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In the grip of the 'yips'

These muscle jerks plague some veteran golfers. Researchers are studying how repeated use of fine motor skills affects players and people in other professions.

March 17, 2003|Martin Miller | Times Staff Writer

Bob Feller remembers studying the break of the green, lining up his 5-foot shot, and then gently pulling back his putter. As a golf pro, the Florida resident had performed these simple motions thousands of times. On this occasion, however, the club went back and would not come forward.

"My muscles froze; I felt absolutely sick," said Feller, 60, who can still vividly recall the incident from 30 years ago. That erratic stroke was only the beginning. After that, when Feller's muscles weren't tightening up, they'd suddenly jerk during putting, causing him to miss. The problem became so bad, the seasoned golfer had to quit playing tournaments.

This set of symptoms -- freezing, jerking or shaking before putting, particularly under pressure -- is all too familiar to thousands of golfers nationwide who know them as the "yips." They're blamed for ruining the games of golfing legends Sam Snead and Ben Hogan.

For decades, it's been taken for granted that the source of the trouble was strictly psychological. "Yippers," as they were sometimes called, were viewed as obsessive overthinkers unable to cope anymore with stressful athletic competition.

But scientists at the Mayo Clinic have found that the problem often has physical, as well as mental, causes. Researchers believe there is a continuum of causes ranging from the psychological, such as severe performance anxiety, to the neurological, including focal dystonia, a condition characterized by involuntary movements.

"These are highly accomplished golfers who experience problems after many years of successful competition," said Aynsley Smith, director of Sports Psychology and Sport Medicine Research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. "Anxiety can make the problem worse, but it appears there is a physical element that may be the underlying problem."

The problem has implications not only for golfers, but also for anyone who repeatedly performs fine motor-skill movements in a pressured environment, from basketball players to typists, dentists and airline pilots, according to the Mayo Clinic scientists.

"Golf is an ideal model to study," said Smith. "The worst that happens with a golfer is they miss a putt by a couple feet. But if a pilot or surgeon makes a mistake, there are obviously grave consequences."

The clinic's most recent research, published earlier this year in the journal Sports Medicine, found that more than half of 72 golfers surveyed provided physical rather than mental descriptions of their experiences with the yips. By comparison, a little more than one in five of the golfers gave mental descriptions.

The yips seem to strike certain golfers especially hard. The typical yipper is, according to researchers, an avid and skillful golfer (usually with a handicap of 12 or under) with 15 years or more of golfing experience.

Researchers have been unable to pinpoint why these traits would translate into the yips. Smith suspects that the brain's neurotransmitters may, over time, simply wear out for a particular motor skill. She believes there is some unknown interaction between the physical overuse and the adrenaline rush of competition that results in a hiccup in the golf stroke.

Before such research came to light, players like Feller anguished over their diminished abilities. He sought help from an arts psychologist, a psychiatrist, even a hypnotist. None of them could help him. "I've cried about it I was so frustrated," said Feller, who quit playing tournaments years ago and now works as a golf instructor in Sarasota, Fla.

Feller said he benefited from information reported in one Mayo Clinic study, which determined that adjusting the golf stroke can stop the yips -- at least for several years. Feller has adopted a new stance for putting that seems to work.

In May, the Mayo Clinic will sponsor a yippers putting tournament. By studying such factors as confidence, heart rate, grip force, stress hormones and putting motions, researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the problem, said Lee Anse, a Mayo Clinic spokesman. They are especially interested in whether medications, such as the beta blockers given to heart patients, will ease the yips.

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