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How sport helped me with my stammer

Alex Staniforth, Tim Fletcher, Jon Smith, Ryan Rivera | 01.06.2012

With the London Olympic Games set to inspire the nation to become more active, two contributors explain how challenging themselves through sport has benefitted them. Firstly, at the age of 16, Alex Staniforth talks about being chosen to be an ...

Olympic torchbearer

Out of 40,000 nominees, I have been selected to be one of the lucky 8,000 to carry the Olympic flame through my hometown of Chester. Here's how it came about.

I think my stammer was a side-effect of the epilepsy I had from a young age, which stopped me developing communication skills and has made life difficult ever since. Sometimes I'd get complete blocks, put my head down, close my eyes and pull strange faces whilst trying to pronounce words. This led to trouble at school - things like answering the register were very stressful and humiliating, and talking in class would literally terrify me.

Everyday things like going to the shops were daunting. I would replace words if I couldn't get them out, making me sound strange. Some people understood but others thought I was fussy, weird, or rude, making me feel worse. I shied away from conversation whenever possible and was unable to make good friendships. Sometimes I'd be unable to say hello to people in the street, making me so frustrated with myself. It's no wonder that I began to suffer from panic attacks, stress and low self-confidence, and believe it led to many missed opportunities. I had to learn to deal with it.

Things started to change when I tried paragliding on holiday in Turkey when I was 13, something I never dreamt of doing - I was too scared to even go out of the house. I felt a surge of confidence; I loved it and wanted to do more. Since then, I took up running, hill-walking and even qualified as a scuba diver. In 2011 I became the youngest person ever to complete the National 3 Peaks Challenge, raising over £1,700 for Cancer Research UK and the Red Endangered Animal Connection Trust (REACT). As well as this, in July I am climbing Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, to raise £4,810 for the same charities - £1 for every metre climbed. In August I'm cycling from John O'Groats to Land's End. But Everest is my ultimate goal!

After reading about my challenges in the local newspaper, my friend's mother nominated me online to be a torchbearer for the Olympic flame. I was surprised she wanted to nominate me and even more surprised to have been chosen. It's going to be brilliant; I have never felt so excited! As a result, I have been interviewed on several radio stations including BBC Radio Merseyside as well as the 'BBC School Report'. I managed to control my speech for most of these despite the nerves. Next week I am being filmed for BBC North West. I am also going to be talking to local primary school children about being a torchbearer, and I hope to inspire them to follow suit and live their dreams. I'd never have dreamt I'd be doing this!

It's all thanks to sport, which makes me feel more confident; it improves my strength and makes me more competitive and determined. I love the thrill of running and being chased by people behind me. When I came second in a local 10k race I had a superb feeling of superiority and achievement; I had endured the pain to succeed. I didn't let my lack of confidence affect me at school - I achieved good GCSE results and am now studying for my A-Levels and I hope to work in the outdoors industry.

My epilepsy was treated, thankfully. My stammer is still here but it doesn't bother me as much as it did. I don't let it stop me. I want to prove to others who stammer that they can overcome any obstacle if they put their mind to it. It's only a problem if you allow it to be. I can't get rid of my stammer but I can reduce the problems associated with it; I'm not going to let myself miss any more opportunities. When the going gets tough, keep going!


Tim Fletcher used to avoid all sporting activities as a child, but now finds it a source of confidence. Here, he talks about confronting his stammer and becoming a successful ...

Triathlete

Just over one and half years after taking up triathlons, I pulled on my Team GB kit and won silver medal at the ETU European Triathlon Championships 2012. I completed the one-mile open sea swim; a 40km cycle race; and a 10km road run to take second place in the 35-39 age group event at Eilat, on Israel's Red Sea coast. Before taking up triathlons - a combination of swimming, cycling and running - I had never competed at a high level in any sport.

I am a full-time project engineering manager working for a national engineering contractor, and have had a persistent stammer for as long as I can remember. Both my dad and brother also stammer. I was always shy as a child, and point blank refused to join in any sporting activities. Looking back, this was definitely down to my lack of self-confidence about my stammer.

I believe that if sport was a part of my early life, I would've had a higher self-esteem growing up.

I tried speech therapy when in junior school but never really took to it, and it wasn't until finishing university that I decided to tackle my stammer head on. I went to the Willy Russell Centre in Liverpool, where I slowly began to understand who I was and why I stammered, and I gained confidence and self-esteem from the speech therapy support they offered. I moved to Nottingham for my first graduate job, and whilst there I joined the Nottingham self-help group, through which I discovered the BSA. I gained further confidence from the group and realised that for me, one of the best (and the hardest) therapies was talking to others about my stammer. I then started to take up physical activities.

My triathlon race attracted almost fifty triathletes from all over Europe. I was delighted with my result; I'd been training for it right through the winter, averaging ten hours per week. Through the dark months, the prospect of this event in early spring gave me a real focus.

I pre-qualified for it at the Scottish Olympic Distance National Championships last September. Conditions there were somewhat different from those in Eilat, where temperatures were in the mid-20 Celsius range, reduced from the usual mid-30s by a sandstorm the day before the race. I found running in the heat a particular struggle, despite the cooler than usual temperatures.

I now find my sporting success a great source of self-confidence. It develops a healthy body and mind, aiding management of everyday stress, and I believe that if sport was a part of my early life, I would've had a higher self-esteem growing up. Like many people who stammer, my speech was always on my mind and it affected my interaction with my peers. But thanks to support from friends and family I developed a very strong determination to persevere through the tough times at school and concentrate on my schoolwork.

This determination has definitely helped me in work and in sport. I am happily married to a very supportive wife who has given me much strength and confidence, and we have a wonderful daughter. I'm comfortable with myself now; I know I'll never be fluent, but that isn't my aim. I no longer spend my life in fear of stammering, or ask: "Why me?" It'll always be with me and there'll be good days and bad. I have accepted that the only way to improve is to continually challenge yourself and go outside of your comfort zone. This applies equally to stammering, work and sport.

To quote a phrase: "We should challenge ourselves to feel the fear and do it anyway." I've used the opportunity to raise funds for the BSA, and have currently raised around £500.


Sports agent

"My stammer was so bad that excelling in sport became my form of self-expression," says sports agent and BSA patron Jon Smith. "Representing Junior GB at the 100 yards when I was 14, and winning, gave me the taste of success and the inspiration to push on to conquer my stammer."

He continues, "Having worked in the sports industry for most of my life, I have found that the one determining factor that will distinguish success from failure is self-belief. The invaluable inspiration that I have garnered from a variety of outstanding athletes, with whom I have been privileged to work with over the years, has unquestionably helped to sustain my self-belief in my own ability to speak fluently. The most successful athletes don't just have a unique ability, but also the edge over the competition by earnestly believing that they will be successful."


'Scientific basis'

There is a scientific basis supporting the notion that sport and exercise can increase self-confidence, explains Ryan Rivera, publisher and founder of www.calmclinic.com.

"Exercise reduces stress hormones and creates 'mood-balancing' neurotransmitters that will potentially reduce negativity. In addition to this, the success you have in reaching your exercise goals will translate to greater feelings of self-worth in other areas of your life. Exercising can actually create greater self-efficacy - the belief that you will be able to overcome challenges and excel at an activity - and it improves your health, which is an important part of resiliency."

From the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of 'Speaking Out', pages 8 and 9