The yips - a case study

The yips – a case study

It’s not often that people ask me about something I’ve never heard of before -whether that’s sympathetic pregnancy in men, or people waking up with foreign accents. But although I’d heard before of what was affecting Adam* I’d never heard of it affecting someone the way it was him.

“I’ve got the yips” he’d told me over the phone “have you ever heard of them? Only they’re making it impossible for me to hit the ball, and they just seem to be getting worse.”

I had heard of the yips. They’re normally associated with golfers, where they make it nearly impossible for them to hit the ball properly. Instead they flinch or twitch, and if they can hit the ball at all they mishit it.

Luckily, I didn’t make a guess at Adam’s problem being with golf. “It’s really affecting my game now. I can’t put a decent break together, and the other lads in the snooker club have run out of suggestions. Not that their suggestions have been that useful. Basically try harder, or have a drink and relax, like that Bill Werbeniuk used to.”

I’d never seen the yips in a snooker player before. In golfers a couple of times, and in darts players too. They call it ‘dartitis’ and it stops them from letting go of and throwing the darts. One of the things that had helped the last person with dartitis was to hold the darts backwards so that throwing them didn’t matter. That wasn’t going to be any use to Adam though.

Then again neither were the suggestions he was getting at the snooker club. “Firstly, Bill Werbeniuk didn’t have the yips but an essential tremor,” I told Adam, “and I’m not sure that over twenty pints of lager is a good treatment for anything”

Secondly, trying harder was the very last thing he needed to do. “Have you noticed how the harder you try the worse you get?” I asked him. “Have you thought that trying so hard might actually be the problem rather than the answer?”

Unsurprisingly perhaps Adam looked a little sceptical, and so I asked him what was going on in his head when he was trying so hard. “Well ‘Come on Adam, you can do this’, something that like I suppose. Why?”

Most players are talking to themselves all the time, and the trick is to think about who is talking to who. There’s a little bit more to it than just talking to yourself. Think instead of the one doing the telling as ‘Self 1’, and the one playing as ‘Self 2’.

It’s Self 2 that has all the results of practice over the years – the muscle memory, and the unconscious ability. Not only that, but Self 2 never forgets any of it. In fact, Self 2 never gets the yips.

Self 1 is the conscious self, and that’s the one that causes all the trouble. It interferes, and tries to take over, and that’s where the yips come from. This is the reason why trying harder makes things worse – because it’s pushing the interfering Self 1 more and more to the front.

Helping Adam with his snooker yips wasn’t about getting him to relax, but specifically about getting his Self 1 to relax. The more he learned to trust the unconscious ability of his Self 2 the better he got. And of course the better he got the more relaxed he became about his game.

“Now the yips have gone I need to work on my safety play” he told me later. “I don’t suppose you know anything about that?” And Adam was right – that’s something I really don’t know anything about.

*Adam is happy to share his story, and his identity has been protected

If you found this case study about snooker and the yips interesting why not sign up for my monthly newsletter here with three stories every month on the quirky side of psychology and relationships