Updated: May 16
The first athlete we will be shining a spotlight on this week is London Irish Women’s Rugby player Hannah Owen. Hannah has ADHD and her story is a pretty positive one – hence why we’re posting during Neurodiversity Celebration Week, and why we will be shining a spotlight on her coach later in the week!
We were introduced to Hannah by her current coach and former England Rugby 7s Captain Abi Chamberlain, and after speaking to Hannah, we decided to double back on ourselves and interview Abi too! We think the duo are a great example of how with the right attitude, neuroinclusion can become second nature, and just another part of everyday practice!
So today we’ll give you an insight into what neuroinclusion looks and feels like from an athlete’s perspective.
As I said, Hannah’s story is pretty positive, and I think that’s due to two people in particular – her current coach Abi, and her former athletics coach who was also a family friend and knew Hannah since she was just two years old! Even though he was in his 80s, they got on “like a house on fire” and Hannah felt that he not only accepted her neurodivergent traits but embraced them.
I should caveat that Hannah has experienced stigma and discrimination in sport, so the fact that she remains positive serves to highlight how influential an inclusive coach can be. Coaches are the first point of contact for an athlete and them being informed, non-judgemental, and open minded is absolutely key to long-term athlete wellbeing and performance.
So where did it start for Hannah?
Hannah has always been drawn to sport as a way to focus her attention. She’s always had a lot of energy but struggled to regulate it. From the age of 5 she became involved in athletics, and from the age of 11 specialised in heptathlon, hammer, and shotput. Her move to rugby in her late teens was prompted by a need for more stimulation than those sports – especially hammer – could give her. Hannah talks about her nervous system issues quite openly, describing how she almost constantly feels a need to be stimulated, but also struggles to find the balance, with regular over-stimulation making her physically sick. After this loss of control, she can be left in a state of hyper-vigilance for days and even weeks after. I can really empathise with this dysregulation and loss of control, and especially the mental snowballing; it’s easy to feel like your body has betrayed you in these situations. Yet I’m blown away by Hannah’s awareness and acceptance of it. She’s only 24 but (and I say this about a lot of athletes we interview) she shows a wisdom beyond her years. I wonder how much of this ability to self-reflect and progress is due to the supportive environment she’s found herself in…
Well, yes. As athletes we choose to put ourselves on the line, to push ourselves and hurt ourselves. Hannah talks about enjoying being shocked back to equilibrium when she’s thrown to the ground – much like the cold shower technique! Being physically hurt isn’t the hard part. The difficulty (for neurodivergent people in particular) is what happens around training and performing. Being accepted, supported, and enabled in this space allows athletes to try even harder and to push themselves even further when they choose to, and where for some they feel disabled in this space, fortunately for Hannah she does not – in fact she feels the opposite.
Hannah describes having “never been so open with [her] physical and mental challenges”, and in feeling unafraid to speak openly and without judgement, she’s been able communicate her difficulties. If Hannah is feeling over-stimulated, or “buzzing of [her] rockets” because she’s been teaching in a lecture theatre all day, she feels totally comfortable in telling Abi this. This honesty allows Abi to respond appropriately. For Hannah in this situation, the appropriate response is to be given one simple focus – one “main job”. This helps Hannah narrow her focus back onto the task at hand. If she’s able to perform that task naturally (if things are going as planned), she can add her second job – to “heat 8 and 9” for instance. But she doesn’t move on to the second job until she’s in control of the first. For an athlete who struggles with over-stimulation, this segmented focus and incremental progression can be the key to their long-term and measured engagement.
In knowing what she’s struggling with, Hannah’s coaches have been able to make the small adjustments required to help – small adjustments that make a massive difference, not only to Hannah, but to the entire team – because everyone’s brain works differently after all!
Neuroinclusion and person-centred coaching doesn’t equate to coaches having an in-depth conversation with every athlete at the beginning and end of every session AND adapting EVERYTHING to suit each person – that’s totally unreasonable and in most cases where teams are large, just not possible. Instead, it involves coaches being aware of their unconscious bias, having an understanding of neurodiversity and a ‘tool kit’ of communication techniques, and having the freedom (or confidence) to use them as and when they intuit.
Abi isn’t the only coach to adapt the way she communicates to help her athletes. Hannah describes one of the more senior coaches Lydia using not just words, but pictures, diagrams, cones, gestures, and alternative wording as and when needed. For example, Lydia helps the athletes to remember certain line outs through word association – “an Irish line out is five people because the word Irish has five letters.” Simple. Easy.
Another example Hannah gave is of Abi incorporating imagery into her instructions when describing a line out – “ it’s like the shuffle button on Spotify, and you need to stand where the two intersections cross.” On hearing that description everything fell into place for Hannah.
These examples will have taken very little effort on the coaches part but made a world of difference to Hannah and the other athletes who process imagery faster than verbal cues.
To put it simply, Hannah describes her coaches doing three things that make a huge difference to her enjoyment and performance:
1) They listen to their athletes (regardless of preconceptions)
· Listening makes the athletes feel valued and respected
· A valued and respected athlete feels proud and confident
· A proud and confident athlete will feel and perform better
2) They adapt their feedback and communication styles to suit
· An athlete will process quicker in their preferred learning style
· An athlete is more likely to understand concepts in their preferred learning style
· Better processing and understanding will lead to greater wellbeing and performance
3) They recognise context
· Meaningful change cannot occur without understanding of the athlete as a whole
These are simple concepts, but often only considered through the lens of neurotypical behaviour and communication. In order for sports to be neuroinclusive, coaches must broaden their horizons to include and embrace those who sit further from the norm.
Because it’s fair, equitable, and sets a good example for the rest of society (who see athletes as role models)
And if that’s not enough, don’t we want athletes who sit further from the norm?
Aren’t the best athletes the most abnormal?
Click on the links below to find out more about London Irish Women's Rugby