Friday, April 8, 2016

The Yips

[ed. Here's Ernie Els experiencing the yips yesterday on the first hole of the first round of the Masters. Yips and shanks will drive you insane.]

Six or seven years ago, I played a round of golf in a foursome that included Hank Haney, who at the time was Tiger Woods’s coach. Haney’s golf swing was exceedingly strange. On the first tee, after he lined up his shot, he drew his driver back high in the air while turning to look at the clubhead, took a baseball-like practice swing well above the ball—then, immediately, took the club all the way back again and swung. The last part looked pretty normal, but if I hadn’t known who Haney was I wouldn’t have guessed that his occupation was teaching golf.

Haney is tall and trim. He was an all-conference player at the University of Tulsa, in the mid-nineteen-seventies, but a few years after graduation he began having serious difficulty controlling his tee shots, which travelled unpredictable distances and were sometimes more than a hundred yards off-line. The problem became so severe, he told me, that between 1985 and 2002 he played fewer than ten rounds, even as he was building a national reputation as an instructor. “One morning, I went out alone with a carry bag and one of those eighteen-packs of cheap balls,” he wrote later. “I lost every one of them by the time I made the turn.” He studied videotapes of his swing, frame by frame, in the hope of discovering some fundamental flaw, and when no one was watching he hit hundreds of range balls, trying to straighten himself out. But the harder he worked the worse his problem became.

Haney was suffering from a much dreaded golf malady, which consists of an involuntary disruptive movement of the hands, wrists, or forearms. In the great majority of cases, it affects putting or chipping, both of which involve relatively small, relatively slow strokes, but, as in Haney’s case, it can infect full swings, too. Versions of it have been known over the years by many names, among them “freezing,” “the waggles,” “the staggers,” “the jerks,” “whiskey fingers,” and “the yips.” That last term is the one that’s used almost universally today. It was coined around the middle of the last century by the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, a sufferer, who defined it as “a brain spasm that impairs the short game.” Bill Mehlhorn—a contemporary of Armour’s and a leading tour player in the nineteen-twenties—once had a short putt in a tournament in Florida, but he jabbed the ball so far past the hole that a competitor standing in the fringe on the far side of the green had to jump out of the way. Harry Vardon, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, and Tom Watson all developed the yips late in their careers. Johnny Miller, who was a tour superstar in the mid-nineteen-seventies and early eighties, developed such severe yips that watching him play was painful; a rebroadcast of a 1997 match between him and Jack Nicklaus included relatively few of his (many) putts, presumably because the producers had mercifully edited them out.

Golfers aren’t the only yippers. Cricket bowlers suffer a similar disability, which they also call the yips. In darts, the problem is “dartitis”; in snooker, “cueitis”; in archery, “target panic”; in gun shooting, “flinching”; in baseball pitching, “the creature,” “the monster,” and “Steve Blass disease” (after the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher, who, in 1973, developed what turned out to be a career-ending inability to find the strike zone). In 1999, Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankees’ second baseman, began flubbing routine plays to first base, and in one game threw a ball so far off target that it hit the mother of the ESPN sportscaster Keith Olbermann, in the stands. Knoblauch finished his career in left field, and what until that time had usually been called Steve Sax syndrome—after the Dodgers’ second baseman, who had the same problem for several years in the nineteen-eighties—became widely known as Knoblauch disease.

Even bad cases of the yips don’t always end sports careers—at least, not immediately. Miller won the 1976 British Open, at Royal Birkdale, even though he was afraid that, if he looked at his ball or at the head of his putter while making a stroke, he wouldn’t be able to putt at all, and so he placed a dab of red fingernail polish on the grip, below the position of his right thumb, and looked at that instead. Later, he sometimes putted with his eyes closed, or while looking at the hole instead of the ball. The German tour pro Bernhard Langer was able to control his yips by using his right hand to brace the shaft of his putter against his left forearm—and, when the problem returned, by switching to putters with longer shafts and anchoring them against his chest.

Hank Haney arrived at the peculiar swing I saw after deciding he needed to develop a technique that, while it might not be mechanically optimal, made him physically less able to hit the ball in the wrong direction. To reduce the mobility of his hands and wrists, he adopted an unconventional grip, holding the club mostly in his palms, rather than in his fingers. He had noticed that, on the few occasions when he couldn’t avoid demonstrating a shot with his driver, he was able to do so successfully if he looked at his audience, not the ball, while he swung—a feat that impressed his students but for him was an act of desperation. “That was something I discovered by trial and error,” he told me. “Focussing my eyes and my attention on something different—anything to not anticipate the hit, anything to not anticipate the moment of contact with the ball.” In his new swing, he glanced at the ball only briefly, at the very beginning of his routine; during the actual swing, he kept his eyes on the brim of his cap.

Athletes and sports fans have generally assumed that yipping and its variants are forms of performance anxiety, or choking. It’s true that nervous athletes often play poorly, and that yipping is most evident when the stakes are high, and that even serious sufferers are sometimes able to perform in practice or while playing alone. Yet many yippers are veterans of competition at the highest levels, who never showed a tendency to buckle under stress; many others are casual players who have trouble even when the pressure is low. Yipping also is usually extremely task-specific. Haney never stopped being a good putter. Knoblauch didn’t have a problem throwing from the outfield. Archers who can no longer hit a bull’s-eye often have no trouble shooting at bare bales of straw. If the yips and other sports-related movement problems are solely a matter of anxiety, why do they affect only certain motions? And how can a change of target, technique, or equipment sometimes make them go away?

by David Owen, New Yorker |  Read more:
Image: Leo Espinosa