Up In Your Head: Can Having Tourette Syndrome Make You a Superior Athlete?

Goalie Tim Howard and other star athletes believe having the condition helps.

ByABC News
August 14, 2014, 11:45 AM
United States' goalkeeper Tim Howard saves a shot by Belgium during the World Cup match between Belgium and the USA at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil,  July 1, 2014.
United States' goalkeeper Tim Howard saves a shot by Belgium during the World Cup match between Belgium and the USA at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, July 1, 2014.
Felipe Dana/AP Photo

— -- Tune into watch this story on ABC News' "20/20" on Friday, March 13 at 10 p.m. ET.

Soccer player Tim Howard, one of the best goalies in the world, became an American hero with his record 16 saves in a match against Belgium at the World Cup last month.

But Howard believes his incredible athletic ability is helped by a secret weapon that lies deep inside his brain.

The soccer stud suffers from a neurological disorder called Tourette syndrome that causes him to constantly twitch involuntarily.

It's estimated that as many as 200,000 Americans suffer from a severe form of Tourette syndrome, and as many as one in 100 Americans show milder symptoms, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and symptoms usually begin in childhood. Boys are three times more likely to have the condition than girls and there is no known cure.

Howard was first diagnosed when he was 10 years old.

“I remember being so exhausted at the end of days ... trying to suppress it or maybe wait until I could get home in my room to really have an outburst,” Howard told ESPN. “People think they're hiding it, but it's very obvious to someone who has Tourette syndrome that they're being looked at and made fun of.”

As Howard struggled with the social stigma of the disorder, he flourished on the field, eventually becoming the top goalkeeper in the United States. Now, at age 35, Howard thinks his condition doesn’t hurt him, but rather helps him, tend goal. Howard believes his Tourette's gives him an edge with abnormally rapid reflexes allowing him to move faster than his opponents.

PHOTO: Anthony Ervin dives into the pool at the start of the 50m freestyle
Anthony Ervin dives into the pool at the start of the 50m freestyle in the 2014 USA National Championships at William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Complex in Irvine, Calif., Aug. 10, 2014.

Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin, who took gold at the 2000 summer games in Sydney, also suffers from Tourette's. He just reclaimed the national championship title in the 50-meter freestyle on Sunday.

“The only sign at first was an uncontrollable spasmal blinking, and I would just keep blinking,” the 33-year-old sprint swimmer said of his condition. “It was really, really fast ... and it would come in fits, and then I would kind of stop and I would almost be out of breath, because it was over.”

Whether his condition makes him one fastest swimmer in the country, Ervin said he can only speculate, but believes it does help him.

“There have been very positive ways that it has helped me,” he said, such as, “making me faster than everybody else ... most of the time.”

Ervin isn’t sure his Tourette’s gives him quicker reflexes, but he, like Howard, believes he can somehow turn the tics into speed.

Olympic swimmer Anthony Ervin sat down with ABC's Elizabeth Vargas for "20/20."

“The way that I have come to understand my Tourette’s is that there is an over excitation of the nervous system,” he said. “I can channel all that nervousness better than a majority of my competitors.”

Researchers believe Tourette syndrome originates in the basal ganglia region of the fore-brain, the same section of the brain that controls many motor functions. Famed neurologist Oliver Sacks backs up the theory that Tourette’s can supercharge the brain, giving those with the disorder extraordinary quickness and swifter reaction times.

However, Dr. Jonathan Mink, who specializes in Tourette syndrome and other movement disorders at the University of Rochester, and is the co-chair of the National Tourette Syndrome Association’s scientific advisory board, is more skeptical, citing conflicting studies. He said the science isn’t there yet to definitively prove that Tourette's can help give athletes with the condition superior skills or make, say, a basketball player the next Lebron James.

“I think that the reason I became an actor, probably, underneath it, was that I spent my life acting normal,” the 40-year-old said. “I spent my life figuring out ways to make the room OK with me.”

But, remarkably, once he is on set and hears the director call “action,” his tics stop.

“Because it's life or death, you know? It's make it or break it,” Mihok said. “I don't know if I ever realized, initially, that I didn't tic when I was so focused on my acting. I think it was after I had already done it a few years, when I went, ‘Hey, interesting that this happens.’

Likewise, Tim Howard said he never has tics when a ball is coming his way. But once Howard leaves the field, or once a director on a movie set yells “cut” for Mihok, the tics reemerge.

“When we're at rest, that's when they come,” Mihok said. “But when you're focused and your body, and your mind and your heart are set on what you are doing in that moment, you don't tick. But then the minute it's over, you get back to your twitching.”

Dr. Jonathan Mink believes the reason for this may have to do with how these professionals are focusing their brains on the task at hand.

“I think it has to do with the mechanisms in the brain that are producing the tics, that they compete with the mechanisms of the brain that are producing the other activities: the playing, the sport, acting,” he said.

Having learned to deal with his condition over the years, Mihok said he now believes his Tourette's is a gift.

“We are practicing, at all times, our reactions and how to hide, how to cover,” he said. “And with all these crazy contortions that we have to do ... we’re quicker, dexterous. ... I believe we have a tremendous amount of heart and work ethic.”

“There were many, many times where I looked up to whoever and shook my fist and balled my eyes out and just asked my mom, ‘Why? Why do I have this? Why? Why me? It's not fair,’” Mihok continued. “And I got through it. You become resilient and you get through it. ... It's completely a part of who I am, what my character is, and how I interact with the world, and people and relationships. And I don't know what it would be like without it.”

For more information regarding Tourette syndrome, visit the National Tourette Syndrome Association website.

Tune in for the full story on ABC News' "20/20" on Friday, March 13 at 10 p.m. ET.