A few weeks ago, my kids got to go to a major league baseball game. They didn’t last for the whole game, but they liked eating hot dogs and pretzels and looking for the Phillies’ silly mascot, and they were invested enough to want to watch the end on TV when we got home. The Phillies won in extra innings—when the other team’s second baseman bobbled a routine ground ball and the winning run scored. I grimaced and groaned and couldn’t bear to watch the replays, and my younger kid was very confused. The team we were rooting for had won! So why was I hiding my face behind my hands?
I realize there are many MUCH worse things happening in the world than a professional baseball player misplaying a ground ball, but few experiences make me more uncomfortable than watching an athlete make a costly error, or miss an easy field goal, or fall off a balance beam. There’s something about witnessing another person’s public vulnerability that physically pains me. And yet, I just wrote a middle grade novel that prominently features the yips—the baffling phenomenon in which an athlete is suddenly unable to perform a task that used to be routine and messes up over and over, with others looking on.
My new novel, Coming Up Short, is about Bea—a star shortstop who loves softball more than anything else in the world. But after her dad makes a big mistake that costs him his job and reputation, Bea can’t think straight, on or off the field, and she makes throwing error after throwing error at the championship game. Determined to beat the yips and get back to her confident, in-control self, she escapes on a summer trip to stay with an aunt she barely knows and attend a softball camp led by her idol.
The initial seed of inspiration for this book came when I was a middle school teacher. My colleagues and I got trained to use a mindfulness curriculum in advisory—our school’s version of homeroom. One day, I led my seventh-grade advisees in a guided meditation in which they were each supposed to imagine their mind as the sky, with thoughts and worries passing through like clouds.
When we debriefed about the sky mind meditation afterward, they gradually started sharing about times when worries felt like impossible-to-ignore storm clouds. They talked about math tests, when they fixated on how quickly everyone else was scribbling answers, or when the teacher gave them a fifteen-minute warning and they started panicking about running out of time instead of using the time they had left. They talked about psyching themselves out during standardized tests, or public speaking, or when they played an instrument onstage.
There was a warm, compassionate energy in the room because they were recognizing that other people felt some of the same things they did—even when, on the outside, everyone else seemed fine.
That’s one of the things I love about books—the way stories let us into characters’ minds and hearts in such an intimate way that we see what Katherine Paterson has referred to as the characters’ “invisible selves.” Books show us that other people have some of the same fears and insecurities we do, even if they don’t say them out loud. Books can help us articulate things we haven’t known how to talk about. They can make us feel less alone.
None of my former advisees talked about getting stuck in their heads while playing a sport, but that happened for me as a young teen. I psyched myself out on the soccer and softball fields, imagining all the ways I could mess up and let other people down. I couldn’t play anywhere near as well as I wanted to, and it was a scary, isolating feeling to be stuck in those negative thought spirals. I wanted to write a book that would explore a version of that experience I’d had—that my former advisees had had, too. There were parts of Coming Up Short that were tricky. Bea’s desire to get over the yips drives the plot in useful ways, but the yips are not the kind of thing a person can just get over because they really want to, and I couldn’t minimize that truth. There were some things—like meditation and open conversation—that I knew she wouldn’t be open to right away, and I wanted her story to be authentic but also empowering. I wanted readers to be inside her head but also sense that sometimes she shuts herself off to things that could help her (or them). Sometimes that was a fine line to walk.
But in general—even though I was exploring things I find deeply uncomfortable in real life—this book felt comforting to write. I couldn’t bear to watch a second baseman I’d never heard of make an error that caused his team to lose a fairly unimportant game last month, but I could look deep inside Bea’s mind and heart, inhabiting her body as her confidence crumbles on the softball field. I felt her pain, but I didn’t feel any shame for her—and without shame, discomfort isn’t so sharp.
John Green has an essay about the yips in his brilliant collection The Anthropocene Reviewed, and in it he writes, “I think a lot of the pleasure in sports is found in performing well […]. Winning becomes proof that you still have it—the it being control and competence. You can’t decide whether you get sick, or whether people you love die, or whether a tornado tears apart your house. But you can decide whether to throw a curveball or a fastball. You can at least decide that. Until you can’t. But even after age or the yips steals away your control, you need not give up.” He then describes how two professional athletes beset by the yips, tennis player Ana Ivanovic and baseball player Rick Ankiel, found ways to keep going—Ivanovic by adopting a completely different serve, and Ankiel by reinventing himself as a center fielder instead of a pitcher.
They couldn’t “put mind over matter” or “get out of their own heads,” as people are always (rather infuriatingly) telling other people to do. But they could find a new way to reclaim a thing they loved. They lost control, but they didn’t give up. The same is true for Bea, and that’s part of why her story felt reassuring and inspiring to write, especially at a time when so many things have felt so out of control.
I hope her story feels reassuring and inspiring for readers, too. And I hope they feel that same warm, compassionate energy that filled the room when my former advisees shared what it felt like when storm-cloud worries took over, and their classmates said, “Yes. I’ve felt that, too.”
NOTE: Laurie is graciously giving away a signed copy of COMING UP SHORT! Check our Twitter account for details on how to enter!
Laurie Morrison taught middle school for ten years and now writes middle grade novels. Laurie is the coauthor of Every Shiny Thing and the author of Up for Air, Saint Ivy, and Coming Up Short, which comes out June 21, 2022.
Her books have been chosen as Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selections and finalists for state award lists, and Up for Air received two starred reviews and was a Publishers Weekly Best Summer Read. Laurie holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives with her family in Philadelphia.