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See the Line Every Time! The EOB Putting System

Yips and Choking: Not the Same!

Dear Readers:
A number of you have written me asking about the articles in Golf Magazine and Golf Digest that focus on the "yips" and "choking." They merit comment from Dr. Putt.

In the March 2000 issue of Golf Digest two articles appear. Butch Harmon, Tiger's teacher, presents a method of putting that eliminates the yips. Basically one's arms are glued to the side of the body and the hands remain firm and one swings with the knees -- exactly the opposite of the conventional putting stroke. Although the swing looks funny and feels funny, it is preferable to the stab and jerk of the yips. All small muscle activity is eliminated. This is a last ditch fix. But if you have ever been struck by the yips in the middle of a round, having this fix in your bag could actually help innoculate you from the fear that may bring on the yips. Having a safety net reduces anxiety. It's worth a read and some time on the green to get a feel for distance control and direction.

The more interesting article is really a sidebar about a Mayo clinic study that was reported in the December 2000 issue of the Journal of Sports Medicine. This study was an exploratory study that will be followed up by other studies to better identify the precise cause of the yips. It does little to offer any cures. That awaits a more precise understanding of the problem. The article provides some interesting figures and statisitics. Based on a servey of just over 1000 players with 12 or lower handicaps who play in tournaments, just over half report experiencing the yips, and the problem occurs mostly on short putts. The surprise is that the percentage is so high. We should remember that this is based on self-reporting and that players my not all be reporting the same thing. The reader should take careful not of the definition, which is similar to that used by Dr. Putt -- feelings of "freezing, jerking, or a tremor prior to initiating a putt." In a second phase of the study the researchers measured heart rate and grip pressure in those who thought they had the yips against a control group. The percentages who experienced increased heart rates and grip pressure were still quite high, though somewhat less than half. These players also putted less well.

Dr. Putt is impressed with this research with only one misgiving. The researchers throw in the term "choking (anxiety-related)," which may confuse many people. Choking is probably a rather different phonemona, at least based on what is presently known. See Dr. Putt's letter on nerves. Of course, at this point we are jumping back and forth between the world of imprecise layman's language to scientific language, so a certain amount of confusion is inevitable, especially when scientists choose to use lay terms and give them more limited and precise definitions. You can see an abstract of the article at www.mayo.edu/research/yips.

Golf Magazine added to the confusion in its March 2001 issue with a cover article entitled "New Proof: You Can Beat the Yips." Unfortunately, the article was really not about yips at all, at least as defined by the Mayo Clinic study (or Dr. Putt). It was about choking. The resercher, Dr. Debbie Crews, is not at fault here, because her title is "putting under pressure." The report itself, at least as described in the magazine article, does not mention "yips," only "choking." The measures were self-reported anxiety levels in putting tests, heart rates, and brain activity as measured by an EEG. Everyone felt more anxiety under pressure and experienced increased brain activity. But those who choked had an imbalance in brain activity -- the left side of the brian, which controls mechanical motions, dominated, and the right side, which is associated with creative activity, played a secondary role. In a nutshell, those who got too mechanical under pressure suffered "paralysis by analysis." Dr. Putt would call this choking (as did Dr. Crews), not the yips. Dr. Putt would suspect that the yips may be imbalance toward the right side, where imaginary fears take over and one is unable to even think about mechanics. This hypothesis is consistent with the insights of The New Yorker article, "Performance Studies: The Art of Failure: Why Some People Choke and Others Panic," (August 21-28, 2000, pp.84-93), by Malcolm Gladwell. Of course, this is an untested hypothesis. We will have to wait for the research to make sure. Incidentally, the Golf Magazine article also seemed to mislabel the color pictures of brain activity (p.94), or else the pattern they claim to see is not obvious to Dr. Putt.

So what are we to conclude? Dr. Putt would suggest that until more definitive research arrives, the player should think of the yips and choking as different reactions to stress and anxiety. Choking is when one becomes so mechanical that all fluidity and grace is lost, when one no longer trusts muscle memory, when one thinks through each position in the swing rather than trusts one's swing. The yips, on the other hand, are when anxiety and fear create a sense of panic, when one cannot think or even act without great difficulty, and/or when one is almost frozen. Both are related to stress and anxiety, but that is where the similarity may end.

What to do? First, read Dr. Putt's letter on nerves, if you have not already done so. A number of you pointed out the similarties between the suggestions in the Golf Magazine article on choking to the steps in the EOB putting system. Indeed, Dr. Putt is most gratified to have his readers plug his sponsor! The article suggests reducing choking by focusing on a target, aiming from behind the ball rather than worrying about aim when over the ball, and taking a last look before triggering the swing. The additional suggestions in the article could also be built into the routine, such as exhaling as one focuses just before executing the backswing -- instead of focus and then backswing, focus while exhaling and then backswing. Dr. Crews also recommends starting the routine with a deep breath in and out. This could be a trigger to cleanse the mind of all distracting thoughts and begin the putting routine. Not a bad idea. The only major difference was that Dr. Crews recommends against any rehearsal strokes in the putting routine. Dr. Putt would disagree so long as one uses the rehearsal to imagine feel for distance rather than using the rehearsal for thinking through the mechanics of the putt. That is why Dr. Putt recommends looking at the hole, the target, rather than looking at the putter during rehearsal strokes.

When dealing with the yips, some of the same techniques may also help, because they do cleanse the mind. The key is to keep the mechanical part of the mind working. So focuse on routine. The other key is to minimize small muscle movements. The EOB grip, swinging with shoulders, and eliminating all hand and wrist and forearm action also helps. Of course, all of this is also part of the EOB putting system. Please pardon another plug. As last resort, one might utilize Harmon's method of putting as noted above. Finally, as both articles pointed out, putting, as golf, should be fun. Develop a philosophy that putting is a creative mental exercise in imagination combined with disciplined routine, much as one would perform yoga exercises. The reward is in the journey as much as in the final result.

Dr. Putt

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