Got the Yips?


The “yips” have affected each and every person to ever play the game at some point in their playing tenor. If you don’t believe that the yips are a real phenomenon, how else could you explain Tiger Woods’ transition from complete dominance over the PGA Tour to the inability to hit a “simple” pitch shot? Yes, he had a serious injury to his lower back that affected his game, but still, he has the yips.  The yips are an absolute debilitating and demoralizing aspect of golf, however, the yips don’t have to define your golf game.

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Who can forget when Ernie Els 4 putted from 5 feet? Image Credit: Daily Mail UK

Legendary golfer Tommy Armour have described the yips as a “brain spasm that impairs the short game.” Researchers have described this feeling as a neurological condition called focal dystonia. This is when our brain “provokes involuntary movements around specific actions,” causing an near muscle spasm that results in a jerking of the clubhead or putter. In an article in Golf Digest, David Owen explains that the yips may be exacerbated during high-pressure moments in the golf round, but pressure is not the cause of the yips. Since a definitive cause is unknown (and will likely remain unknown), I will talk about my experience battling this “condition” and present some tactics for beating it.

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Or Jordan Spieths epic collapse at the 2016 Masters?            Image Credit: Golf Channel

First of all, I am by no means a great golfer… I would not even consider myself a good golfer. I am high single-digit handicapper who is wildly inconsistent but whose game often offers a glimmer of hope. I have experienced two main types of yips in my time, and I will talk briefly about each category.

  1. Early season yips- These are the ones that occur in March and April for us golfers in the north east. They usually occur on shorter pitch shots, chips, and sometimes short putts. This type of yip is less concerning to me and can usually be attributed to being “rusty.” In my experience, copious amounts of repetitions with the shots that are causing problems will usually help to improve the situation.

These I will call the “logical yips.” The fix for logical yips seems to be dusting off the rust and getting used to the tempo, rhythm, and feel of these types of shots.

  1. Midseason yips– These are the baffling, sinister, unpredictable yips. By mid-July or august most serious golfers have probably logged 15-30 solid rounds and are in midseason form.

Then BOOM… you chunk a pitch. Next comes a skulled flop shot. Then a yanked 3-foot putt, and so on. Somehow, some way this keeps happening and quickly becomes a pattern. These are the yips that will blind side you and leave you bewildered. These are the concerning yips. The logical response for many golfers is to grab a bag of balls, go to the practice area, and pound away endlessly until your confidence is restored.

But, in my experience, these yips do not have a logical origin and, therefore, may not have a logical cure.  Yes, rebuilding confidence in these shots is important… but before that chunked pitch shot your confidence wasn’t an issue. So why does one awful shot somehow shatter that confidence and leave you feeling miserable about your game. More reps alone may not be the answer. In my experience, the solution is multi-factorial and much deeper than the solution for logical yips.

So how do we move forward after the yips have consumed our golf game?

Step 1: Physical Preparedness

Being physically prepared for a round of golf is directly linked to performance. If our bodies are not prepared to move fluently through the motions of the golf swing and we feel excessively “tight” or “stiff,” our brain will pick up on this and send out a sort of subconscious alarm that our body is not ready for movement. A solid dynamic warm up before the round has been proven to improve golfing performance and may also help to boost confidence going into the golf round.

Step 2: Visualization and Deep Breathing

Positive outcome visualization is by no means a new concept in sports. Research has shown that visualization of a positive outcome prior to sporting event has improved performance in many sports. When watching golf on TV, you will often see the best players in the world closing their eyes and taking a deep breath before each shot. This strategy can also be used to combat the yips. When I am struggling with the yips, the last though that goes through my head before a nerve-racking shot is usually “dont chunk it” or “don’t skull it” or “don’t miss left.” This is setting you up for failure which can perpetuate poor results.

Instead, I have found that incorporating positive visualization with a deep breathing technique into my pre-shot routine has helped tremendously. This may be as simple as standing behind the ball and imagining the ball flight, where it’s going to land, and how far it will roll out and then taking a deep inhale through the nose and full exhale through the mouth before addressing the ball. The purpose of the breath is not only to slow your entire body down, but can also have a relaxation response. I won’t get into the science behind diaphragmatic breathing now, but I will talk about this more in my posts at some point.  

Most importantly, find out a strategy that works for you and don’t neglect to do it on each and every shot. Personalize it and tailor it to your game. Own the pre-shot routine.

Step 3. Build Mental Toughness

We’ve all heard the expression “Golf is played in the six inches between the ears.” And it’s definitely true, golf is a mental game. So how do we improve our mental toughness? To me, mental toughness is a combination of confidence, trust, and the ability to stop thinking. We have to have confidence in our mental and physical preparation and trust in our own talents and abilities. Then, we have to have be able to shut our brains off and let our body do the work. I think that is the most challenging aspect of the concept mental toughness. I think it often gets jumbled in with the idea of having “the will to win.” I disagree with this. In my opinion, having the will to win means that you have ALREADY put in the work to be successful through practice and training prior to actually competing. Mental toughness the ability to block negative thoughts from entering your mind, even during the most challenging points in a round.

Using the operational definition of mental toughness above, here is my advice on how to improve it. First, never leave a practice session on a bad note. Always end on a high note, a point of reference for you to draw confidence from during a round. Second, allow your brain to wander during practice. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t focus, rather allow yourself to actively reflect on your thoughts within each practice session. Even allow yourself to think about things that aren’t related to golf at all. This can aid you to learn to shut your brain off during the golf swing.

Step 4. Eliminate Short-Term Memory

There are highs and lows to every round of golf. Some shots are great, some are terrible. Focusing all your attention on the awful shots is crosses the boundary between counterproductive and destructive. Allow yourself to be BRIEFLY disappointed. Recognize it, and then move on. The worst thing that can come from one bad shot is repeated bad shots caused by a spiral of negativity. A solid, repeatable pre-shot routine combined with visualization and developing mental toughness goes a long way to stopping the spiral dead in it’s tracks. Focus your energy on the shot at hand.

These four steps can be helpful for every golfer, not just one suffering from the yips. If you have or currently are experiencing the yips (or think you may have them after reading this article and listening to me say “yips” so many times),  just know that it doesn’t have to be the death sentence of your golf game.

“The whole secret to mastering the game of golf — and this applies to the beginner as well as the pro — is to cultivate a mental approach to the game that will enable you to shrug off the bad days, keep patient and know in your heart that sooner or later you will be back on top.”- Arnold Palmer