One Friday morning, on a cold playing field, sixth-former Adam Black was facing his worst nightmare. Surrounded by the group of 11-year-olds he was meant to be coaching, he was struggling to tell them his name.
‘I tried to say “A” but it wouldn’t come out,’ recalls Adam, now 20. ‘To my huge embarrassment, all I could manage was “John”. They knew my name wasn’t John. But I didn’t have a problem saying “J” and it was the best I could manage.
‘I walked off that pitch feeling the lowest I’ve felt: I was meant to be going to college to study sports coaching, how could I possibly think of that when my stammer was so bad I couldn’t say my own name?’
Stammering is a major problem with about half a million Britons affected. Their stammers vary widely – some struggle to pronounce just one letter of the alphabet, others stretch out a sound in a word, or repeat a sound or syllable.
The cause is not known although there’s thought to be a genetic link, altering speech activity in the brain.
And last week, U.S. researchers found that about 10 per cent of cases might be caused by an inherited glitch in the way fats and carbohydrates are metabolised in the brain.
However, like many sufferers, Adam had no family history of the problem. It started when he was a toddler and, by the age of six, he was aware he spoke ‘differently’.
‘Quite quickly I worked out all the little tricks and techniques stammerers have,’ he says. ‘Rather than use a word which started with a, b, c, g or s – my bogey letters – I would use other words.
‘But my hometown was Giffnock, near Glasgow, so I dreaded anyone asking me my name or where I lived. Often I would pay extra on the bus just so I could say the name of the following stop which began with ‘ch’.
‘I was lucky because I had good friends who spoke for me, but there were times when I couldn’t escape my stammer and felt really humiliated. I also missed out on so much, such as drama or debating. I rarely put my hand up to answer questions and I hated using the phone.
‘I had a couple of girlfriends, but it was a huge strain to instigate conversations. I threw myself into sport and music, where I didn’t have to speak.’
Adam had treatment from a variety of speech therapists and elocution experts. ‘The therapy consisted of asking how I was progressing; about any good or bad days I’d had that week,’ says Adam.
‘Then I’d read aloud and the therapist would tell me to pronounce each word. Others got me to memorise passages of words; a few told me to take deep breaths.’
Singer Gareth Gates (l) and actor Bruce Willis have struggled with stutters
‘I’d talk well with the therapist because I felt relaxed, and would leave with high hopes. But as soon as I was back in the real world, my stammer would return.’
That moment on the football field was a turning point. Adam agreed to try a course his parents had heard about at church. He hasn’t looked back. ‘I know it sounds a cliche, but going on that course changed my life,’ he says.
The McGuire programme is an intensive, four-day course devised nearly 20 years ago. As highlighted in a documentary on Channel 4 this Friday, it’s not for the fainthearted.
Closeted away and paired with a ‘recovered’ stammerer, the client can talk to no one but their coach.
‘You can never “cure” a stammer. Instead the goal is to enable the stammerer to talk fluently’
They’re taught physical techniques such as deep breathing and to practise eye contact to build up self-confidence.
Great emphasis is placed on the psychological aspect of stammering, talking about the fear of speaking and how to overcome it.
Finally the stammerer is sent out to speak to 100 strangers, asking directions or the time.
For many stammerers this would be a nightmare, yet the programme claims an 80 per cent success rate.
Adam was one such success. ‘The moment my coach started to talk I could see what he had achieved. Within 24 hours I was talking without a stammer, too.
‘The day I spoke to 100 people was incredible. I couldn’t believe I was doing it. Three years on I’m still speaking fluently, I love to chat on the phone and still get a kick out of asking for directions.’
So how does it work? The programme has four key elements, explains Dave McGuire, its architect and a stammerer for 40 years.
‘We deal with the psychology of stammering,’ he says. “It’s the fear of stammering that’s the problem, not the stammer itself. After years of negative responses from others about your way of speaking, your brain develops all sorts of compensatory tricks, such as switching words to avoid your “bad letters”.
‘If you can just accept your stammer is part of you, and not shameful, your brain can begin to relax.
Another key aspect is breathing. ‘Stammerers are often so tense they forget to breathe properly. We teach breathing from the lower diaphragm, the technique used by opera singers and wind instrument players.
‘If you breathe deeply you’re forced to relax. So your vocal cords relax, as do your tongue and lips and it’s easier to talk fluently.’
The other two components of the programme are a sports psychology approach, which includes constant practice, and using former stammerers as coaches.
‘This is partly so you can see what they have achieved, but also because, unlike most speech therapists, they understand exactly what you’re going through,’ explains McGuire.
‘You can never “cure” a stammer. Instead the goal is to enable the stammerer to talk fluently.’
The theory is that at any time of the day or night the stammerer can phone for help if they relapse – as Adam did six weeks after finishing the course. ‘I was getting complacent; I was tired, I’d stopped doing my breathing exercises,’ he says.
‘I went into a supermarket to buy sugar. Suddenly, I couldn’t say the word “sugar”, I was stuttering and avoiding eye contact. I was right back where I started.
‘I left the shop in a terrible state and immediately called my coach. He went through my exercises, sent me back into the shop to ask for sugar and I did so successfully.
‘Now I make sure I do my breathing exercises every morning, and to practise speaking I call friends in my lunch break. It’s a life-long commitment, but worth it.’
However, the programme has its critics. Jan Logan, of the City Lit centre for adult stammering therapy in London, argues that while it works for some, the effort might prove too much for many.
‘You have to maintain that level of concentration in your breathing and speech all the time,’ she says.
‘And because it encourages people to speak as much as possible, you often end up with an almost unnatural way of speaking, although sometimes this does improve.’
She says the conventional approach, known as ‘stammer more fluently’ – trying techniques such as ‘sliding over’ a word – ‘results in a more natural way of speaking.’
Cost is another issue – the four-day McGuire course fee is £700.
There are also questions about the lack of scientific evidence for the programme. But as Norbert Lieckfeldt, chief executive of the British Stammering Association, points out, this doesn’t mean it’s ineffective.
‘There is no scientific evidence that deep breathing, as practised by McGuire, helps the mechanics of speech, although it probably helps the client to relax, and if you’re relaxed it is easier to overcome your stammer.’
‘But McGuire has been useful for a lot of people and we are pleased that it offers another choice.’
But Adam Black has no doubts about the programme. ‘I am now having interviews for a teacher training course,’ he says.
‘There’s no a chance I’d even have considered such a career in the bad old days.’