Athletes and Tourette Syndrome: A benefit?

published on 04 January 2021

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Tim Howard, a Soccer player,, Olympic gold medalist Anthony Erwin, and NASCAR driver Steve Wallace all share  one thing in common: Tourette’s Syndrome. However, there’s more than a diagnosis which unites these athletes - it’s their willpower to view the syndrome as beneficial rather than an impediment to overcome. Tourettes causes high energy, repetition and obsessiveness - which are essentially vital for an aspiring athlete. 

Research has found that Tourette syndrome originates in the Basal Ganglia region of the Fore-brain, the same section of the brain that controls many motor functions. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks believes that Tourettes can supercharge the brain, giving those who are diagnosed with the disorder extraordinary quickness and swifter reaction times. This allows athletes to respond to a changing environment speedily, which in turn gives them a selective advantage. Furthermore, exercise helps reduce tics, as it boosts one's health and provokes significant change in self-discipline. 

Tim Howard is an American professional soccer player who takes part in  the USL Championship. After a playing career spanning three decades, this summer former USA goalkeeper Tim Howard hung his gloves for good. In the 2014 World Cup last-16 match against Belgium, Howard made an astonishing 16 saves, a record for a single World Cup game. Alongside, he has also collected many individual awards, including the Premier League team of the year 2003/04 and the FIFA Confederations Cup Golden Glove award in 2009. What makes his distinguishable career even more remarkable is that Howard has Tourettes Syndrome and OCD. 

Experienced by approximately 3% of the world population, Tourette's Syndrome is classified as a neurological disorder that causes repetitive involuntary movements and vocalisation. Confounding the British media who ran particularly cruel and ignorant headlines, Howard was able to manifest his disorder and put it to an advantage. Through the mercy of his disorder, at times when the ball accelerated towards his end of the  pitch, he experienced a few behavioural symptoms. . His senses heightened and his focus sharpened. His tics went away and his concentration in the moment was stronger than his involuntary movements. TD (Tourette’s Disorder) also causes hyper-reactivity, expressed as unusually quick reflexes. Living in a world of super-fast twitch involuntary movements, watching the society develop rapidly through time, enabling him to anticipate and react with almost superhuman speed reflexes, it was still a slower transition for Howard.,. An amalgamation of supreme physical agility with hyper-focus and hyper- reactivity, along with  the handy attributes are there for a goalkeeper. 

In the outside world, tics such as Howard’s might mark him out as different. However, in football, many players have peculiar quirks and unusual pre-match routines that could be potentially  followed religiously, meaning Howard is not solitary in ritualistic, repetitive behaviour, even if his are perhaps more extreme. 

Anthony Erwin has knowledge and consciousness of  what it is like to be stared  at and alienated for something uncontrollable. In an interview, he said “‘It was like an itch that constantly wants to be scratched. It was like a burst of additional nervous energy that came out mostly through my eyelids and other facial expressions’”. After many years of struggling from unwanted attention ranging from coaches to peers, something that he once suffered with when he was younger became one of his greatest strengths in the Olympic pools. Tourettes sharpened his reflexes which allowed him to make  sharp and swift movements with his body,which inevitably made him exceptionally quicker than his counterparts. Tourettes also taught him several  lessons which he would not learn otherwise, he said “‘Having tourettes made me learn how to control and relax my body and become more knowledgeable about it”’. During this time in the Olympics, he had won 4 Olympic medals and in the summer Rio Olympics in 2016, he brought the gold medal in 50 free to America for the second time. Anthony is now serving as an ambassador of Tourette Association of America. For aspiring athletes with tourettes - he is a symbol of hope.

What Howard and Erwin portray as successful individuals  is that being given a label as a young athlete and living with both a neurological disorder and a mental health condition need not be a barrier to have a long and triumphant  career, in fact it can be quite the opposite. The decision is in your hands, either turn your piece of charcoal into a diamond or let the world decide your fate. No one can destroy iron, but its own rust, likewise no one can destroy a person but one’s own mindset.

Written by Sarah

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