Updated: May 16
This week we are shining a spotlight on triathlete Tom Epton, who attributes most of his sporting and academic success so far to his ADHD!
Tom was a keen footballer and swimmer in his youth, but picked up triathlon whilst at university in Southampton. In the short time he's been competing and training as a triathlete, there's been a pandemic and lockdown, and he himself has experienced overtraining and multiple injuries, yet his performance trajectory has continued to improve. Last year he won multiple races and competed at both the European and World Aquathlon Championships. Next year he will be racing for a German team in the Bundesliga triathlon series and will be moving to the Alps to (hopefully) level up his training! Tom has also written various articles for the online training platform Training Peaks, because although he’s a student of science, he's driven to satiate his innate creativity nonetheless!
As a child, Tom was the naughty schoolboy you probably imagine when you hear the term attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He looks back at some of his childhood behaviours (such as launching chairs across the classroom) in total bemusement but feels fortunate that these early ‘behavioural issues’ led him to being diagnosed with ADHD at such a young age. Tom explained how a lot of people who get diagnosed later in life unfortunately “muddle through up until that point" – the point at which a diagnosis allows them to make sense of their ‘non-conformist’ behaviour traits, and to potentially seek or receive appropriate understanding and support. For Tom however, his diagnosis at the age of six allowed him to learn and grow with this understanding, and as an adult he is now able to structure his life to incorporate all of his ADHD traits in a positive way. Early intervention and understanding have allowed him to turn what may be considered weaknesses by the majority of people, into integral parts of his daily routine.
Tom is a great example of how someone with ADHD can be incredibly productive – given the right circumstances. But his journey to this point hasn’t been easy… and has been fraught with failure and misunderstanding. Failure to conform to neurotypical standards of behaviour and misunderstanding of the intentions behind his words and actions. Perhaps these early disappointments are what led him to develop the ability to “stop and move on” when something clearly isn’t working: Tom, like many of us, knows the dire consequences of trying to shoehorn yourself into an ill-fitting box. As an adult it’s easier to see these pitfalls and avoid them (if possible), but children most often lack the awareness required to appropriately manage their emotions, or the ability to self-advocate, and this was certainly the case for Tom.
He was first excluded from school at the age of seven and was excluded from three schools in total for disruptive behaviour. At one point he was sent to a Royal Merchant Navy School in an attempt to curb his ‘bad behaviour’, but needless to say, the disciplinary technique didn’t work... With awareness and research into the neurobiological causes of ADHD and other neurodivergent conditions increasing, it is becoming clear that traditional interpretations of these conditions are woefully outdated and inadequate. Tom was the ‘naughty schoolboy’, but at the very same time, he was not. The word ‘naughty’ implies intentional disobedience, but if a child lacks the self-awareness or self-management strategies to channel their own behaviour, are they actually intentionally misbehaving? Can they be fairly labelled as naughty or disruptive?
Tom’s behaviour may have disturbed the education of those around him, but that may not have been his intention. Punishing someone for the unintended consequences of their actions is very unlikely to lead to personal growth for that individual. I can imagine it may in fact have the opposite effect. For Tom he doesn’t look back at the exclusions and the school transfers as fundamental to his personal growth, but instead highlights the influence of one teacher in particular, Mrs Smith, who from the time Tom was in year eight, “moved heaven and earth” to ensure he stayed at the same school until he finished sixth form. Tom credits the fact that he made it to university almost entirely to the efforts of Mrs Smith.
Once at university, Tom really discovered his passion for sport, and through sport he was able to explore and uncover the unique formula to his own success. So, what is the formula for Tom?
👉 He needs freedom to be able to choose what he does and how he does it.
But that’s not to say he wants to avoid hard work and commitment – freedom to choose actually enables him to work harder and be more committed.
Neither does he dislike structure – in fact he actively seeks it out. But he only thrives when he has a say in what that structure is. It seems logical that this need to be in control stems from his brain being fundamentally different from ‘the norm’. People with divergent brains tend to work better when their differences are considered. Yet as it stands, these differences are most often not factored into the equation by others (such as teachers and coaches), and in these cases it’s up to the neurodivergent person themselves to seek adjustments or to self-adjust. This leads to people self-advocating like Tom, and being perceived as arrogant (like Tom), or masking, conforming, and ultimately burning out…
👉 He finds it hard to tolerate social injustice.
This is a character trait shared by many neurodivergent people and is likely due to a shared lack of intuition of, or conformity to social hierarchy. As a child, before he was able to develop his self-management strategies, Tom would become incredibly frustrated when faced with situations that to him appeared unfair, and this frustration would often manifest in the aforementioned ‘bad behaviour’. As an adult he finds injustice slightly easier to tolerate, but is that because he actively avoids witnessing it? I wonder whether avoidance of these situations has played a part in Tom being drawn to a more solitary sport such as triathlon… I also wonder how many neurodivergent people are driven away from sports teams, clubs, and organisations because of the internal bureaucracy that for many is both unnavigable and intolerable.
This being said, neurodivergent people are not incapable of functioning well within teams by any means. Tom and many other neurodivergent athletes I’ve spoken to have successfully found their place and thrived within teams. The common thread between these successful collaborations is freedom within conformity. It seems like a contradictory concept, but it’s not. Tom spoke about being a pretty decent football player – someone that people wanted on their team. He had a shared goal with his teammates, and he was given room to express himself by the team coaches: That's what team playing looked like to Tom, and it worked for everyone.
👉 He needs to know why.
Just as Tom is not incapable of team play, neither is he incapable of being coached or instructed. When he was taught how to swim competitively, Tom’s main requirement from his coach was that he be allowed to ask as many questions as he needed to ensure his own understanding and buy in. This need to know why is a common neurodivergent trait that is all too often mistaken for obstinance and disobedience. This is however usually not the case, and instead, ‘bottom-up thinking’ whereby a person needs to take in the details before the concept, as opposed to the concept before the details, is most often responsible for persistent questioning. In these cases, there is no malice behind the questions, because there is no choice - they are a necessity. If coaches understood a little more about divergent types of thinking and processing such as bottom up thinking, I'm sure some all too common misunderstandings could be avoided (as could the inevitable and painful fallout that often follows).
A common theme for Tom seems to be freedom, and in particular freedom to control his journey. Whether negative experiences or natural progression drove him to this conclusion is difficult to tell, but what is not difficult to tell is how much he has thrived since becoming more independent. When he was forced to conform within an education system that didn’t understand him and gave him no freedom to understand himself, he rebelled. But as soon as he reached university, his life changed, and he was able to enter a journey of self-discovery, aided by his pursuit of sport. Tom describes how for him “freedom allowed an awakening”.
Tom transformed himself from a struggling youth to a successful young man. He taught himself further maths A level from YouTube tutorials to ensure he made it to university (and because that’s the way he preferred to learn); he started his own data science and custom software company whilst there; and although he admittedly didn’t attend all his classes (opting to work in his own time and space), he ultimately left university with a first class honours in Physics.
At university, Tom also joined a triathlon club where he made a lot of great friends, with one in particular introducing him to others as “someone you shouldn’t like, but you can't help liking...” I guess that says a lot about looking beyond the surface… especially when the surface is unfamiliar or unpalatable
Tom accredits his positive journey into competitive triathlon, primarily to having a really good group of athletes around him. Southampton university didn’t have the best sports set up at the time, but what it did have was a really positive sporting environment created by the athletes, for the athletes. A lot of people within and outside of the university helped Tom along the way, such as Ant Gritton who ran the local cycling workout studio and who gave Tom a job in his first year; that’s when Tom really learnt how to train like a competitive athlete. There were also physios who gave him 'mates rates' for their services, and coaches, such as British Triathlon coach Joe Morrisson, who would help him for free.
For me this thriving network highlights a number of things:
👉 Firstly, the less bureaucratic areas of sport are where the magic happens – where people willingly help each other rather than wanting to know what they can get out of a relationship first. With their general distaste for social politics, this works particularly well for neurodivergent athletes, and clearly worked well for Tom...
👉 Secondly, Tom is often seen as both difficult and arrogant, yet scratch below the surface, and clearly he’s not - he’s just different. When people get to know him, they really like him; they like him enough to go out of their way to help him. But unfortunately in the fast paced and impersonal society we currently live in, many people don't have the inclination to look beyond their own unconscious bias...
👉 And thirdly, Tom utilised every single resource around him to achieve his goal in half the time it probably should have taken, which highlights a neurodivergent trait that I think is too often overlooked:
LISTEN HARD : LEARN FAST
Given freedom and the right external input, athletes (or employees) who you might otherwise consider difficult or slow could absolutely blow your mind with their capabilities. I guarantee it.
One last thought...
Consider if you lived and functioned in a world that was made to cater solely for neurodivergent people...
Would you display ‘difficult’ behaviours?
Would you need to slow down to process things in your least preferred method of communication?
Follow @tom_epton_ on Instagram
Read his Training Peaks article How To Coach Athletes With ADHD From Personal Experience: