Elite Sports People, Impulsivity and Poor Self Regulation

The Effects of Undiagnosed ADHD Professional Sportspersons

Judie Gade
B.A. (Psychology) ADHD Corporate & Sport Consultant
© 2008, 2010, 2011

Over the past few years, it has become apparent that some elite athletes have problems gaining control over their actions both on, and off, the sports arena. It is well known amongst professionals specialising in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), that the percentage of sports men and women who would be ADHD, would be infinitely higher compared to rates of diagnosis of the general population. More often than not, these individuals will be undiagnosed OR misdiagnosed with another condition, that could be a co-morbidity of ADHD. The problem that many adult, professional athletes have with even contemplating an assessment, is the view that they may be seen as ‘damaged goods’. They may feel that it would hinder their ability to attract lucrative sponsorships thus affecting their earnings. What they don’t see, is being ADHD is actually a gift in sport. Their traits give them an edge over their opposition. Unfortunately, if a person is not treated, or educated about ADHD, it may affect areas in their life, other than on field performance. For example, maintaining monogamous relationships, regulating alcohol consumption, uncontrolled gambling, the taking of illicit drugs or having something infinitely worse happen – a criminal conviction and jail time. These are due to self-regulation and impulsivity issues. If traits, or symptoms, are recognised quickly and assessed, with education and therapy ADHD can be beneficial, and profitable, in how they contribute to society, their club and personally. When club personnel and the athlete are educated about ADHD, it can prove advantageous to professional sporting clubs. If clubs and the individual know what they are dealing with, and ADHD is viewed subjectively from the individual athlete’s personal circumstances, education and strategies can be applied successfully. Each athlete is different, the impacts are personal and cannot be generalised across a population. Australia, being the sporting nation that it is, tends to view our athletes as ‘God-like’, revered by their public. An athlete’s little idiosyncrasies tend to be white-washed, their repeated indiscretions ignored or glossed over, their otherwise illegal activities, such as drug abuse, are forgiven, so long as they perform well in their chosen sport. However, there are athletes who have used their traits with incredible success and would not be viewed in a negative light. Rather, their traits would be admired. For every apparent ‘negative’ trait there is a corresponding ‘positive’ trait. Converting these traits to the positive is what makes athletes stand out, not only on the field but within the community.


ADHD traits in athletics can be an a benefit to an elite sportsperson. The traits associated with elite athletes are:  Impulsive, quick decision making eg. instinctively prejudge what they need to do without even thinking about it. “Act first, think later”. Often they will say something like “I didn’t have time to think, I just did it”. The same applies in war situations and acts of heroism. Distractibility eg. They take in everything and can Risk taking eg. They will go in hard, not afraid of injury. Possibly they will go for goal at an obscure angle that no-one believes is possible. Highly intuitive eg. They will instinctively know where the ball, or their team mate, will be for the most impact on the game. Some would say their ability is ‘freakish’. Ability to hyper-focus eg. On game day, their focus is solely on the ball and their opponent. They will barely hear the crowd. They are in ‘The Zone’. High energy levels eg. Giving more than %100 and maintaining their on field contribution Unwillingness to give up eg. Being beaten by an opponent and fighting back. Total commitment eg. Dedicated to training and diet. Total commitment to the detriment of all else. Obsessive.

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An ADHD athlete’s commitment to their sport may appear extreme and there may be no ‘in-between’. The structure in elite sports suits the ADHD athlete, allowing them to concentrate on their training and performance. They have professionals in different areas, personalising their training, telling them what to do, when to do it. This is similar to military training. In the case of team players, such as Australian Rules Football, Soccer and Rugby, the athlete needs to be easily distracted & impulsive. This means they need to be able to quickly take in what is going on around them and make a snap decision; the ability to act on impulse without a second thought. It is this lateral thinking element that sets these players apart from their peers. They are often the ‘stars’ of the game. ADHD athletes are the ones who seem to appear out of no-where, have the ability to see what a play ‘could be’ and not just ‘what is’ and act on it with precision; the lateral, ‘big picture’ thinkers. They are also often the ones who fall from grace outside the athletic arena or when they are retired. They are also the ones who may take up charitable causes, start their own foundations or apply their traits to entrepreneurial ventures. ADHD has been called the ‘Entrepreneurial” or “Edison” gene. It must be noted that if an athlete is a ‘stand-out’ it does not mean that they are ADHD. However, if the athlete suffers depression issues, has a family history of any of the problems below, then an assessment may be in order. The problems do not go away if the correct diagnosis is not made, and they can exacerbate as these issues can all be co-morbid


conditions with ADHD. ADHD never exists on its own. There is always another associated disorder or learning disability present, such as:        Mental health problems: Compulsive Disorder Depression, Anxiety, Bi-polar Disorder, Obsessive

Alcohol and/or drug abuse – often a result of self-medication. Gambling issues Poor self-regulation away from the team structure: alcohol consumption issues, recreational drugs, sex addiction. Behaviour problems dating back to early school days: evident in school reports from age 7. A learning disability such as Dyslexia (an estimated 80% of Dyslexics are also ADHD), Dyspraxia, Dyscalculia. Poor short-term memory leading to disorganisation. They may appear to ‘zone out’ when you are speaking to them about something that may bore them, or when they are being singled out for a problem they are having. Poor impulse control (constantly interrupts, does not appear to listen, possibly anger issues leading to violence. They could be a chatterbox, externalising or quite shy, internalising). Very gifted academically yet cannot organise themselves well. This includes those with learning disabilities.

Elite athletes need to have the ability to be totally focussed to the point of obsession, the need to be the best above all else – and have that ‘killer instinct’. ADHD athletes are the ones who never give up, contrary to popular opinion. If they make big mistakes, they tend to fight back, hyper-focusing on getting it right; often they slip up again if undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with depression or anxiety, which could well be a co-morbidity . There is no “cannot” in their vocabulary but more “why not?”. They focus on a goal and keep going until they get there, sometimes performing feats that previously would seem impossible. Can you think of a footballer who is freakishly brilliant on the field, yet their private life is in tatters due to poor self-regulation and impulsivity, possibly repeated infidelity in some form or repeated drug issues? They get treatment and rehabilitation but the problems surface again and again. Three strikes and you are out. The people that live with ADHD athletes may have a lot to put up with, as their focus can be so intense that it excludes the people around them. It can make them appear to be self-centred, selfish and inflexible. It is what makes them successful and goes beyond persistence.


These athletes find it difficult to go outside their own comfort zone – their obsession with succeeding, and all the steps needed to get where they want to be, is all that matters. However, there is a fine line between obsession and commitment. Their personalities can be very addictive, and addictions can take many forms. It may be drugs, food, alcohol, collecting a certain item, text messaging and it can also be a sex addiction. They do not appear to take into account the risk element in their lives, both on and off the field, in the case of Australian Rules and Rugby League. ADHD can present in different forms. Some people are loud and boisterous (hyperactive), others can be quiet and could appear to be in their ‘own world’(inattentive). Some can be a combination of both. The most common terms used to describe ADHD types are Hyperactive, Inattentive, Combined. Recently an online tool became available, that many surgeries and mental health professionals are now using for assessment. The assessment can be done at home, a club or in a surgery. As long as the treating health professional is a GP, psychologist or mental health nurse, they can register and have patients/clients do the assessment for a fraction of the cost of full psychological assessment that can take weeks, in around 35 minutes. The Global Mindscreen, developed in Australia, gives fast assessment, decreasing waiting times and giving practitioners an overall mental health profile of the individual, including co-morbidities. In previous times, assessments meant seeing a clinical psychologist, hours of testing and being at risk of being seen by a member of the public. What this means to sporting clubs, such as AFL, rugby league & soccer clubs, and player managers is that they can assess each player as a preventative measure, pinpointing any potential issues and setting out strategies that will bring out the best in athletes whilst taking into account their individual player circumstances. The connotations on a business level, for example AFL clubs and Sport Management companies, could include:       a decrease in tribunal hearings and fines increased on-field performance lower medical bills due to accidents caused by impulsive action (such as striking) true team oriented players an increase in sponsorship increase in player income through product associations this assessment procedure is Global Mindscreen

The website to contact for www.globalmindscreen.com.au


Disorders the Global Mindscreen assesses include:                     Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Mood Disorders Major Depression Bipolar Disorder Anxiety Disorders Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Panic Disorder Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Substance Related Disorders Alcohol/Medication Dependence Illicit Drug Dependence Eating Disorders Impulse Control Disorders Gambling Compulsive Sexual Behaviour Addictive Behaviours Work Addiction Exercise Addiction Internet Addiction Psychotic Disorder

The potential this tool presents for sport, could mean the difference between the success or failure of an athlete. It should not be used to assess whether a contract should be offered or not; this could lead to court cases for discrimination. Treatment for ADHD is usually stimulant medication. However, for elite athletes this is not the preferred first course of action; it is the last resort. The Australian Sports Drug Medical Advisory Committee has specific protocol for use of stimulant medication in Australian sport. http://www.asdmac.gov.au/_docs/asdmac_fact_sheet_ADHD_100630.pdf Educational feedback, which is used specifically for ADHD traits, is preferable. It deals with the skills necessary to control behaviours that could prove derogatory to an athlete’s training and social skills. Diet, exercise and education all play important roles in adjustment to a diagnosis and also in how effective behaviour modification will be. ADHD athletes need to be educated in life skills pertaining to their individual circumstances. They need to understand the way their brain operates, understand social skills application and also how to achieve life balance that is based on their circumstances. In the case of those with a drug dependency, rehabilitation may not be enough. If the health professional is proficient in ADHD knowledge, understands how ADHD thought processes operate (which are different to 90% of the population), then possibly the


rehabilitation may have a long term effect. Otherwise, repeat offending is at high risk of happening. ADHD is also genetic in approximately 95% of cases. Elite athletes who exhibit ADHD traits may not have been assessed or diagnosed as being ADHD. In all probability, they may have been assessed for a co-morbid condition and treatment may have failed. Sporting clubs and professional athletes will often look for another diagnosis other than ADHD, even if it is a possibility, due to the misconception that ADHD has negative financial and branding impacts for the club, or the individual may lose sponsorship . The earlier an athlete is assessed for ADHD, if exhibiting the traits and symptoms, the better the outcome for the athlete, the club, management and their team mates. For the contracting club this means improved cohesion amongst players/team, lower legal costs for individual indiscretions by the athlete, less media attention, increased financial bequests and happy corporate sponsors. REMEMBER: How an ADHD diagnosis of an athlete is portrayed by a club or athlete in the media is how the public will perceive it. Be POSITIVE – the only way to be confident about this is to be educated and to change your own, and the club administration’s mind set. It is hoped this article will help elite sportspersons, CEO’s, sport managers, coaches and elite sporting club health professionals to be more aware of how ADHD may present in the sporting environment. The expectation is this helps sports professionals recognise the GIFT of ADHD they have been presented with - and the responsibility they have to educate themselves, the individual, club management and team in a positive manner to produce unrivalled future successes and cohesion at a club level.

DISCLAIMER: There is no financial association to Global Mindscreen. There is only than an appreciation of its application and its benefits in assessing mental health issues. 


Judie Gade has a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in
psychology, from Deakin University, the equivalent of a major in health promotion, with minors in journalism and literature. She has been an ADHD Life-skills coach to ADHD diagnosed people, for 11 years. Judie also consults with other ADHD health professionals and has been published both in Australia and internationally. She has also been the co-ordinator for 10 years for ADDventurous Women’s online support group, is an entrepreneur and journalist. Currently Judie is setting up a corporate consultancy to help businesses produce a positive work environment for ADHD employees, elite athletes and company directors. She has a particular interest in elite sporting club environments and their management of athletes with ADHD.

Mobile: 0410 402 404 Email: judie@adhdconsults.com.au