Flinch­ing

Golfers aren’t the only ones who are af­flicted

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - The Golf Life - By david owen

on Ny­gord was one of the best Amer­i­can pis­tol shoot­ers ever. He set na­tional records, com­peted in the Olympics in 1984 and 1988, and won gold medals in the Pan Amer­i­can Games in 1979, 1987 and 1991.

Highly skilled shoot­ers spend so many hours mas­ter­ing their tech­nique that squeez­ing the trig­ger ceases to be a con­scious act:They raise their pis­tol and aim at the tar­get, and at the op­ti­mal mo­ment the gun seem­ingly dis­charges on its own. To­wards the end of Ny­gord’s ca­reer, though, some­thing be­gan to go wrong. His hand would freeze, forc­ing him to in­ten­tion­al­lyper­form an ac­tion that had pre­vi­ously been

Dau­to­matic. His scores fell.

Ny­gord called his af­flic­tion “chicken fin­ger,” but most shoot­ers call it “flinch­ing.” (Some suf­fer­ers, rather than freez­ing, in­vol­un­tar­ily jerk their firearm down and to one side.) Archers face an anal­o­gous dis­abil­ity, which they call “tar­get panic.” In snooker, it’s “cueitis”; in darts,“dar­ti­tis”; in base­ball,“Knoblauch dis­ease,” after Chuck Knoblauch, a sec­ond base­man for the New YorkYan­kees, who in 1999 lost the abil­ity to make ac­cu­rate throws to first base. In golf – and in cricket – it’s “the yips.” One of the lead­ing au­thor­i­ties on flinch­ing is Michael Keyes, a re­tired psy­chi­a­trist and long­time con­trib­u­tor to Shot­gun Sports mag­a­zine.“Peo­ple of­ten think that flinch­ing is the same thing as chok­ing, but it’s not,” he told me re­cently.“Flinch­ing and the yips are caused by glitches in the brain, and they’re in­vol­un­tary and un­con­scious.Anx­i­ety can trig­ger them, but it isn’t the cause.”

Keyes is an ex­cel­lent marks­man. He dis­cov­ered his tal­ent in the Navy in the early 1970s, and in 1980 the Amer­i­can na­tional shoot­ing team asked him to serve as its physi­cian.“They des­per­ately needed some­one who knew some­thing about men­tal train­ing,” he said,“so I read all the East Ger­man and Rus­sian lit­er­a­ture, which I found at a lit­tle com­mu­nist book­store in Chicago.” His in­ter­est in flinch­ing came later, partly as a re­sult of his friend­ship with Ny­gord.“Be­fore I was drafted, I also trained as a neu­rol­o­gist,” he said,“and when I first learned about flinch­ing I knew there had to be some­thing neu­ro­log­i­cal about it.”

He even­tu­ally con­cluded that at least some forms of flinch­ing be­long to a cat­e­gory of mys­te­ri­ous ail­ments known as task-spe­cific dys­to­nias, which were first iden­ti­fied by an English physi­cian in the 1800s. Suf­fer­ers in those days in­cluded scriven­ers, tele­graph op­er­a­tors, seam­stresses and cig­a­rette mak­ers – all peo­ple who had mas­tered repet­i­tive fine mo­tor move­ments of the hands.

“When you train to per­form a spe­cific act, you change your brain,” Keyes ex­plains. “As you be­come more and more fo­cused on the ac­tion, your brain de­vel­ops path­ways that not only make the ac­tion more pre­cise but also in­hibit mus­cles that op­pose it. In some peo­ple, this map­ping of the brain even­tu­ally seems to fuzz out a lit­tle bit, and you get anoma­lous mus­cu­lar con­trac­tions or paral­y­sis.”Writ­ers de­velop writer’s cramp. Pis­tol shoot­ers flinch. Golfers get the yips.

One char­ac­ter­is­tic usu­ally shared by vic­tims is long ex­pe­ri­ence with the move­ments that come to tor­ment them: It is mas­ters, not novices, who suf­fer most fre­quently, a fact that ar­gues against “nerves” as the cause. (Tommy Ar­mour, Ben Ho­gan, Mark O’Meara, Sam Snead and Har­ryVar­don be­came yip­pers late in their ca­reers, when the com­pet­i­tive pres­sures they faced were rel­a­tively low.) No one knows how to cure dys­to­nia, although some suf­fer­ers find re­lief by sig­nif­i­cantly al­ter­ing their tech­nique – as Bern­hard Langer has done more than once. Trap­shoot­ers who flinch are some­times helped by so-called “re­lease trig­gers,” which fire not when you pull them but when you let them go. Chuck Knoblauch had no trou­ble throw­ing from left field.

Golf’s gov­ern­ing bod­ies ought to sup­port yips re­search – as the Mayo Clinic has done, sev­eral times – be­cause the game is harmed when life­long play­ers give up in de­spair. But the USGA and the R&A have ac­tu­ally done the op­po­site, and have fur­ther stig­ma­tised suf­fer­ers, by ban­ning what Keyes de­scribed to me in an email as “one of the few proven (and mildly ef­fec­tive) treat­ments”: the long put­ter an­chored against the chest.Whose bril­liant idea was that?

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