Coaching football helped me embrace my stammer

The article's author, Michael Noone

As Michael Noone admits, stammering used to control his life. Here he tells us how his passion for football led him into a career coaching children; children who, he explains, were the ones really coaching him through his speech anxiety.

I was akin to many stammerers as a youngster, in that I always presumed that one fine day my stammer would magically evaporate and my anxieties and fears would disappear too. I had read and heard so many stories of people stammering as children and adolescents, until one day they were fluent. With this in mind I actively avoided therapy as a child and set about swerving conversation with a determination missing from much else that I did, sitting back waiting for a switch to flick. 

It wasn't until I was over 30 that I started to truly realise my folly. Between those early days and now, at the age of 34, the emotions and behaviours I associate with my stammer have ranged from shame, desperation and self-pity, to becoming an accomplished liar in order to avoid social situations I was afraid of. 

It's no exaggeration to say that my stammer controlled my life.

It's no exaggeration to say that my stammer controlled my life. I allowed it to set my ceiling particularly low. There are occasions too plentiful to mention where I literally ran from job interviews, and exited coffee shops and restaurants because my heart felt like it was going to blast through my chest; or struggled with something at school or University because I was too scared to ask for help. 

I was never bullied at school, but was well aware of smirks and giggles when I would have to speak aloud in class. In one lesson, the boy next to me laughed as I was struggling to get my words out when asked a question by the teacher. When the teacher turned around to the whiteboard, I punched the lad in the face and he never laughed at me again. But I wouldn't advise that – it got me into trouble and did nothing to aid my anxiety. Stammerers I have met have an amazing level of restraint and patience, which is a terrific quality generally. 

A passion for football

With those early fears in mind, and habitual avoidance of public speaking, it was a peculiar choice to become a football coach, a job which is monumentally reliant upon constant and clear verbal communication. Growing up I was obsessed with football. I would drive my mum crazy with my awfully bad moods when Manchester United would lose a game. I was never going to be good enough to play the game for a living, so always had an eye on other ways I could stay in football. Coaching was the one that stood out because, let's face it, nobody likes a referee. 

I coached kids in Australia for a while, and then again in Manchester. I ran community projects and the kids genuinely coached me through my speech anxiety. The beauty of children is their curiosity; they would ask me, "Coach, why are you speaking like that?". It's a question that adults feel too awkward to ask, and it became a brilliant way for me to speak about my stammer without fear of judgement. 

Coaching football put me into a position where I couldn't be successful if I didn't learn to embrace my stammer.

I built a career in coaching and eventually ran my own coaching business, putting on Summer Camps in North America, and became a High School Coach in the USA. The players, without realising what they were doing, injected me with confidence every single time they followed my instructions. Working with children is the reason I began to love my stammer. 

Embracing my stammer

Coaching football put me into a position where I couldn't be successful if I didn't learn to embrace my stammer, and along the way in football there have been dozens of anxiety-inducing episodes and days I’ve wanted to be anywhere else. Addressing large groups is always likely to be terrifying, and there have been so many occasions in football where I have pulled out of delivering valuable information to teams because I wasn’t able to trust my stammer, and allow myself to stammer fluently. I’d feel my head bowing and my eye contact drifting away when I was struggling to say what I was keen to say. It’s an unforgiving environment, because players hang off their coach’s words. When it comes to coaching children, parents rely on the confidence their kids have in the coach and I noticed that having a quirk improved the trust the kids had in me. Therefore, with each passing week I trusted my speech and let myself stammer. 

Football is a community with a mixed reputation, but at its heart, it is an escape for people who can't always express themselves in other situations.

It was a really strange awakening for me when I started enjoying going to work. For my entire life, until the age of 30, every day carried a different dread. I had never looked forward to a day at work, or a day at school, because this constant fear and anxiety was so restrictive. It was a life-changer, really, and a lesson taught to me by the kids I was coaching. 

Football is a community with a mixed reputation, but at its heart, it is an escape for people who can't always express themselves in other situations. That expression might be their personal value, their self-worth, their talent, or in my case, my confidence and love of being with people. I had denied myself things I may have loved over the years, and coaching kids provided me with the joyful realisation that my stammer is a gift and not a burden. 

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