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Be a person first and foremost

28th March 2023

Anne-Marie Withers tells us what playing football and having a stammer has taught her in life. 

Growing up with a stammer caused emotional trauma which I only became aware of in my early adolescence. I've always had a strong passion and desire to play football and still enjoy it just as much today. As a kid, I went from watching Bend it like Beckham and playing on the streets with jumpers for goalposts, to being part of a successful ladies' team winning back-to-back trophies. But the reasons you think of were all a bonus to me. I was a young girl with a dream of being a footballer but I had a bigger dream of being fluent. 

Football provided a focus and a feeling of freedom which I'd never experienced before, both on and off the pitch. No matter who you are, whether you stammer or not, we all crave the same feeling of acceptance, and football was the first place I found it. The sport helped me to build a foundation and instil confidence within myself, helping me to grow as an individual and learn transferable skills, which I now continue to use when working on my stammer.

Liverpool fan Anne-Marie as a child

As a child, I was surrounded by people who had little understanding of stammering. In fact, I didn't meet anyone else who stammered until the age of twenty-one! The pressures of experiencing dysfluency in a world built for fluency shook me to the core. I grew up with my emotions tied to the reaction of the listener and social perceptions. How my day went was determined by how fluent I was. The fear of stammering could paralyse me, which turned my fears into what my life would be like without action. I would let the negative connotations I associated with my stammer and the way I perceived it interfere and damage the way I perceived myself. Yet with football, if I'd made a mistake I'd write it off and try harder next time with the perception of myself unfazed.

I would let the negative connotations I associated with my stammer and the way I perceived it interfere and damage the way I perceived myself.            

Realisations

What I came to realise was, it's not about how 'perfect' something is — but the continuity. The concept of unlearning to learn is something we unconsciously already do in all aspects of our lives, it's just masked by the search for perfection. We aim to learn and grow into something, but I've experienced the importance of unlearning. For example, unlearning a bad shooting technique which could injure you, and instead learning the right way so you don't injure yourself.  

For change to be sustainable, we must change through choice rather than reaction, as often a situation is left until breaking point before making that change. Why wait when mistakes and failures are not only inevitable but are what makes us human! When we do make a mistake, we go back to the basics, the aspects we are so quick to call 'boring' and a 'waste of time', because you can't improve to become the best version of yourself without those basics to revert to. Failure is simply there to point us in the right direction. 

Anne-Marie in action on the pitch

The lessons I've learnt

Playing football and experiencing stammering have taught me far more lessons about myself and life than anything else. Most importantly to be a person first and foremost. Having that goal of always being the best version of yourself will always bring you a bigger sense of achievement than anything else.  

I've learned to study myself more and understand myself better. How to implement the unlearn-to-learn concept to those patterns or behaviours, as I endeavour to work towards becoming the best version of myself. I've learned to look internally for happiness, and confidence, and to protect that, instead of relying on external sources to provide temporary versions.

My dream of being a fluent speaker has been replaced with being the version of myself I can be and to do it in the best possible way.

It's all about perception and allowing yourself the ability to see it. It was allowing myself to see the beauty in stammering, and work with it. It was allowing myself to see the beauty within myself which has been one of the greatest journeys I've embarked on because it's the small and silent wins that will have the greatest and longest-lasting impacts.

As a person, your greatest strength is having the ability to unlock someone else's hidden talents. The beauty of such circumstances is that it only takes one person, but it must be another person. It can be something so simple, in a moment we least expect, but it has the power to change your life. Sometimes we don't know we're there until we have reached our destination. It's the hidden lessons we find on our journey, the ones we don't allow ourselves to see until later in life, that are the most beautiful.  

I still play football today and I'm still just as adrenalised by the game as I was at seven. My dream of being a fluent speaker has been replaced with being the version of myself I can be and to do it in the best possible way.

Read more Your Voice articles from people who stammer and their allies. Would you like to write something? See our Share Your Story page or email editor@stamma.org

(Images courtesy of Barry Griffiths)

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Two women in running outfits holding flags and looking at the camera
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Tayo & Bhupinder
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A speaker on stage at STAMMAFest 2023

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