Tim Howard’s astonishing performance as the U.S. goalie in Tuesday’s World Cup game against Belgium shares a neurological component with a case described decades ago by the eminent neurologist Oliver Sacks involving an essentially unbeatable ping-pong player.
Both Howard and Sacks’ patient have Tourette syndrome, the most manifest ill effects of which are involuntary tics.
But in Sacks’ experience, many of those with the condition also possess preternaturally quick reflexes, which his ping-pong player also demonstrated by proving able to step in and immediately back out of a moving revolving door without being struck.
“Abnormal quickness,” Sacks told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “I see this in many other people with Tourette’s.”
Sacks cited a study where a control group of "neuro-typicals” and a person with Tourette’s were asked to react as quickly as possible to a situation. The control group proved able to respond two to two and a half times faster than usual and with poor aim. The person with Tourette’s responded five to six times faster than usual and without compromising accuracy.
“This is very real, this mixture of speed and accuracy,” Sacks said. “I think it often is part of Tourette’s.”
Howard said in an interview with Der Spiegel last year that he was in his late teens when he discerned a blessing amid the trials of Tourette’s.
“I realized I was faster than others when it came to certain movements, and that these reflexes were linked to my disorder,” he said.
One Tourette's researcher who spoke to The Daily Beast was more cautious than Sacks, saying he could not confirm with scientific certainty that people with the condition do indeed have heightened reflexes.
“The research is not in yet if they can perform at a higher level than can be normally expected,” said Dr. Michael Okun, professor of neurology at the University of Florida at Gainesville and chairman of the Tourette Syndrome Association Medical Advisory Board.
Okun has found that other aspects of Tourette’s can prove highly beneficial in a wide range of endeavors. He noted that people with the condition often have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They repeat tasks over and over with a ritualistic and often perfectionist bent.
“Obsessive-compulsive tendencies really help to enhance abilities,” Okun said. “In chess, piano, or when they’re playing goalie for the World Cup team.”
Okun went on, “It’s the practice, all the stuff you don’t see. It’s all the work that Howard does off the field…sharpening and honing skills.”
The very effort to do it exactly right requires focus. And people with Tourette’s often discover that total focus on what they are doing causes their tics to subside.
“They focus really well…because they need to focus,” Okun said.
Viewers would not likely see if Howard experienced a tic on the field, Okun suggested, because it would strike when the ball was far away from the goal.
“When the camera’s not on him,” he said.
Howard reported in the Der Spiegel interview that he does indeed sometimes suffer tics during a match, when the play is on another part of the field.
“As long as the game is not happening right in front of my nose but somewhere in the midfield, I let it twitch,” he said. “I don't try to suppress it, either.”
That changes when the ball comes near.
“Then I am all there,” Howard said. “It’s strange. As soon as things get serious in front of the goal, I don’t have any twitches; my muscles obey me then.”
He was asked if he worried that a tic might someday cause him to drop a ball.
“It won’t,” he replied.
Okun and Sacks agree that Tourette’s seems to originate in the basal ganglia, a region in the forebrain that is related to a wide range of functions, including the initiation and inhibition of motion, as well as emotion, cognition, attention, and learning. Scans show no clear anatomical difference between those with Tourette’s and those without. The condition is thought to involve complex neural circuitry such as a juncture where focus can banish tics, where mind really can prevail over matter.
“Fascinating,” Okun said.
That underlying triumph was at work in each of Howard’s record 16 saves on Tuesday. Howard also almost certainly was moving with the faster reflexes he had first consciously noticed as a teen, a gift such as Sacks first observed in another man with Tourette’s back in 1981. Sacks happened to cite Howard as one of several great athletes with Tourette’s in an article in 2014. Sacks also listed basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and baseball players Jim Eisenreich and Mike Johnston.
Sacks did not see the big game on Tuesday, but he expressed interest in viewing video of Howard’s saves. Sacks will be looking to see if there were similarities other than remarkable speed between Howard and the ping-pong player, whose greatness further derived from the ability to make surprising and unpredictable shots.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing to have, but if one has Tourette’s, there are advantages,” Sacks said.