The 'yips': Funny name, serious problem for athletes

March 9, 2015

The ball was a mere 5 feet from the hole, but when Chey Castro raised his putter for what should have been a clean shot, his hand spasmed and he missed the putt that would have won him $180 at the tournament.

"I know Iím good and I know I can make these putts," says Castro in a call from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. "I used to always make them and never had an issue."

Castro is among those experienced golfers plagued by an inexplicable phenomenon known as the yips. The name might make the condition sound trivial, but the yips can ruin a professional athleteís career.

For golfers, itís an uncontrollable spasm that occurs in the hands right before impact, says Dr. Debbie Crews, a sports psychology consultant for Arizona State University womenís golf team and a faculty research assistant in the professional golf management program. Crews has helped Castro and others treat the yips.

She recently spoke in Dallas about the brain science behind golf and the yips at the Center for BrainHealthís public lecture series at the University of Texas at Dallas.

The yips affect many kinds of athletes, including cricket and baseball players, and even piano players, but the condition is most closely associated with golfers. Tiger Woodsí poor game at the recent Phoenix Open led some fellow players to speculate that the great golfer himself has it.

Around 40 percent of golfers will experience the yips at some point in their career, says Crews. In the past, most golfers refused to admit they had it. Today, scientists like Crews are trying to understand what causes the yips, as well as how to treat it.

Scientists separate the yips into two categories: neurological and psychological.

A small number of golfers who come down with the yips have focal dystonia, or a neurological problem in the brain that causes involuntary muscle contractions, says Crews. For most, thereís nothing neurologically wrong. This is what makes the yips so mysterious. Except for the spasm itself, there doesnít seem to be anything wrong with these golfers.

Some golfers have the yips only under certain conditions, say, if theyíre playing a game with thousands of dollars resting on a single putt. Others might have it intermittently for a few months. For some, it might be chronic.

"Itís very hard to watch somebody miss the hole by 5 feet when a little kid at 3 years old could do it just fine," says Crews.

And if itís hard for the viewer, imagine the golferís frustration.

Castro first experienced the yips more than 10 years ago. He had played golf since he was 6 and was especially active in high school, but when he went to college, he stopped playing so frequently. Thatís when he first experienced the yips.

Castro, 37, attributes it to a lack of confidence. In high school, he was practicing every day. Now, he just plays for fun several times a week. The lack of practice makes him less confident when he steps up to even the simplest putt.

"When I just play with some buddies I play the best," says Castro. "But when itís for a tournament ... I kind of sometimes put too much pressure and mess it up."

Anxiety doesnít cause the yips, Crews says, but it can make the problem worse. Crews helped ease Castroís anxiety through a variety of exercises, including focusing his attention past the ball and making minor position adjustments in his setup.

Crews also suspects that making slight hand and feet adjustments can recircuit the brain in a way that overcomes the yips.

When a golfer putts, his or her brain relies on a template it created to determine what signal is sent to which muscles to tell them what to do. With the yips, this template becomes dysfunctional.

"What often interferes with performance is when the left side of the brain becomes overactive," says Crews. That analytic, verbal side canít shut down, and it tries to over-control the motion.

"Just that small change in hand position and it seems like thereís an adjustment and a detour in the brain," says Crews.

This is similar to a treatment for focal dystonia when writing. Place paper on the desk, and people with focal dystonia canít write. Place it on the wall, though, and all of a sudden, they can.

"People think theyíve got to do this one perfect motion this one way, but thatís not true," says Crews. "Thereís many ways."

Even after working with Crews, Castro still struggles with the yips. Heís not alone. Some golfers come out of treatment completely cured. Others are not so lucky.

Castro loves the game, so he doesnít let the yips keep him off the course.

Itís not fun, "but what do you do?" he says. "Iím not one to get too frustrated."



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