Can Tourette’s Help Explain Tim Howard’s Superpowers?

Tim Howard of the United States reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Belgium and the United States at Arena Fonte Nova on July 1, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Science of Us doesn’t always like to speak for the nation as a whole, but in this case, it seems safe: America lost its damn mind over Tim Howard yesterday. The U.S. goalkeeper made 16 saves in yesterday’s knockout match against Belgium, the most by any keeper in a World Cup match in nearly half a century. Yes, it was a disappointing loss, but without Howard’s superhuman effort it seems like the margin could have been much wider than the 2–1 final score. 

Depending on your level of Howard fandom, you may already know that our new national hero has Tourette’s syndrome, the neurological disorder that manifests in repetitive, involuntary movements or outbursts called tics. It’s not exactly something you’d automatically associate with athletic precision, but some research on people with the condition actually hints at the opposite, and suggests that Howard’s goalkeeping superpowers may be at least in part be explained by his Tourette’s.

Kids with Tourette’s have better timing than kids without it. In one study, researchers asked two groups of children — one with Tourette’s and one without — to judge whether two circles were on a computer screen for the same length of time. The kids with Tourette’s were better at the task overall, which could be because their brains have to work harder to suppress their tics, and tic suppression is thought to involve an area of the brain that’s also associated with timing.  

People with Tourette’s have more self-control. In an earlier study, researchers tested cognitive control on people with Tourette’s versus people without, via an eye-movement-tracking experiment. Participants were sometimes told to make speedy eye movements toward a target; other times, the directive would suddenly switch, and they were told to quickly send their gaze away. People with Tourette’s were better at switching back and forth than the people without Tourette’s, and, as with the other experiment, researchers think it may come down to tic suppression.

In short, it takes a monumental amount of self-control to keep those involuntary urges in check, and increased mental acuity can only help in high-stakes scenarios like, oh, an international soccer tournament.

Hat tip to the British Psychological Society for making the Howard-Tourette’s connection on Twitter earlier today, and to psychologist Christian Jarrett for his write-ups of the research. We invite them both, along with all sad U.S. soccer fans, to join us in celebration today, which Science of Us has declared National Tim Howard Appreciation Day. 

Can Tourette’s Explain Tim Howard’s Superpowers?