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Alumni Feature: Tyler Ng, Thriving Through Tourette’s

From the time he started seriously looking at Brandeis University as his potential college choice, Tyler Ng was confident it was the right place for him. With its academic reputation, proximity to Boston, and a strong tennis program, Brandeis seemed like a great fit. What sealed the choice for Ng was tennis head coach Ben Lamanna and the student-athletes on the team. “Ben emphasized team culture with a lot of team dinners and doing things together. I felt very comfortable there and no one really cared that I had Tourette’s,” he remarked.

Tourette syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder named after French neurologist Dr. Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who first described the condition in an 86-year-old patient in 1885. It is characterized by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements, and vocalizations called tics.

Although much is known about the disease now, that was not the case for some time. The late British neurologist and NYU School of Medicine Professor of Neurology Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote in his book The River of Consciousness that he once referred to Tourette’s as “half-mythical” because when he began studying the disease in 1969, he said, “it was considered extremely rare and possibly factitious.” Without recent studies, he was forced to go back to de la Tourette’s original papers from 1885 and 1886. Ng spent most of his pre-high school years surrounded by people who were not familiar with Tourette Syndrome.

THE DIAGNOSIS

“I started having vocal tics when I was five years old and my parents just thought I was being annoying,” Ng laughed. “It was during a random doctor’s appointment that I was tested and got diagnosed as having Tourette’s. I never thought it was an issue, but my parents weren’t sure what to do. They wanted to solve a problem I didn’t know I had.”

He ended up going to therapy with another boy his age who had also been diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome. “The more therapy I received, the more it bothered me. Once I was in the second grade, the tics got pretty bad. I had them a lot in school and my parents had to talk to the teachers,” he recalled. “The elementary school and the teachers were very helpful. I remember one book the teacher would read about a girl with Tourette’s and that people didn’t believe she couldn’t stop doing the tics. The best way to explain it was to have someone put pepper on their hands. They couldn’t help but sneeze and that helped make them aware. My friends were pretty understanding.”

“No one in elementary school really understood. They just saw the tics and heard the noises, and asked me why I did them,” Ng said. “It was an annoyance to have to give the same explanation over and over again. That led to associating Tourette’s with my identity.” He would take exams in different rooms with others who were given extra time. “I was even put in a separate room from them when I had vocal tics so I was taking exams by myself,” he said. “Once my tics stopped getting vocal, I shifted to the room where students had time-and-a-half to finish their exams.”

PLAYING SPORTS

Ng’s parents signed him up to play a number of sports when he was young with gymnastics being the one he was most originally drawn to. “I did it for fun for a year and then joined a competitive team. It is a great gateway sport with a lot of training,” he explained. “For five years, I trained with the team three days a week and had one day of private lessons. Our team was placing high in competitions with a very good and disciplined coach.”

Tyler Ng earned the all-around title at a state gymnastics competition

When Ng was eight years old, he won the all-around title and led the team to a runner-up finish at the state competition. Eventually, the coach left and the team was disbanded. Ng joined another team, but soon shifted his interests to other sports. “Gymnastics is a great balance of everything if you take it seriously. You are working out by lifting your body weight,” he commented. “The fun of gymnastics can seriously develop your athletic abilities. At the time, I was really skinny and short, but I could do a lot of push-ups and pull-ups.”

He had already started playing tennis and baseball and by age 10, added basketball and soccer. “Around that time is when I started playing tennis tournaments for the first time,” he recalled. “I was still not fully a tennis player with all my others sports.”

One of the things Ng and his parents quickly realized was that he rarely exhibited tics when he was playing sports. “It just didn’t happen very much when I was playing sports. One of the reasons my parents encouraged me to play sports was that the Tourette’s didn’t affect my performance,” he expressed. “I was on medication and attending therapy, neither of which made any impact. I told my parents that I didn’t need them. Sports was the best outlet for decreasing the tics and making me feel better.”

Former National Basketball Association player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was one of the first professional athletes to talk about having Tourette's

He started playing well in tournaments and decided to join the school tennis team in the seventh grade, which also brought about a change in his social status. “I was the best player on a bad team,” he quipped. “Kids saw that I was a good athlete and wanted to be my friend. I was now identified as an athlete and I made a lot of superficial friends because I was good at tennis.”

Tyler Ng started playing tennis at an early age and continued through college

“Middle school had been rough before that,” Ng remembered. “My tics weren’t as vocal as they had been, but the majority of people didn’t know what Tourette’s was so I had trouble fitting in. I spent time with my four good friends and otherwise, I was ‘the guy who has twitches.’ Once I became known as an athlete, Tourette’s wasn’t my identity anymore. Being labeled by Tourette’s triggers it even more.”

Ng credits his parents’ support and stability for helping him through the tough times. “Overall, I am pretty fortunate to have minor Tourette’s. I have met people with it who had trouble holding a conversation and couldn’t control their bodies. I could see how stressed the parents were as they tried to calm them down,” he recounted. “My parents have a great relationship and that structure means I have one less burden. A lot of parents of Tourette’s children were divorced or in the process of getting divorced. That adds to the stress of the child. I am grateful that my parents have always been supportive, there for each other and me.”

HIGH SCHOOL AND CHOOSING BRANDEIS

Ng attended Great Neck South High School in Great Neck, New York, and immediately saw a difference in the way he was treated. “People were smart there. Many people knew what Tourette’s was and those who didn’t would understand once I explained it to them,” he described. “It stopped being malicious and I was no longer being looked down on.”

“My dad first noticed Tyler on tennis recruiting web sites and we saw he was clicking on Brandeis a lot,” Lamanna recalled. “We had some e-mail contact. He had some good wins and seemed like a good kid.”

“I started looking at the campus and I liked that the location wasn’t too far from home,” Ng mentioned. “I liked that there was a free shuttle to Boston on weekends and I had always wanted to be near a new city.”

Ng’s recruiting trip to Brandeis was memorable in unexpected ways. “I remember him with his mom at our practice. I had to play No. 1 singles that day and I was flustered and embarrassed,” Lamanna laughed. “His mom told me he had Tourette’s and I asked how it affected his tennis and she said it didn’t.”

What Ng recalled most vividly about the trip was being hosted by Eric Goldberg. “He is a super guy and he showed me around. He is a magnet of positive energy and I was thinking, ‘who wouldn’t want to go here after meeting him?’” recounted Ng, who still laughs hysterically years later at one event that happened. “Eric had this bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos that looked really good. He was going to take a shower so I estimated that would take five minutes and I started eating them. Unfortunately for me, he forgot something and came back 30 seconds later. I froze. He diffused the awkwardness by telling me to just take the bag.”

Goldberg recollected the event without hesitation. “I remember walking back to the shower after I literally caught him red-handed, thinking what he must be thinking as a recruit, but it was not a big deal,” he assured. “You want to find out things about recruits early on. The fact that he couldn’t even keep his hands off my food made it a lot easier for me because I knew I had found someone who appreciated food as much as me.”

Brandeis also fit in with Ng’s desire to be at a strong academic institution where he could pursue his goal of becoming an actuary, someone who deals with risk management. It also meant he would be attending an institution where Tourette Syndrome would not play a big role in his life. “Brandeis is a place of next-level intelligence. Most people there had seen Tourette’s and they knew about it,” he said. “A lot of people in high school had not seen it so they would ask questions. There was no judgment at all at Brandeis.”

His Tourette Syndrome was essentially a non-factor in collegiate tennis. “I noticed it, but barely,” Lamanna stated. “It would come out a little on changeovers and in stressful situations, but he was listening during that time and that’s all I needed.”

“Tyler and I had a really good relationship and still talk all the time,” said Babson College men’s and women’s tennis head coach Mike Kopelman, who served as the Brandeis assistant coach for Ng’s first three seasons. “We never had a conversation about Tourette’s. I knew he had it, but it was just not something we would discuss. The only time I noticed it was when some opponents wouldn’t understand when they saw him making different faces occasionally.”

Tyler Ng with his parents, head coach Ben Lamanna, and former assistant coach Mike Kopelman on Senior Day in April 2019 (Photo credit: Sportspix.com)

“Tyler handles (Tourette’s) very well. I don’t remember it ever being a discussion or problem,” added Goldberg. “It was just something we knew existed. We had a strong team culture. He could address it if he needed to. I think Tyler realized that this was a culture that he could not only survive in, but thrive in. He was able to surround himself with people who would bring out the best of one another.”

“When people first get to know me, they often don’t even notice it,” Ng explained. “They see it more when they spend more time with me. It doesn’t affect me when I am driving or in the middle of a point in a match. When I do need to focus, it is not uncontrollable. I know it’s going to happen and I just let it happen. It is an irritation that you can focus on or let loose. For me, it is usually the latter.”

He has also learned to downplay his tics to a degree in social situations. “When you live with it, you learn how to hide it,” he divulged. “I can hold it if I need to. Sometimes I just put my head down when I do some tic like scratching my nose or I scratch my forehead so my eyes are covered. I just do those things naturally now.”

The one time where tics were more obvious were during tests. “My motor tics are still there in exams, which is a very tense and stressful situation,” he articulated. “Sometimes I would take out 20 seconds to get it all out and then refocus. A test is a high-stress environment that requires three hours of high focus and high intensity. That is an abnormal environment. I sat in the front row for exams and sometimes saw my professors get frazzled when they saw my Tourette’s.”

TENNIS AT BRANDEIS

Those who knew him best at Brandeis describe Ng’s tennis career in terms of his competitiveness. “He was a warrior, one of the best competitors I have ever had,” Lamanna remarked. “He poured his heart and soul into every match. He cried a lot after matches because he cared so much. He had so much heart and cared so much about the winning and losing.”

“He was a very emotional player,” Kopelman said. “He is a very special and unique kid. He was one of the better players with the recruiting class that started to change the culture at Brandeis.”

“To me, he was just a pure competitor. From the moment he stepped on the court, he was intense. I always liked to keep an even keel, but he truly wanted to wipe his opponent off the court,” Goldberg added.

(Photo credit: Sportspix.com)

The raw emotion and will to win did present some challenges for Ng as well. “He is a perfectionist. That ate him and he didn’t always believe in himself,” Kopelman commented. “It was a constant battle for him that he got a lot better at over time. He started to believe in himself and trust himself more after winning a lot of big matches.”

“We struggled with some things,” Lamanna admitted. “He was very result-focused and didn’t like to get out of his comfort zone. He needed to be comfortable and feel that he was good. In reality, he was an unbelievable volleyer and his teammates respected him so much. He was such a pleasure to coach and had some big victories in clutch situations.”

There were points and matches that stood out with Ng’s coaches that reflected his work ethic and desire to compete. “One time, Gil Roddy of Bowdoin did a drop shot/lob combination. Tyler got the drop back, then chased the lob, keeping himself running and catapulting off the fence to hit a winner. I had never seen anything like that,” Lamanna marveled. “Another time, he played Nathan Niemic of Tufts at the Bates Fall Invitational and ended up with scrapes and blood on his knees. He had marks all over his face from running into the fences and windscreens. I have never had anyone try as hard as he did.”

“There were some matches where he literally had nothing left when the match ended. He had used all his energy,” Kopelman expressed. I remember when he played Tom Suchodolski from Redlands a few years back. They had basically the same game and the match went three and one-half hours and he eventually won a 10-point super-breaker. He couldn’t play the rest of the spring break trip.”

(Photo credit: Sportspix.com)

In terms of key wins, he may have earned the most crucial point of his career in his next-to-last match at the 2019 UAA Tennis Championships as the Judges upset second-ranked University of Chicago in the semifinals, advancing to the Association title match for the first time in program history. Ng and freshman Colt Tegtmeier edged former ITA doubles champions Tyler Raclin and Jeremy Yuan, 8-7 (7-5), to give Brandeis a 2-1 lead entering singles play.

“We were going to fight and scrap in that match and come out with everything we had. We came out swinging in doubles with our 2’s (Adam Tzeng and Rajan Vohra) starting with a break, ripping returns,” Ng recalled. “We were down 3-6, 15-40, but once Colt held serve, we knew were still in it. We broke back and changed the momentum. The other two matches had finished so our teammates were watching us and our women’s team was there making a lot of noise. I felt like I was flying. It was a really cool experience. My partner was really locked in and we won by a very slim margin.”

“Tyler brought the energy from the start of that match,” Lamanna noted. “I had seen him be that kind of warrior for four consecutive years.”

“He learned valuable life lessons though his four years at Brandeis and will be an even better person than he would have been without that experience,” Kopelman remarked. “I don’t expect to coach anyone like him again. I learned so much from him and how to teach people differently.”

“Tyler never hides who he is,” Goldberg said. “He is proud of himself, his work, his culture, his academics, and who he is.”

Tim Howard, the starting goalkeeper in every U.S. World Cup match in 2010 and 2014, wrote a book detailing his experiences having Tourette's

POST-COLLEGE CAREER

Ng recently accepted a job as an actuarial analyst in life insurance at Legal & General America in Stamford, Connecticut. Advancing in his field is very objective with a series of 10 exams with each passed exam showing another qualification level. “It is very structured. I have passed two exams, which qualified me for an entry level position,” he stated. “If I really commit to it, I am able to do it and fuel the fire for future opportunities.”

The exams are isolated and computer-based to the point that there are side blinders during the test so the test-taker cannot see, or be seen by, anyone else. There is, however, a camera directly pointed at the test-taker. “That is a little weird,” Ng admitted. “I just assume that the person watching is dead focused on me because of my tics. It’s just going to happen.”

With the experience of going all the way through college with his diagnosis, Ng has a simple and encouraging word of advice for younger people with Tourette’s. “If you are in elementary school or middle school now, know that it does get better,” he stated. “People get smarter and more mature as you grow and move into higher levels of education. Tourette’s is something you have, but it does not define you.”
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Main photo: Sportspix.com

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