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Turning Negatives into Positives:
How sporting success can change the public perception of ADHD 



Individuals with ADHD, struggle through their lives, often being viewed as lazy or badly behaved. The public discourse on ADHD is strongly affected by accusations that it is merely an excuse for bad parenting, poor academic results and antisocial conduct. ADHD children and adults who display symptoms of hyperactivity, inattentiveness and impulsiveness are frequently misunderstood as choosing to act in this way. Much of the British media and prominent individuals have compounded this view. This has a direct effect on people seeking help with ADHD who often have to tackle sceptical or disinterested GPs who may know little about the condition other than what they’re told in the media.

However one way in which the general population can gain a greater understanding of ADHD, is through high profile individuals who have the condition. One estimate suggests that eight to ten percent of professional athletes have ADHD, compared to four to five percent of the adult population more generally. The success of athletes like Michael Phelps and Louis Smith, who have been diagnosed, might be one way in which the “troublemaker” image of people with ADHD can be challenged. So can successful athletes with the condition change the public perception and understanding of ADHD?

Louis Smith, who has won three Olympic medals including Britain’s first individual gymnastics medal in 100 years, has spoken positively about his ADHD symptoms, claiming that they had helped him in his career. Smith, who came out of retirement to win bronze at the pommel horse finals in Glasgow this year, found that gymnastics was an outlet for his abundance of energy. Canadian rower who won gold for Canada in Beijing, Adam Kreek has also spoken of harnessing the “incredible” and “positive” energy of ADHD, rejecting the idea that the condition has to be seen as a negative infliction. Similarly to Louis Smith, Ashley McKenzie and Michael Phelps, Kreek found his chosen sport could be an “outlet” to controlling his ADHD. In Michael Phelps’ case, as a child, his teacher told his mother that he would never be able to concentrate on anything. However Phelps, who took up swimming to burn off excess energy was able to sit for four hours at swimming meetings, waiting to compete in races lasting only minutes, despite being unable to focus in school.

Judo star Ashley McKenzie struggled at school, failing to gain any qualifications and never had had a job, prior to his athletic career. At aged 11, McKenzie was placed in a young offenders’ institute. However the athlete who has triumphed at the Glasgow Commonwealth games, winning a gold medal for England in judo under 60kg remarked that he would not “swap” his success in Judo, “for any GCSEs.” McKenzie has emphasised the fact that children with ADHD, who have issues with academic work at school, should be allowed to channel their energies into other activities they find most rewarding. McKenzie said, “I’m not saying they shouldn’t study, but there are different ways of communicating with kids with ADHD.” In this respect McKenzie says he aims to be seen as a positive role model despite his difficulties at school and with his family.

It is believed that many more athletes keep quiet about their ADHD or remain undiagnosed. However the prominence of successful individuals in areas like sport, may be the way to challenging the stigmas attached to the condition. The example of someone like Michael Phelps (who is probably the most famous person in the world with ADHD), can be used to show that an ADHD child does not have to be written off as a “naughty,” child who is the result of bad parenting. Rather, with support from others, the condition can be turned into a positive, where children and adults can encouraged to focus on their area of competence, with the success that that brings.

By postgraduate student with ADHD and ASD studying political science and history.

Published date: Friday 12th of September 2014 


Links - Specific sources of quotes given below: 


Source on percentage of athletes with ADHD

Source on McKenzie quotes

Source on Louis Smith quotes




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