The yips are a mystery to most non-golfers. To them, a 3-foot putt looks like the easiest thing in the world. A simple back and through to ‘tap-tap-tap’ it in.
But when we catch a case of the yips, this couldn’t be further from the truth. An involuntary muscle jerk causes us to miss by miles, which is then followed up by extreme emotional reactions of embarrassment, anger and fear of what the next 17 holes may bring.
According to Performance Psychologist Jake Brown, the yips are an anxiety and attentional problem rather than a short game problem. They’re not two separate entities, and if you help one, you help the other. So, RSNG enlisted Brown's help to do just that…
The golfing yips is an age-old problem with remedies ranging from putting left handed to getting a Botox injection, to getting a beer every time the cart girl comes round. While these may work to some extent, they are not sustainable, and unfortunately ‘gimmes’ aren’t either, especially when it comes to tournament play.
Now in some cases, a neurological disorder – focal dystonia – causes involuntary muscle contraction that manifests itself in the form of yips, but how can golfers go from a smooth practice swing to an uncontrolled jump at the ball within a matter of seconds? If the physical movement is there beforehand, then it’s got to be a psychological issue.
Jake Brown, founder of Mindframe Performance, has worked with hundreds of golfers, and says that, in the majority of cases, the thing that puts errors and failures into their game is fear.
“A lot of fear is learnt and often with the golfing yips, it’s built on a pretty solid evidence base of horror shows that haunt us in our sleep,” he begins.
“And yet sometimes there is an underlying fear that goes deeper than just the surface layer of yips. Perhaps some social anxiety of playing with better golfers? Maybe you need to prove yourself on the golf course? Possibly attaching results to your sense of self, or defining your mood for the subsequent week based on your Sunday stableford score?”
Question the origins and pull back the layers of your fear and you may be able to take some power out of your anxious triggers and tendencies…
RSNG Should we actively try to stop missing if we have a case of the yips? JAKE BROWN, PROFESSIONAL GOLF PSYCHOLOGIST “Sounds obvious, but when things are bad we slip into an avoidance mindset. Instead of trying to hole a putt or hit a good chip, we try to avoid missing or to not duff it a yard in front of us. Your brain doesn’t handle don'ts all that well, so by telling yourself not to miss or knife your chip across the green, all you’re thinking about is doing the very thing you want to avoid, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as we painfully follow where our thoughts are going.”
RSNG So what should we do? JB “The more you focus on the anxiety and the fear response, the worse it gets. Mental skills training is key for managing anxiety – breathing techniques, mindfulness, thought defusion, relaxation strategies – all help us to direct our attention and calm our minds and bodies.”
RSNG For you, what is at the core of a bad case of the yips? JB “I see yips largely as an attentional problem. You can’t lose your attention, you can only misplace it. And I would guess in most cases, ‘yippers’ make two critical attentional errors.”
“Attention falls across two intersecting continuums:
- Breadth - how many things capture your attention (narrow - broad)
- Direction - where you’re placing your attention (internal - external)”
“Each have a function in the phases of a golf shot from assessment to action, but the goal for executing a movement in self-paced sports (golf, darts, archery, etc) is for your attention to be narrow and external – a quiet mind focussed on the target.”
Conscious bodily attention activates our clunky cerebrum which blocks off our motion optimized cerebellum, causing a paralysis-by-analysis response
RSNG What role does the brain play in all of this and can we hack it? JB “Neuroscience shows us why these attentional errors are detrimental to our short game. The deadliest attentional mistake is internal attention – focussing on your hands, arms and body – as it activates the cerebrum, a part of the brain that is associated with less efficient movement.”
“Conscious bodily attention activates our clunky cerebrum which blocks off our motion optimized cerebellum, causing a paralysis-by-analysis type response – a problem that is only exacerbated under pressure, even if you don’t have the yips. This is the same mechanism that causes choking under pressure.”
“The second attentional mistake is broad attention. A busy mind that splits our attention and is consumed by desperately trying to fight away any thoughts of jumping at the ball and missing horribly in front of our playing partners.”
“But consciously suppressing a thought doesn’t work either. I’ll prove it… for the next 10-seconds do everything in your power to not think about John Daly in a swimsuit! Paradoxically, consciously suppressing a thought creates a rebound effect whereby it comes back to the surface stronger than before. A little like trying to push down a swimming float. Hard to get John Daley out of your head now, right?”
Going unconscious and surrendering control is the antidote to, internal attention and a forced, clunky stroke AKA the yips
RSNG Jeez, you’re right, please help! JB ‘OK, so accept the thoughts will be there but shift your attention onto something that helps you go unconscious… It’s worth noting where the point of yips is at its worst – anticipation of impact. We consciously know we’re about to hit the ball and yip at it. The trick is to not think too technically as we play the shot.”
“Now this one’s tough and may require you to go against everything your instinct tells you to do, but going unconscious and surrendering control is the antidote to internal attention and a forced, clunky stroke. Try this…”
5 ways To Go Consciously Unconscious “1. Visualize the shot while hitting it. Picture your desired shot as you play it – the ball rolling into the back of the hole, the flight or the landing spot of your chip – to remove conscious constraint.”
“2. Zone out. Put a dot on the golf ball, sing a song in your head, hum. It relaxes you and takes your mind off the stroke.”
“3. Focus on your breath. Time the rhythm of your stroke with the rhythm of your breath. Both are relaxing, and enough to temporarily shift your focus.”
“4. Don’t look at the golf ball. Look at the top of your putter, the grass in front of the ball or your shoes. Treat yourself like a science experiment and find what works for you.”
“5. Go Jordan Spieth on it. Look at the hole. Yips are worse on short putts requiring fine motor control. Looking at the hole shifts attention externally and away from the impact zone.”
These techniques briefly shift your conscious attention, allowing your autopilot-like cerebellum to take control and let you get out of your own way, so hopefully yips become a thing of the past!
WHAT NEXT? Want to sharpen up your golf practice sessions and optimise your efforts? Then read the RSNG article on how to Nail The Perfect Golf Practice Session
Jake Brown is a Performance Psychologist and Founder of Mindframe Performance. He works with elite and amateur athletes across a wide range of sports, specializing in golf psychology. He also plays golf himself off a handicap of 4, as well as semi-professional football. Follow Jake on Instagram for regular performance tips @mindframeperformance.