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Mental Game: Nip the Yips

Mental Game: Nip the Yips

Tips for conquering the mental side of disc golf

Tuesday, March 21, 2023 - 16:27

This is the first in an occasional series from Andrew Ahrendt, Ph.D., who is a licensed clinical psychologist and avid disc golfer.


Do You Have the Yips?

Have you experienced the sudden inability to putt accurately when playing in a tournament despite making everything during a casual round? Are you finding you aren't getting the same clean release, or the disc isn't popping out of your hand the way it does when you’re at home? Do you dominate the practice basket before a round, but when you get to the first basket in a tournament it's like you don't know how to perform the putting stroke you just had? Can you sink putt after putt if you are out of the running, but then suddenly when it counts you're consistently failing to execute the same motion?

If these examples sound familiar, then you may be experiencing "the yips". The yips are a phenomenon that occurs in sports as well as non-athletic settings in which a person starts to develop problems executing a well-learned movement they were previously able to accomplish. The yips have nothing to do with an athlete's natural ability to play disc golf. Even some touring professionals who are capable of throwing every shot still struggle with the yips.

This article is not intended to scare people; simply reading about something does not increase its prevalence or likelihood. Rather, this is intended to help people who are currently experiencing the yips or may experience them in the future. It is important to recognize if you have the yips or if you simply had an off day; everyone has off days. Having an uncharacteristic day of off-the-mark performance is not the same as the yips, and has a much more straightforward recommendation: go practice more. However, if you notice that these problems persist, and are occurring most when it counts, then you may be experiencing the yips. Before we’re able to make changes, it’s helpful to understand what something is and what causes it. Additionally, the more we understand something the less likely we are to fear it and the greater our confidence will be when we know how to fix it.


What are “The Yips”?

The yips involve the experience of a sudden involuntary spasm or interruption of movement that can involve shaking, jerking, twitching, tightening, or freezing of muscles that can prevent an athlete from executing a specific well-learned action. In the case of disc golf, this can cause players to release early, hold onto the disc for too long, stab at the basket, not pop the disc out of their hand, or have a general inability to release the disc naturally. While it was once thought that the yips are an incurable phenomenon that occurs without reason, it now appears that yips occur as a result of neurological or psychological causes.

Physiological Yips

Occurring at a much lower rate, the physiological yips are the result of a neurological condition that causes focal dystonia, which is the involuntary contraction and movement of muscles that affect one area of the body. Focal dystonia can impact various parts of the body, but the type that affects a person's arms, wrists, hands, or fingers is more common in athletes and professionals who frequently perform repetitive fine motor actions. For this reason, focal dystonia is more common in sports such as (ball) golf, darts, baseball, and target shooting and careers including musicians, hair stylists, painters, and writers.


Although the precise cause of focal dystonia is unknown, it is likely due to miscommunication within the neuromuscular system and can be made worse by stress. Disc golfers who are at a greater risk for developing this include older players, who are frequently practicing or playing throughout the week and are competing in tournaments or higher-stress rounds. While there is no cure for focal dystonia, consulting your medical provider is an important first step in getting help for dealing with the symptoms of this condition. Treatment can involve the use of oral or injectable medications and in extremely rare cases may require surgical intervention. Non-medical interventions that may help reduce the prevalence of muscle spasms for this type of yip include reducing the amount of rounds a person is playing, taking time off, making small changes to the way a person holds or grips their disc (index finger on the rim vs under the rim, trying different combinations of fingers stretched out vs bent under the disc, varying the tightness and looseness of your grip), or changing the physical sensation of their putter (changing the plastic they use, wearing a thin glove, or using a rosin or chalk bag).

Mental Yips

The second type of yip is psychologically based and is the most common type of yip experienced by players. Mental yips are rooted in performance anxiety. Athletes usually experience this type of yip when they feel a greater psychological pressure to perform well. This is why players most often report not having yips during practice or casual rounds, but experience them during leagues, high-intensity rounds, or tournaments. 

Mental yips are the result of anxiety and stress related to performing at or above the level that is needed. They arise from past misses and the emotions associated with those experiences. Consequently, players develop anxiety related to thoughts of potentially making a mistake and the effects it could have (not meeting their expectations, being viewed negatively by peers or other competitors, believing they are letting people down). These worries change the athlete’s focus from being approach or goal driven (concentrating on making the putt) to being avoidance driven (trying to not miss the putt, or hoping they won’t have a yip during the putt). This change in focus is detrimental, as our brains are inherently not good at executing non-specific directions.


To cope with these experiences, players often turn their attention to something they can control: their mechanics. The problem with this change is that simply focusing on the mechanics of an action, while performing the action makes it harder to execute. For example, you probably haven't been focusing on your breathing while reading this article; it has just been happening automatically. However, by bringing your attention to your breathing, you'll notice the way you are breathing has slightly changed and become more intentional. 

In the same way, your breathing may have changed and become less free when you began focusing on it, a player will find it more difficult to complete their regular relaxed putt when they are focused on their movements rather than their goal. This results in a tight, stabbing, or jerking movement which inhibits the player from executing their regular repeatable putting stroke. As a result, the player's putting becomes inconsistent, further decreasing their confidence and increasing their self-focus and negative emotion. The process becomes circular as the player worries about being embarrassed and what it will mean to miss or have a yip while putting. Which can lead the player to further over-control their putting motion, have an uncomfortable stroke, or miss – which actualizes their fears. It is easy to see how this can lead to catastrophizing—assuming the worst outcome is inevitable.


What Can You Do?

Now that you know what the yips are and what causes them, what can you do if you are experiencing them? First off, you need to know that all is not lost. There are several ways to decrease the severity and likelihood of the yips. This article provides a brief overview of skills and drills that players can use to help overcome them. Simply put, overcoming the yips involves disrupting the process that leads to the yips. This will allow disc golfers to execute their putting stroke in a free and target focused manner. Making physical changes (such as adjusting the grip a player uses, or the feeling of the disc in their hand) or mental changes (decreasing stress and anxiety levels as well as changing attention to being externally vs internally focused) can help disrupt the yips.


Missy Gannon takes a deep breath while lining up a tee shot.

An easy way to reduce overall stress and anxiety levels is to practice diaphragmatic breathing (often called belly breathing). Practicing belly breathing has been shown to reduce baseline stress levels, as well as improve blood pressure and lower heart rate over time. Diaphragmatic breathing involves expanding and contracting the upper abdomen at a slow controlled rate. To do this, imagine that your belly is a balloon. With each inhale, you're expanding the balloon by filling it with air. Then with each exhale you’re deflating it, by pulling your stomach muscles toward your spine. Your goal should be six breaths per minute, (each having a five-second inhale and five-second exhale), in which you are relaxed and focused on your breathing. Practicing this regularly can help to reduce our experience of anxiety in stressful situations both on and off the course.


Nate Sexton has a clear pre-shot routine.

A pre-shot routine implements consistency with each shot, and simplifies putting. Since the yips are more likely to occur when we catastrophize, we want to prevent ourselves from doing it. Having the same pre-putt routine helps prevent catastrophizing by focusing on the routine and the goal rather than potential outcomes. This goal-driven attention involves an external focus (picking a target and putting) as opposed to an internal one (thinking about how to execute the motion or hoping you don’t miss). Using the same routine each time helps transfer the confidence of practice onto the course. When developing a routine, a player should make it short, simple, and easily repeatable. That way if the player finds themselves losing focus they can briefly step off their putt and refocus (while still being within the 30 second requirement to putt).


A pre-shot routine should be short, simple, and easily repeatable.

The routine should start with a trigger. A trigger can be a word or action that focuses the player’s mind on the putt. This should happen as the player is approaching their disc and getting into their stance. Next, the player should select their aiming point, visualize the flight path, and commit to making the putt. Using positive self-talk and focusing on completing the action (thinking, “I am going to hit my target”) rather than worrying about missing (thinking, “I hope I don’t miss”), can reduce anxiety and improve focus. Before putting the player should take a breath and, upon exhaling, prepare to deliver their putt. While these steps don’t have to occur in this exact order and may overlap, each routine should always start with a trigger and involve taking a breath before the shot in order to achieve relaxed focus. Practicing a pre-putt routine helps players simplify their thinking by consistently preparing them to perform. Players should practice their routine regularly to the point where it is a habit.

Putting Drills

Now that we have discussed ways to decrease stress levels, increase consistency, and improve focus, the next step is to free up the putting stroke. Below are two drills that have helped players reduce the yips and putt with confidence.

Since heightened internal focus is associated with having yips, it’s important to focus on making the shot rather than on what we are doing mechanically. Putting with your eyes closed is a great drill to practice this. This removes a player’s ability to monitor their mechanics and forces them to focus on the feeling of executing a good putting stroke. Start this drill by standing 5-15 feet away from the basket in your putting stance. Distance can vary, but always start closer at first. Next, go through your pre-putt routine. Then, look at the basket, close your eyes, and then putt. After a second or two goes by open your eyes to see where the putt went. When you have putted about 10 putts, begin alternating having your eyes open on one putt and closed on the next. Complete this portion of the drill 20 times (10 putts with eyes open and 10 with eyes closed). Overall, this drill will help the player focus on the basket (rather than themselves) and regain the feeling of putting freely.

Focusing on our mechanics too much can impair our abilities to execute actions effectively. Therefore, we want to find ways to allow our bodies to perform freely and almost automatically. A great drill that will help develop an automatic feeling-based stroke is the rapid-fire drill. The rapid-fire drill helps the player focus on the feel of their putt as opposed to their mechanics as the quick nature of this drill does not allow their brain to consciously process their mechanics. To begin this drill, gather 5-10 putters that can be held or placed near you to quickly access. Next, begin your pre-putt routine about 5-10 feet away from the basket. Now, begin putting each disc as quickly as you can without stopping or going through your pre-putt routine again. During this drill, the player is not putting hard at the basket or firing the disc as fast as they can. The player should provide the appropriate speed to make the putt. After 4-5 rounds of rapid fire, the player gradually implements going through their full routine in between 2-3 rapid succession putts. The process of throwing one disc after another in rapid succession helps the player focus on the feeling of putting as opposed to the mechanics of it. Also, this can help to teach players that their mechanics don’t always have to be 100% perfect in order to make a putt. This is because our brains are able to calculate minute changes in our body position and make changes to still achieve the goal. By focusing on developing a feel-based putting stroke, the player can learn the feeling of executing a relaxed and effective putt.


While the drills and tips above require patience and consistency, they are designed to help disc golfers disrupt the process of having mental or physiological yips. The emphasis on focusing externally, as learned in these drills, will help players break free from the yips by recognizing their abilities are greater when they trust their putt and let the disc fly freely into the basket. What do you say? Let’s nip these yips in the bud so our confidence rises and our scores drop.


Andrew (Dr. Disc) Ahrendt, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist, researcher, and sport psychology consultant. He is an avid disc golfer and discovered his love for the sport during the spring of 2020. Dr. Ahrendt is passionate about using his knowledge and experiences as a both a psychologist and competitor to help others reach their full potential on and off the course. He has helped amateur and professional athletes alike maximize their abilities by overcoming mental barriers and improving their confidence. In addition to competing and consulting he volunteers as psychological advisor with the Disc For Life suicide prevention non-profit organization and enjoys developing, improving, and maintaining disc golf courses in the area. Andy lives in Omaha, Nebraska with his girlfriend and two dogs where he works as a staff psychologist for Nebraska Medicine Hospital and as the sport psychologist for the Union Omaha Professional Soccer Club. For questions or comments regarding sport psychology or how to improve your performance please email Andrew here.