Why do top athletes suddenly develop “the yips,” a tendency to choke under pressure?

—Matthew Robison, Contoocook, N.H.

Jürgen Beckmann, chair of the Institute of Sport Psychology at the Technical University of Munich, explains:

A single short putt is necessary to win the tournament, but suddenly the golfer's hands cramp up, and the putt goes wide. According to several studies, as many as 48 percent of serious golfers have experienced such motor skill failures, known as the yips. It is most often used to describe golf-related errors, although the yips can strike athletes in any sport.

There is no clear explanation as to why pro athletes, who frequently encounter high-stakes moments, still choke under pressure. One suggested explanation is a neurological condition called focal dystonia that results in involuntary muscle contractions when performing a motor task and tends to affect a muscle group that is used frequently and repeatedly. The cause is unclear, but the contractions may involve abnormalities in neural communication.

Overthinking appears to heighten the yips. Psychologist Debbie Crews found that golfers who performed poorly when putting under pressure also exhibited heightened activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, typically responsible for analytical thinking, and diminished activity in the right hemisphere, associated with coordination and visual ability. Thus, concentrating too intently appears to overshadow other important factors, such as balance and timing. Crews concluded that maintaining a balanced brain, in which both hemispheres are working at similar intensities, is ideal.

Studies have also shown that attempting to consciously control an automated skill may disrupt a person's ability to execute it and that overusing specific muscle groups may cause them to cramp.

There is hope for those who suffer from the yips. Some work suggests that changing the usual conditions under which an athlete performs a task can reverse a flawed automatic pilot setting. Neuroscientist Christian Marquardt believes that a tailored training program, which analyzes the technical issues athletes encounter in tense situations, can help them overcome the yips. Recently my colleagues and I found that increasing activity in the right hemisphere (by clenching the left fist) actually decreases an athlete's risk of choking under pressure. Other athletes, however, may simply choose to live with their yips.