What Causes Golfer's Yips, Nerves, and Jitters?

Do the Golfer's Yips Cause Poor Putting?

lining up golf putt
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Many golfers refer to a strange phenomenon called the "yips" when they talk about getting tense and missing easy putts. What are these mysterious ailments and how are they different from choking or performance anxiety that other athletes talk about?

The yips is a condition that includes involuntary tremors, freezing or jerking of the hands during golf shots, such as putting and chipping. Initially, the yips was thought to be purely psychological and related to anxiety or stress. Now researchers believe the yips may also have a physical cause.

Causes of the Golfer's Yips

Although the exact reason golfers experience the yips is not known, the various possible causes that have been proposed include:

  • Nerves, anxiety or "choking" that many athletes experience during high-stress competition
  • Overuse of the muscles involved in fine-motor control and precise movements
  • Focal dystonia

According to Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Aynsley Smith, anxiety can make the yips worse, but it appears that there is also an underlying physical component for many golfers who experience the yips.

Some golfers get symptoms that look like the yips, but these are likely due to anxiety, nerves or choking in high-pressure situations. Many athletes, students, and public speakers experience this sort of stress-related response.

Yips - Focal Dystonia - Involuntary Movements or Spasms

The yips, however, refers to a very real physical condition called focal dystonia. Dystonia is a neurologic disorder characterized by involuntary movements or spasms of small muscles. These symptoms are also seen in professional musicians and others who repeatedly perform movements requiring fine motor skills. We all experienced something similar if we've ever had a "writer's cramp" after holding a pen or pencil for a long period of time.

In golf, putting requires precision and fine motor control of the small muscles that control these movements. In this case, the yips may be related to overuse and fatigue of these small muscles.

In dystonia, an abnormal motor pattern that involves the nervous system can develop, which results in the jerking or tremors that occur. This can be difficult to treat because the brain needs to be retrained to perform the desired movement pattern. In order to do this, it may be necessary to work with an experienced neurologist.

Getting Over Your Nerves When Golfing

Luckily, dystonia is quite rare and the majority of golfers who suffer from what they think are the yips, are in fact, simple nerves, which can be modified by using a few sports psychology tricks and techniques such as:

  • Mental Focus and Centering: Learn how to keep your head in the game. How to practice centering techniques to focus on breathing so you can overcome performance anxiety and distraction. Golf may have fewer distractions than many sports, but you can benefit by the focus.
  • Visualization Techniques: How to use mental rehearsal and guided imagery to give yourself a competitive edge. In golf, this is particularly useful in mentally rehearsing your swings and puts.
  • Dealing with Performance Anxiety and Choking: Tips on how to reduce your anxiety before the match, during the match, and after the event.
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