The yips: When uncontrollable movement ruins your putt

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The yips: When uncontrollable movement ruins your putt

Fight the yips — those uncontrollable movements that can wreak havoc with your putting.

It's a beautiful afternoon on the golf course. Heading toward the seventh hole, you make your best tee shot of the day. Your second shot blazes straight down the fairway, and your iron shot lands three feet from the cup. Just one smooth tap of the putter and you'll card a birdie.

You feel confident as you address the ball. But just as your putter makes contact with it, a mild spasm interrupts your calculated stroke — and your ball rolls past the cup.

You've just experienced the yips.

What are the yips?

The yips are involuntary motions of the hand or wrist that can make effective putting all but impossible — even for the most experienced and talented golfers. The yips are most common during putts shorter than five feet. They're less likely during tee or iron shots.

The yips tend to come and go, occurring more frequently during tournaments and competitive play. The yips can add more than four strokes to the average 18-hole score.

Who gets the yips?

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that 33 percent to 48 percent of all serious golfers have experienced the yips. Golfers who have played for more than 25 years appear to be most prone to the condition.

And these involuntary movements may not be limited to golfers. Similar conditions affect other athletes, as well as musicians, health care workers — such as dentists — and others whose work involves detailed hand movements.

What causes the yips?

Most golfers attribute the yips simply to choking on a key putt, but research indicates there's more to it than that.

Although the exact cause of the yips has yet to be determined, it's possible that excessive use of certain muscles and the intense demands of coordination and concentration may make the problem worse.

Some research suggests that the yips are a type of focal dystonia — a neurological problem that results in sudden, involuntary contractions of a muscle or group of muscles. In the case of the yips, the muscles involved are usually those of the lower arm or hand.

"In many golfers, the yips may be a task-specific disorder in which the act of putting or swinging the golf club results in a twitch or shake that disrupts the movement," says Charles Adler, M.D., a neurologist at Mayo Clinic, Scottsdale, Ariz.

Anxiety and stress may aggravate the problem. "Many golfers who have the yips report that the problem occurs occasionally during practice, often during serious play and most frequently in tournaments — suggesting that the greater the pressure, the more likely they are to experience the yips," Dr. Adler says.

How do golfers who have the yips compare to other golfers?

The differences may be subtle, but they're real.

  • Brain activity. Leading up to the putt, golfers who putt poorly appear to process more activity on the left side of the brain than on the right. Better putters use both sides of the brain about equally.
  • Heart rate. Golfers with the yips tend to have faster heart rates than those without the yips.
  • Muscle activity. Golfers with the yips seem to experience greater muscle activity in the forearm and wrist. Sometimes the muscles that contract do so at the wrong time.
  • Grip force. Golfers with the yips tend to grip the putter tighter than other golfers.

What can you do about the yips?

Until more is known about this perplexing condition, there are no guarantees. If you struggle with the yips, it may help to:

  • Experiment with a new grip. Some golfers have found relief from the yips by using an alternative grip, which can ease the strain on potentially overused muscles.
  • Try a new putter. Some golfers say a longer putter helps.
  • Practice mental training. Techniques such as relaxation, visualization or positive thinking can help reduce anxiety, increase concentration and ease fear of the yips.

Yips or not, the goal is to continue enjoying your time on the golf course. Don't let frustration cost you the game.

Last Updated: 04/25/2006
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