Performance Anxiety in Golf: Beating the Yips

When Greg Norman blew a nine stroke lead in the final round of the 1996 Masters, he did what every athlete has done. He choked. But he did it on a world stage.

While not even a Greg Norman could avoid choking, there are things all of us can do to reduce the possibility of it ruining our game. Choking is not just a golf problem; it happens in every sport at every level. Psychologists call it performance anxiety.

The common denominator for performance anxiety is a feeling that the muscles are tightening up. Golfers swing or putt with a jerky motion, tennis players “short arm” the serve, bowlers start aiming, and runners hesitate. Whatever your sport, there is a way to worry yourself into bad technique.

“Every athlete has some kind of anxiety response,” says a sports psychologist. “The fear of the yips creeps in and the person begins to think about what might happen if a putt is missed. This negative response can become a cycle that repeats itself.”

Most sports psychologists agree that the athlete needs to re-focus and to get back to fundamental skills. Many elite golfers and tennis players go to their coaches and ask them to analyze their technique. It should be reassuring to know that fundamental errors are the same for world class and weekend athletes. “Watch the ball,” “follow through,” and “relax” are expressions as common in the big leagues as in Little League.

Psychologists frequently ask their athlete/clients to mentally rehearse – to visualize what they want to happen – before practicing or playing. Focus on the immediate task. Take a deep breath. Develop a routine before the act, then get on with the action. Initiate, don’t hesitate. Block out the score, the spectators, the opponents, the weather, and other distractions.

Some golfers are advised to change to a longer putter, a heavier putter, or even to change the side from which they putt. It may just be a case of something good happening because they expect it to happen. I try to get them to concentrate on the process of making a putt rather than the outcome. We’ll worry about whether the ball goes into the hole later.

There isn’t a timetable for curing the yips. Some golfers solve the problem in an hour, while others take weeks or months. The good news is that most people overcome the yips. The key is to take ownership of the problem. It won’t get better by itself.

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