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Howard manages emotions, Tourette’s syndrome

Howard

Goalkeepers are a notoriously odd bunch. In their dress, they adopt the colors of a snow cone, all neons and hot greens. They wear gloves that are better suited for space than sport. Their hairdos range from Mohawks to dreadlocks to blond Afros. But even by such lofty standards of quirk, the tale of American goalkeeper Tim Howard is richer than most.

Howard, who on Tuesday solidified his position as the greatest goalkeeper in national history, has Tourette’s syndrome. Though the United States lost its game against Belgium 2-1, the ending tally would have been much, much worse if not for Howard. He had 16 saves, three more than the previous World Cup record of 13.

“Between now and four years ago, I’ve played a couple hundred games for my club and country,” Howard said after the game. “Just more experienced. I don’t really get too high or too low. I think when you have a big tournament, that’s the important thing, managing emotion.”

It has always been that way for Howard. He always has had to think about managing emotion. The bigger the game, the bigger the moment, the more his tics and symptoms flare. “I’ve never counted how many tics I have in a game,” he said in a 2013 interview with Spiegel Online. “It happens all the time, without any warning, and it increases the nearer an important game draws,” he said. “It always occurs more when I am particularly nervous.”

When the ball is far away, he says he indulges his twitches. “I don’t suppress it,” he told the German publication. But when an opposing striker approaches and readies an attack – which happened over and again on Tuesday – his muscles miraculously are calm. “I have no idea how I do it,” he said. “Not even my doctors can explain it to me. It’s probably because at that moment my concentration on the game is stronger than the Tourette’s syndrome.”

The standard stereotype of Tourette’s, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary sounds and movements that may afflict between 1 percent and 3 percent of people, is an image of a person cursing uncontrollably. But only 10 percent of Tourette’s patients exhibit that symptom, and Howard isn’t one of them. “I’ve never had a curse word simply slip out,” he said.

What does slip out: tics and twitches.

They’ve been with him his entire life. At 10, Howard’s facial tics started when he was growing up in New Jersey. Unfamiliar situations made him anxious and he developed obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Things could never be straight enough. Ordered enough. Counted enough. He compulsively touched cracks in the floor or bricks in the wall.

“A certain pattern had to be followed, an exact routine,” mother Esther Howard told the New Yorker. “He had to put his clothes on the same way every day.”

The tics would come in waves. “From the age of 9 to 15, it was just this chaos of different tics, and they were pretty strong,” Howard explained to Neurology Now. “I would just begin to figure out how a tic worked with my body, and, bam, six months or a year later, a new tic would come.”

But early on, he found an outlet: soccer. His abilities made sense to his mother.

“I believe there’s a certain yin and yang to things,” she told The New Yorker. “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.”

Howard says he is most proud that he didn’t “allow myself to be restricted by Tourette’s syndrome.”

And today, “one of the biggest things I can do for Tourette’s awareness is be in the public eye,” he told Neurology Now. “I’m on television, ticcing and twitching. I think that’s kind of cool.”

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