Who, what, why: Could Tourette's syndrome make a goalkeeper better?

Tim Howard makes a save against Belgium

Tim Howard's World Cup goalkeeping has been universally acclaimed. Might his Tourette's syndrome explain some element of his superb reactions?

It was a remarkable display - 15 saves in a single World Cup match. Although it wasn't enough to prevent his team losing to Belgium, USA keeper Tim Howard's fine performance has been one of the highlights of the tournament.

Previously, the Everton player has suggested that the fact he lives with Tourette's syndrome - a condition characterised by multiple motor tics, and at least one vocal tic - has made him a better athlete. At the age of 18 or 19 "I realised I was faster than others when it came to certain movements, and that these reflexes were linked to my disorder", he told the German newspaper Spiegel in 2013. Is he correct?

The answer

  • People with Tourette's tend to be very good at controlling their voluntary movements
  • Activities that require concentration like sport and music can help reduce tics

He might be. Studies have shown that individuals with Tourette's are "super-good at controlling their voluntary movements", says Georgina Jackson, professor of cognitive neuropsychology at the University of Nottingham. A hypothesis is that people with the condition become highly conscious of their physical actions as they learn to control their tics.

People with Tourette's commonly say that activities requiring concentration - such as playing sport or a musical instrument - can help to alleviate their symptoms. A recent study in which Jackson participated suggested that physical exercise significantly reduced tic rates among people with Tourette's. "This control mechanism kicks in that allows them to perform," she says. "That has benefits for your voluntary movements, whether it's goalkeeping or at laboratory level." As Howard himself told Der Speigel: "As soon as things get serious in front of the goal, I don't have any twitches; my muscles obey me then."

Reducing tics at certain points in time should not be confused with a cure, says Jess Thom, co-founder of the website Touretteshero. Nonetheless, she hopes Howard's extraordinary performance in Brazil will have a positive impact beyond football. "Having role models is very important - especially with a condition like Tourette's that is subject to so much myth."

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