Professional Athletes who Stutter: Learning to Overcome an Obstacle

Elana Yudman

June 13, 2000


In today's fast paced world, communication is an essential prerequisite to surviving. Communication can be conducted in a number of different manners, but, even with the increasing popularity of the Internet and electronic mail, speaking is still required to get by in life. In fact, most people take the act of speaking for granted because it is done without any concentration (i.e. how to articulate a given sound, when to breathe, etc.), and it is done with little effort as well. Not everyone enjoys this facility, though. At least 5% of the United States population has a communication disorder that afflicts their ability to speak, or communicate in any other manner, with ease. These disorders run the gauntlet from articulation disorders (difficulty making the necessary gestures with the tongues, lips, and jaw to produce proper sounds) to voice disorders (where the quality of one's voice is affected) to something that most people have heard of, stuttering.

Stuttering is a speech fluency disorder that affects the forward outflow of speech resulting in dysfluent speech. Dysfluent speech refers to any speech that is by definition dysrhythmic, filled with inappropriate pauses, and is essentially a break in normal speech production. Also, the speech of people who stutter may be too rapid, or even overly slow in an attempt to mask the disorder. Repetitions are the most common core behaviors of stuttering, and repetitions may include repetitions of sounds, words, parts of words, or even phrases (C-c-can I I I I go go go go go to the buh-buh-buh bathroom). The prolongation of sounds is another core behavior of stuttering (e.g. sssssssssssound). Generally, these prolongations occur in the initial syllable of an utterance or a word, and rarely, if at all, happen at the end of the word (e.g. hospital-l-l-l). The final core behavior that is seldom recognized as stuttering by listeners is what is referred to as blocking. Blocking occurs when the person who stutters is attempting, with no positive results, to produce a sound, but is unable to. Physically, no air is able to pass through the vocal fold for phonation to occur, resulting in the vocal fold muscles to become tense and tightened up. Other facial muscles may also become tense during blocking. This results in the break up of words (e.g. st-st----------uttering). Secondary behaviors may also develop as the disorder progresses. These behaviors are also called anticipatory struggle behaviors because they are often used as a means to ease through a stuttering behavior or to hide the event. Some people who stutter can use these behaviors strategically to pretend as if they can speak fluently, but often these behaviors are painfully obvious and look quite inappropriate (e.g. a person who stutters clenches their eyes as they try to push out a word, they distort their countenance as they try to produce a sounds, or they stop their feet when trying to speak). Some secondary behaviors include foot stamping, fist clenching, eye squinting, finger tapping, and a variety of other behaviors that the person who stutters can create.

This often heartbreaking disorder affects approximately 1% (over three million Americans) of the US population. The disorder is more common in children, and about 80% of children who stutter at some point eventually either outgrow or are successfully treated for the disorder. About 25% of all children go through a period of dysfluency, or stuttering, at some point. Of this population, about 4% persist for six months or more. Stuttering onset in children generally occurs between the ages of two and six. Although it is possible for a child to develop stuttering after this age, onset following six years of age is very rare. If caught early, the treatment outcome success for young children is quite optimistic. Sadly, as the person who stutters get older, the probability of successful speech therapy declines significantly.

There are several treatment options available for people who stutter. Speech therapy is a viable option for many, even though the relapse rate is unusually high for adults. There isn't a universally accepted reason for this failure rate, but one reason is that many of the techniques learned in therapy require clients to become completely aware of their speech before phonation even occurs, and this high level of awareness is often difficult to sustain. The client may be able to speak fluently in the therapy area with the speech pathologist, but generating fluent speech in real world situations is where most speech therapies come under scrutiny. Most of these therapies are called fluency shaping therapies where the client is taught a completely new manner of speaking. Some of the more popular therapies, and the ones with the highest relapse rates, consist of a two to three week intensive format where the client is the thrown back into the real world and back into a world of stuttering. Other therapies are called stuttering modification therapies, pioneered by Charles Van Riper, where the client is taught how to modify the way in which they stutter, resulting in "fluent stuttering." Following complete of a stuttering modification therapy, the client may still stutter, but it is now in a less severe manner. The modification technique also includes a desensitization phase where the client learns how to overcome their fears and frustrations of their stuttering. An additional therapy program consists of an integration of the fluency shaping and stuttering modification therapy models. There is currently no cure or generally accepted most successful treatment for stuttering. Once again, there are a variety of reasons for this, but stuttering is a very heterogeneous disorder. In other words, there are no two people who stutter that stutter in the same way.

Even if a stutterer finds difficulty in obtaining fluency via speech therapy, they can still alter their mindset towards their speech and speaking in general. By doing that, the person who stutters can lead a more pleasant life. They will still stutter, but it will not affect them in the same way as before. The most important thing they need to learn is that it is okay to stutter. This change in attitude is done usually through participation in a support group. The most popular support organization is the National Stuttering Association, formed in 1977. The organization consists of several chapters throughout the United States that provide outreach and emotional support to people who stutter. Participation in these support groups has dramatically affected the lives of several people who stutter.

For adults who stutter, the road is a long and arduous one. Many adults who stutter develop an inferiority complex as a speaker, and avoid speaking engagements ranging from making phone calls to public speaking. In fact, many people who stutter develop negative feelings towards their speech that make it difficult to make any progress towards overcoming their fears of speaking. They must persevere and overcome adversity in the workplace and negative feedback from ignorant people who have little patience to wait until the person who stutters can complete an utterance.

No matter what profession a person who stutters enters, they will face difficulties. Whether it be answering the telephone, having conferences, and dealing with clients or patients, speaking is a key factor to success in the workplace. But, what about professional athletes? They enter their profession due their extreme prowess in their respective sport, who cares if they can speak fluently or not? Unfortunately, being a professional athlete who stutters is no easier than being in a job where no speaking is involved (if such a position even exists). From television interviews to facing teasing from both teammates and opponents, it doesn't matter how well one plays their game.

One of the most inspiring stories of an athlete who stutters who was able to overcome his struggle is the tale of Bob Love, a leading scorer for the Chicago Bulls in the late 1960's to the early 1970's. Know around the NBA as "butterbean," Bob Love wouldn't talk. He was one of the best players in the NBA, but no one took him seriously. After games, when reporters would burst into the locker room ambushing players for quotes about the game that they just played, the sports casters would rudely ignore Love because of his stuttering. Even though he deserves just as much recognition, if not more, than his counterparts, he didn't get it. It's not that Love couldn't talk, he wouldn't. He had a severe stutter, and it would take him awhile to emit a single utterance.

Following his NBA career, Love traveled from one meaningless job to another, eventually landing a job in a café in a Nordstrom's department store in Seattle, a long way from Chicago. Love reflected on these morose times, "Oh, it was embarrassing. People would come in and recognize me and whisper all this stuff about me being an all-star, now look at him. It was awful." Things would soon pick up for Love, though.

The management of Nordstrom's knew that Love didn't belong there as much as the customers did. They wanted to help Love, so they sent for speech therapy. Love didn't find success initially as he bounced from one therapist to another, but eventually found a therapist with a program that worked for him. He entered a fluency shaping therapy where he learned how to speak all over again. The therapy also had him talk in front of large groups of people. In fact, at one speaking engagement, an executive for the Bulls watched Love speak, and offered him a position to work in the team's front office.

Bob Love has worked as the Bull's director of community relations, a position that has him making up to 300 speeches a year, something unheard of for a person who stutters. He has also become an advocate for the National Stuttering Association; an association that has chapters throughout the country that provides support groups for people who stutter. This year Love will be the keynote speaking at the National Stuttering Association's annual convention, which is being held in Chicago this year at the end of June.

Another professional basketball player, who stutters, that has been in the news recently, is Ron Harper of the Los Angeles Lakers that are currently competing against the Indiana Pacers for the NBA world championship. This defensive guard says that he has experienced a lot of taunting from his teammates and also opponents. "I have nothing to be ashamed of. I can't be nobody else. I can't sit home and go, 'I'm not gonna speak today because somebody's gonna laugh at me.' These things are just knowing who you are and I know who I am," said Harper about how he feels about his stuttering. Harper is now working towards his fourth championship, but he hasn't worked on his speech in about 15 fifteen years since he last received speech therapy while playing in the Mid-American conference at Miami (Ohio). While playing in the Western Conference finals, Portland forward Rasheed Wallace poked fun at Harper's stutter, but Harper just brushed it off. "Whatever he said, he's having a nice time off right now."

Stuttering affects four times as many males than females (most likely due a genetic factor), which way it's more common to find a male who stutters, but Sophie Gustafson, a Swedish female professional golfer currently on the LPGA tour, is an exception. "Two weeks ago [from May 9, 2000], when I won the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship, I would've loved to have made the thank you speech instead of having Nancy Lopez do it for me, but because of my stuttering it would've been Monday by the time I finished," said a lighthearted Gustafson in a Sports Illustrated article that she wrote herself. She went on to say that it bothers her how all of the articles written about her focus primarily on her stuttering when they should be focusing on her golf game. In fact, Gustafson is a very talkative person, even though she does get a little shy around strangers and concedes that things such as making plane reservations and hotel reservations are still difficult, so her father still takes care of these matters for his 26 year old daughter. This is only her second full year on the American tour, but she has six victories in Europe and in Asia under belt. Also, she has one of the longest drives in the world, making a formidable force on the green. Despite her difficulty speaking, though, she still makes an effort to do interviews. "Sometimes it took several excruciating seconds just to get out one or two words. With eyelids fluttering and fingernails pinching into her arm or fidgeting with the microphone, Gustafson would labor to form the sounds that are so clear in her head," observed one reporter following Gustafson's first win at the LPGA tour. Similar to Love and Harper, Gustafson has also struggled with speech therapy throughout her life, with discouraging results even the recovery rates for female stutterers are statistically higher than their male counterparts. She also has two brothers that used to stutter when they were younger. Gustafson did manage to get out two words following her victory, "Thank you."

Stuttering may be a tough disorder to overcome, but many people who stutter still go on to lead successful, happy, and productive lives. Nonetheless, the road never ends.