As a GP I am medically qualified, however, it’s not my degree from Liverpool Medical School that leads me to write this article about The Yips, but more the fact that I am a fellow yipper.
by Dr Russell Thorpe
MB. ChB. – As a GP I am medically qualified, however, it’s not my degree from Liverpool Medical School that leads me to write this article about The Yips, but more the fact that I am a fellow yipper.
If a Lucy Locket is the shot whose name must not be said, then the Yips is the affliction which has the power to spread an even greater dread. You may have already stopped reading and turned the page with a shudder, least some evil sprite should leap from this page into your arms.
I say fellow yipper because once you know the signs, you’ll realise there are a lot of us out there, all trying to cope the best we can and still enjoy playing the game we love.
So, let’s start by specifying exactly what are the “Yips”. Dr Charles Adler of the Mayo Clinic calls the Yips a Task-Specific Dystonia.
This is just a posh medical way of saying when you want to do movement ‘A’ your body decides to do movement ‘B’. It’s like trying to scratch your nose and your hand, all by itself, decides to punch you in the face!
None Yippers talk about performance anxiety and that has a role however, in my opinion, the performance anxiety is a result of the Yips and not the cause. Having been punched in the face you are going to think twice about scratching your nose!
It’s not just golfers, Dr Adler talks about musicians, baseball pitchers, people struggling with their handwriting and of course it’s well known in the world of darts where it’s called “Dartitis”.
The great Eric Bristow once the undisputed king of the Oche was brought to his knees by his affliction. There is a poignant film made of his struggles in which he states “I feel that I am doomed. The game that I love to play, that used to be so easy to do, and suddenly I can’t throw a dart”.
For a professional sportsman or musician, a task specific dystonia has severe negative consequences.
So why write this article? Well, it’s not for reward or glory but to share an insight, an idea born from my experiences that might just offer an understanding of the phenomenon and from that understanding lead to a possible solution. I can’t promise to deliver salvation or cure, I simply present a hypothesis that may just be worthy of a nod of the head unless and until it is tested by scientific experimentation, which it probably will never be.
Let’s begin with a quote from Padraig Harrington. “It’s like holding an electric eel in your hands”.
“It’s like holding an electric eel in your hands”Padraig Harrington.
This graphically describes the poor unfortunate Yippers predicament. At some point in your swing, and it’s usually a delicate chip or putt, your muscles are going to activate with such a violent sudden spasm that any hope of even a half reasonable outcome is futile. Dismay, embarrassment, frustration, anger, rage and despair are your constant playing companions until you can take no more and depart the links for good.
I myself came very close to this point at the 12th hole at Royal Lytham and St Annes. Playing into the wind from the championship tee, I had struck a majestic 3 iron to the front edge of the green. Left with a simple chip and run a good player would be thinking of possible holing out for a birdie. My attempt at this simple shot failed to contact the ball.
As I started the swing back to the ball Padraig’s eel discharged into the flexor muscles of my right forearm and the club head hit the ground several inches before the ball, bounced off the turf and over the top of it.
Words cannot describe the full abject horror of that moment. That was it, what was the point of carrying on and tormenting myself further? I came to a fateful decision I had to find some form of coping mechanism or stop playing.
Experimenting with different grips and chipping methods, I booked lessons with Daniel Webster PGA and I told him that I found chipping with two hands would provoke the Yip in my right forearm but that when I chipped one-handed my right arm worked perfectly normally. I may still hit a bad chip as chipping one-handed is not easy but at least it was me in control of the shot and not Padraig’s eel.
This set me thinking. As so many people from different walks of life have been affected, it does suggest that there is a natural physiological process involved. One that involves the automatic systems of the body.
We have muscles that we control called voluntary movements such as scratching your nose but then there are numerous processes running in the background that we are unaware of, the control of our heart rate and breathing, for example.
Many years ago, a famous Russian physiologist called Pavlov performed experiments on the control of salivation. We don’t voluntarily squeeze our saliva out but think of a lemon and your mouth automatically waters.
Pavlov collected the saliva of the dogs by surgically bypassing the salivary ducts into bottles. When he showed the dogs food he could collect and measure the volume of saliva. He then discovered that if he rang a bell as he showed the dogs the food to produce the saliva, that very soon the dogs would salivate with just the sound of the bell. This was a completely automatic response the dogs had no control over the salivation reflex and Pavlov called the response to the bell a “conditioned reflex”. The dog’s physiology had been, via experience, programmed to respond to the bell.
Here is the stretch, the leap into the murky unknown world of “what if” I mentioned before.
What if, instead of a simple bell as the stimulus, the specific pattern of signals entering my brain as I stand over a chip is the stimulus and I have developed a conditioned reflex, the output of which is a sudden flexion of my right wrist?
Interesting thought but why would that set up a conditioned reflex? Just suppose you, by chance, hit a chip heavy. That would cause a sudden deceleration of the club head and transmit a force into your right forearm. Maybe my right arm has been conditioned to anticipate this sudden resistance and is firing in anticipation just like Pavlov’s dogs salivated at the sound of the bell. To stop the Yips, all I had to do was silence the “bell”. Using just one arm to chip produces a completely different electrical pattern of signals into my brain and therefore my arm didn’t spasm.
So, is the human body programmable in this way?
Just maybe. You are probably aware that if you touch something hot or sharp you find that your hand is pulled back even before the pain has registered in your brain. This is the withdrawal reflex and its represented by this diagram.
The signal from the pain sensor goes into your spinal cord and at the level of the spine with no input from the brain, the arm muscle is activated to get the hand away from the flame as soon as possible.
I suspect, that this withdrawal reflex is learnt by experience and not inherently present at birth, and thus, rapid movements can be involuntary programmed into our physiology and this is the mechanism whereby people develop a task-specific dystonia.
So, the coping mechanism is to turn off Pavlov’s bell. Send a different set of signals to your brain, thus change the way you chip or putt. This is exactly what players have been doing ever since Sam Snead started to putt croquet style, more weird and wonderful styles of putting have since followed.
Sadly, Eric Bristow is no longer with us, but I would have loved to see if he could throw darts at a black and white dartboard. Bullseye or bounce out?
My fellow Yipper, please let me know if this helps. I hope it does.