chances are you’ve witnessed at least one
serious sporting choke in your life. Yet there’s another term that often gets
thrown around and that’s the yips.
But what exactly are the yips and what makes them different than a plain old choke? The yips was given its name by Scottish 3-time Major Winner Tommy Armour.
While it’s an affliction that crosses a wide variety of sports, it’s most commonly
associated with golf, where it manifests as involuntary spasms in the wrists during chipping
and putting. It can affect everyone from amateur to seasoned
pro, and it’s often very difficult to determine an underlying cause.
The condition can be both debilitating and permanent, with no known cure, meaning the
athlete has to adjust their technique, or, in the most extreme cases, quit the sport
entirely. So, how is the yips different from a choke?
This is a decades-long debate between various sports psychologists, coaches and athletes, so before we can attempt an answer, we should broadly define what we mean by each:
Choking has a Psychological cause; whereas The yips can be Neurological.
Most of us will have experienced some form of psychological duress in our lives.
Whether we’re sitting exams, speaking at a wedding, or stammering our way through a
job interview, we all recognise that increased pressure makes it harder for us to perform
at our best. Not even elite and highly trained athletes are immune.
This is Ernie Els infamously missing five putts from within 3 feet on the 1st hole at
the 2016 Masters. Afterwards he spoke of having “snakes in
(his) head” … figuratively we assume. In Els’ opinion the problems with his putting
stroke were all in his mind, claiming that he would hole every identical shot in practice. This is an example of letting the occasion
get to you. A Neurological Disorder on the other hand,
is an abnormality in the nervous system, affecting biochemical, neurotransmission and/or structural procedures in the brain, spinal cord and muscles. A study conducted by sports psychologists
Debbie Crews and Aynsley Smith at the Mayo Clinic was able to diagnose something called
a focal dystonia in a number of affected golfers. A dystonia is a neurological disorder characterised
by involuntary contractions and spasms of certain groups of muscles.
It can affect everyone from artists, to musicians – simple “writer’s cramp” is a common
focal dystonia – and, much like the Yips, is especially prevalent in older practitioners
who have performed specific, repetitive movements with the afflicted body part.
The study found that putting Yips can be caused by faulty co-ordination between two sets of
muscles in the wrists and forearms, resulting in a jerking ‘double pull’ on either the
backstroke or the push forward. In her paper, Smith separated yippers into
two groups: Type 1, with a psychological basis,
and Type 2, caused by a dystonia. Though stress could exacerbate symptoms in
Type 2 sufferers, the double pull was still evident in subjects who felt no anxiety whatsoever.
If golfers can take a crumb of solace from the yips, it’s that they don’t suffer
alone. Multiple-times World Champions Eric Bristow
and Stephen Hendry each struggled with their sport’s version of the yips: Dartitis and
Cueitis, respectively. In baseball, ‘Steve Blass Disease’ was
named after the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher who suddenly lost the ability to
hit the strike zone. NBA stars can seemingly forget how to sink
free-throws overnight. and tennis players can struggle to even make a
single serve. The main thing in common is that the athlete
has a lot of ‘thinking time’ before they act, leading some to favour a psychological
explanation. It could be that the various forms of yips
are mostly the result of panic and negative thoughts spiralling during a bad run of form.
However it’s important to note that it’s mostly matured and veteran sportsmen who are
affected, so if stress were the primary factor, it would make more sense if it affected anxious
rookies and youngsters. Also interestingly all the actions require
precision through fine motor skills, and are more likely to be upset by even the slightest
muscular twitches, meaning a dystonia would have greater consequence.
So where does that leave us? Since there is so much disagreement and mystery
about the root cause of the Yips, there aren’t many effective treatments.
In her paper, Aynsley Smith advises considering the yips as a spectrum, ranging from Psychological
to Neurological, meaning potential remedies will also run along this continuum.
In this cases where it may be affecting older, more experienced players a change to one’s
natural action will often yield the most positive results. Golfers with the putting yips can
greatly alleviate the symptoms by changing their old, familiar equipment, or altering
their technique. It’s even suggested that a careful injection
of botox can target the affected muscles and prevent them from spasming. And you wondered
why your club pro has such young-looking wrists. Even for the casual player, the yips can be
extremely distressing, so mental exercises and positive visualisations will help ease
fear and anxiety. But even the most experienced veterans treat
this unusual ailment with utmost concern, as if left to run its course it can spell
a premature and undignified end to their careers. So remember, the next time we see a wealthy
professional struggling on the green, the yips is no laughing matter.