Some call it "a pressure-induced involuntary muscle movement." Others call it "a loss of control of your shot." In most circles, it's called the yips.
As you may be aware or you may have experienced, the yips are the loss of fine motor skills in athletes. The condition seems to occur suddenly and without an apparent trigger, cause or adequate explanation. It usually appears in mature athletes with years of experience. It has been poorly understood and we have, to this point, no known treatment or therapy. Though rare, athletes affected by the yips sometimes recover their ability, which may require an overall or partial change in technique. However, many at the highest level of their sport are forced to abandon their livelihood. Some are still at or near the peak of their careers.
The yips manifest themselves as muscle twitches, jumps, shakes, jitters, flinches, staggers, and jerks. The condition occurs most often in sports which athletes are required to perform a single precise and well-timed action such as in baseball, golf, tennis, bowling, darts, and cricket.
In my last blogpost, I talked about strengthening your mental core. Your self-talk or internal dialogue is an important part of your mental core.
Your inner dialogue during competition, might sound like this:
"I don't think I can make this." "If I miss this, my coach is gonna bench me." "This is a lot of pressure." "It's all on me." "What if I miss?" "I should have practiced this shot more." "Come on, you've got this!" "Would you just relax?!"
With these types of messages, your brain is interrupting your shot, and your muscles are saying, "Wait, what?" Because of this sudden emergency interruption, your muscles are saying "I must be about to do something wrong, otherwise, why would my brain be talking to me right now?"
So, while you are busy talking to yourself, your muscles are reacting to your inner message by either trying to adjust, overcontrol, restrict, or over-correct your shot. In most circumstances, you will ever so slightly slow down, stop or inhibit your motion (shorting the shot) or over-correct (by shooting long). Once you begin to overcorrect during the shot, your regular motion is affected. Sure, you might still make the shot, but the probability has been changed, often dramatically.
That's the way you forget how to shoot, putt, throw, kick, serve. It's your inner critic thats attacking your muscle memory. This constant internal criticism can erode what you have spend hours trying to perfect. It's a type of waterboarding. Death by a thousand cuts.
The more that I work with athletes and look closely at their self-talk, it appears that self-talk is prevalent enough to cause physiological disruption in fine motor movements. At first, it affects individual shots, causing enough disruption in the athlete to miss any particular shot. If the athlete's self-talk is disruptive enough and frequent enough, it causes shooting slumps; and, if an athlete's self-talk is chronic enough will create a more severe disorder, the yips.
My experience is that many, if not all, athletes have, at least, a very mild case of the yips. With enough practice, most athletes can overcome harsh, negative, and disruptive self-talk. However, when self-talk is at it's most disruptive, it can affect even the most rehearsed shot.
In fact, I contend that any missed shot has, at some level, been disrupted by self-talk. A missed shot becomes a slump through increasingly negative self-talk, followed by increased self-consciousness about subsequent misses. The yips are simply the extreme consequences of extreme self-consciousness. At its worst and most frequent, negative self-talk could "metastasize" into the yips.
So, what can you do about your early stage yips?
Be aware that your self-talk is disrupting your deep muscle learning and memory. Don't let the yips get to you. Want to make your shot consistently, or serve with confidence? Want to avoid slumps? Quiet your self-talk. Shut your inner critic down. Your muscle memory will thank you for it.
For more information about strengthening your mental core, self-talk, mindfulness, mental imagery, sports psychology, etc. download Mindfuel, the mental conditioning app: http://appmc.hn/1aekztQ.