Updated: Sep 22
We’re back from our summer break and ready to promote another story of neurodivergence in sport! This week’s blog features former football player and current Autism and Neurodiversity Coach Ben Holmes.
Ben really helped me out when I was making the transition into self-employment and inspired me to have confidence in thinking outside the box when founding Neurodiverse Sport. So for me, it’s a pleasure to tell his story and to promote someone who is honest, authentic and generous (the type of person who’s typically under-promoted…)
There are two key themes that struck me on interviewing Ben formally; one was the multiple accounts of problem solving ‘to get by’ and the other was his gradual drift away from the mainstream:
➡️ Problem solving skills are a characteristic shared by many neurodivergent people, and while it’s very possibly innate to the neurodivergent mindset, it’s likely a force of habit too. Being neurodivergent is not yet widely understood or accommodated for within society, let alone in sport, so neurodivergent individuals such as Ben MUST problem solve multiple times a day, an hour, a minute to simply participate and engage…for some such as Ben, this becomes their ‘super strength’, but for too many others it’s simply too exhausting and serves to exclude.
➡️ ➡️ Divergence from the mainstream and 'anti-establishment ideologies' are again characteristics often associated with neurodivergence and, although these characteristics may be innate to the neurodivergent mindset, they too may be strongly influenced by the widespread lack of understanding and support afforded to neurodivergent people. If you’re neurodivergent like Ben, and the onus is consistently on you to hide your difficulties for fear of shame, or to find ‘work arounds’ simply to get by, it follows that you may eventually become apathetic or even begrudging.
What’s clear is that for Ben and for many other neurodivergent people, participation in sport and exercise has kept him healthy, grounded and connected to the most positive influences in his life: football and his father.
Ben presents with many of the strengths and struggles associated with Autism, ADHD and Dyspraxia and was diagnosed Autistic in 2018. In the last few years, he’s made a career out of being different; out of being ‘divergent’ and to degree anti-establishment. Yet when you listen to his story, you truly understand why.
Ben was a child of two halves. He was and is underlyingly anxious, but sport gave him confidence - in the classroom he was quiet and reserved, but on the football pitch he came to life. He remembers not quite understanding the ‘rules of engagement’, opting to wrestle his peers because that’s how he communicated with his dad… needless to say, the other parents weren’t his greatest fans, but after having the situation explained to him, he understood and changed tack.
When it came to football, Ben didn’t just like to play, but loved to watch, learn and memorise too. 90’s football was and still is his obsession and he would religiously memorise all of the players, games and statistics - sharing this information at any given opportunity. Fortunately, football was seen as an acceptable obsession, so no one clocked on to the intensity of his interest and he was accepted by his peers and teammates.
As well as his football knowledge and enthusiasm, Ben had other strengths that made him a valuable player and a valuable team member. His unwavering dedication meant that his fitness was always guaranteed and his ability to recognise and predict patterns and plays made him a great interceptor. His favourite move was a slide tackle because he loved the thrill it gave him, but if it ever aggravated his opposition, he feigned ignorance to maintain the ‘status quo’. He actively avoided both conflict and attention.
Although Ben’s neurodivergence has afforded him many strengths, he remains an underlyingly anxious person. But this anxiety always seems to have a root cause - hypervigilance. Ben is determined not to let his struggles overcome or define him and so he’s always having to think ahead, plan, problem solve and avoid. I’m sure that feeling a constant threat of ‘exposure’ or ridicule would make anyone anxious.
Here are some good examples;
Ben struggles with tasks requiring dexterity, and to avoid potential ridicule he problem solves his way out of any situation that might ‘expose’ these challenges. For instance, he finds tying football nets incredibly challenging, so when it came to setting up, he always ensured he was preoccupied with an ‘easier task’ such as positioning the corner flags. He also finds getting changed into his kit both difficult and time consuming, so to avoid the inevitable changing room ‘banter’ he would change at home. This often made him late - but it’s better to be late than be exposed or ridiculed…
Ben also struggles with his sense of direction and anxiety around driving. When driving himself and teammates to away games he had to psyche himself up before he arrived at the meeting point, then he had to procrastinate just enough to follow one of the other cars out of the carpark and all the way to their destination! He would also ensure that at least one trustworthy teammate was in the car with him; behaviour born from necessity but disguised as camaraderie.
When it came to game play, Ben didn’t struggle quite as much, but he was still ‘different’. If the ball was on his left, he still kicked it with his right, and he feels more comfortable controlling the ball with the outside of his foot, rather than the inside. He very much dislikes the anticipation of watching the ball mid air, so would always opt to scissor kick rather than head the ball, and actively avoided being positioned next to the crowd.
Where many of Ben’s workarounds often went ‘under the radar’, some set him apart from his friends and teammates. Ben, like many Autistic and Neurodivergent people is an avid rule follower with an enhanced sense of moral justice (we’ll be covering this in a future blog, so watch out!) This characteristic should be positive, but can make socialising difficult both practically and in regard to mutual understanding. For Ben, what’s right ranks above friends and teammates on the priority list, but this is unfortunately often interpreted as antisocial. For instance, Ben would never go to the pub after training or a match because it’s disrespectful to socialise in dirty kit. Following Ben’s logic, that decision is entirely valid and reasonable. Following his teammates' logic, it’s antisocial.
It can feel incredibly confusing and demoralising to be treated poorly, ostracised, or excluded for ‘doing the right thing’, and this is something that Ben and many Neurodivergent people struggle with on a daily basis. Whether driven by binary or bottom up thinking, literal interpretation or honest communication, Neurodivergent people can bring a different perspective and a fresh approach to the team, but accessing these benefits requires mutual understanding and respect. Mutual understanding and respect is a two-way process.
Visit the Autism and Neurodiversity Coaching website at https://www.autismandneurodiversitycoaching.co.uk/ where you'll find a link to all their socials, or follow Ben on LinkedIn