What every coach needs to know about ADHD & athletes
Updated: Dec 11, 2022
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD affects 3-5% of children and 2% of adults, but these rates may be even higher in athletes. Some of the World’s most successful athletes are known to have ADHD, including for example:
Michael Phelps (swimmer)
Louis Smith (gymnast)
Bubba Watson (golfer)
Simone Biles (gymnast)
Ashley Mckenzie (judo)
and Adam Creek (rower).
Given how common ADHD is in athletes, it is important for every coach to better understand neurodiversity, or the different ways human brains may function, and the effects of ADHD. This knowledge is not only important for coaches, but anyone in the sporting support network of athletes (e.g., managers, teammates, captains and nutritionists).
This post is the first in a new series on the SPRINT project website. It will focus on what ADHD is, how to recognise its symptoms and outlines key benefits of participating in sport for people with ADHD. This understanding will help coaches to better support their athletes with ADHD to reach their full potential and experience positive mental health.
First, let’s take a closer look at what neurodiversity means. Neurodiversity is a way of describing the human brain and its differences compared to the ‘typical’ human brain. Known as neurotypical, humans have invented this concept to identify what is ‘normal’ in human society. Those that do not fit into this ‘norm’ are referred to as neurodiverse. It explains differences in the wiring of the brain and therefore its functioning which can be displayed as behaviours. Examples of neurodiverse conditions include: autism, ADHD, ADD, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
But what exactly is attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? The main symptoms of ADHD are listed in the below table (adapted from: NHS). It is important to remember that not everyone who has these symptoms will have ADHD and a diagnosis must be made by a qualified medical professional.
Symptoms of inattentiveness
Symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsiveness
Short attention span
Difficulty with organization and time management
Answering questions before they have been asked
Difficulty completing time consuming tasks
Difficulty following instructions
Often changes tasks
Not thinking before acting
Difficulty blocking out thoughts and environmental stimuli including noises, conversations or visual stimuli
Act as if ‘driven by a motor’
But ADHD is a misunderstood and complex condition, not helped by its name. The name suggests that all individuals experience the same symptoms, have a deficit in attention, and are hyperactive. Calling it a disorder implies that all the symptoms of ADHD are negative.
However, not everyone with ADHD will experience all symptoms or show them in the same way. Also, there are far more symptoms than the name suggests. For example, there are said to be 3 main ‘types of ADHD’:
Predominantly inattentive: also referred to as attention deficit disorder (ADD)
Predominantly hyperactive and impulsive
Combined – inattentive, hyperactive and impulsive
These different types of ADHD help to explain the most significant symptoms that an individual experiences.
Finally, ADHD is not a disorder, no matter what type we are talking about. In fact, there are positive and negative aspects to it, as there are to all personality traits. For example:
ADHD symptom: Act as if 'driven by a motor'
Positives: Can achieve many tasks in a day, and comes across as enthusiasm
Negatives: Can be exhausting for the individual
ADHD symptom: Often changes tasks
Positives: Can work on many things and tasks at the same time
Negatives: Can become overwhelming for the individual, and can result in tasks taking a long time to complete
But wait, isn’t it only children who experience ADHD?
ADHD is often thought of as a childhood condition. There is a myth that people will ‘grow out of it.’ This is not true. The condition does continue into adulthood, but the symptoms may appear differently to those of a child.
For example, this table (adapted from: I Have ADHD) shows additional symptoms and behaviours that are not always discussed or seen. These may be more common in adults than in children.
Examples of behaviours
Impulsivity: there is no “stop and think”
Distractibility: paying attention to too many things at once
Seeking gratification: Seeking instant gratification rather than long-term rewards
Restlessness: hyperactivity as a child, but it may look different in adulthood
Time blindness: lack of awareness of time
Emotional dysregulation: difficulty managing emotions
Poor working memory: Difficulty keeping things in the mind long enough to accomplish a task
Difficulty with organization: lack of method or system in life
Task initiation & completion:difficulty starting overwhelming, hard or boring tasks, but difficulty finishing them once they’ve been started
Limited ability to self-reflect: difficulty assessing progress, learning from the past, or planning for the future
Masking means that these symptoms may not be seen to the outside world.
Masking is the actions individuals take to hide ADHD symptoms to feel that they are a better fit in society.
ADHD is a hidden disability and can be further concealed by individuals masking their symptoms. It can be exhausting and can contribute to mental health issues.
So now that we have looked more closely at what AHDH is and how it might affect a person’s behaviour, what does all of this mean for the world of sport and exercise?
Sport & Exercise and ADHD
The importance and benefits of sport & exercise for those with ADHD
Sport and exercise can provide benefits for all humans but can be particularly beneficial for those with ADHD. Being physically active increases two chemicals (known as neurotransmitters) in the brain called dopamine and norepinephrine. It has been suggested that individuals with ADHD have a shortage of both.
Dopamine helps with emotional regulation and feeling pleasure whilst norepinephrine helps with concentration and paying attention. Therefore, sport and exercise can help with various ADHD symptoms including focus and emotional regulation, and the behaviours associated with these. Sport and exercise can also help athletes with ADHD to manage restlessness and excess energy.
Besides from chemicals, sport is an important way to build confidence in those with ADHD. Many have low self-esteem due to struggles in the education system or at work, negative consequences of their behaviours, and exhaustion from masking. This is because most of society is not accommodating for ADHD because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the condition. Sport serves as a much-needed confidence boost for those struggling in this ‘neurotypical’ world.
As you can see, there are many benefits of sport and exercise - not only for athletes, but importantly for non-athletes with ADHD, too. Conclusion and further resources
This post has highlighted some of the biggest misconceptions surrounding ADHD, and how the name contributes to this misunderstanding. It has explained the main symptoms of ADHD, and how these may be different in adulthood. This will help coaches to better to understand athletes with ADHD, and why they may behave in the way that they do. This is important because of the significant role coaches play in the lives of their athletes, the wide reach of sport, and the number of individuals with ADHD.
We have also seen how sport and exercise produce many benefits for managing the symptoms of ADHD. What is needed now is action to make sport a more inclusive environment for those with ADHD.
This post should spark further discussion and motivate those in the sporting environment to better understand neurodiversity, including ADHD. This will move us a step closer to making society more accommodating for those with ADHD and other neurodiverse conditions, to improve their quality of life.
In the next post we will discuss:
the benefits of ADHD symptoms in a sporting context
difficulties that an athlete with ADHD might face
and practical recommendations for those in the sporting network to support athletes with ADHD to perform optimally and experience positive mental health.
Bio: This post was written by Kirsty Brown, an MSc by Research student in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham. Her research interests include mental health stigma, student athlete mental health, and mental health help-seeking in athletes.
Here are some resources used in this blog post if you want to read more:
ADHD Project Subgroup CAMHS Advisory Group. (2018). Delivering effective services for children and young people with ADHD: Good practice guidance for commissioners and service providers across Greater Manchester. https://www.england.nhs.uk/north-west/wp-content/uploads/sites/48/2019/03/GM-wide-ADHD-guidance.pdf
ADHD UK. (n.d.). About ADHD. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://adhduk.co.uk/about-adhd/
Barkham, P. (2012, August 1). What can athletes with ADHD teach us about the condition? https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/aug/01/athletes-with-adhd
BBC News. (2016, September 14). Simone Biles “not ashamed” and “not afraid” as Russian hackers reveal ADHD treatment - BBC News. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-37361676
Cassata, C. (2015, December 11). What is norepinephrine? https://www.everydayhealth.com/norepinephrine/guide/
Coach Brock Bourgase. (2014, July). Coaching student-athletes with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). https://bourgase.com/teaching/special-education/adhd/
Duggal, N. (2021, September 1). Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): The role of dopamine. https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/adhd-dopamine
Everill, B. (2021, June 18). Bubba Watson opens up about mental health struggles. https://www.pgatour.com/long-form/2021/02/16/bubba-watson-opens-up-mental-health-struggles-adhd-anxiety.html
Hattenstone, S. (2017, May 6). Nicola Adams: ‘I jumped in front of my mother and tried to protect her’ . https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/may/06/nicola-adams-i-jumped-in-front-of-my-mother-and-tried-to-protect-her
I Have ADHD. (n.d.). A breakdown of adult ADHD symptoms. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://ihaveadhd.com/adult-adhd-symptoms/
Moodcafe. (n.d.). A coach’s guide to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://www.moodcafe.co.uk/media/43280/A Coach’s Guide to ADHD.pdf
NHS. (2018). Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/attention-deficit-hyperactivity-disorder-adhd/symptoms/
PTS coaching. (2019, September 19). Helping kids with ADHD thrive in sports. https://ptscoaching.com/2019/09/helping-kids-with-adhd-thrive-in-sports/
Wake Forest University. (n.d.). What is neurodiversity? Definition and resources for teachers, counselors and schools. Retrieved October 18, 2021, from https://counseling.online.wfu.edu/blog/what-is-neurodiversity/
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Braun, R., & Braun, B. (2014). Managing the challenges of hidden disabilities in youth sport: A look at SLD, ADHD, and ASD through the sport psychology lens. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 6(1), 28–43. https://doi.org/10.1080/21520704.2014.991051
Ekman, E., Hiltunen, A., & Gustafsson, H. (2021). Do athletes have more of a cognitive profile with ADHD criteria than non-athletes? MDPI, 9(5), 61. https://doi.org/10.3390/SPORTS9050061
Franke, B., Michelini, G., Asherson, P., Banaschewski, T., Bilbow, A., Buitelaar, J. K., Cormand, B., Faraone, S. V., Ginsberg, Y., Haavik, J., Kuntsi, J., Larsson, H., Lesch, K. P., Ramos-Quiroga, J. A., Réthelyi, J. M., Ribases, M., & Reif, A. (2018). Live fast, die young? A review on the developmental trajectories of ADHD across the lifespan. European Neuropsychopharmacology, 28(10), 1059–1088. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.EURONEURO.2018.08.001
Ng, Q. X., Ho, C. Y. X., Chan, H. W., Yong, B. Z. J., & Yeo, W. S. (2017). Managing childhood and adolescent attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with exercise: A systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 34, 123–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.CTIM.2017.08.018
Pagani, L. S., Harbec, M. J., Fortin, G., & Barnett, T. A. (2020). Childhood exercise as medicine: Extracurricular sport diminishes subsequent ADHD symptoms. Preventive Medicine, 141, 106256. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.YPMED.2020.106256
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