If you’ve ever had the occasional round ruined by too many missed short putts, you might find this blog interesting. I had a putting nightmare a few weeks ago. I couldn’t sink a short putt to save my life. What was going on?
Was this the dreaded yips? And what are yips anyway? I went on a mission to research the yips, and here’s what I learned.
What are the yips?
One of the best simple definitions I found was this one from the Mayo Clinic, the non-profit academic medical institution and hospital system in the USA1:
“The yips are involuntary wrist spasms that occur most commonly when golfers are trying to putt.”
To be clear, these involuntary movements are not confined to putting or even the wrist muscles. They can negatively impact performance with any club or swing and have been experienced in many sports and day-to-day activities.
If it involves throwing something, hitting something or precision movements such as gymnastic or even using a computer mouse, the yips can cause problems.
Degrees of motion
If you think these involuntary movements manifest themselves in visible jerks and tremors or even plain freezing up, they can also be unnoticeable, subtle movements – just enough to cause a putter to move a few degrees off-line and the ball to miss the hole from a few feet.
This is what I was experiencing. It wasn’t my putter or a bumpy green or bad luck. It was my muscles doing something I didn’t want them to do. But what was causing this unusual movement, and how could I stop it happening?
Mind over body?
For most golfers who experience these intermittent yippy putting issues, they are mainly a temporary psychological condition rather than a physical one. However, for the minority, these involuntary muscle movements can be down to neurological disorders of the anatomy and nervous system2. Ever had a sudden episode of a twitchy eye or restless leg and had no idea what started it?
While experiencing the yips can make us anxious, anxiety may not be the root cause, but being anxious can make the symptoms worse. Over-working the muscles or an injury could be a starting point for neurological yips, but for psychological yips, the reasons are not so clear. There may also be a blended spectrum of the physical and mental types of yips.
In the absence of a professional diagnosis but plenty of Dr. Google research, I put my yips down to my state of mind. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to sink putts, getting stressed and anxious and trying too hard not to miss. Big mistake.
You’ve probably had lessons or watched videos of YouTube golf coaches where the pro encourages you to ‘visualise the shot’. By having a mental image of the path of golf shot through the air or putt to the hole, the theory is that your body will work out how to do just what you imagined. After all, it’s not the first time you’ve hit some great shots or sunk some amazing putts.
Coaches know that visualisation and mental imagery can help the brain send signals to the muscles to perform the imagined task 3. When you focus on the physical task, you help make it a reality. So imagine what happens when you don’t focus on the best outcome, or worse, you fill your head with images of what you’re trying to avoid, like missing a putt. This was my trigger.
Trying not to do it just makes it worse
How many times have you told yourself to avoid that lake with your drive and then hit the ball straight into the hazard? Did you visualise a shot that flew on the ‘Tiger-Line’ to the position A1, or did you fear the ball landing in the lake and that made you even more anxious to avoid doing it?
I was telling myself “Don’t miss the putt”! My brain clearly didn’t hear the important “Don’t” part of the message and then told my body to make the rest of the command happen.
Don’t think about the white bear
When we are told not to do something, it’s hard not to think about it. There is a theory in psychology that when we try to suppress thoughts and images such as missing putts, those thoughts are more likely to happen 4. Even more reason to have positive thoughts and mental images of the shot you want to perform, like sinking it.
Supressing negative thoughts is hard but distraction with a new positive thought is easier and can help achieve positive results. Apparently thinking about a blue dolphin can replace the white bear. Now I’m thinking about dolphins in water hazards.
Research done. Plan needed
Now I was starting to understand what was going on, I needed a plan and process to break my negative thinking and reduce the impact of any uncommanded movements. I needed a mental and physical change of routine, not a new putter.
Armed with a bit more reading5, video watching and research on the fundamentals of putting, I came up with a 3-point plan of basic physical, mental and routine changes that I could implement for a while to see if it helped.
What was the plan and did it cure my yips? I’ll tell you in the final blog in the series.
Putt well and forget about that white bear.
- Mayo Clinic: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/yips/symptoms-causes/syc-20379021
- National Library of Medicine: A multidisciplinary study of the ‘yips’ phenomenon in golf: An exploratory analysis. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11132124/
- Psychological Imagery in Sport and Performance. https://oxfordre.com/psychology/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190236557.001.0001/acrefore-9780190236557-e-228
- Ironic process theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ironic_process_theory
- The Lost Art of Putting. Gary Nicol and Karl Morris: https://www.thelostartofgolf.com/the-lost-art-of-putting/
Paul Hart is a co-inventor of the PuttBANDIT ball marker and enthusiastic golf improver researching the causes and cures for putting yips.
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