Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an extremely common disorder, with between 5-11% of people having ADHD. With even higher prevalence within sport, we aim to look at why this is, and how athletes with ADHD gain the cutting edge.
To do so, I have enlisted the help of one Duncan Bagshaw. Duncan is a former professional golfer and is now a trained coach and counsellor specialising in ADHD coaching. Duncan was diagnosed with ADHD in 2017 at the age of 44. Following his diagnosis Duncan conducted detailed research in to successful ADHD individuals and discovered that they all had environments tailored to their specific strengths. This led to the creation of ADHD fitness, a service developed by Duncan specialising in ADHD coaching, aiding those with ADHD to live healthier, happier, and more successful lives.
Check out ADHD Fitness for more information.
So, who better to collaborate with on an article about ADHD in sport?
The following article will be written by both myself (Jake Hopkinson) and the aforementioned Duncan Bagshaw.
What is ADHD?
This following section was headed by Duncan Bagshaw, with his wealth of knowledge and life experience living with ADHD, it was only correct that he directed the following sections.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a neurological disorder that impacts the areas of the brain that aid planning, focusing, and executing tasks. People with ADHD may seem restless, may struggle concentrating and may act upon impulse.
When you mention ADHD everyone typically thinks of the unruly child (usually a boy) bouncing off walls that cannot be controlled. The truth is very different! I was diagnosed late in life at 44 after working in Sports Coaching and Education for 20 years and at first did not believe my diagnosis as I held the same view.
In its simplest form it is described as overactive, impulsive behaviour where someone has an inability to concentrate effectively.
Again, this is far from the truth, ADHD is actually an abundance of attention, we are so aware of what is going on around us that we have difficulty focusing on one thing, unless it is something massively important to us, in which case we can be locked on to that particular activity for hours on end. The big issue is that we have little control on what it is we become focused on!
This is just the tip of a very large iceberg; the nuances of the condition mean that each individual will have a complex myriad of characteristics that influence their behaviour and abilities.
There are 3 official diagnoses for ADHD:
Hyperactive- an excess of restlessness, overreaction and impulsive.
Inattentive- difficulty concentrating, short attention span, problems with planning.
Combined- Symptoms from both the above.
When described like this it sounds like a terrible condition to have and for many it is incredibly debilitating and frustrating but if we reframe it and look for positives, there are many advantages to be taken from ADHD especially within the sporting arena.
Traits such as hyperfocus, resilience, boundless energy, creativity, hyper awareness of situations and sensitivity to others are all key elements to being successful on and off the sports field.
ADHD and Sport
Many young people with ADHD are drawn to sports or directed to sports to manage ADHD symptoms. ADHD has been shown to be more common in athletes than in the general population.
The world is not short of successful ADHD sports stars, the greatest Olympian in history Michael Phelps, the most iconic basketball player of all time Michael Jordan, double US Masters Champion Bubba Watson, multiple gymnastics world champion Simone Biles, to name a few, and there are countless more examples out there diagnosed and undiagnosed. So why is this? Why is sport such a perfect arena for ADHD?
The answer I believe is to be found in the atmosphere sport creates… Sport provides constant stimulation and creative opportunity within a safe structure which is the perfect combination and environment for ADHD brains to thrive in.
I know that I could never have been a professional golfer without my ADHD, I was fascinated by the game, the endless possibilities and creative opportunities. l learn best by doing and copying so I would watch the top players and mimic their techniques, I would spend hours on end hitting balls and perfecting my technique. When it came to big moments in competitions and matches it seemed to me that everything slowed down and I could play the required shot and get the results I required. Conversely, if there was no pressure or challenge during a competition or match, I would struggle to maintain focus and make silly errors. If things were too easy, I’d struggle to stay in the moment but if the pressure was on and it was a tight game, I could see nothing but the shot required to win.
Talking to other ADHD sportsmen they too recognise the sensation of everything slowing down and having an ability to visualise or see a pass or play before it has been made, often having pictures in their head showing the positions of teammates and opponents.
ADHD and Performance Psychology
Duncan gives a great insight into what ADHD is and how it can impact sporting ability. From a performance psychology perspective there is much we can learn from what Duncan has said.
ADHD is so prevalent within sport, so how might this impact how a performance psychologist or a coach works with an individual? Below I will detail some factors to consider when working with athletes with ADHD including, organisation, motivation, routines and impulsivity.
Overall, those with ADHD may struggle to cope with arousal levels during an event. The old cliché of ‘they are either on or off’ may be a factor here. Those with ADHD have an all or nothing mentality and therefore arousal levels can be fluctuating even during a match. Duncan demonstrates this perfectly, explaining how his arousal and motivation can mediate during a round of golf. When he perceived a shot as easy, his arousal levels would drop and his focus deplete, causing a worse shot. Duncan finds it much easier to maintain focus and arousal on a more difficult shot during his round. So how within performance psychology and as coaches can we work with this and use it to gain an advantage?
Firstly, the idea that ADHD athletes are either ‘on or off’ can be of benefit. We must just tap into that ‘on’, and we can unlock the potential they have. In theory, if we balance the scales and apply the ‘on’ much more than the ‘off’, then we will have a phenomenal athlete on our hands. If we can engage with the times when Duncan is hyper focused and replicate them, he will show the consistency he craves. To begin this process, motivation can be implemented as a tool to mediate arousal.
Motivation and reward are also key aspects that ADHD athletes may also struggle with. As a performance psychologist, maintaining motivation will be a key aspect of any work with an ADHD athlete, particularly when managing arousal. Motivation is a puzzling conundrum with ADHD, how can a person be so motivated for one thing, yet so unmotivated for another that they view as equally important? ADHD motivation is not affected by willpower, or external motivation, and is primarily powered by intrinsic motivation. When an ADHD athlete views a task as interesting to them their chemistry in the brain changes, they can be up for something immediately, and that switch turns ‘on’. This process however is not voluntary to the individual. From a psychological point of view, this means that any motivational work with the athlete must bear this in mind. Intrinsic motivators will be what an ADHD athlete can identify with, therefore we must use them. Motivators such as enjoyment, purpose and growth are way more important for an ADHD athlete than trophies or prizes.
Routines and process are a key part of sport and something that is regularly focused upon with performance psychology. So why is routine and process important, and specifically to an ADHD athlete? Research has shown that routines, used specifically in closed skill environments (such as golf), can cause enhances in performance. A routine can be used to control the environment around, providing stability to an otherwise chaotic environment. For a person with ADHD, all the stimuli in the environment are enhanced, that heightened awareness may distract their attention to a plane above, or a noise in the distance. Routines will allow an athlete to create triggers to enhance concentration, focus and decrease anxiety in these situations. With an example such as Duncan’s, ensuring he completes the same pre shot routine before each golf shot, negates the thought process of it being an easy shot. This technique allows the ADHD athlete to battle with those inconsistencies that may occur in their thought processes.
Athletes with ADHD may also struggle with planning and organisation. As an athlete becomes more elite, the emphasis put onto structure and organisation only increases. As a player reaches the first team, he is expected to train more, and attend more meetings for example. It is therefore vital that ADHD athletes are aided in this planning and structure. As a performance psychologist or coach this will include creating detailed and easy to understand plans for the athletes. ADHD athletes also benefit from variety and interest in their plans; therefore, it is vital to work with the athlete to create plans and allow time for variety and interest within their training. If possible, it is important to include free training with ADHD athletes, where they can be impulsive and show off their skills. This will avoid any feelings of ‘Groundhog Day’ throughout their training, a common phrase used by ADHD athletes.
Positives of ADHD in Sport
Now we know what ADHD is, and how to work with athletes with ADHD within our field, it is now vital that we educate with the positives of ADHD in sport. As Duncan has previously stated, a huge number of extremely successful athletes have ADHD, so why is it a benefit to them? Below are 10 reasons as to why ADHD is beneficial to sportsmen, and the list is by no means exhaustive.
- Hyper focus – As mentioned previously by Duncan, those with ADHD have a fantastic focus on particular objectives. They can become so engrossed in a subject that nothing can compete with the focus they have in that time. Consequently, when their mind is on the task, they can accomplish much more, much faster.
- Commitment/Perseverance – Those with ADHD must work twice as hard as those around them to achieve an objective sometimes. This is not necessarily a negative, it builds up a tough resilience and determination inside. Those with ADHD will do anything to achieve the goals they set themselves.
- Automaticity/Impulsivity – Those with ADHD thrive on impulsivity. Split-second decisions are their forte. These decisions can lead to winning or losing. A previous blog of mine with Liverpool.com spoke in depth about automaticity in sport. It is such a vital skill at the elite level and cannot be overlooked.
- Ingenuity – ADHD effects how the brain functions. Those with ADHD think in a different way, and that is okay! This allows people with ADHD to have a different look at problems and come up with exciting and ingenious solutions.
- Risk Taking – Using their sense of hyper focus, those with ADHD are willing to push through any barriers to get the job done. They are not afraid to take certain risks, and in turn may persevere when others saw it impossible.
- Creativity – People with ADHD are often highly intelligent and creative individuals. The ingenuity and forward thinking previously mentioned can be key skills in being a creative individual.
- Unlimited Energy – You will not find someone with ADHD struggling for energy any time soon! People with ADHD have the inherent ability to just keep going. This abundance of energy is often misunderstood in childhood but can be an excellent tool, specifically in sport.
- Contagious Motivation – As described in the article, when an individual with ADHD is motivated, they are motivated like no other. This is contagious, within team sports, having a highly motivated individual will only spur on those around them more.
- Acceptance – Those with ADHD experience the world in a different way, this leads them to be accepting of those around them. ADHD allows an individual to accept the strengths and struggles of those around them. This is a vital skill in elite sport, developing team cohesion and team dynamics.
- Situational Awareness – Perhaps the biggest advantage for fast moving, reactive sports. ADHD brains are wired to take in and process information at great speed due to the hyper awareness of what’s occurring in the environment around them. When that ability is harnessed effectively it acts almost like a sixth sense, individuals can see opportunities and challenges that split second before others which is a tremendous asset especially in sports such as rugby, football, or basketball. To those watching it will look like an ability to read the play or game but often the individual won’t know that they see things quicker or differently.
A large thanks to Duncan Bagshaw for bringing this article together, it would not have been possible without him. Please check out his website:
To conclude, ADHD should be welcomed, especially within sport. There are so many reasons for which ADHD is beneficial and we have only just scratched the surface. Perhaps we should begin to view ADHD not as a detriment, but in fact as a benefit.