Stop laughing at Ernie Els. Experts say the yips are an actual brain disease.

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Ernie Els has been amusing spectators and raising stress levels all over the world in equal measure with his newly developed condition, the yips. It seems utterly unbelievable that a recognized professional at the game could fail to ace something as simple as a short putt. We may feel justified in punishing for his baffling incompetence in a field he should know better than the back of his hand by now. But if you wouldn’t dream of making fun of someone with an actual neurological disorder, perhaps you should lay off Ernie Els a bit.

Golf Digest contributor and New Yorker staff writer David Owen debunked a host of myths about the incurable yips in his 2014 article for the latter publication. One of the erroneous beliefs he tackled was that the yips are brought on purely by anxiety. They’re certainly exacerbated by nervousness, but it isn’t their root cause. “Anxiety can exacerbate the yips – just as it exacerbates the tremors in Parkinson’s disease – but it’s not the cause, since the yips are usually present whether the yipper is nervous or not, and even when the yipper can’t feel them.” This assertion is totally in line with Els’ description of his own experience with the yips, which he likens to his brain doing a “short circuit”.

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If it sounds like a compulsive spasm to you, that’s because it probably is. The yips are apparently a manifestation of focal dystonia, a neurological condition that prompts involuntary actions around specific contexts. This would explain why Els is only afflicted when he short putts. “I can go to that putting green now and make 20 straight 3-footers,” he lamented, “And then you get on the course and you feel a little different and you can’t do what you normally do. So it’s pretty difficult.” 

Maybe you could still say a neurological disorder is… all in your head. But we have to remember the brain’s tremendous role in regulating our physiology elsewhere. The yips are no different. It triggers a physical response “characterized by the ‘co-contraction’ of arm muscles that don’t ordinarily operate at the same time: one group that extends the wrist and one that flexes it. In the yips, those muscles make what Aynsley Smith called a ‘double pull’ resulting in a jerk.” So when Els is placed three feet away from a putt, his arm muscles literally malfunction and take the ball off trajectory. This strange situational ailment is not exclusive to golf. People who practice sports like archery, shooting and darts often report experiencing similar issues at very specific points. Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch found it impossible to make a throw from second base.

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If anxiety has little to do with its cause, what could possibly be at the root of the dysfunction? To this day, there is no easy answer, but some have hazarded a guess anyway. As with many other neurological issues, the problem just might stem from faulty wiring. Hank Haney wrote about Tiger’s chipping yips in Golf Digest and discussed how the seeds may first be sown, “The top scientists I’ve consulted say the message between your brain and your muscles gets scrambled, and the muscles start running the wrong program, like when the needle on the turntable goes over a scratch on the record. Over time, that scratch gets deeper and deeper – and the volume goes up when pressure is introduced.”

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So the next time Ernie Els makes a 14-putt, just try to visualize that needle deepening the gash on the surface of his brain. Kind of hard to chuckle now, isn’t it?

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