Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.
By Tim Fulton (PSY0002109277)
We have all witnessed it at one time or another and many of us have experienced it… The yips! The yips refers to a complete lack of confidence in one’s ability and often leads to being unable to perform the most basic skills. People who experience the yips describe it as feeling as though you are inevitably going to make a mistake and the more you think about it the worse it gets. Often player’s thoughts are dominated by ‘not making a mistake’ rather than following their usual thought patterns that allow them to execute a skill well.
It is most commonly seen in “start stop” sports such as golf, tennis or cricket. For the purposes of this article I’ll use putting in golf as an example. The golfer might start experiencing the yips after missing a putt that they would usually have made, usually when placed under pressure. As a result of missing this putt, the golfer may start questioning their skill execution and lose confidence in their ability. The golfer’s thoughts are now hooked on not making another mistake, which increases the pressure on the next putt and subsequently makes them more likely to make another mistake. This process can create a downward spiral that completely saps the golfer’s confidence and makes them feel like he cannot make the simplest of putts.
An outside observer can almost sense the golfer’s loss of confidence by their body language and approach to the ball. The usual assured assessment of the greens and stance over the ball changes to a new uncertain routine. It often looks like a golfer would feel more comfortable to have a long putt that they wouldn’t be expected to make than a short easy putt.
But how can the golfer pull themselves out of the downward spiral of the yips? Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge we are all human and are going to make mistakes. In the golfer example, they may be able to sink 3 foot putts in practice so easily that they feel like they cannot miss. However, if the golfer were to keep hitting these putts they would eventually miss. There are many different factors that may have caused this miss but sometimes we are prone to overestimate our level of influence on the outcomes. Therefore, we often attribute these mistakes to something we did, which can detrimentally impact our confidence.
Commonly, we think of things as either within or outside of our control. This kind of black or white thinking leads to cognitive inflexibility, which increases the likelihood of attributing a miss as a mistake by the player. In reality, the reason for a mistake can often be a shade of grey.
At Condor Performance, we use the ‘Controlling It’ mental method to help our clients understand the degree of infleunce they have over aspects of their performance(s). We can separate of these factors into three categories: ‘controllables,’ ‘influenceables’ and ‘uninfluenceables.’
Controllables are the aspects of performance that a player can 100% guarantee. However, as we realised with the example of the 3 foot putt, even the simplest of outcomes cannot be guaranteed. Uninfluenceables are the aspects that are completely outside of our control and we cannot change even if we wanted to. Influenceables are the aspects that fall within they grey area. They are aspects, which we cannot 100% guarantee but are not completely outside of our control either.
In the example of the missed 3 foot putt, the player may have missed the putt as a result of incorrect angle of the putter face at impact, the player may have misread the break, the ball may have deviated from a divot or a gust of wind and so on. The list of possible reasons for missing the putt is limitless.
But why is this important? Well, all of the above reasons and more are aspects that are either uninfluenceable or influenceable but NOT controllable. You cannot guarantee that you be able to get each of those aspects right every time. Acknowledging and accepting that you have not got complete control over many aspects of your sport allows the player to be more cognitively flexible and not mistakenly attribute the missed putt to themselves. This allows the player to recover more quickly from disappointments without impacting confidence.
This is an especially important skill that can take time and repetitions to develop but it can help ensure you don’t experience the yips in the first place. Similarly, it allows players in the midst of the yips to help draw themselves out by focussing their attention towards things which they can control. One thing that a player can guarantee is the effort they put in for the present shot and trying leave the uninfluenceable past shot in the past.
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