By Sree Lakkamraju
How does Tourette affect youth in sports? This is a common question that often goes unanswered.
I have had tics since I was a toddler, (meaning Tourette’s) although my family had never put a name to it. I am an athlete and my sport of choice is fencing. I have been fencing since I was around 7 years old, and have done great during tournaments, matches, and training sessions. Fencing has never really been a challenge, until the past year or two..
Not many fencers suffer from losses on the strip due to disorders such as Tourette’s, but I hope this advice can help those in other sports or even in general. Fencing requires a lot of focus on footwork and bladework. Your movements have to be precise and controlled. It is a sport that requires not only physical abilities, but using your head as well. The saying is, “Fencing is about brains, not brawn.” Like baseball, you have to “keep your eyes on the ball”. In fencing, it’s your opponent. It was a challenge to navigate around expectations others had for me. It caused stress, which was the root of my anxiety. It resulted in poor footwork, missing the target, or losing a bout, and this triggered my motor tics where I moved my neck or my eyes darted around the room. Unfortunately, none of my fellow fencers or coach knew about my Tourette’s; how was I supposed to tell my coach that I couldn’t go against an opponent because there was a war going on inside my own head?
One time, the pressure of losing got to me after I gained a lead, and my tics suddenly became horrible. The boy I was fencing stomped his feet and raised his hands in irritation yelling, “WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING AT?!” I felt defeated. I was someone who genuinely loved fencing and was on fire not even a month before. Now I was struggling to move my feet in the most basic form of movement. Sometimes I could be struggling to catch my breath, my muscles might be aching, I feel sweaty, self conscious, etc. It’s just a bundle of nerves. At the time, I believed the only way to combat this problem was physically. Increasing my stamina, doing more precise bladework, and practicing the most draining footwork to improve. I was not comfortable telling anyone there about my anxiety and Tourette’s because I they would see me as “different”.
However, over time, I picked up on a few tricks to calm myself both in and out of practice. To calm myself, I would be reserved and relaxed for about an hour before a bout. I tried not to exert myself during footwork practice or the games so I had more energy when I was dressed in my tight suit and suffocating mask. Apparently during one golden medal bout, my 13 year old self thought “Roar” by Katy Perry would be highly motivating. It worked, because I won the bout, despite the questionable choice of music. I also learned to know my limits. I learned not to push myself so much so I wouldn’t lose control in public. I would ask for short water breaks alone during my group classes or private lessons, stay close to a fan, or fix my ponytail. Really anything that helps calm you down or acts as a reverse to your tic should be done. It wouldn’t help anyone if I tired myself out and had to stop fencing for the day.
Tics or Tourette’s in sports may not only affect individuals’ abilities in a game, but also their life outside of it. It was difficult making friends, but I was patient and made a small group of supportive friends. Always surround yourself with people who care about you and won’t ostracize! If you ever see someone struggling, be patient, gentle, and observant. Put yourself in their shoes.
While the experience has and still is arduous to overcome, little steps everyday matter. The journey has its ups and downs. But it is NEVER your fault. Tourette’s is not a burden. It is an opportunity to show everyone how strong you can truly be. It’s like fencing with a heavier sword or with a heavy body weight on. It’s difficult for the time being, but once you embrace the weight on your shoulders, they will feel lighter. Everyone, with or without Tourette’s is special, and it does not define you. The hardships that I have faced taught me to be a better person and prepared me for the real world. They’re like textbooks of gold, waiting for us to open them!
Sree Lakkamraju is a member of the NJCTS Youth Council