Last Word: Having the yips

The yips are different from choking, another of sport’s insidious conditions. Choking is defined as a deterioration in a player’s performance in the face of competitive pressure. The yips are the result of an excessive self-consciousness about technique.

Affecting performance: Golfers’ yips are probably more noticed and publicised, so the term has been associated with them more than sports stars from other disciplines. Even the great Tiger Woods has had the yips.

Affecting performance: Golfers’ yips are probably more noticed and publicised, so the term has been associated with them more than sports stars from other disciplines. Even the great Tiger Woods has had the yips. | Photo Credit: AP

The yips are different from choking, another of sport’s insidious conditions. Choking is defined as a deterioration in a player’s performance in the face of competitive pressure. The yips are the result of an excessive self-consciousness about technique.

About 100 years ago, the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, soon after winning the U.S. Open took 23 shots at the 17th in a tournament. He had the ‘yips’ — a term he coined himself. Golfers’ yips are probably more noticed and publicised, so the term has been associated with them more than with sports stars from other disciplines. Bernhard Langer developed the long-shafted ‘belly putter’ to deal with his problem. Even Tiger Woods has had the yips.

British Open champion Johnny Miller was so far gone that he was afraid if he looked at the ball he wouldn’t be able to putt, and so sometimes he played with his eyes closed.

But it isn’t just golfers. Cricketers (bowlers usually, and for some reason left-arm spinners) have it too, as do snooker and tennis players, baseballers and basketballers, and often darts champions who suddenly find they cannot let go of the dart. Norman Gifford, the English spinner, once forgot his run-up while on tour. Did he begin with his right leg or left?

This is best captured in a short poem:

A centipede was happy — quite!

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg moves after which?”

This raised her doubts to such a pitch,

She fell exhausted in the ditch

Not knowing how to run.

There are various versions of this. The ‘caterpillar syndrome’ is used by the psychologist George Humphrey in his ‘Humphrey’s Law’ which states that once performance of a task has become automatised, conscious thought about the task, while performing it, impairs performance. Which is why musicians are occasionally afflicted too.

The philosopher David Papineau says that cerebral athletes are most at risk. “Unreflective players who never pause to analyse their technique need not fear the yips,” he says, “At most risk are the thinkers and the tinkerers, those who are curious about the nature of their skills.”

In the U.S., the condition is sometimes known as the Knoblauch disease after the Yankees’ second baseman who suffered in the 1980s, once throwing the ball so far off target it hit the mother of the  ESPN commentator sitting in the stands.

What had been routine suddenly became impossible. Psychologists call the yips by a more technical-sounding name: focal dystonia, a neurological condition that provokes involuntary movements around specific actions.

It could happen to anybody — in fact, the more experienced you are the more likely it is to catch you unawares.

The yips are different from choking, another of sport’s insidious conditions. Choking is defined as a deterioration in a player’s performance in the face of competitive pressure. The yips are the result of an excessive self-consciousness about technique.

Doctors sometimes tell their epilepsy patients to clench and unclench their fists when they sense an attack coming on. Scientists recommend something similar to avoid the yips — clench the left fist before bowling or putting.

It is not a bad technique to adapt ahead anything that induces anxiety — from driving on our roads to shouting at your plumber.

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