The Never Ending Struggle: Playing Rugby With Dyspraxia by Tom Remp
Saturday, as the song goes, is a rugby day. For every rugger that means the shrugging off of our every-day facades and becoming, for a few brief hours, someone different. Investment bankers morph into bleeding-headed warriors, marketing experts throw themselves over heaped humanity with barrel chests, lawyers claw forward up the field with hands grabbing desperately at their ankles, and school teachers sit and spit blood from torn lips, eyes blinded by sweat. From the blow of the first whistle, to the final seconds before the sound of the last, and the beer swilled, mud caked drink-up that follows, we feel special. Other men, our friends and colleagues, sit at home at their televisions while we run through sleet and snow, rain and sun, braving the elements for the chance of a glory, few but us care about or understand.
For me, this was not always my way; rugby was not always my game. The reason for this is simple: I was born dyspraxic, a condition that should make it virtually impossible for me to play any ball sport, let alone the most physically demanding one I know of.
Dyspraxia is a developmental condition described by the Dyspraxia Foundation as an “impairment or immaturity of the organization of movement. Associated with this may be problems of language, perception and thought.” Like dyslexia or Asperger’s, dyspraxia is an often-misunderstood condition, with such a variety of symptoms that no two cases are alike. Unlike dyslexia and Asperger’s, dyspraxia is, at least in the United States, a relatively unknown disorder.
Signs of dyspraxia often manifest themselves in early childhood and consist of a number of small issues concerning sequencing and fine-motor skills. Sufferers may struggle with tying their shoelaces, catching balls, balancing, general hand-eye coordination, mild speech issues, short-term memory loss and a host of other similar symptoms. Because dyspraxia is not neurological, indeed nobody quite knows what causes it (a lack of neuron development is perhaps the most likely explanation), it’s difficult to diagnose and often people pegged as absent-minded, clumsy and generally awkward slip through the gaps and are never tested for the underlying cause.
I was an awkward child. At school I had trouble reading and couldn’t do the simplest arithmetic or think systemically. Even now, at twenty-six and successfully graduated from university, I have a constant struggle remembering the alphabet and months of the year. When not in the classroom I discovered I had a complete inability to play sports; I’d freeze around a football and couldn’t catch. I still remember my father trying to teach me to throw and receive a tennis ball from only a meter away and my humiliation that my brother, four years younger, was always better than me.
Like many Dyspraxics I also had problems with sensory processing and the signals reaching my brain were often muddled and confused. I couldn’t feel the cold and was perfectly happy to be outside in the rain wearing only a tee-shirt yet I hated hot weather, couldn’t stand having my hair being combed or the feel of salt-water on my skin. Though I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia early on and eventually began to improve in the classroom, I never got over the physical side of the disorder and as time wore on I became more entrenched in the belief that though I was perfectly bright I’d never be able to do much physically.
Not being good at sports and imbued with a general awkward clumsiness may seem like small issues compared to most disabilities but, for several years in my teens I was severely and violently bullied by my peer group specifically because of my disabilities, despite being in a school specifically designed for students with learning issues. Denied a chance to try-out for rugby by teachers and laughed at for being horrifically terrible at football, I retreated far away from sports. Researching now, I’ve discovered that this approach is taken by almost all dyspraxics, though some do achieve acumen in sports, it is usually in non-ball related ones with less emphasis on team structure such as swimming or rowing.
My decision to stay away from sports did not change for many years until my sophomore year of university in the United States. By this point I had travelled the world; hitch-hiking through El Salvador, river boating in South East Asia and even travelling by myself from Costa Rica to Boston by land. In all, I had achieved more than I had ever thought possible yet I had still never been involved in any team sports and thought I was perfectly content with the fact.
Everything changed when I met Chris, a young fellow student hugely optimistic about an amazing sport he’d just discovered in college: rugby. For months Chris tried to persuade me to come out, to join the hulking, hard-drinking giants that comprised his teammates. “You have an accent and you actually know what rugby is”, his argument went, “you must be good.” Having previously tried rugby for several days I vividly remembered clutching my knees and vomiting into the bushes and so held out for as long as I could, until finally he won me over and, wearing trainers and borrowed basketball shorts I showed up.
The first practice was a nightmare. I remember standing by myself, having been unable to catch the ball during a simple drill, confused and deeply upset. Assigned to be a Second Row because of my size I couldn’t tackle and ended up on my back bruised, dazed, and embarrassed. Through my self-pity and the deep-seated humiliation at having failed so easily, the other players kept me going. They encouraged me when I fell over, helped adjust my hands when I missed a catch, and explained the sport slowly and carefully so I would understand. I learned recently that I was so terrible everyone doubted I’d last a week, though nobody ever voiced that concern. Several times I became so panicked and overwhelmed that I fell over and had a full-fledged panic attack on the side of the field, curled up into the fetal position till one of my teammates helped me up to get water, take a breath, and begin again.
Inspired more by my teammates than the sport itself I came back for a second practice, a third, a fourth. I learned to scrum and ruck well, my long legs barreling me forward to help splinter the opposition, and even began to be less scared of the ball. Years passed, I was injured and took time off, came back, became Vice-President of my team, graduated university and kept playing. When I next travelled to Central America my rugby boots were strapped to the side of my pack, and I had the honor of being able to play a few minutes of international rugby for El Salvador against one of the Guatemalan teams.
Now, I play for the Connecticut Yankees in Norwalk C.T. Rugby has never been an easy road for me, and that has not changed. Like many dyspraxics I have good and bad days: days when I walk out under the floodlights and the ball floats right into my hand, days when it fumbles and lands in the mud. As I’ve grown up and matured though, I’ve learned to have a better understanding of my disability and how to combat it. There are a hundred little things I can do to keep it at bay, some by myself and others with the support of my team.
Though this is far from an instruction manual of how to play rugby with dyspraxia, I’ll explain a few of my favorite techniques.
When I walk onto the pitch I make myself think ‘treat every day as the first’. I have a real problem with muscle memory and find that, more often than not, every time I turn up for a practice or game my throwing, catching, body position and situational memory is at a really poor level. I’ve been playing for over three years at this point, so it’s not quite back to stage one, but sometimes it’s close. This is amazingly frustrating and embarrassing (especially when playing with a new team) but if I accept it, instead of trying to hide it, there are a lot of solutions out there.
When I can’t catch, I have someone work one to one with me for 5-10 minutes till I can. When I go into a ruck or scrum high, one of my team mates will either slowly show me what I’m doing wrong or help me adjust my body position. If I don’t understand a practice drill, I’ll wait and watch till I do. If there is still a problem I will walk slowly through the movement several times before speeding up. In lineouts I’m given the position at the rear so I don’t have to deal with jumping or lifting and the calls are explained ahead-of time so I don’t have to memorize the sequence.
At the end, however, my ability to play the sport I love hinges mostly on my teammates, my brothers. It is they who give me the strength and support to come out and play when sometimes I don’t feel up to it, they who clap me on the back and let me know I am a part of something bigger, something that I am proud to be involved with. Without them it is certain that I couldn’t play rugby, and I am so honored and grateful that I have earned their respect by not giving up. My one wish is that others suffering from dyspraxia, dyslexia, the autistic spectrum and more might realize that perhaps, with encouragement and perseverance, a sport like rugby is well within their grasp.