How often have we seen golfers do erratic things at the most inopportune times? Ernie Els made a six-putt at the first hole in Augusta a few years ago. Such poor skill execution can often be seen in golf – known as “the yips”. This often occurs when golfers feel under pressure and anxious during performance.
One only needs to look back at Rory McIllroy at Augusta in 2011 to see how anxiety can destroy a performance. On the Saturday, he shot 70 to finish at 12-under-par, four strokes ahead of four other challengers. However, on the fourth and final day, he shot the worst round in history by any professional golfer leading after the third round of the Masters Tournament. McIlroy scored one-over-par 37 on the first nine, and still had the lead, but shot a round of 80, finishing tied for 15th place at -4 for the tournament.
Watch his round unfold below
Afterwards he said “I displayed a few weaknesses in my game that I need to work on. For 63 holes I led and it was just a very bad back nine that sort of took the tournament away from me, I suppose. I was just trying to stay ahead of the field, which in hindsight probably wasn’t a good thing. I just should have gone out, played my game and said ‘Right, if I play well I’m capable of shooting 65 around this golf course and winning by 10′. But that’s not the way it worked out and that’s experience. That’s just learning to be in that position more often. Hopefully I’ll be able to get myself in those positions more often in my career and sooner or later it’s going to happen where it finally clicks and I’m able to handle the whole thing a lot better and win.”
He later employed the services of sport psychologist Dr Bob Rotella (since deceased) and obviously learned to deal with the problem. Months later in his next major, McIlroy won the U.S. Open held at Congressional, winning by eight strokes over Jason Day. McIlroy set several records in his victory, most notably, his 72-hole aggregate score of 268 (16-under) was a new U.S. Open record.
Others also suffered a similar fate, none more so than Jean Van De Welde famously at the British Open and Greg Norman at Augusta as they both threw away huge leads on the final day after holding convincing leads overnight from the third round on the Saturday.
More recently, a young Irish amateur Paul Dunne led the British Open in 2015 entering the final day leading by 3 shots. After his final round collapsed, Dunne found it tough to take after his first three rounds of 69, 69 and 66, as he enjoyed massive support among the galleries from Greystones club members and Irish golf fans.
Afterwards he said “I just never really got settled into the round,” he lamented. “I got off to a bit of a rough start and didn’t make my score on the front nine and threw away some shots on the back nine. I wasn’t too bad starting. I just hit three wedge shots fat and one thin. I didn’t see those shots in my game or in practice before today. I don’t think I’ve done that ever. I don’t know where that came from. It kind of surprised me on the first. After I hit that second shot it rattled me a little bit and I never got settled after that.“
So what happened?
Basically anxiety is having a significant negative impact on performance. Anxiety takes two forms and may impact the brain (psychological anxiety) or the muscular system (somatic anxiety) or both.
Psychological anxiety can affect decision making, ability to sleep on nights previous to performance and bring on worrisome thoughts – often about winning or losing - or other peoples perceptions around how you are doing eg: player, crowd, coach or family perceptions of performance which may make suffering players uncomfortable.
Somatic anxiety manifests itself in various ways – trembling hands, hyperventilation, nausea, increased need to use toilet, dry throat, increased heart rate, sweaty palms, general sweating or indeed struggling to sleep on the night before the performance. In severe cases, performers can suffer from nausea and some might even feel the need to throw up before performing in competition.
The combination of an increase in both psychological anxiety (head worry) and somatic anxiety (muscle worry) at the same time forces the body and mind to overheat and golfers then struggle to execute what are considered relatively easy shots. It takes the form of a mild panic attack or what we know as psycho-somatic stress resulting in skill breakdown.
The nervousness within the body bring about involuntary muscle movements which contribute to the “yips” as skill execution that is normally considered easy becomes a lot more difficult as a skill breakdown or de-chunking of natural movement flow occurs.
This has been extensively researched by Lew Hardy at Bangor University with his 1996 paper suggesting that boosting confidence can help buffer the level of anxiety at which these performance decrements occur.
Various strategies such as appropriate relaxation techniques, self-talk and attentional focus cues as well as imagery can help alleviate the impact of the anxiety and reduce the impact and onset of the “yips”.
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Keith Begley is a member of British Association of Sport and Exercise Science (BASES) and is an accredited performance psychologist with the Sport Ireland Institute.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport