Zaza get the yips?

Germany and Italy faced off in the Euro Cup quarterfinals and the game came down to penalty kicks. There were a number of bad misses by both sides, but Simone Zaza’s stood out:

Immediately following Italy’s loss Zaza was ridiculed on social media. People were pretty merciless:

Watching all these memes made me wonder: Did Zaza get a case of the yips?

What are the yips?

The yips are twitches or jitters in an athlete’s motion. They’re most common in sports like darts, golf, and baseball, where mechanical precision is especially important. In a 2014 post for Grantland, Katie Baker writes:

These situations are not just a lost step or a bad look or the inevitable aging out of one’s prime. They are public, Richie Tenenbaum–style meltdowns; they are frustrating indignities; they are spasms and hitches and triple-pumps that are viscerally painful to watch. The worst part isn’t even always the jerky throws or twitchy strokes, it’s the subsequent look of helplessness — and, after awhile, hopelessness — in the bewildered players’ eyes.

I’ve never heard of a case of the yips in soccer, but this description certainly fits Zaza’s penalty kick.

“I have always taken my penalties like that”

I started wading through all the Zaza memes to try and get to the bottom of what had happened. SkySports reported Zaza saying:

“I have always taken my penalties like that and was convinced I’d score… I did send Manuel Neuer the wrong way, but unfortunately the ball went too high. It will be difficult, but I want to get over it. I want the Italians to know that we gave everything.
I missed the most important penalty of my career and it’ll be with me for the rest of my life.”

Curious, I wanted to see some of Zaza’s earlier penalty kicks. This proved tough but thanks to some clever Google filtering I was able to find one video from 2015:

Fast forward to 1:10 and you’ll see that Zaza takes his penalty with a slight stutter, but nothing like what we saw in the Euro Cup.

The verdict

I hate penalty kicks. I cried when Roberto Baggio missed his in the 1994 World Cup. They are an unnatural and ridiculous way to decide a soccer match.

So I feel for Simone Zaza. And don’t forget! he had company: 4 Italians missed their penalty kicks. But his miss was so peculiar that it warranted more research.

Not only am I not a doctor, but even if I were I wouldn’t be prepared to diagnose Zaza one way or the other. The yips are real but they are not well understood. They’re more common among older athletes, and seem to belong to a family of neurological disorders, like Parkinson’s disease and writer’s cramp.

Hopefully Zaza buries his next penalty kick. But if he really has the yips, he can at least take some comfort in knowing penalty kicks are only a small — and stupid! — part of soccer. He should go on to have a great career.