If, like me, you’re glued to your TV set when darts is on then you would have watched the Grand Slam of Darts from Wolverhampton, an annual event where 32 of the world’s best players from the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) and British Darts Organisation (BDO) fight it out to become the champion. During this gladiatorial throwing of tungsten you would also have witnessed the harrowing sight of a young Dutchman, Berry van Peer, battling his inner demons: dartitis. It looked as if the darts refused to be released from his hand – in fact this is exactly what was happening!
So a few questions come to mind is what’s happening to this dart player ever happened before? Does it ever happened in other sports? And, most critically, what can be done to help better understand this phenomena? The answer to the first question is yes. For example, in tennis, snooker, cricket and golf this unexplained breakdown in movement, resulting in impeded performance, has been witnessed, often referred to as the ‘yips‘. Another example, closer to the work of academics, which affects the cognitive processes required to initiate an action is writers block. Here, a previously fluent, creative, productive writer loses the momentum to successfully continue or complete their work.
Returning to dartitis, this is an extremely debilitating disorder that is claimed to affect the motor control required to throw a dart. When I was the World Number 1 player back in the 80s we knew about dartitis, we said: ‘It’s a bit like the yips, golfers get it.’ Knowing full well that dart players could get it too – but it was truly the unmentionable! Until one day when the darting equivalent of Attila the Hun, World Number 1 and conqueror of all before him, Eric Bristow got it. This sent shock waves across the darting world and dartitis was no longer the elephant in the room.
Since those days in the late 80s early 90s a lot has happened in the darting world: I’ve retired to become a sport psychologist; Eric retired and has since passed away; the BDO is on the slide; the PDC is on the up; and, recently dartitis became a household name. I feel one of my duties as an ex-dart-player-turned-academic is to investigate this self-destructing movement disorder.
For the uninitiated, dartitis is a psychological disorder which, in the absence of any physiological trauma, disrupts the movement required to throw a dart. This is highly distressing, even embarrassing, particularly if this is how you earn your living. Not surprisingly, as darts has grown into a global participation sport, reported cases of dartitis have increased. Players of any age, whether aspiring professionals or keen amateurs are affected and the prognosis is pretty much the same for all of them: bleak!
In my work as a sport psychologist, I’ve researched dartitis extensively via interviews with players that have fallen foul of the condition, talking about their experiences, how dartitis has affected them practically, emotionally and, how they see their future in the sport. These interviews have provided great insights into the disorder and we certainly know much more about it now than we did 10 years ago. For example, we now know that: onset can be gradual, over months or years or pretty quick, within a few days or weeks.
The symptoms, as with many other psychological disorders are varied; in some cases players are unable to move their arm in any way that resembles a throwing action, they almost become paralysed, other times they are able to execute a throwing action of sorts but are unable to release the dart. Recovery is unpredictable, painstakingly slow and often linked to the level of skill previously enjoyed prior to onset.
It takes a special kind of resolve to be a good dart player, and this resolve serves its purpose when dartitis strikes. Players generally don’t give up – they battle every which way to play the sport they love and often they succeed, learning to play with the disorder, changing their throw and their mindset, battling on. Remarkably, many play to a decent standard again, successfully winning tournaments, doing the best they can possibly do in the face of adversity. But just like the proverbial embarrassing dad at a wedding, you know he’s going to get up and dance sooner or later.
Dr Linda Duffy is Associate Professor of Sport Psychology at Middlesex University. She is a founding member of the Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology of the British Psychological Society.