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A superpower and a struggle: cricketers on life with ADHD
Cricket Sport

A superpower and a struggle: cricketers on life with ADHD

Simone Biles, the most successful American gymnast in history and a four-time Olympic gold medallist, describes the way her brain functions as both her “challenge” and her “superpower”. Aged nine, she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental condition that often leads to hyperactivity, impulsivity and a lack of focus. But rather than holding her back, Biles believes it has given her an extra edge.

Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was also diagnosed with ADHD in childhood. He too says he has been able to harness his condition to achieve record-breaking feats, even if there have been struggles along the way. “Growing up, I was someone who was constantly bouncing off the walls – I could never sit still,” said the American swimmer. “But it’s something that I’m thankful happened, and I’m thankful that I am who I am.”

It’s estimated that around 15% of the world’s population are neurodiverse – an umbrella term which also includes autism, dyspraxia and dyslexia that describes people who experience, interpret and interact with the world in a way that isn’t considered ‘typical’ – with approximately five per cent having ADHD. New research suggests that figure could be markedly higher among top athletes.

A study from last year led by Erin Hoare, “Neurodiversity in elite sport: a systematic scoping review”, noted the “dearth of research examining mental health and well-being generally in athlete populations” but found that “the elite athlete population may present with ADHD at greater rates than that observed at the general population level”. The study concluded that neurodiversity could provide “competitive advantage in elite sport”, with its common traits lending themselves to “rigorous training and focus, structured skill development … and other goal-orientated behaviours”.

Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history, has spoken about her ADHD regularly.View image in fullscreen

Caragh McMurtry, founder of Neurodiverse Sport, a group that educates athletes, teams and sporting bodies about neurodiversity, isn’t surprised by the findings. A former Olympic rower who has been diagnosed with autism, she believes sport can offer a safe haven for people who perceive the world differently, offering an outlet for their creativity.

“There are strengths to neurodivergence, and those strengths do lend themselves to being a good athlete. If you think of autism, for example, one of the criteria is restricted and repetitive behaviour. What does an athlete do? They exhibit very restricted and repetitive behaviour. They love control, attention to detail, doing something over and over again until it’s right. Hyperfocus, obsession. Sport is a very nice place for a neurodivergent mind.

“And with ADHD, it has been linked to differences in the dopamine receptors in a person’s brain, maybe leading to them not getting enough dopamine, and therefore that’s potentially what makes people with ADHD impulsive. Sport gives people that constant dopamine hit. The opposite would be sitting in an office all day, not getting anything. That would be the worst for somebody who has an ADHD brain.”

As yet, there have been no studies into neurodiversity within cricket, but data released by Major League Baseball in 2016, which showed the incidence of ADHD among their players was twice as high as in the general adult population, suggests our own version of bat and ball may also appeal to a neurodivergent mind.

Benny Howell, the Hampshire all-rounder and globetrotting T20 star, is one example. Diagnosed with ADHD as a child, he struggled to cope with the structures imposed on him at school and sought refuge in sport.

“I really struggled in class, big time,” he says. “I was always very slow to understand things and I just got bored so easily. There’s way more understanding of different minds these days, people are more accepting of it. But, back then, not so much.

“I was always in trouble because I was disruptive. I couldn’t sit still. I’d run when I should walk, I’d speak when I shouldn’t, I’d interrupt. Yes, I shouldn’t have done those things, but there was a lack of understanding of why I did those things. I was just impulsive, it’s part of my make-up. Sport was my escape. It’s all I really cared about.”

Howell’s ADHD continued to impact his life as he moved into adulthood and became a professional cricketer, and it nearly cost him his career. Poor time-keeping – a common symptom of ADHD – and an impulsive decision to go on a holiday which hadn’t been approved by Hampshire, led to him receiving three strikes and being released by the club. When he resumed his career at Gloucestershire in 2012, he decided to learn more about his condition and how it could be managed.

“Meditation is a massive part of my life now,” he says. “I remember when my wife was pregnant thinking that I needed to start listening to podcasts and reading books [about ADHD] and meditation was one of the things that kept popping up. I got the Headspace app and started doing it religiously. Not just the meditation itself but the explanation of what it does and how to approach it was huge. That really kicked things off.”

With a greater understanding of how ADHD impacted his behaviour, Howell was able to channel his energy to become an exceptionally creative and resourceful cricketer. Having become obsessed with baseball, he began to play the game at an amateur level while wintering in Australia and in the process discovered new weapons he could add to his armoury as a cricketer.

“I loved the idea of a knuckleball, a curveball, so I played around with it,” he told ESPNcricinfo in 2018. “I thought, ‘Why not use it in cricket?’ No one was using it. That’s when my bowling took off.” The knuckleball is now commonly used by cricketers across the world and Howell has extended his repertoire to 50 different varieties of slower balls, his unique skillset earning him contracts in all the leading T20 leagues.

“I like to always think and be creative,” he says now, speaking from his latest stint in the Bangladesh Premier League. “It’s about finding the balance of when to experiment and when not to, which I still find hard today. In fact, the older I get, the harder I’m finding it, which is strange.

Benny Howell in action for Birmingham PhoenixView image in fullscreen

“There are certain times when it would be more effective to keep it simple but, because I have so many options, I can get a bit lost and lose a bit of clarity, and then you end up not bowling your best ball because you’re thinking so many things. When you get in that loop, it’s tough. Sometimes I can cloud over.”

Howell is keen to stress that ADHD affects different people in very different ways. Glenn Phillips, the New Zealand all-rounder and a former teammate of Howell’s at Gloucestershire, also has the condition and describes his ADHD as “a little switch that flicks me above the rest when I have to bring out the energy”.

“We talked about it when we played together,” says Howell. “He’s still got the kid-like ADHD, as I like to call it, where he’s very energetic. He can’t stop. The thing with ADHD is that you crave clarity a lot of the time. A lot of people can get addicted to certain things. I used to drink so much coffee because I thought that was my fix to help my brain work in the right way. He does that with the Monster drinks.”

ADHD goes undiagnosed in many cases, particularly among females who have the “inattentive” – rather than “hyperactive” – subtype, and can therefore appear quiet and introverted, often slipping under the radar. Rachel Slater, the Scotland and Northern Diamonds left-arm seamer, has the “combined” form of ADHD – a mix of both inattentive and hyperactive – and only learnt of her condition last year, aged 21. Having struggled with anxiety since her teens, her diagnosis has helped her to make sense of how she feels and behaves.

“All of my anxiety and issues in the past were maybe not 100% ADHD,” she says, “but if I didn’t have ADHD, it’s unlikely those things would have got as bad. A lot of the symptoms [of anxiety and ADHD] are similar or overlap. It definitely made sense of everything and I feel like since I’ve been diagnosed and taken medication, I don’t have half as much anxiety as I had before.”

When it comes to playing cricket, Slater says concentrating for long periods has been her biggest challenge. “It’s not a choice to switch on or off. In the past, in a 50-over game, or even a T20, if we bat first and I’ve sat down for three hours just chatting with my mates and I’ve used a lot of energy warming up, there’s no way I’ll have the energy or concentration to go and field for 50 overs. It’s like you’re watching a movie of yourself playing the game rather than actually being in the game.”

Rachel Slater says she wants to educate people about ADHD.View image in fullscreen

ADHD has also been linked to poor working memory, something that Slater says can be exaggerated in a high-pressure environment and has led to her having panic attacks during a match. “If you feel that switch going, it’s like, ‘What do I do?’ I have a notes page on my phone of my bowling run-up because I don’t always remember what it is, which is mad. I do it every day. I have to check it before I bowl because I’ll forget. My first game for Scotland, I forgot to check and I was bowling off a run-up that was two metres too short. That’s obviously going to affect your performance.”

She says her condition has benefits too, such as hyperfocus, which allows her to completely absorb herself in a single task, at times to the point of obsession. “That definitely can help. But I don’t really feel I’ve got a choice of when that happens. I did my ACL when I was 15 and don’t think I would have rehabbed and come back as well as I did [without ADHD]. You get obsessive about something and it’s the only thing you’re thinking about, the only thing you want to do. Even in training now, if I’m practising my bowling and I’ve got, say, four overs to bowl, if I’m into it I’ll just keep going. It can be a positive in that respect.”

Following her diagnosis, Slater made a decision to speak openly about her ADHD, releasing a video through the Northern Diamonds’ YouTube channel in which she describes the challenges it poses in her profession. “We’re a very close team at Diamonds and everyone has been very understanding and tries to help,” she says.

“I couldn’t expect them to help me if I didn’t try to educate people on it. I can probably come across as a bit rude or disinterested at times and if I haven’t had that conversation with people, then I can’t expect them to understand. That’s a very important thing for me, to try and educate people on it. Now I don’t feel like I have to pretend to be feeling a certain way or thinking certain things when I’m not. The worst thing you can do in that situation is not speak to someone. If in doubt, get it out.”

Like Slater, Charis Pavely, the 19-year-old Central Sparks all-rounder, was diagnosed with ADHD as she embarked on her cricket career. She’d been struggling at school and was by her own admission “a nightmare” at home, but she had never considered that she might have ADHD until it was suggested by a member of the Central Sparks support staff.

“It’s quite hard to bring up with someone, especially when I was a child, and then to say that to my parents,” says Pavely, who was 17 at the time of her diagnosis. “It’s a sensitive topic for most people. But at the time my mum and dad were just begging for someone to help them. I wouldn’t go to school, I’d shout at people, I wouldn’t listen to them, I’d spend too much money. Honestly, I’ve kind of blanked out that time in my life because it’s not the person I want to identify as now. I can’t believe that’s what I was like.”

Pavely recalls getting angry and frustrated with teammates when they made a mistake or she felt they weren’t trying as hard as she was. If she was to sustain a career in the game, she knew something needed to change.

“I had the more traditional male symptoms of ADHD: outgoing, verbal, aggressive. Whereas others experience more traditionally female symptoms, which is more internalised. That’s a big difference. It meant I would tell people exactly how I feel, which obviously in a team environment isn’t ideal! Especially as a young pro when you’re learning the ropes yourself. I wouldn’t have the ability to reason with people. I wouldn’t ever see their point of view, which doesn’t make for great relationships. I still always want to be right, but appreciate there are times when I’m not.”

Since receiving her diagnosis, Pavely’s career has moved at pace. She was part of the England side that reached the Under-19 World Cup final last year and she signed her first professional contract with Central Sparks in November after featuring in The Hundred for Birmingham Phoenix.

“Central Sparks diagnosed my ADHD and changed my life,” she says. “So many things make sense now – it was such a relief. I’d like to think it would have been possible [without a diagnosis] but I honestly don’t think I would have had the concentration and attention span and dedication to cricket that I have now. I think it would have come in time. But has it fast-tracked my career? Yeah.”

Charis Pavely’s career has taken off since her diagnosis.View image in fullscreen

Pavely’s become more aware of the benefits of her ADHD and says the medication she now takes to manage her condition hasn’t detracted from who she is. “If you need someone to take a risk in a team, it will be me. I like to jump in headfirst and I see everything as an opportunity. That’s why I’d say it’s a kind of superpower. I don’t really have fear or concerns that something could go wrong.

“I like to say to myself, ‘Is it a me problem, or an ADHD problem?’ I can still be a bit of a knob in the changing room, and that’s just me. That’s not the ADHD. People are quick to say, ‘Oh, she’s got ADHD’, but it’s not an excuse. I never want it to be that. It just helps the coaches understand how they’re going to get the best from me. People learn in different ways and as a coach you want to understand what makes people tick so you can get the most out of them. In elite sport environments there is more neurodiversity than people can imagine, because it requires a certain type of person to want to be the best at something.”

Neil D’Costa, the highly respected Australian coach who has worked with a number of the world’s leading batters, agrees that “you need to be a bit different to be an elite sportsperson”. He has worked with neurodivergent cricketers at youth level and can see how sport offers structure and focus.

“I’ve helped a couple of neurodivergent kids,” he says, “and those kids have spoken within the group and now I’m getting phone calls from parents saying, ‘My kid’s neurodivergent, do you think you can help?’ Not necessarily with their cricket, but using cricket to help them enjoy their lives and gain some disciplines.”

He’s also witnessed international players show typical traits of neurodivergence, often fuelling a pursuit of perfection that can drive them to the top but take its toll along the way. “I had one player who’d have five showers a day. He never had dirty gear, a dirty house, a dirty car. It was a crutch for him. When things were out of control, his results weren’t there. The hard part is that they can often be such perfectionists and cricket is such a hard thing to be perfect in. So much of it is out of your control.”

D’Costa believes a professional team environment is not always conducive to a neurodivergent mind, particularly when players are often representing multiple teams and playing under various coaches who may not understand their specific needs.

“In individual sports I can see how neurodiversity could be a great advantage, especially if they’re not affected by the emotion of sport so much. But in a cricket team, you’re together a lot, stuck on a bus, stuck in the dressing room. Those leftfield guys stand out and might start to annoy people. I do have a few examples of that. Unless they find the right team, they can get bounced around. Ten years ago, if someone was neurodivergent, they’d say, ‘What the fuck’s wrong with him?’ A lot of people still don’t understand what it is.

“You’re not a cricket player, you’re a human being. If things are going wrong off the field, they’re not going to happen for you on the field. They might go right for a short time, but not if we’re talking about creating a player of 10 or 15 years.”

At Neurodiverse Sport, Caragh McMurtry is trying to educate coaches in how they can unlock talent and foster an inclusive environment. She believes elite sport is only beginning to scratch at the surface of what’s possible for neurodivergent athletes. “A neurodivergent mind perceives and thinks differently,” she says, “and the more we can move away from every athlete having to stretch towards the coach, to the coach getting the best out of each individual athlete, the better.

The new issue of WCMView image in fullscreen

“For someone with ADHD or attention issues, it’s not a worry about whether you yourself can perform. It’s what else is going to come up. It’s a different set of pressures and worries and I think for that reason there are ways to get incredible performances out of neurodivergent people if we understand their mindset.”

This is an article from Wisden Cricket Monthly. Use the code GSN20 to get 20% off a rolling Wisden Cricket Monthly subscription

Source: theguardian.com