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Tim Howard and Tourette’s: Stigma vs. Soccer Greatness

July 8, 2014

The World Cup final match isn’t until Sunday. But in the minds of many, the champion of the tournament has already been decided: Tim Howard, the US Men’s National Team goalie who made Cup history last week with a record 16 saves in a game against Belgium. Of course, the US lost and was eliminated, but Howard’s performance continues to amaze. And did you know he has Tourette’s?

It should come as no surprise that an incredibly gifted football (soccer) player who happens to have a tic disorder could succeed in his chosen field. We know that people with Tourette’s often tend to find symptoms vanish when they focus on something they are deeply engaged in, whether it’s singing or blocking a ball. There is even speculation, as with other psychiatric disorders, that something about the altered brain function makes people excel at certain tasks

In the run-up to the last World Cup, in 2010, the New Yorker interviewed an expert who said some people with Tourette’s report “that they sense things in the body movements of others that the rest of us screen out, some signal or vibration, some sensory cue. It’s almost like they can see what’s going to happen before it happens.” As Howard described it then, “You see everything. You’re yelling. You’re tense. You’re so wired-in.”

But I think the most important thing is that Howard found a place for himself in the penalty box, and that he didn’t let stigma or mean-spiritedness dissuade him from his goal (or blocking others’ goals, as it were). In the UK, where he plays professionally, newspaper headlines have scoffed at the possibility of a “disabled” goalie; apparently, one even went so far as to call him a “retard.” Though he does not have the coprolalia that accompanies some cases of Tourette’s, the possibility that he might spontaneously start cursing is the basis of jokes at his expense.

His response has been admirable: The 16 saves. Being one of the best, if not the best, in the world. “One of the biggest things I can do is be in the public eye,” he told Neurology Now last year. “I’m on television, ticcing and twitching. I think that’s kind of cool.”

Tagged with: Sports, Tourette's and Tic Disorders
Harry Kimball
Harry Kimball is the former Director of Marketing and Communications of the Child Mind Institute. He helped guide the organization’s … Read Bio