Tourette’s syndrome no barrier to golfing passion | Health

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Violent, involuntary twitches haven’t prevented German golfer Robin Smicklas from setting his sights on a pro golfing career. The 31-year-old is also hoping to help reduce the stigma about having Tourette’s. Robin Smiciklas is about to tee off. With his spikes dug into the fairway, he takes aim at the green. A brief moment of calm to collect himself. Then his left arm twitches. Once. Twice. Then even more violently a third time. Smiciklas just lets it happen. His concentration seems unbroken. Moments later, he sends the ball on its way down the fairway with a textbook drive.

As he pursues a career in professional golf, Robin Smicklas is hoping to help reduce the stigma about having Tourette's.(Marian Lenhard/laif)
As he pursues a career in professional golf, Robin Smicklas is hoping to help reduce the stigma about having Tourette’s.(Marian Lenhard/laif)

“It’s often the case that a few more tics just have to come out,” he tells DW. “It took me a few years to get to the point where neither that nor what others may be thinking about me can break my concentration,” says Smiciklas, who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome. The syndrome has caused his muscles to twitch abruptly since he was eight years old. Despite this impairment, he turned pro a year ago.

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“I’m happy with the season I’ve had and have shown that I can play at the front of the pack,” he says. His goal? To make it to the upper echelons of the golfing world in the next two to three years. ‘Can I make it?’ At 31, Smiciklas is a late bloomer. Tourette’s held him back for a long time, his doubts were simply too great. “It’s only now that I’m in a mental state that allows me to say that this is no longer a reason for me not to give it a try.”

With sponsors who are “going along with this crazy story,” he is now pursuing his dream. By turning pro he also made a conscious decision to make his Tourette’s syndrome public. “Self-protection was one motive,” Smiciklas says. He has been used to getting funny looks since childhood. Now he figures that there are bound to be fewer of these if his competitors and the public know about it. At the same time, he wants to help destigmatize the ailment. “Through the media, people tend only to know the extreme form of the syndrome, with swear words and blatant obsessive-compulsive disorders,” he says. On the other hand, there is much less awareness of the non-verbal variant that he is afflicted with. “I want to change that.” Positive effects of sport

You may think that somebody with Tourette’s trying to make it as a professional golfer is a crazy idea. Not so, says Professor Markus Raab, head of the Performance Psychology Department at the German Sport University in Cologne. One factor that works in favor of golf, he says, is that it is a “discrete sport” in which the athlete is free to decide when he or she strikes the ball. This stands in stark contrast to a sport like tennis, in which the athlete is forced to react to a ball played by the opponent.

“With Tourette’s, it’s not possible to suppress everything 100%,” Professor Raab tells DW, “but those affected have the option of temporarily influencing their tics.” Smiciklas confirms this from his own experience. After many a successful round, the tics return with a vengeance and leave him barely able to rest in the hours that follow. Nevertheless, sport has always provided him with balance and reassurance.

“In this respect, the studies are quite clear,” Raab explains. “If you don’t overdo it, exercise has positive effects on our motor skills, our perception, but also on our emotions.” This applies equally to people with Tourette’s and other psychological and neurological impairments. In fact, there are athletes with Tourette’s syndrome who have made it into the world elite. Tim Howard, the starting goalkeeper for more than a decade at Manchester United and Everton in the Premier League and the US men’s national soccer team, is one such case.

Another example is Mahmoud Abdul Rauf, who went up against the legendary Michael Jordan in a nine-year NBA career. His variant of Tourette’s is the one that doesn’t just cause muscles to twitch, but also results in uncontrollable swearing – known as vocal tics. He also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder during his years as a player. Only when he felt his shoes were tied perfectly could he take to the court. To finish his shooting training, it was not the number of hits that was decisive for him but hearing precisely the “right” sound of the ball hitting the floor. All that practicing made the now 54-year-old one of the best long-range shooters in the game.

Creativity on the golf course. When asked about the “advantages” that Tourette’s has brought him in his sport, Smiciklas doesn’t have to think twice. “In difficult situations on the golf course, I posess a certain creativity about how I can still get the ball to where I want it to go,” he explains. This is a skill he developed during his difficult years as a teenager, when he was always looking for ways to conceal his tics to make it seem like he was like everyone else.

Although Tourette’s is so closely interwoven with his personality, it’s clear that it’s not something that Smiciklas likes to dwell on. His performance on the links and promotion to the Challenge Tour are what he’s focused on. If it works out, Smiciklas will have proven his idol, the late NBA legend Kobe Bryant, right, when he said: “You just can’t underestimate the power of showing up every single day and doing the work.”

This article was originally published in German.

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