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ADHD – Is it Good or Bad for Athletes?

Preserving the benefits of ADHD

Many athletes, whether they are aware of it or not, are coping with ADHD. Some have become world-class stars, such as Michael Phelps, Magic Johnson, Jason Kid, Babe Ruth and many others. According to various researchers, some of the people coping with the syndrome are characterized by creativity, flexibility of thought, ability to deal with chaotic situations and multi-tasking abilities.

Does this mean that the syndrome is a sporting advantage for those who cope with it? not exactly.

ADHD is a syndrome that raises many difficulties for those who deal with it, in all areas of their lives, and sport is no exception. During the post we will see examples of how the syndrome can make it difficult for athletes to fulfill their potential. On the other hand, if you are aware that the athlete is coping with the syndrome, it can be treated in various ways, such as neurocognitive training.

Proper treatment can enable athletes to overcome the typical ADHD symptoms and to express their unique brain patterns on court, so it will become an advantage.

So let's get started and see what it means to be an athlete with ADHD.

Studies suggest that many ADHD children must be on the move. That's why they tend to play sports, and in some cases even excel in it. They do this because the sport provides a response to their unceasing need for movement, and the thrill of competitive sports often serves as a stimulant and focusing agent.

Another reason, unknown to many parents, is the strict discipline demanded by competitive sports. Children with ADHD lack an internal behavior regulator and the external regime they have to obey in order to succeed in sports, is a kind of external menstruation. This regulator has a direct effect on them, because it nourishes their sense of pleasure and self-satisfaction. When this happens, their intrinsic motivation increases miraculously.

The famous athletes I mentioned above have a champions' personality structure and some have also gained unique growth hotbeds. In their case, ADHD became an advantage, which they learned to use. On the other hand, it is not difficult to estimate that for every athlete who has succeeded despite their ADHD, there are dozens who have failed because of their ADHD. ADHD also means attention deficit problems, difficulty in transitions between different attention types and self-control, decision making and organizational skills impairments. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the personality structure and growth incubator that turn ADHD into an advantage.

What do we mean when we talk about ADHD?

First one must examine what ADHD is all about. ADHD is not a lack of attentiveness but, inter alia, inconsistency in attention and inability to pause action, until the brain processes its possible consequences. This is why children with ADHD find it difficult to learn from previous negative experience, and tend to repeat their mistakes. According to Dr. Russell Barkley, a psychiatrist and a global ADHD expert, these children also have a problem with working memory, low linguistic abilities, motivation problems and so forth.

Barkley concludes that these problems stem from a failure of the motor functions in the frontal lobe. He also attributes the difficulty of dealing with distractions to a motor problem, rather than to a sensory problem - as opposed to cases of autism, for example.

According to Barkley, the person coping with ADHD does not absorb more sensory data than other people. But unlike them, he responds to distractions and doesn't manage to ignore them. 'Normal' People manage to suppress responses to irrelevant events and continue to perform the relevant sequence of tasks they intend to do, while ADHD patients fail to do so.

The ADHD swing in sports

Let's look at two typical cases of the effect of ADHD on athletic potential. Consider Moti (a pseudonym), a talented defense soccer player in the Israeli Premier League, who has been coping with ADHD since childhood. As is the case with many athletes, soccer serves as him as a motivational factor, motivates him to work hard and a gives him a lot of satisfaction.

On the other hand, due to his impulsivity component and his difficulty in processing the information before he reacts, Moti's career' progress has stopped, and he shifts between the Premier League and the National League.

Why did it happen? When looking at his ability to function, he is a good player, doing his defensive work. When the pace is high and the opponent's players attack mainly in his defense wing, he appears to be a good and efficient player. However, when the game slows down or after a few minutes in which he is not required to act and be active, he simply leaves his position and goes out to run after an opposing player or joins the attack, sometimes ignoring the coach's instructions.

Aside from the fact that coaches find it hard to accept such a player, the whole team is also hurt. His conduct leads to unnecessary risks in the defense and more than once even to the conceding of goals. When he tries in retrospect to explain his move, he has no explanation related to the requirements of the game. All he says is: "I went crazy, I had to do something already."

What does he mean by, " I had to do something already?" What Moti actually sought was a stimulus that would keep him alert and focused. And when he couldn't find it, he created it himself. His decision to act is, in fact, a personal internal need, which has nothing to do with what is happening on the court.

By the end of the day, his coaches do not know what they will get from him in every game, and remember mainly his mistakes, which led to the conceding of goals. Moti does not need to improve his understanding of the game to be more successful. All he needed was to take care of his ADHD.

My attention went away

Let's look at the second case. Jason (a pseudonym), a basketball player in one of the best youth departments in the country, with whom I work, has good physical and athletic qualities, good shooting ability and in a one-on-one training or in a personal training he functions at a high level. His ADHD did not prevent him from succeeding in school, since his intelligence, his work ethic, and his ability to focus on the goal always helped him reach the goals he was aiming for.

Jason's difficulty was fitting into the team' array, in offence and defense alike. In the team game he is insecure and can't keep up with the team's moves. When he came to me for neurocognitive training, he and his parents defined the problem as a lack of self-confidence. The gap between his personal abilities, his competitive instinct and the nature of his integration into the team, led them to the conclusion that he did not have enough self-confidence. As in many cases of ADHD, what he, his parents and his coach interpreted as self-confidence was true, but was not the source of the problem. The insecurity was a by-product of his real difficulty: the detachments that characterize the ADD from which he suffers.

Jason had always suffered from attention difficulties in his studies, but it did not hurt him. While listening to the coaches' team tactical explanations, however, attention-severing became a critical limitation. The tactical explanations required him to listen and process a great deal of data, and the cognitive overload worsened the disconnections. Although Jason understood the exercise or the move, during the performance he hesitated or encountered a blackout.

Since group basketball moves are built up as a sequence of different players' timed performance, one inaccurate timing usually disrupts the entire move. As a result, Jason became more exposed to the criticism of his friends and coach, and it is no wonder that his self-confidence was damaged. Like every teenager with ADHD, he too felt the gap between his real abilities and his real-time performance, under pressure, a gap that caused him frustration and loss of self-confidence.

Jason's neurocognitive training

This gap began to diminish gradually, as I trained Jason in several overlapping stages:

A. Training of attention and concentration skills, sequential thinking, working memory, retrieval and other general training to improve brain functions and thinking

B. Co-ordination skills training, combined with information processing, response speed, recognition and additional cognitive skills, required in all ball games

C. Cognitive training, integrated with specific basketball skills

The division into three sections was done to obtain simplification. In fact, the training is a cross-training of the three components, moving back and forth between them.

Neurocognitive training focuses on these components – and on attention and concentration skills. Our thinking, it is important to understand, is done in terms of sequence of actions. First we plan the actions and then we execute them. It is clear to us that performing the actions is related to motor functions (motion). What is less obvious is that even in order to plan the actions in the imagination and to process the feelings that this design inspires in us, we need the motor abilities of the brain.

Therefore, it is necessary to combine in the neurocognitive training between work in motion and work on attention and concentration skills, regulation, processing, identification and other impairments, in accordance with the difficulties of each trainee.

"Emotion" comes from "Motion"

Neurocognitive training is based on findings and conclusions of recent brain research. They clarify why neurocognitive training is right and effective for athletes, for those coping with attention disabilities, learning difficulties, dancers, managers and performing artists. Athletes who also cope with attention deficits, gain twice from training - they improve their athletic abilities and as well as their learning abilities, attention abilities and managerial abilities.

I cannot sum-up better than what Dr. John Ratey does in his 'The Brain User Guide':

"Catching a ball has to do with the motor functions of the brain. But calculating has to do with them too. Most people link motor functions to hands and feet and physical activity – a mechanical brain function that causes a toddler to crawl, Michael Jordan to jump to a dunk, or to a dysfunction of the arm of a friend with a stroke. But increased evidence suggests that movement is essential for all other brain functions, including memory, emotion, language, and learning. As we shall find out, the 'higher' brain functions were developed from the motion and still depend on it.

How neurocognitive training applies these brain research insights, you can see in the attached video-clip of Sheran Yeiny's, one of Israel's best soccer players, neurocognitive training. The clip includes several minutes of an hour-long training session.


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