IT was the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour who coined the term ‘the yips’ in the 1920s to describe his sudden inability to hole short putts.
Just one month after winning the US Open tournament in 1927, Armour was embarrassed to find himself on the 17th hole in the Shawnee Open taking 23 shots, rather than the average five — a record single-hole score that has never been exceeded in any subsequent professional tournament.
Since then, other high-profile professional golfers, including Sam Snead and Bernhard Langer, have suffered the same problem, and the long-shafted putter — aka the belly putter — currently used by pros such as Vijay Singh and Fred Couples was designed to help golfers overcome the yips.
The yips are not confined to golf. In cricket, slow left-arm bowlers — why just left-armers, no one really knows — such as Norman Gifford, Phil Edmonds and Keith Medlycott, all had periods when they were unable to run up to the wicket and deliver the ball.
Stephen Hendry has admitted to a similar problem with his snooker action, and the former darts world champion Eric Bristow also found there were periods when he couldn’t let go of the dart. Though he referred to it as ‘dartitis’ rather than the yips.
The yips has also found currency as literary metaphor; this year Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a story — loosely — about a shortstop who finds himself unable to throw, and Nicola Barker’s Man Booker long-listed The Yips have both been well received.
Why sportsmen — it does tend to be men — get the yips is not fully understood, though they usually come on with little warning late in a player’s career.
Although the symptoms are physical, it is generally assumed that the problem is primarily psychological as the sports affected are those in which the player has plenty of time to think before completing the action.
For decades, players have been left to muddle their way through as best they can. But help may now be at hand. Scientists from the Technical University of Munich, writing in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, believe that something as simple as clenching your left fist before putting or bowling can make a significant difference. And yes, it must be the left fist, as the left-hand side of the body is wired to the right hemisphere of the brain — the side that controls automated rather than conscious behaviour.
Will it work? Who knows? But let’s suggest that the European team does a little left-handed fist-pumping in the Ryder cup over the next few days. Just in case. — The Guardian, London