Tuesday 18 February 2014

Control and stress: do you have a case of 'the Yips'?

This is a tragic account of a stress-related condition, the Yips, that affects golfers (and some other sports where you hit a still ball). But bear with me, there's a stress management lesson here for all of us.

You may not be a golfer, but I can assure you golf is a difficult sport to master. It's physically difficult to master the skills, which often have to be produced under duress (like bad Scottish weather!). Psychologically it's even more demanding. You never completely master it, truth be told.

But the part of golf that causes the most problems is the part that should be the easiest; putting. You've probably tried putting even if you've never set foot on a golf course. How hard can it be? You're on a perfectly manicured green and all you have to do is hit a ball into a hole from a few feet. If you give a putter to a kid, they look at the putt, look at the hole, line it up and knock it into the hole. Easy. Sickeningly, annoyingly easy.

As golfers get older and stronger, they get better and more consistent at hitting longer shots. At the same time though they often get worse at putting. Sometimes much worse. They can develop the Yips.

It typically happens with short putts, sometimes very short putts; the ones we feel we should get into the hole (long putts are usually unaffected because we don't assume we should hole them all). Instead of smoothly, naturally, stroking the ball into the hole, the stroke becomes an ugly, twitchy jab. The ball dives off, to the left or right, and sometimes way past the hole. Those afflicted get very stressed on the golf course and have nightmares about putting off it. It can ruin the pleasure of playing.

Some personalities are more prone, but the basic problem is one of expectation (and associated anxiety and stress) and control. The more we feel we should hole the putt, the worse it gets. Of course, the shorter the putt, the more we feel should hole it.

We pile pressure on ourselves to hole the putt (the outcome). We can become obsessed with that outcome.

I must hole it, surely. I mean, how can I possibly miss it from there??. (But we fear we will miss it, increasing the anxiety.) I'm going to miss it and lose a shot. Such a stupid shot to lose, and so costly. How could I be so stupid? And I'll look like an idiot and let people down. Inevitably, psychological stress increases, increasing physical tension. And extreme tension and smoothly putting a ball into a hole don't mix. Hence the twitchy, jabby stroke... the Yips.

The best golf book I ever read was a book about putting called "Putting Out Of Your Mind" by Sports Psychologist, Bob Rotella. It had very little to say about the physical aspects but a lot to say about the psychology of putting. One of Bob's tips stood out: you gain control by giving up control. It seems strange, contradictory even, but it's perhaps the best single piece of stress management advice I've ever come across, weather or not you're having problems on the greens!

With putting, there are so many things that influence the whether or not the ball actually goes into the hole; the slope, the grain of the green, the way the hole is cut that day, a gust of cross-wind. Ultimately, we can't control the outcome. All we can do is to control ourselves and try to hit a good putt in the right direction. Lining the putt up and a good, smooth putting stroke will help. Mental relaxation and a good mental routine will help. More effort generally won't.

The less we worry about the outcome, the less tense we will be, and the more likely we are to hole the putt.

Control is a huge issue in stress management and resilience generally, maybe the biggest. A sense of control over what happens in your life, known as an internal locus of control, is definitely worth striving for. It will make you more resilient and better able to cope with adversity when it comes along.

But where does that sense of control come from? Not it transpires from trying to control outcomes, because often we can't control them - it's better to accept them. It comes more from focussing on the process; what we think and do. It's well worth investing time in improving our skills, behaviours and our attitudes.

Remember, the most stressed people in the world ever are control freaks.