Athletes can thrive despite ADHD

Some 10-20% of professional athletes have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) according to some estimates. The world’s greatest Olympian Michael Phelps is a striking example that the challenges presented by ADHD can be overcome. Twenty three gold medals (at the time of writing) is pretty remarkable and we might wonder what makes him so special.

Diagnosed with ADHD at age 9, Phelps overcame the challenges of his condition and hit his stride in the pool.

The three main characteristics of ADHD are inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity which would suggest that some sports are going to be difficult to master.

Stimulant medication which is commonly used produces side effects that are counter productive to athletic performance and may also be banned in the case of professional sport.  For this reason neurofeedback might be a practical alternative for many athletes with ADHD.

EEG Assessment can help athletes with ADHD

Neurofeedback or EEG Biofeedback as it is sometimes known has been used with individuals with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) since the 1970’s. It has become more and more popular as an approach that has lasting beneficial effects without side effects.  Some authors suggest a success rate approaching 90% which is significant. It takes professional input to go down this route though.

Many athletes who have mild to moderate ADHD are able to excel in sport if they find the right “fit” to their situation. Many professional athletes in many sporting domains have been diagnosed with ADHD and actually found that their condition has even conveyed some advantages for performance.

BioTrace+ qEEG and EEG Map

Some sports such as football, cricket or hockey don’t need intense concentration for long periods but short shifts in attention.  Athletes with ADHD can harness their speed of reaction time if they can learn to control their impulsivity. They also have an ability to do well under pressure and deal successfully with the chaos of team competition; finding creative solutions to problem situations can also be a gift.  A tendency to be impulsive is not all bad either because this present moment awareness reduces the concern about “what happens next” and turns down the fear of consequences that can stifle many athletes ability to perform.

In these cases, correct assessment is necessary using qEEG and other methods. A qEEG assessment can provide an individualised view of the athlete from which a training plan can be created.

EEG training screen with BioTrace+ software

Cognitive states such as mental focus, arousal and calmness have direct psychophysiological correlates. EEG has specific connections to cortical perfusion and therefore EEG is an excellent way of identifying brain states that correlate to success and failure at any task that would require those brain areas to be active.  Once an individuals particular qEEG map has been determined they can use neurofeedback to learn to "change their map" and hence their behaviour response over a number of sessions.

See “Athletes with ADHD and Autistic Spectrum Disorder”
Chapter 14, Linden, MK
in Biofeedback and Neurofeedback Applications in Sport Psychology
Edited by Strack, BW; Linden, MK; Wilson, VS
Published by Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. 2011