Updated: May 16
We are delighted to introduce our seventh athlete – Connie Hayes!
Connie is a semi-professional road and cross cyclist who has raced at the Women’s Tour (of Britain – a UCI World Tour event for those of you who don’t know), she also has diagnoses of dyslexia and dyspraxia, and is undergoing an assessment for autism.
Connie is only 22, but like many neurodivergent individuals, shows a self-awareness and wisdom beyond her years. Perhaps because she was thrust into uncomfortable situations from such a young age – being a neurodivergent person existing in a world not suited to her and her unique needs. It’s probably not necessary for me to state that Connie’s journey to this point has been far from easy. She was labelled a ‘quirky’ and quiet kid at school, but this contained exterior was just masking a multitude of difficulties she was struggling with internally, and she would often come home from school completely exhausted and prone to meltdowns.
One of her early coping mechanisms was physical activity. Connie loved to swim as a child, but although she had extremely strong legs, she lacked the coordination needed to excel. She also dabbled in some rowing when she reached secondary school, but again was held back by her height – being just 5’2”. When she was rowing, she cycled as part of her training, and found she was much more suited to the bike than the boat. With cycling, her lack of coordination and stature was more than offset by her incredibly strong legs, determined mindset, and ability to hyperfocus. In being good at something, she found solace and an outlet for her internalised struggles. But although sport served as a coping mechanism for Connie, the underlying issues – the unsatisfiable perfectionism and need to know why remained unaddressed. They didn’t disappear, but she bottled them up. For Connie she continued to be the child who “doesn’t talk much, but is polite, and a pleasure to teach”.
On the surface and as a parent you may view this review as a pleasant one, but in retrospect and with the understanding she and her parents have now, Connie describes it as “classic terminology used to hide a bigger problem”. I couldn’t agree with this more. It’s arguably a very British thing to do – to sugar coat things, to not want to address the uncomfortable, to use euphemisms. But although they save our sensibilities in the short term, do they actually serve to maintain a vicious cycle of denial, ignorance, and inadvertent harm to those most vulnerable? In my opinion, although tough conversations hurt at the time, if they come from a place of genuine care and concern, they are what is required for long term wellbeing and progression.
Case and point, when Connie entered her final year of secondary school, and the pressure of exams was added to her already full ‘stress bucket’ as the psychologists like to call it (a term that I personally dislike due to its derisive undertone), Connie “went off the rails”. In hearing this, I really wasn’t surprised – my big breakdown came at aged 19 – but for those surrounding Connie, I’m sure it would have been a huge surprise. Even her mother who was a Senco teacher didn’t (or didn’t want to) see the signs of Connie’s huge internal struggle leading up to this point. Multiple times Connie’s struggles, when they infrequently surfaced, were put down to normal teenage emotions… but very fortunately for Connie there was one teacher who wasn’t prepared to chalk it down to emotions, who had a bit more of an insight due to their own neurodivergence, and who was prepared to put their own ‘head above the parapets’ and broach the subject with Connie and her parents. This brave intervention ultimately put Connie on the path to receiving her first diagnosis and an eventual understanding of herself and her differences.
For Connie these diagnoses were both positive and negative. They were extremely difficult to stomach because they moved her further away from the ‘perfect’ ideal society had taught her to aspire to, and yet they provided her with an explanation as to why she had struggled so much in the past. They allowed her to make sense and to emotionally heal. To readjust her self-expectations and to be kinder to herself. They explained why she spent hours and hours in the pool, but just couldn’t master the technique, and why she now finds cyclo-cross difficult, and has only just mastered the art of taking a gilet off whilst riding. Most of us would find that difficult, but it’s something that ‘should’ come easily to someone who’s cycled for so long, and is also something that junior cycling academies insist on riders being able to achieve, if they are going to be considered as prospective professionals. For Connie, the fact that she lacked these skills prevented her from being seen as a strong prospect at the junior camps she was invited to. Yet she went on to ride at the Women’s Tour...
Although there’s a clear pattern of rejection – regroup, failure – regroup, meltdown – regroup throughout Connie’s early years, and although Connie herself said she was determined that her diagnosis “would not be a tragedy but something positive”, there are only so many times a person can suffer a hurt without being permanently affected. Self-preservation is in our nature, and for Connie, she openly admits to becoming more risk averse, especially as she’s grown older, and especially as her quirks are no longer viewed as ‘endearing’ but instead as ‘childish and petulant’. For Connie it’s safer to avoid difficult situations than to risk having meltdowns and being misjudged for them. Connie has been burned too many times to go there again... a notable instance she spoke about was her short experience of riding for a Belgian pro-continental team. She quickly found out that attitudes towards neurodivergent conditions on the European continent were even less progressive than those in the UK – and when you add a language barrier into the mix, the result can be pretty traumatic for a young person who’s already vulnerable.
Connie’s now a member of a second tier UCI team – Awol O’Shae, where perhaps due to luck of the draw, she’s found herself in a very rare neuroinclusive environment. The understanding she, her teammates, and her coaches have developed has been a massive relief for Connie and has allowed her to thrive. She attributes this neuroinclusivity to Awol O’Shae Directeur Sportif Brent Skinner, who is in Connie’s words “an absolute legend and is a right pro at looking after all of his riders: especially those with extra challenges.”
It's heart-warming to know there are teams out there who, perhaps because of the people, the culture, or the ethos, are neuroinclusive. But it’s sad that neurodivergent athletes have to actively seek out the minority of teams who can provide them with the understanding and support they need to excel. Connie still has mini meltdowns when she struggles to achieve something, but she’s able to rationalise them in the context of her diagnosis, and most importantly to her, those around her are understanding. They got to know Connie as a person, and they learnt and accepted how she processes and expresses her emotions differently.
Her team understand that her heart is in the right place, and that she would never intentionally hurt someone else, so they let her express herself without judgement. It seems like an obvious way to be, but it’s not the done thing in sport. It’s not acceptable to be different. Different is wrong. Different is scary. So, for those of us who are different, we have to suck it up, bottle it up, mask, and adapt, perform somersaults in our minds before we even tackle the task at hand. The result is inevitable – it blows up in somebody’s face in the end.
Although masking is certainly an issue experienced by both sexes, I’ve noticed a lot more female athletes struggling with it than males. In my career, I was told that if I was a man, my passion and abruptness might be acceptable... for girls and women emotional outbursts are seen as totally unacceptable. But if we let neurodivergent females express themselves from an early age, perhaps they would learn to regulate their emotions better. As it stands, we don’t; they’re left with no coping mechanisms, and when the pressure of adulthood, work, or competitions is added, the inevitable happens…
For Connie, she’s avoiding these situations, for others they don’t have that awareness and are caught out. What’s important to understand is that a meltdown is not a tantrum. It’s a system overload. Imagine a computer overheating because the fan is broken. Let’s get rid of the shame and stigma and start helping people to find the solutions to manage their emotions. It starts with honesty, but it really starts with acceptance.
I asked Connie what changes she would like to see in the cycling world that would make the sport more neuroinclusive as a whole. She had a few suggestions:
Her first suggestion was to make media interviews a choice rather than a prerequisite. Connie’s current team allow her this adaptation, and she made a point to emphasise what a difference this made to her levels of anxiety – particularly around racing. Knowing that she will have time to process her emotions and decompress after racing is key for Connie. I can see this option helping a lot of athletes, but as a compromise, why do media staff not give athletes a variety of options for interviews? How about audio-only interviews? Written interviews? Self-interviews!? You can make almost anything interesting and engaging when editing, and if it would make sport more inclusive, isn’t it worth thinking outside the box (or just putting the work in?)
Connie’s second suggestion was for teams who have a huge number of staff and/or a high staff turnover (like many cycling teams do). She suggested delegating a couple of staff members to act as consistent points of contact for neurodivergent athletes who might need that level of familiarity, trust, rapport, or consistency a little more than others. Again, if it makes sport more neuroinclusive, and allows the neurodivergent athletes within a team to push themselves harder or further, is it not worth the thought or effort?
And thirdly, Connie mentioned understanding of neurodivergent characteristics and behaviour traits within sports teams. If sports teams understood their athletes more, they would know how their words and actions affected them as individuals – how their words and actions have the potential to get the worst or the best out of them. For Connie, if you tell her something can make her go faster, she will obsess over it. Obsession is a common neurodivergent trait - so be careful what you ask for as a coach. In regard to Connie, being advised about what to eat and the optimum weight to be (without adequate explanation) has led to her developing unhealthy fixations with food in the past… But with the right understanding and support, I’m certain this ability to obsess and fixate could be used for everyone’s mutual benefit. It doesn’t have to be a negative.
Perception is key, and Connie is not alone in having felt misunderstood by her teammates and coaches, and this misunderstanding can lead to isolation and maladaptive behaviours. I’ve mentioned it already, but for Connie, she’s desperately aware that her mini meltdowns have in the past been interpreted as the actions of a petulant teenager who ‘needs to grow up’, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. She’s currently part of a team who understand and accept her individuality, and that’s fantastic, but I asked Connie, if you knew the first tier UCI teams, the pro continental teams, or the Great Britain Cycling Team were neuroinclusive, would you want to be part of them, and she said yes, and that’s pretty sad.
I won’t say any more than in cycling Connie is far from the only neurodivergent athlete facing barriers and misunderstanding. It needs to change, and like I said it starts with honesty from the athletes, and acceptance from the teams and organisations.
Although I spattered my opinion and questions throughout this article, I have one giant question to finish on…
Why are sports seemingly in denial of the fact that AT LEAST 15% of their teams (athletes and staff) are neurodivergent? We talk about marginal gains, but here’s a big fat gain – talk about it!!!
Shout out to team Awol O’Shae and their Directeur Sportif Brent Skinner who is leading the drive for neuroinclusivity in sport – whether he knows it or not!