Updated: May 17
Peter Barnes is a father of two who works as a project manager in the translation industry. He's passionate about sport, and in particular cycling.
Peter never fit the mould, and this made life very difficult at school, and as a teacher. He always wanted to immerse himself in sport – to take his passion to the next level, but like many others who have to stretch that little bit too far to fit the mould, it never quite worked out the way he hoped it would.
My conversation with Peter brought forth some key points that I see repeated quite often. The first is very topical – the ‘ADHD issue’ (because the topic has become a contentious issue), the second is regarding positive or negative early experiences in sport, and the third is conformity in sport and the lack of freedom to go about things differently.
The ADHD issue…
Peter hasn’t officially been diagnosed with Autism or ADHD, but he has many traits of both. He has also therefore not been medicated for ADHD, which is a hot topic right now! For him, following the advice and seeking the workplace adjustments suggested for individuals with those conditions has helped him immensely. He has a reason for his burnouts, and although he doesn’t use it as an ‘excuse’, he no longer beats himself up for failing. It’s allowed him to take pragmatic steps to becoming more effective and productive in the long term, rather than blindly making the same mistake over and over again. Personally, I don’t see the issue with self-diagnosis or any type of diagnosis if it HELPS the individual and if it ENABLES them to be better and to do better!
Everyone is neurodiverse, so it therefore follows that everyone will work best in different ways. If people need labels to get the freedom, they need to find their best, it’s sad (that they aren’t enabled to do that without a label), but it seems to me like a necessary step towards relaxing unnecessarily rigid systems so that more people can thrive… Yes, it wasn’t how things were done in the past, but surely, we want to progress? There were a lot of things that happened in the past that definitely shouldn’t be happening now…
Early experiences in sport
Peter, like many neurodivergent or ‘non-conforming’ individuals has never quite found a permanent place in sport, and this has been his experience since childhood. No matter how many times he’s tried to participate, to improve, to progress, he’s faced social and communication barriers that have knocked him back. Luckily these barriers didn’t stop Peter from repeatedly trying and at times experiencing the benefits of sport, but for many others like him, one negative experience – especially in childhood – is enough to put them off for life.
Peter struggled socially at school – to but it bluntly, he was bullied. For him, sport was an opportunity to feel part of a team and to be competitive, but it didn’t always work out that way… primarily because the sports offered at Peter’s school (as at many other schools) didn’t lend themselves to someone with balance and coordination difficulties – they were almost exclusively ball sports such as football and cricket. Balance and coordination can be improved through participation in sport, but teaching or coaching needs to be piecemeal, and explicit. Being thrown into the deep end of a ball sport probably isn’t going to provide those learning opportunities. It didn’t help Peter. Whilst playing football, he was usually given the role of left back, and this unfortunately turned into a joke amongst his peers – “left back in the changing rooms”. He was also used as a decoy striker which didn’t do a great deal for his confidence. Whilst playing cricket, he enjoyed the team element again, and the equality of roles, but again struggled to time his reactions as a batter and coordinate his throws as a bowler.
Yet the difficulties he faced were still outweighed by the positives, and he still had the desire to participate and even study it as a GCSE. Unbeknownst to Peter, this decision turned out to be life changing. It was studying physical education that afforded him the impetus and freedom to explore sports beyond those offered at school. Peter decided to base his GCSE coursework on cycling. It perked his interest; he started training and joined a club. Although he came to cycling later than some, he managed to work his way to a competitive Junior level, racing the Isle of Man Youth Tour. Peter described cycling as a perfect fit for him. His fine motor skills weren’t great, but he had energy and excitement to give to sport – cycling provided the perfect opportunity for this. He still struggled with cornering, and lacked a little confidence, but where he struggled in some respects, he could make up for it in others. He felt enabled and included… for a while.
Non-conformity in sport
Peter was someone who (like many neurodivergent individuals), fought to find his place in sport, and fought hard to stay there, only to find the fight would never end as long as sport turns a blind eye to neurodiversity. Although Peter found joy and passion in cycling, his journey through the sport was never linear, and he was often faced with the phrase “but this is how we do it…” with the subtext being “do it this way or leave”. There were also times when “life got in the way” because for Peter finding balance was and is still difficult – no pun intended! But he’s determined to stay connected with the sport he loves and is also determined to encourage progression and acceptance in the space too. For Peter, it begins with honesty, and he shared some very honest observations with me that I think are important to highlight.
In Peter’s opinion, coaches should be aware of their own preferences vs what’s best for their athletes – to say to themselves, “yes, I have a coaching philosophy, and a way I'd like this to be achieved," and to simultaneously ask themselves, "but does it actually suit this athlete?” Rather than coaches excluding athletes or making them stretch to ‘fit a the mould’, Peter suggests allowing flexibility of process to get the best out of each individual.
It's something that he’s experienced at work. He was hesitant to ask for accommodations – accommodations for Peter being freedom to approach tasks differently – but his manager reassured him “it’s great you’re unique… everyone’s unique!” This was not to diminish Peter, but to let him know that difference is okay.
Intentions are important. Effort is important. Processes can be flexible. This sounds quite different to “but this is how we do it” doesn’t it?
According to Peter, British Cycling and many Pro teams are both extremely regimented and lacking in flexibility of process. As a result, they have very high athlete turnovers, which although it’s something that has been exposed in recent years, is still a major issue. Peter observed that sports supporters often forget athletes are humans – yes with ‘superhuman abilities’, but humans all the same. He wonders whether coaches forget they are dealing with humans too. It’s an important factor to be conscious of if neurodiverse representation in sport is to improve.