When anyone throws a dart for the first time, there’s that anticipation and excitement ahead of hitting your first treble 20 or first winning double. Unless you’re one of the fortunate few that can take to darts like duck to water, it will take you several attempts to hit your target, and when you do, you will most likely to want to play again. As time goes by, a casual game down the pub every so often develops into practising on a regular basis and before you know it, you are looking to test yourself in a competitive environment. For most, the enjoyment factor of darts stays the same and it’s treated for what it is – trying to throw arrows into segments at a circle on a wall – but what happens when expectation exceeds hope and you try to run before you can walk?
That’s where Dartitis comes in. It’s known as the “yips” of darts, the incapability of being able to perform what should be a relatively simple task of throwing an object towards a target that is only 7ft 9 1/4ins away. For anyone who has never experienced any issues with their throw or the type of darts that they use, the complexity of Dartitis is difficult to understand, while some people will choose to dismiss it completely, putting it down to someone’s inability to frequently perform in front of a group of people or play under pressure. Do they have a point? Maybe to a small extent, but Dartitis has very little to do with being unable to play anywhere but on your own board at home. It’s more in line with putting yourself under too much pressure to play at a level that, in truth, you are not ready to play at on a consistent basis.
That thinking could have been the sole reason why Eric Bristow’s career ended in the manner in which it did. Bristow dominated throughout the eighties, but for all his brilliance, he wasn’t necessarily required to produce his best game to win his five world titles. To his credit, Bristow continued playing to a decent standard after first developing Dartitis in 1987, but when Phil Taylor began to dominate several years later, he was required to become more consistent and that is when his averages plummeted. Bristow may argue that was not the only issue, but after losing 6-1 to Taylor in the BDO World Championship final in 1990, he only ever averaged above 91 on TV on one more occasion – that was in the 1991 semi-final, 24 hours after Taylor had been eliminated by Dennis Priestley.
I first started to experience issues with my throwing action around five years ago. I was practising for over an hour per day, reaching a decent standard and not disgracing myself against players who had previously played in the PDC. I made the last 32 of the old version of the UK Open pub qualifiers and averaged around 67, and while I lost that match, it felt like an achievement to score consistently in my first experience of that type of environment. That figure does not seem so impressive now, but these were the days before the PDC had revolutionised darts with the introduction of the youth and development tours. I felt like I had made big strides that day and I expected to continue improving.
However, playing to that standard was the worst thing that could have happened as far as my progression was concerned. I expected to return to the practice board and match my previous performance but I couldn’t replicate that standard. The more I struggled, the more I practiced, and the end result was reaching a point where I was scared to miss. It’s at that point when releasing a dart when playing for my pub team felt impossible. I made the decision to try to play through it but one match in particular, I hit double top when bulling up. You can imagine the comments.
Remarkably, I won that match, but realisation soon set in that the average of 67 would, more than likely, be my ceiling. I played that match feeling like a forcefield was preventing me from throwing my dart. How can you go from a 67 average to being unable to throw a dart in the space of a couple of months? As frustrating as it was, less than a week had passed before I wanted to try to improve. Naturally, I looked online for solutions – some were helpful, some were not – but I soon came to the conclusion that I would only be able to continue playing if I was going to fully embrace the challenge.
Instead of playing countless games of 501, I opted to use two different sets of darts at the same time, one after the other, during practice in the hope of regaining my natural throw. I used my familiar thin barrels as well as thicker barrels weighing a few grams heavier. I also tried to create an image of no dart being in my hand when stepping up to the oche. For a time, both methods didn’t see the dart go where I was necessarily aiming, but I could release the dart and they went in the board. Only Dartitis sufferers will understand the relief that comes with achieving that. Don’t completely dismiss the thought of throwing darts at a board in the dark too (unless you really value your wall…). Like me, you may be surprised with the results.
Those methods may or may not work for others, but they set the ball rolling back to being able play darts again and more importantly, I regained my enjoyment for the sport. When you first start suffering with Dartitis, rediscovering your previous form feels a million miles away, but you’re only ever going to take steps to achieving that by having fun along the way. There are several obstacles to overcome with Dartitis, but once the fundamentals of releasing a dart are in place, you can finally begin to try to improve other areas and the condition does not seem as challenging as it once did.
I’ve spent the last few years continuing to play competitively, but it’s hit or miss whether I play to the best of my ability. I’ve reached a point where I can accept that the bad games are going to occur as much as the good ones are, but it hasn’t stopped my desire to compete in tournaments where 95% of the time, I am going to lose. I know I have the game to beat players that are consistently better than me, but there’s no longer any embarrassment if I lose three or four nil without getting a shot at a double. I’m just content to be there being able to throw a dart.
It’s not possible to record how many players suffer or have suffered from Dartitis and why the problem occurs, but the majority of them are likely to be faced with the same mental battle as I was. I wanted to make the transition from a solid pub player to being able to compete at a higher level far too quick and the consequence was that my game fell apart. The same issues can also be associated with a consistent player achieving success on the PDC Pro Tour and then demanding too much of themselves in a short space of time. It can pay off in some sports, but rarely in darts.
While Bristow is the most famous example of a darts player succumbing to Dartitis, Mark Walsh is undoubtedly the most well-known player to overcome it. Walsh’s problems with Dartitis occurred shortly after he had reached the UK Open final, but over time, he was able to teach himself how to throw a dart again before a resurgence that saw him become a regular in televised events, as well as emerge victorious in over half-a-dozen floor tournaments. It’s something that should be lauded when he decides to end his time with the PDC because he proved that it was not only possible to beat Dartitis, it’s possible to improve after Dartitis.
Hopefully in time, Dartitis can become a rarer occurrence at all levels of the game. The purpose of the PDC youth and development tours is to give players under the age of 25 more opportunities, but perhaps unwittingly, they have given players more time to hone their skills and not become despondent if they don’t improve at the speed that they had hoped. The prize money on offer will inevitably place pressure on them to succeed, but gone are the days where young players always have to rely on trying to compete against seasoned players at local tournaments.
For the average pub player, there has to be patience too. In a lot of cases, Dartitis can become permanent if you try too hard to find a quick-fix and be stubborn in regards to what you are facing. There has to be an acceptance that you won’t play to the best of your ability again unless you are willing to take a step back. Ease off with the practice and just enjoy playing for your pub team or at a tournament without placing any pressure on yourself. You will be surprised at how a relaxed approach will lead to short-term improvements that can lead to long-term gains.
I’m currently in the process of trying to realign my throw. I’ve had little issue with my basic action for a few years and I now feel confident enough to place more emphasis on keeping my elbow straighter and releasing the dart from the front of my hand, rather than the side. Contemplating such modifications was unthinkable at one point, but I’m now playing darts where Dartitis is largely a thing of the past and I put that down to taking my time at the start. I still play terribly in some matches, but who doesn’t? Confidence in sport is a great asset to have, but problems such as Dartitis won’t arise if the demands that you put yourself under remain realistic.