Is fixing the yips as easy as admitting you have them? A Yale professor makes the case

November 25, 2019
Bernhard Langer

Golf is a game of benign four-letter words: push, pull, yank, putt, snap hook, long iron, sand shot. But perhaps no four-letter word garners more taboo among golfers than “the y-word” : yips.

The yips are a ruthless affliction, and they don’t discriminate. What makes the yips so vicious is that they seem to work inversely to all other golf maladies. The harder you work to fix them, the worse they become.

It’s this element of the yips that leads Dr. Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, to believe she has a solution for one of golf’s oldest problems. Santos is the brain behind Yale’s famous course on happiness, and in “The Happiness Lab,” the podcast adaptation of her class, Santos dove into the psychology behind the yips.

“Just have golfers tell themselves what not to do, and you have a recipe for disaster,” Santos said. “This act of thinking of the unwanted action, ‘whatever you do, don’t hit it to the left’ seems to make that unwanted action more likely, not less.”

But golfers aren’t alone in falling victim to this thought process. It’s a theory of cognitive science called “ironic process theory,” which argues the more we try to suppress certain thoughts, the more likely we are to make them surface. In the case of the golfer, this is why the yips often get worse when players try to block out or push past their situation.

“When you’ve got ’em, you also want to hide ’em, which makes the yips a form of thought suppression overload,” Santos said. “Not only are you trying to suppress your thoughts about what not to do on the golf course, which is bad cognitively, but you’re also trying to hide that you have this shameful condition from everyone around you. You don’t want people to learn your dirty secret.”

Instead, Santos suggests golfers let go of their fear and come clean to themselves. By admitting their affliction, she argues, players can take pressure off themselves and improve as a result.

“We often tell ourselves not to think about events in our lives that are painful,” Santos said. “We think dwelling on that stuff is not good, so we squash those bad memories down. It takes work for us to repress those bad thoughts, and that cognitive work winds up affecting things like sleep and blood pressure.”

Bernhard Langer's public battles (and triumphs) over the yips have been well-documented.
Getty Images

She pointed to former PGA Tour and current Champions Tour star Bernhard Langer’s triumphs over “the y-word” as an example of a golfer whose candor paved the way for strength.

“Langer was one of the few golfers who was willing to speak openly about his yips,” she said. “And what was the result? He had a lot more mental energy left for doing what professional golfers need to do — mainly, play golf.”

Langer triumphed twice at the Masters, and won 42 times on the European Tour, the second-most all-time.

“(He) was able to develop new techniques to improve his game, because he had finally freed his mind,” Santos said. “He had let go of all those ironic processes and his golf game skyrocketed yet again.”

In Santos’s view, Langer and others have been able to break the cycle of “ironic process theory” and cure their yips by taking up another four-letter word in its place: calm.

“Letting those bad thoughts out and getting them down on paper finally lets our tired brains relax,” she said. “It’s like opening our little mental pressure cookers to let out some suppressed steam.”

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