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WHAT IS DARTITIS?

Dartitis understanding the Yips
A more perfect way to research and understand The Yips

Let’s get one thing straight, besides using the term “dartitis” as a way to help you search for this article, I don’t like the word. It doesn’t give a broad enough return on an internet search. At its core it is the same thing that has affected all types of athletes under different names. It has manifested in baseball pitchers, catchers and infielders. It has shown itself in many golfers, most notably while putting. Tennis players struggle with their serve. Competitive archers struggle in similars ways to dart players. It has happened to NFL kickers on field goals, and NBA players on the free-throw line. Dart players don’t need to feel the stigma of term that only addresses darts. Dartitis is a poor portmanteau (darts don’t actually get inflamed).

If you are struggling, know someone who is, or are fascinated by this topic, read on…

The Yips Baseball Golf Tennis and Archery
The Yips is prevalent in other major sports like Baseball, Golf, Tennis and Competitive Archery

The Yips is a healthier, familiar and broader term.

As I alluded to in my last article, if you are willing to broaden your range, and think outside the box you are more likely to find resources that provide an edge. This term helps you do just that. My aim is better define, so that you may find more/better resources.

I am not a clinician. It is not for me to diagnose, and peddle a “cure”. I am a player and teacher of the game. My intent is to provide the most comprehensive and concise understanding to date, to allow you to better assess yourself. 

My work with players has always lead me to read and learn more. Like with any challenge, understanding the problem is the key to addressing it. Not only do some of us avoid this topic as a source of shame (hoping it will just go away), we avoid wanting to understand it altogether. The greatest challenge for you is the recognition of what is, having the desire to address it, and the willingness to ask for and receive help when applicable. While there are great resources and professionals who can aid you on your journey, no one is going to “fix” you. If you aren’t moved to overcome or work around your challenges, it most certainly won’t happen. This is a journey that starts and ends with you.

Eric Bristow (five-time World Champion) educated many to the problem of Dartitis "The Yips"
Eric Bristow (five-time World Champion) educated many to the problem of Dartitis "The Yips"

To google the word “dartitis” you will find that it was first used in a dart publication in 1981 and worked into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2007 by a dart website’s effort. There it is defined as: “A state of nervousness which prevents a player from releasing the dart at the right moment when throwing.” To stop here would be a disservice.

Tommy Armour coined the phrase "The Yips" who suffered from the condition
Tommy Armour coined the phrase "The Yips" and suffered from the condition himself.

To google the term “the yips”, the history goes back farther to 1927 and golfer Tommy Armour who coined the term after recording 23 strokes on a par 5 on the 17th hole at the Shawnee Open. The definition broadens, and thoughtfully so. The Mayo Clinic says, “It was once thought that the yips were associated only with performance anxiety. However, it now appears that some people have the yips due to a neurological condition affecting specific muscles (focal dystonia). Focal dystonia is a condition that causes involuntary muscle contractions during a specific task. It is most likely related to overuse of a certain set of muscles, similar to writer’s cramp. Anxiety can worsen the effect.” 

Simply by casting a wider net with a different search term, we broaden our return to find more answers. From something that affects a handful of dart players, to two pathologies that affect many more worldwide.

In plainer words the yips are broken down in two ways:

Of psychological origin via:

 performance anxiety

Of neurological origin via:

 focal dystonia

What The Yips is NOT:

Far too many have stopped after researching “dartitis” and chalked up the issue to “nerves”. The yips is not simply about being nervous. The yips is not the “jitters” one gets starting a match (the beginning), or the “choking” that can happen at the finish line (the end). It can be any and/or every type of performance anxiety that can happen in between, that turns into a physically debilitating issue. While jitters and choking are forms of performance anxiety that are more easily understood, they have an expiration related to time. The yips can take hold and not go away. It can also be an unfortunate rewiring of neural pathways that trigger muscles to contract at inopportune times.

Psychological:

Without being diagnostic, the psychological manifestations of the yips are driven by performance anxiety. Let’s start by saying that anxiety is a common human emotion. We all have developed different biochemical reactions to the thought of future happenings; that is anxiety in a nutshell. There is a nature/nurture component that has helped to create our individual coping skills. What triggers anxiety and to what degree is different for all of us. We all know our fears about future events are seldom as bad as the experiences we have the moment those events occur. Anxiety shows itself in numerous ways: Muscular tightness and tremors, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, excessive perspiration etc.

Performance Anxiety during darts competitions can be very debilitating

These symptoms can be triggered in our game by some form of analysis paralysis (overthinking). Our short term memory is responsible for the primal tasks at hand (hitting the double), our longer term memory is more aware of consequence and the bigger picture (the situation, who is present, what you are playing for, etc). 

Performance anxiety: As related darts

  • Fear of doing it wrong (over-analysis of form) This comes from a lack of surety that what you are doing is correct.
  • Fear of failure = You have not goal-set and prepared properly to overcome (when you have done this well, this is the furthest thing from your mind).
  • Fear of success = You don’t believe you belong on the level you are playing on. Depending on format, if you are winning at least 30% of the legs you are playing, you belong. 
  • Fear of an audience = You care too much about what people think of you. The more you practice and play in front of audiences of all types, the better you can incrementally withstand the spotlight.
  • Fear of consequence = You have an unrealistic view of what failure means. The funny thing is when we win, we don’t actually win much, conversely when we lose, we don’t really lose much either. What we feel we lose is our identity; our worth; our ability to control. You can not allow your self worth to be tied so directly to your dart game. 
  • Fear of vulnerability = There can be a real sense of vulnerability being in the spotlight on the oche with everyone behind you. Perhaps there are trust issues that go beyond the boundaries of darts.

Most of these triggers deal with the out-of-body over-assessment of self, and/or the preoccupation with an assessment by others. These relate to the part of the brain that deals with our analytical, long term memory. The truth of the matter is… No one cares that much. They don’t care if you win, if you lose, and they won’t remember the outcome as long as you think they will…and neither should you.

It is correlated to why our game invites indulgences. Imbibing has a way of muting all types of overthinking. For a quick, layman’s understanding: Our adrenaline spikes under stress; for some more than others. We combat those spikes with alcohol, a depressant. It allows many of us to leave outside worries (job, family, fears) behind for enough time to access our short term (in-the-moment) memory to accomplish the task at hand regardless of what you or anyone else thinks about it.

“Perfect is the enemy of good” – Voltaire

Perfection (a 9 dart leg) in this game is seldom, and shouldn’t be the goal you work towards in every leg with every throw. Holding yourself to such a standard, while thinking that others are watching and expectant of it, while analyzing your own form, while feeling vulnerable and (over) thinking the consequence of failure is insurmountable. 

After reading such a paragraph, is it any wonder that any one of these factors could lead to the yips? Anyone one of these on its own could make for PhD study in the field of sport psychology. Matt Andrews, a sports therapist and mentor who has worked with snooker and dart players told me, “In an attempt to achieve our goals, our bodies and brains will sometimes try to help us; by stopping us from doing anything at all.” This is why goals need to be attainable and incremental, not perfect.

Neurological:

This is the origin that dart players may have been less aware of. Focal hand dystonia is a medical term and requires medical diagnosis, but it is known more readily as musician’s or writer’s cramp.

Focal dystonia is an unusual neurological condition, which is also referred to as "the yips," characterized by involuntary spasms in the small muscles
Focal dystonia is an unusual neurological condition, which is also referred to as "the yips," characterized by involuntary spasms in the small muscles.

It interferes with activities such as writing or playing a musical instrument by causing involuntary muscular contractions. The condition is sometimes “task-specific,” meaning that it is only apparent during certain activities. It is the loss of precise muscle control and/or continuous, unintentional movement which results in cramping and abnormal positioning, that makes continued use of the affected body parts very hard. 

The neurological component is this: when the brain tells a given muscle to contract, it simultaneously silences muscles that would oppose the intended movement. It appears that dystonia interferes with the brain’s ability to inhibit those surrounding muscles, leading to loss of selectivity. For example, in the dart throw, the bicep contracts on the pullback and releases upon action. The tricep, conversely releases on pullback and contracts upon action forward. When dystonia takes hold, the neurons controlling opposing muscle groups may actually misfire and all contract at the same time, thus, restricting the release the dart. (It is a physically impossible to follow-through to a straight arm while contracting both muscles simultaneously.) There are also numerous muscles in the forearm that are engaged from posterior and anterior perspectives. This is further complicated by the variance in the wrist action from player to player.

Former BDO World Champion Mark Webster has opened up about his struggles with Dartitis "The Yips"
Former BDO World Champion Mark Webster has opened up about his struggles with Dartitis "The Yips"

Possible causes: Overuse of specific muscles in a repetitive fashion, especially where there are opposing muscle groups working against each other in rapid-fire succession. Other possible causes: chemical exposure/ingestion (this includes medicines), brain injury, lack of oxygen, and genetic predisposition.

Variables you can control:

  • Hydration – You need to drink plenty of water while playing- just like in any other physical activity.
  • Exercise – Even in its mildest form keeps blood flowing properly and muscles pliable and strong.
  • Stretching – Wrists, forearms, tricep tendons, hands and fingers.
  • Healthy diet – You are what you eat. Dart players need to pay attention to this.
  • Rest – Allow tight, overworked muscles/and tendons to rest (the only real ‘-itis’ that happens is tendonitis).
  • Behavioral retraining – Switching hands, physical therapy, biofeedback, constraint-induced motion therapy. Some of which exist outside the darts world, and some of which need a doctor.

Hypothesis and editorial:

  • Players who rise too quickly or too slowly: Players whose ascent is sharp, but take a bad, public beat, or a player who only stays in their small, home locale too long before testing themselves elsewhere, have set themselves up for huge performance anxiety swings that might manifest in the yips. Players must learn to temper ego and complacency at the same time.
  • Generally speaking those that are able to tune out their analytical, longer-term memory part of the brain are more apt to avoid the yips. Darts is a primally-related activity. When in the moment of a match, it is no time to get analytical. Know it. See it. Hit it. Some are better suited for this based on their life’s experiences, their jobs, their genes. Conversely some are worse at it.
  • The word, “stage” ends up playing a big role. Some become quite aware of the spotlight while performing. When we have too much time to think, and all the attention is on us individually even for a brief moment, it can take hold.
  • I have yet to work with a player who has sought a diagnosis of focal dystonia but based on the literature and science I would be remiss to discount it. If you are taxing the muscles with poor form/action, or overtaxing the muscles with overuse this would seem to make sense. Players who have exhausted other psychological origins should research this potential pathology more. 
  • Players with a hitch/pump in their throw seem to have a greater propensity for the yips. Eric Bristow displayed this with his very unique grip and action. There is extra time and moving parts that can fatigue. Mark Webster and Berry Van Peer exemplified this as well. This may be related to fatigue associated with focal dystonia with the neural pathways firing much more than for players with no hitch/pump. In these particular cases, there may be a confluence of the aforementioned bullet points.
  • With more players starting younger in our game my apprehension is that some of the psychological manifestations will become more common as players become more self-aware, more sentient, more conscious. It is not a question of being mentally tough, it is more a matter of life’s weathering that allows a more calloused and carefree approach. There are too many players approaching it from their teenage years with the thought of “pro or bust”. For generations that hasn’t been the case. There will be a different stigma for players who only know a personal value as defined through the game. That can be overwhelming. 

General suggestions:

  • No matter what, your first 30 darts at the practice board should be with complete disregard of target. It should be about literally stretching out all parts of the arm to all areas (not targets) of the board.
  • Throw ping-pong balls or crumpled paper at the board as though you were playing beer-pong. The throw and form are quite similar and it this takes your brain out of the act in a playful way. Concentrate on full extension.
  • Use a completely different set of darts with a different set up, or use three different darts entirely. Just like using different writing utensils can drastically change your penmanship, so is the case with darts choice. A thicker diameter barrel will loosen the tendons in your grip.
  • Get outside of your conscious thought by throwing with your other hand on occasion in practice. The irony is, it is still you throwing, but because you are doing so with your weak hand, you have no expectation. It can serve to “rewire” you brain, and in some cases, players have decided to change which hand they throw with for good. 
  • How you practice and who you practice with (and amongst) can help. Pandemic aside, practice can not just be solo at home. You must practice dealing with different amounts of related social anxieties so as to dull your internal responses to them.
  • Breath is something you can learn to control. There are numerous mindful breathing exercises that can put you at greater ease on the oche. This is worth your research.
  • If your anxiety issues are beyond your control there are many therapists who specialize in sports psychology. It should not be frowned upon, or thought of as a weakness. Seeking help when needed is a sign of inner strength and wisdom. 
  • It behooves you to inject a little nihilism into your approach to the game and recognize, none of it really matters. It is just a game. Embracing a level of genuine indifference to outcome and outside stimuli is crucial to performance. Many of us build up moments in our mind to be more important than they are. Don’t allow how well you throw darts to define you.

If you are looking for help identifying and addressing your specific issues, there are many resources out there for you, and you can start with me. Remember, you are not alone.

Respectfully,

Dax

Dr. Manhattan 

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