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How Level Is the Playing Field?


Taking a slight detour from obsessing about Milan today to talk about three different footballers who struggle with three different disabilities. These are not visible, obvious physical disabilities, but they all belong to a group of disorders known as “invisible disabilities.” Often, people suffer silently, but these three players live in the spotlight, which can be a blessing or a curse. However, thanks to their examples of taking their “weaknesses” and turning them to strengths, they can be an inspiration, not only to their fellow athletes, but to the world.

Hard to believe his daily struggles


The first player actually played for Milan, albeit briefly. David Beckham has been quite open about the fact that he suffers from OCD, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is an anxiety disorder where people’s thoughts or feelings become too repetitive  or obsessive, and therefore compel repetitive or other behaviors, also known as compulsive. In Beckham’s case, part of his compulsions include organizing things or lining and pairing things up, everything always has to be perfect. But it is not hard to see how he took his disability and turned it into a strength on the pitch. He was a free kick specialist, and became that way by practicing… a lot… until it was perfect.

Focus and control vs. the involuntary twitches... amazing.

Another player with a disability that is fairly widely known is Tim Howard, the Everton and USA goalkeeper, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. Many people think of Tourette’s as that bizarre disorder that makes people curse uncontrollably, but that is actually not a very common trait, it affects only about 10% of those who have the disorder. Mainly, it is characterized by having involuntary “tics” that can be like a twitch or even a jump. Amazing, then, that he has been able to control this and excel in football, especially as a goalkeeper. Although new research indicates that some with Tourette’s may actually have a faster reaction time than others who don’t have a disability, it is definitely something he has had to battle that his peers don’t. It is also something he lives with around the clock, too.

Maybe his greatness is a result of having to overcome bigger obstacles

An athlete that I just learned suffers with a disability that is very familiar to me with both in my personal and professional life is Lionel Messi. At the age of 8, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, now known as Autistic Spectrum Disorder. It is a very mild form of autism, meaning that most people who have it are quite high functioning in compared to more severe forms of autism. However socially, it can be devastating, as those who suffer with it find it nearly impossible to read social cues like facial expressions, etc. and often have inappropriate emotional reactions as well. Additionally, it is common to have repetitive behaviors and vocalizations, like many autistic people have. Again, this may be Messi’s strength, as it is likely this repetitive behavior has helped him become that much better at playing football. But any advantage it has given him has likely come at a great cost in the rest of his life, it is a very challenging disability to live with. Combined with his diagnosis of GHD, or Growth Hormone Disorder, and subsequent treatment, he has certainly overcome a lot of obstacles on his way to becoming one of the best footballers in the world.

I think all of these players and others who have similar disabilities are true heroes. Any small advantage they receive as a result of their disabilities comes at a heavy price, a price they live with 24/7. I especially love those who come out and talk about their experiences and share their stories, and they inspire me, those whom I love that have disabilities, and others worldwide. For them, the playing field is hardly level, but they have overcome their disadvantages and become world class footballers in spite of it all. Superheroes.


This post inspired by p3trarch, who shared Messi’s story with me