Please note: this blog post is a little different to our usual inspirational neurodivergent athlete stories. It provides a fairly unflattering insight into how neurodivergence is viewed in football, so if you're looking for inspiration, skip this story! However, if you're looking to understand this landscape a little better, please read on...
The article featured in this post was written by neurodivergent journalist George Simms, and was first published in The i Newspaper, Jan 2023.
We're very grateful for George's consent to post this article on our blog as it provides a very necessary insight into how neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD are currently viewed at a professional level in sport.
It confirms to us why we are fighting to change this space, and it's fantastic to meet a fellow advocate; to share their hard work (because we know how many hours of research went into this article), and to hopefully continue collaborating with them in the future!
We would also like to highlight how brave the subjects of this article were in speaking out. It's not easy to be honest when what you have to say isn't necessarily what people want to hear. But honesty is essential for neurodiversity in sport being truly understood and achieved.
Article written by George Simms:
“You would try and juggle everything on your own, but it’s like trying to stay afloat in the deep end.
“That’s how I’d describe professional football. I would get in and do the fastest couple of lengths ever, but then I wouldn’t be able to get out of the pool and I couldn’t touch the bottom. It was only a matter of time before I sank.
“That’s what my f___ing football career was like.”
[Photo: Ricky Miller StokeonTtrentLive 2018]
My 40-minute conversation with Ricky Miller is chaotic, to say the least.
The record goalscorer in a National League season (40 goals in 2016-17 for Dover), the 33-year-old striker counts Peterborough, Luton, Port Vale and Mansfield among his 22 career clubs.
Miller has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurodevelopmental condition often characterised by hyperactivity and an inability to control attention and concentration.
Despite a name containing both deficit and disorder, ADHD comes with both great positives and negatives. Many famous figures within sport – including Michael Phelps, Michael Jordan and Simone Biles – have disclosed their diagnoses.
Yet within football, particularly the men’s game, ADHD and similar conditions remain somewhere between desperately misunderstood and wilfully ignored.
Although it is now more widely discussed and diagnosed in society, no current or former Premier League player has ever publicly discussed their ADHD, despite four players receiving therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for drugs commonly used to treat ADHD between 2015-2020.
The only Premier League player whose ADHD diagnosis has been publicised is ex-Manchester United prodigy Ravel Morrison, from 2011 court transcripts. Morrison, often viewed as a troubled soul who never achieved his lofty potential – a common criticism of people with ADHD – has never been interviewed on the subject.
To Miller, football’s inability and unwillingness to cater for his ADHD has limited a career defined by euphoric highs and devastating lows.
[Photo: Ricky Miller Port Vale 2019]
There is a pattern to much of Miller’s career – he would excel with semi-professional sides, before being transferred to a league side, which would end disastrously, forcing him out of the professional game. After his record-breaking 2016-17 season, Miller earned a move to League One Peterborough, but was loaned out after six months and never scored for the club.
Even in February, nearing retirement at eighth-tier Grantham Town, Miller scored four goals in a 4-3 victory, spearheading the Gingerbreads’ first home win in two years.
But Miller has suffered from depression, anxiety and alcoholism, all far more prevalent in people with ADHD than most others, throughout his life.
“I’d go into professional clubs and be the best player for two months, then I’d just start thinking everyone hates me,” Miller says. “It was a horrible, slow process, I was coming in with anxiety every day. You’re too proud to ask for help. You’re too proud to show people your true colours and show how scared you are inside.
“But the more you try and hide it, the more you f___ing single yourself out and become an outcast. It was the same problem every time. I wish I could go back and do things different, but obviously time’s not on my side.
“I know what I was capable of, but mentally I just didn’t have it,” he continues. “There’s that feeling that ‘I wish I had someone else’s brain’. In the professional environment, you’d be around these really confident people, but I’d just be wanting to finish and be on my own because it was my safe space. Slowly but surely, I felt like I wasn’t worthy to be there.”
At his four professional clubs, rather than receiving the support he needed, Miller was further ostracised and eventually sold. Rather than being provided the opportunity to understand his mind and condition, he was punished for it, forced to believe that it, and he, was fundamentally wrong. This is an issue which pervades far further than football.
[Photo: Ricky Miller BBC News 2017]
“Both football and school are generalised, made for a certain type of person,” Miller explains. “If you don’t fit that criteria, you get ostracised. I was just always getting in trouble, always getting told off. Then you’re so hard on yourself and you think you’re such a bad egg, all because you can’t concentrate like a normal person.”
Like many people, it was only when Miller took the initiative to understand his diagnosis that his understanding of himself and his condition improved. It is said that there are two distinct stages to a diagnosis – knowing and understanding. While Miller was diagnosed originally aged five, his understanding of ADHD came much later in life.
“In lockdown, I had my kid for two weeks. After two weeks, I was at my wits end. I would pretend I needed to go to the toilet just so I could have 10 minutes away from him. I just wanted to explode, it was so, so intense.
“It was only when I started really looking my ADHD that I connected all the dots and realised that I’m actually good. I just have been so used to being bad, doing silly things and being told off all the time. You think that’s your make-up, but it’s not.”
Courtnay Ward-Chambers plays for London Bees, in the women’s third tier, having previously represented Watford and QPR. The 25-year-old was diagnosed with ADHD aged eight and told i that one of the biggest pressures she associates with being a footballer with ADHD is, really, pretending that you’re not.
[Photo: Courtnay Ward-Chambers Sky Sports 2021]
“People know I have ADHD, but you try and – not act like a different person – but you try to give every impression that you’re normal. It shouldn’t be like that. Sometimes we act like it comes on our foreheads, but most of the time no-one would know any different.”
This idea underlines many of Miller’s concerns about his own career. Having told his clubs that he had ADHD, he was afforded none of the support or concessions that should come with it.
The most successful period of Miller’s career came at Dover Athletic, managed by Chris Kinnear, who also worked as a special needs teacher.
“[Kinnear] had loads of experience dealing with kids who had ADHD. He knows how to show love, but still keep you on a tight leash. You wouldn’t want to do anything wrong for him, but if you did f___ up, he would quickly make sure that you knew you were loved, so you wouldn’t want to f___ up again. Other managers come down on you like a ton of bricks and you feel singled out and slowly start drifting off again.
“He could also make you feel worthy as a man, not just as a footballer. That gives you the confidence to show everyone what you can do. With other managers, if you show a bit of personality, if you’re a bit outspoken, then they can’t be arsed.”
Willem Tomlinson came through the Blackburn Rovers academy, although the 24-year-old now represents sixth-tier Chorley. Diagnosed with ADHD at 22 after leaving Mansfield following a series of misdemeanours, the midfielder is now rebuilding his career at semi-pro level.
[Photo: Willem Tomlinson (left) DevonLive 2019]
Then-Mansfield coach Graham Coughlan said that Tomlinson’s departure “did haunt me”, but “he broke my trust”.
Having moved to Mansfield in 2019, Tomlinson was living alone, 20 years old and three hours from home, when lockdown struck. With no support from his club, he developed alcohol and gambling addiction issues.
“I was just left on my own to do whatever for weeks and weeks and weeks,” Tomlinson says. “When I was drinking and gambling, it was perceived that I was just an addict, not someone with ADHD.
“I was just told that I needed to stop gambling and drinking, but in my eyes I was only filling time, I was that bored. I had nothing else to do except go to a pub or a casino.
“When I came back after lockdown, I didn’t know how to stop the habit I’d formed in lockdown. The first Saturday that I was back in football, the manager said to me ‘whatever you do, just don’t go out tonight, don’t have a drink’, but my first thought was ‘I’m gonna go out’. After that, the owner didn’t really want to hear what I had to say, he just said ‘I don’t want him here’.”
Although Tomlinson’s issues grew out of lockdown, he believes that the structure of most professional footballers’ lives is often not conducive for the ADHD brain.
“When you’re playing football, you’re training at 10.30 and leaving the ground at 1 o’clock most days after you’ve had your lunch,” Tomlinson said. “That’s like 10 hours of sitting around you have to deal with before you can go to sleep.
[Photo: Willem Tomlinson Chad 2020]
“For someone with ADHD, that’s hard, because you always feel the need to be doing something, I was always wanting to go to someone’s house, I just couldn’t sit around for that long. That’s what to leads to other things, like ending up going gambling and drinking.”
Miller tells a similar story: “When things go bad and you start feeling isolated from the group, then after the game you start drinking, because that counteracts how football’s making you feel. I’m going into a changing room and I’m full of anxiety. I’m putting my earpods in and watching the Netflix I’ve downloaded just so I don’t have to communicate with anyone, because I’m shaking like a shitting dog.
“Then you’d have a couple of beers because that makes you feel happy. But that’s just a false happiness that makes it worse the next day. As soon as you get into that cycle, obviously it affects your fitness and then it snowballs. It’s a gradual breakdown of your character and a gradual breakdown of your confidence.”
Injury can also lead to fundamental problems for players with ADHD, as Ward-Chambers has discovered. A major injury in September left her bedbound for three months.
“Getting downstairs took me about 47 minutes – it was honestly the worst time of my life. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. Especially with me – I’ve got a routine and I love my routine, but I couldn’t even wash myself.
“When I’m doing nothing, I feel like I need to be doing something, whereas most people who haven’t got ADHD are happy to sit there and do nothing. If I’ve got a day off, I have to go shopping, or just do something. As soon as I could [after getting injured], I’d just sit for two hours and watch training so I knew I was doing something, even though it was freezing.
“When I’ve got an injury, my ADHD is a lot harder to cope with. I’ve recently gone back on antidepressants, which I thought I never would. This injury took its toll and I said to my mum ‘I can’t actually cope’.”
[Photo: Courtnay Ward-Chambers @SkyAnton 2021]
Tomlinson and Miller both take medication for their ADHD, although Ward-Chambers does not and Miller did not for most of his playing career. Medication is regularly prescribed for ADHD and can have great success, but which specific drug works for each person widely varies.
While there is no permanent cure for ADHD, the NHS say the right medication can help people “concentrate better, be less impulsive, feel calmer, and learn and practise new skills.”
Tomlinson is currently changing his medication, having felt nauseous and unwell in the evenings while taking methylphenidate, more commonly known by the brand name Ritalin.
He says that, despite the current issue, medication has massively helped him: “They 100 per cent work. They slow my thinking down, my irrational thoughts and it’s easier to cope with day-to-day life.
“When I was a bit younger, you’d be getting coached and you’re trying your hardest to listen, but your mind is on other things away from it – you can be listening, but your mind is onto something else instantly. Now I’m on the meds, I do listen a lot, I have better attention to detail.”
There are clear commonalities between what works for Miller, Tomlinson and Ward-Chambers in training.
[Photo: Ricky Miller KentOnline 2017]
“For me as a person, I need constant reassurance, I need to be told I’m doing well and keep getting told,” Tomlinson explains. “Even if I know I’m doing well, I still want to be told. If a coach sings your praises, that’s what gets the best out of me.”
Miller adds: “It might not work for everyone but working one-on-one with a fitness coach made me a lot more focused. I could just worry about myself, I could push myself to limits which not many other people can because they didn’t have the energy.
“You’ve constantly got so much shit going on in your head, it pushes you to do more and more. If you work on your own, people just look at you because they can’t believe how much you’re pushing yourself.”
Miller’s boundless energy is what made him a professional footballer. Watching back his goals, they are borne of running, harrying, pressing, pushing defenders for 90 minutes and beyond.
This speaks to something players can fail to appreciate – their ADHD is often what makes them a brilliant footballer. ADHD is associated with heightened creativity, impulsivity and energy.
Kaitlyn Morgan-Hemmens is a forward for Plymouth Argyle WFC, in the women’s third tier, who was diagnosed with ADHD aged eight. Now 20, she says: “When you have ADHD, you have a drive within you that when you’re fully focused on something, nothing else matters.
[Photo: Kaitlyn Morgan-Hemmens (left) PlymouthLive 2022]
“That’s a fundamental thing for people who are wanting to become a professional in their sport, because there’s nothing else that matters beside that sport, you’re very driven with it.
“Maybe if someone doesn’t have ADHD, they think about things, whereas I just do it. I don’t think, I just do. Within football, that’s a good thing.”
Ward-Chambers agrees: “Everything just went away when I played football. It’s my peace.”
This is probably why Tomlinson admits that he went through a period of stopping taking his medication on matchdays: “I didn’t want it to let me think about things too much. I want to do things without thinking about it, want them to just come naturally, whereas meds sort of slowed my thinking down.”
Of the four players I spoke to with ADHD, they all had stories of individuals and systems which helped to get the best out them, but also of managers and clubs who ostracised and ignored them because of behaviour associated with their conditions.
They all spoke of their struggles growing up, of battling to survive both school and academy systems which did not cater for their minds. Miller, Morgan-Hemmens and Ward-Chambers all dropped out of major academies due to their struggles.
The ADHD brain craves enjoyment and excitement, and football can undoubtedly provide that. People with ADHD thrive best when they are enjoying what they do, but football needs to do more to allow that to happen.
Tomlinson is now looking to move back up the football pyramid having rebuilt his career and reputation. He rejected offers from bigger clubs last year to remain at Chorley, saying: “I was still in this process of trying to find the best way of me living my life before I go and challenge again in football. I said ‘Just let me get my life right’ and I feel like I’m nearly there now.
“If something did come up in January or at the end of the season, I feel fully equipped mentally to go and deal with it and deal with the amount of time you have.”
Original article at The i Newspaper
🙏 Thank you to George Simms for writing this article
👉 Follow George on Twitter @GeorgeRSimms