written by Benjamin Snyder, Ph.D.
All golfers share a similar story that starts the same way: Walking up to the green and seeing a makeable putt. We know we should make this putt. We walk back forth, checking and rechecking our line. We then start telling ourselves: “I have just got to get it there.” This thought is followed up shortly by the thought “But I can’t run it by too far.” Then more thoughts begin to emerge. Am I sure about the line? Maybe it is going to break a little more than I thought. I hope I don’t pull this putt like I did on the last hole. With these thoughts swirling through our heads, we address the ball and putt. Yips.
We all have experienced the yips. The yips are generally defined as follows: a sudden loss of fine motor skills or muscular spasm in athletes. The yips occur across all sports and are especially common and pervasive among golfers. So, what are the yips? And most importantly, how can we control them?
While there is evidence that the yips may have neurological causes in some individuals, the primary reason for them in most golfers is anxiety. Stress and anxiety play a crucial role in all athletic and competitive environments. In fact, experiencing the optimal level of stress leads to peak athletic performance. However, many athletes put too much pressure on themselves, and their resulting performance suffers. In order to improve overall performance, the athlete must learn to effectively regulate their stress and anxiety.
Management of performance anxiety begins with breathing. This may seem oversimplified, but effective breathing strategies help to regulate the body’s physiological response to anxiety. When placed in stressful situations on the golf course, the area of the brain associated with our fight or flight instinct misinterprets the stress as potential danger and begins the process of physiological activation. This process increases heart rate, breathing rate, sweat production, and can create muscular tension and spasm. Deep breathing strategies have been shown to be effective in counteracting the body’s fight or flight response, and helping athletes maintain full muscular and fine motor control.
Additionally, establishing a consistent pre-shot routine, including visualization, is an effective strategy to manage anxiety and improve performance. Consistency and routine are staples of athletes trying to achieve peak performance. This is consistent among all sports and in the psychological treatment of anxiety disorders. Golfers need to establish a pre-shot routine that is utilized prior to every shot on the course. Included in this routine should be the visualization of success. Golfers should visualize the shot they are hoping to achieve. Think about how the swing should look, where the club will strike the ball, and the successful outcome. Visualizing success will help golfers approach each shot with confidence, and will help them to focus on the factors necessary for a successful shot.
Finally, successful golfers need to have a short memory. Remember, one shot does not affect the next. You can always follow up a bad shot with a great shot. This concept is easy to say, but harder to put into action. Every golfer has had a “bad round” where nothing is going right. It is very easy to just say, “I am just not hitting well today.” However, that mindset only serves to exacerbate the problem. Work to change your self-talk messages to ones that demonstrate confidence. If you have a hard time shaking these negative thoughts, try assigning a place in your pre-shot routine for worrying. During her keynote address at the 2017 National Conference for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, professional golfer Annika Sorenstam discussed this issue. She described an imaginary box that she would draw on the ground near her ball. She stated that inside of this box was the only place she allowed herself to worry. She stated that if she found herself worrying during her pre-shot routine or while addressing her ball, she would step away and move inside of the box. This kind of process allows the golfer to obtain control over their anxiety and does not allow it cloud their mind during the shot.
Just like developing good swing mechanics, improving ability to manage performance anxiety takes time and practice. Golfers should consider utilizing these strategies while on the course, but also while on the practice green and driving range. Developing and maintaining these habits will help you enjoy your round more and make the yips a thing of the past.
FPA Performance is a subsidiary of Family Psychology Associates. Our psychologists use evidence-based treatments to deal with a wide variety of sport and performance-related issues including stress management, self-confidence, performance anxiety, team building, body image issues and more. Individual and group consultation services for athletes and performers of all ages are available. We have two offices in Trinity (727) 203-3770 and Safety Harbor (727) 725-8820 that can provide assistance in your area. Family Psychology Associates also offer stress management, health and wellness counseling and anxiety disorder therapy. Call us today to talk to our caring and compassionate staff to schedule an appointment.