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Nicola McDowell’s Blog 16

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

Sporting hero to sporting zero

Some people are lucky enough to be born with natural sporting abilities. Without even trying, they can seemingly pick up any kind of ball, racquet, bat or club and master a new game within a very short space of time. Their hand / eye co-ordination seems to develop at a very young age and their physical skills help them to be faster, stronger and fitter than that of their peers. They also seem to be able to judge their movement and the movement of others around any court, pitch or field with minute precision. Which of course, allows them to always be in the right place at the right time, to catch the ball, make the winning dive over the try line, or shoot the winning goal just before the game ends. We all know these people and sometimes even envy them. They are the people who, when combined with a lot of hard work, often end up becoming our sporting heroes.

I was one of those people. Everything just came easily and I didn't really understand how anyone could find catching a ball that was thrown directly at you, difficult. I took my sporting abilities for granted and didn't for one second think about what aspects of my physical being helped make sporting activities so easy. I certainly didn't consider that my visual processing skills played a big part in making sure I could move around any sporting court or field so effortlessly and efficiently.

Unfortunately, for sporting heroes, there will always be the possibility that they may tumble off this pedestal for whatever reason (most likely through injury). And speaking from experience, the fall from sporting hero to sporting zero can be swift and merciless. One minute you are being picked for representative teams, captaining top school teams and winning prizes for sporting achievements. Then all of a sudden, you are the one left standing alone on the side of the field during a PE lesson, because no one wanted to pick you for their team. Of course, when this happens, you are left wondering, where exactly did I go wrong?

Without the insight of my CVI visual difficulties, I didn't understand that there was a fairly good reason why I suddenly found catching a ball so difficult. All I was aware of, were the embarrassing incidents that led to my new found status of sporting zero. Like the time I accidentaly kicked the school 1st 11 soccer captain in the ankle during PE just before their big championship final. I wasn't aiming to kick him of course, I was trying to kick the ball. But in the confusion of trying to see where the ball actually was, amongst the throngs of other people milling around, I completely misjudged what I was kicking. The end result was that he limped off the field and was unable to play in the weekend's big game and I became very unpopular with the rest of his team.

Or the time that I cracked the knuckle on my middle finger attempting to protect myself from a volleyball that was hurtling towards my head. I didn't know where it came from, but all of a sudden it was right in front of me and threatened to knock me to the floor. I panicked and was unable to do anything apart from cower under my hands. Unfortunately, one of my teammates had expected me to move out of the way and had come running in to hit the ball back over the net. The resulting collision caused the injury to my finger and my team to lose the game. This did not help my declining sporting popularity.

No matter how hard I tried, I just could not keep up with whatever game I was playing. I would constantly lose sight of the ball and would be frightened by its sudden appearance in front of me. I struggled to understand the movement of others and always ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time, stopping someone else from shooting the winning goal or scoring the winning try. I started to become less confident of my abilities and began doubting what my natural sporting instincts were telling me to do. My heart would tell me "quick, move to your right, intercept that pass", but my head would say "no don't move, just stay where you are and protect yourself". All of a sudden sporting activities became incredibly overwhelming.

But I stubbornly continued to participate in as many sporting activities as I could, despite the mental and physical drain of doing so. I was forever hopeful that one day, I would somehow recover my sporting confidence and get back on the road to becoming a sporting hero once again. However, this dream was completely squashed by one of my peers, who felt that it was his right to tell me that I was letting my team down and should do everyone a favour and stop playing. Apparently, it wasn't fair to everyone else, to have to put up with someone on their team, who clearly couldn't see very well.

Although this exchange dampened my spirit, I didn't let it ruin my love of sporting activities. It just made me realise that I had to think carefully about what activities I could do, that would still allow me to draw on my sporting strengths, without exposing my physical weaknesses. And although I loved being part of a team and spending time with others, I soon found that individual sports like swimming and running still allowed me to feed my competitive spirit, but limited more knocks to my confidence by letting my teammates down. In hindsight, if I had realised this earlier, my rapid descent from sporting hero to sporting zero may not have occurred.

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

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At CVI Scotland we are devoted to helping people understand cerebral visual impairments, and together working towards developing the understanding of this complex condition.