How goalkeeper Tim Howard turned his Tourettes syndrome into an advantage

Steve Sharman looks at how goalkeeper Tim Howard turned his Tourettes syndrome into an advantage.

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After a playing career spanning three decades, this summer former USA goalkeeper Tim Howard hung up his gloves for good. Steve Sharman looks at how Tim Howard managed his Tourettes and Obsessive Compulsive Order and how he even used them as an advantage in the game.

A renowned shot-stopper, Howard won the FA Cup, League Cup and Community Shield with Manchester United before moving to Everton where he made over 300 appearances, keeping over 100 clean sheets and becoming the US men’s national team’s most capped goalkeeper.

In the 2014 World Cup last-16 match against Belgium, Howard made an astonishing 16 saves, a record for a single World Cup game. He has also collected many individual awards, including the PFA Premier League team of the year in 2003/04 and the FIFA Confederations Cup Golden Glove award in 2009.

What makes this distinguished career even more remarkable is that Howard has Tourette’s Disorder (TD) and Obsessive-Compulsive disorder (OCD).

Experienced by approximately 0.5% of the UK population, TD is classified as a neurological disorder and is characterised by repetitive involuntary movements and vocalisations, referred to as tics (e.g. blinking, throat-clearing). TD typically emerges during childhood and is more common in males; OCD is classified as a mental health condition which centres on obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours and is found in over 1% of the UK population.

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Already conscious of his own inability to concentrate or sit still, Howard’s own tics started to emerge when he was 10 years old. At first his compulsions were limited to touching inanimate objects but soon progressed to physical tics, including shoulder shrugging, hard blinking and eye-rolling. 

Through childhood and into adulthood, it was only being involved in the action on the sports field that Howard felt he was better able to control his tics.


How have TD and OCD affected Howard’s career?

Confounding the British media who ran particularly cruel, and it has to be said, ignorant headlines, Howard was able to turn his disorder into an advantage. Although at the mercy of his tics when the ball was at the other end of the pitch, when the action came close, his behaviour changed.

Those with TD are thought to be able to hyper-focus on a particular task; for Howard, as the ball was approaching his goal, he could hyper-focus. His tics went quiet, his concentration in the moment stronger than his involuntary movements or compulsions.

A further feature of TD is hyper-reactivity, expressed as unusually quick reflexes. Living in a world of super-fast twitch involuntary movements, watching a move develop in real time was like slow motion for Howard, enabling him to anticipate and react with almost superhuman speed reflexes.

Combine supreme physical agility with hyper-focus and hyper-reactivity, and all the handy attributes are there for a goalkeeper. Existing in the moment, despite, and perhaps even because of his TD, Howard was calm, focussed, and completely in control.

The primary cause of TD is unknown, however major theories centre on abnormalities in brain regions such as the basal ganglia, which helps control body movements, and the medial prefrontal cortex, thought to be involved in decision-making and memory consolidation. 

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Disruption of pathways between brain areas, and neurotransmitters that allow neurons to communicate are also thought to be influential in the development of the disorder.

There is no known cure for TD; prescribed treatments can include medication or behavioural therapy, although for many, the disorder becomes less severe as they grow older.

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

What Howard does show is that being given a label as a young man and living with both a neurological disorder and a mental health condition need not be a barrier to a long and successful career; in fact, it can be quite the opposite.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevesharman81

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