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Flinching: Golfers Aren't The Only Ones Afflicted

October 25, 2016

Illustration by Michael Waraksa

Don 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. Toward the end of Nygord's career, though, something began to go wrong. His hand would freeze, forcing him to intentionally perform an action that had previously been automatic. 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 York Yankees, 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 J. 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's 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 Harry Vardon 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 stigmatized 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?