A positive story about NLD and sports

So, this is my second article on Medium. My first article was a rather technical one about mining Bitcoins and Ethereum and how you could do it. Since then, I’ve been thinking about what I should write next. Another technical explanation about computer-stuff? An analysis about the evolvement of the cryptocurrency-market five years from now?

No. This story will be about something completely different.

Something I have to get off my chest. Something I want everyone to know. I hope this article will encourage you to do the same: trying out something new, not knowing where it will get you in the end.

You see, I have NLD. NLD stands for Non Verbal Learning disorder and it’s a not very well known neurological disorder which has quite an impact on the different aspects of my life. I got diagnosed with NLD a few years ago and since then I’ve been reading all about it. Now I know NLD has been the giant missing piece of my own puzzle. I will explain my personal experience with NLD below.

Generally, people who have NLD have problems on at least one of these four aspects below:

  • Visual-spacial skills;
  • Motor skills;
  • Social skills;
  • Slow processing speed of new information or new situations.

Let us begin with the visual-spacial skills. Visual-spacial skills are skills related to yourself and the world around you. Stuff like calculation of distance between you and an object, the size of the object, depth perception, recognizing faces, … I refer to it as me having a troublesome relationship with the “object world”, as if the “object world” has something against me. I drop things, run into people or other objects, or I’m just being clumsy in general. Looking for my keys can be quite a challenge, even if they are right in front of me. It’s something like this:

This (adapted) picture is from http://www.fowllanguagecomics.com/

I remember I once placed a coffee cup on a table. I somehow must have made a mistake, because once I let the cup go, it fell right off the table, crashing on the floor in bits and pieces. Somehow I miscalculated the distance between myself and the table. At first I didn’t really know what happened, but after that I had a pretty good laugh with myself!

I have bad motor skills. I’m clumsy, had a real hard time learning to ride a bike, and buttoning my shirt always went haywire one way or another. My handwriting has always been terrible, which gave me plenty of trouble in school and sometimes it still does. People say I walk funny. From my own perspective I walk normal, but others tell me I have a penguin walk of some sort. My wife likes to imitate it when she’s messing around with me (like, about half of the times we are together…) She’s the only one who’s permitted to do it though!

Next in line are the social skills. I consider the lack of social skills the biggest problem related to NLD. NLD folks have a hard time to participate in social interactions. Basic stuff like listening to others and talking in return and interpreting social cues can go wrong. NLD folks have a hard time to read non verbal signs, which happen around 65% of the time in a typical conversation. By not reading or understanding them, we miss parts of the conversation, which is a shame without a doubt. I’ve lost count of the odd remarks I made during conversations with friends or colleagues, or the times I used foul humor because I don’t always seem to know when it’s appropriate to say stuff or what to say or not. As I already stated, I’ve learned A LOT since I know I have NLD, so I actually got better and better at being social. But it will probably never be the same as a so called neurotypical person.

Next and last in line is the slow processing speed of new information. I like to compare this aspect with the processor of a computer ( I guess we’ll get technical after all…) The best way I can explain this problem is via an anecdote. It happened a few years ago, but I can still remember it like it was yesterday:

A long time ago I was part of a group who organized LAN-parties from time to time. We always had a good time together but there was one guy in there who always liked to bug the others by making stupid remarks about them, mostly meant as a stupid joke of some sort. So once I was a tad too late for a meeting with these folks and when I came into the room he said: “Hey guys, look at that, the 486 of the group has arrived!”. Everyone was in tears from laughter. I was red from anger. A 486 is an old computer processor which was used in the 90’s which has really slow processing speed in comparison of other processors back in the time of his remark. There goes my promise I made about saying no technical stuff…

When someone tries to explain something to me, or when something changes in a certain situation, I have a hard time to “update” this in my mind, and understand all the consequences of this event. Like for example, at work, when my boss tells me a certain colleague is sick, it might happen I still try to call him or her 10 minutes after I got that information. It’s like new information needs a while before it reaches my brain. That’s one of the reasons why I seriously dislike changes or completely new situations. It takes up a lot of processing time and I also need lots of time to get used to the new situation, trying not to make mistakes in the process.

OK, so now we’ve had a general overlook about NLD and what it is all about in my case. Now it’s time to get to the clue of my story, which is not only about NLD. Let’s turn this story into something positive!

There is a certain myth about people with NLD. This myth is about that NLD folks are not good at sports due to all the sorts of shortcomings I explained above. Well, I’m here, doing an attempt to debunk that myth. I myself have been playing wheelchair-hockey for about 15 years now. It’s a team sport which brings all four aspects explained above together into one great sport. I started playing it in 2002 at a secondary school for kids with special needs. One of the supervisors back then told me it looked like I had strong arms and asked me if I wouldn’t like to start playing wheelchair-hockey. After seeing a training session I told I wanted to give the whole thing a shot, not knowing what I actually got myself into.

I started playing recreational wheelchair-hockey and I really sucked at the beginning. I had to learn how to drive with a manual wheelchair, holding the stick in my hand and trying to hit the hockeyball, all at the same time. Also, I had to look at my teammates, my own position on the field, learning and playing by the rules… All those things at the same time. It happened more than once that I accidentally dropped my stick, or fell out of my wheelchair among other stuff. It was a real challenge for my patience sometimes. Things started going better though and after one year the coach asked me to join the players who also played in the Dutch competition. The real deal!

Well, recreational hockey was nothing compared to this. I was dropped in a team with people who had a lot more experience than I did, of which some had a physical disability but were playing so damn well! They were great guys, but they also came down on me more than once. “You’re not quick enough”, “You should have scored that goal”, “Your positional is totally wrong, man!”. There were multiple times when I thought I should quit and leave them all be.

But I didn’t, and I’m damn happy about it.

Somehow all those remarks made me stronger and made me wanting to do better. I really had to push my limits. Trying to think faster. Trying to be faster, trying to get my coordination right… It’s hard though, you have to learn to “read” the game, pass the ball, be at a good position on the field, trying to guess what an opponent player will do… Lots and lots of stuff at the same time. It’s a real challenge for people who have problems with motor skills, visual-spacial skills and only a 486 in their heads. Not to forget the social skills, because you have to interact with your teammates and the coach. Learn how to deal with defeat, learn to deal with being pulled out of the game to sit on the bench, stuff like that. I think I pulled the social part off pretty good, looking where I was on the social part all those years ago. Somehow playing wheelchair-hockey has made me work a great deal on my shortcomings.

Sometimes I did wonder: why am I doing this? I could be sitting on my couch this very own moment, being at my own, not being flamed at for another mistake in the game. But somehow I just kept going. This sport gave and still gives me a lot of confidence and satisfaction.

After a few years of playing in the regular competition the team decided to participate in the first international wheelchairhockey-tournament in the Czech Republic in 2007. It was a “first experience” for everyone. The game itself was a lot different from what we were used to at home. It was the Scandinavian form of wheelchair-hockey, which is called Floorball. The field is a lot bigger, the goals are smaller and the game was with 6 players per team instead of 5. And I won’t mention the differences between the rules between the two types of hockey. So yeah, some more work for the 486-processor, which was already overheating from time to time :) We were competing against other teams like Sweden, Czech Republic, Germany and The Netherlands.

We were not used to that kind of game-play, neither were The Netherlands and Germany. I do believe though we ended last in the league.

Since then I had a few more international competitions in The Netherlands and last year (2016) in Switzerland. We ended on 4th place with 9 countries in the tournament. You can find some pictures down below of the last year’s tournament and a few others, from earlier years. This year we will be participating again at the so called “Bredagames”, at The Netherlands.

I don’t know how long I will continue to play this game. What I do know is that my sport is a way of showing that you should not let your mental disability stop you from doing the things you like doing, like sports, writing, going into politics,…You just need to find the motivation inside of you and not give up when the struggle is hard. One day you will get there. It will not only make you stronger, but you will also look back at your own achievement and be glad you dit what you did to get there.

Now I’m off to play some more hockey :)

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Feel free to contact me on twitter: @bollaertthomas