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A disorder can be an asset

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010


Hampton Sides’ June 7 New Yorker profile of goalkeeper Tim Howard makes some striking points about how a disorder can be an asset. The New Jersey-born son of a Hungarian mother and an African-American father, Howard is one of the only US players who could conceivably start for the UK, who he’ll face as part of the American World Cup team this weekend.

Howard’s considered to be one of the greatest goalkeepers in the world. He’s played for the UK team Manchester United. His current contract with Everton makes him the highest-paid American soccer player in history. And he has Tourette’s syndrome, a disorder of the nervous system.

The concentration required on the field frequently causes Howard’s Tourette’s symptoms to disappear. Also, Howard explains that he doesn’t take medication because he’s concerned it would turn him into a zombie and impair his athletic abilities. Howard himself remarks, “If I woke up tomorrow without Tourette’s, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

Sides writes, “Howard says it’s possible that Tourette’s actually helps him in the goal, that it makes him more alert and more reactive.”

Then Sides quotes Yale’s Dr. James Leckman: “Some people with Tourette’s syndrome seem to have an unusual somatic empathy. They tell me 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.

(Sides himself observes, “Tourette’s is characterized by a buildup of anxiety and neurological tension, sometimes intensified by certain kinds of sensory overload—a not implausible description of the state of mind required for competitive goalkeeping.”)

But here’s my favorite part! Howard’s mom, Esther, remarks, “I believe there’s a certain yin and yang to things. If you have a disorder like this, then you also have a gift that you’ve been given and you just try to learn what it is. Soccer was his gift. It provided an escape from Tourette’s—it absorbed that energy.”

I think this I so cool! Way to turn a disorder into an asset! How many people out there have a way of seeing or being that’s viewed as problematic but is just waiting for the right context to be revealed as an advantage?

I wish that everyone with a disorder was able to find a way to channel it as beautifully as Howard has, and had parents and mentors to help them develop themselves.

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