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Well, we all need to be a ‘gang’ member don’t we!

By Paul Burrows


"Sometimes the most brilliant and intelligent minds do not shine in standardised tests, because they do not have standardised minds."

Diane Ravitch



I have written a number of blogs recently and have always found the process of recording my thoughts on any given subject easy. A bit of head space thinking then bang, it's written. Writing this blog has however been extremely difficult because it has required me to get to the very root of who I am. 


To complete the task, I have had to deconstruct why I play sport and in turn understand why I play the sport I play, the physical environments I thrive in, the music I listen to and perhaps biggest of all, the social interactions I seek. As you will appreciate, this is pretty fundamental stuff and it’s been a journey. I don’t know if my reasons for doing what I do are standard; but then I don’t have a standardised mind to know the answer to that.


Having had my mental health challenged in recent years, following my appreciation that I am neurodivergent; I came to realise that finding and understanding my ‘gang’ was critical. Perhaps some of these words will help you find your sport, if you haven’t already.


I am conscious that whilst I write about sport, I appreciate that the ‘gangs’ I refer to will exist in numerous other spheres: music, the arts, animal care or a thousand and one other pastimes. But for me it has and always will be about sport – it defines who I am.


So, whose gang are you in?


As someone who has spent a lifetime in sport both professionally and in an amateur / volunteer capacity, it is only as I come to terms with my own neurodivergence that I understand both why sport is my outlet and, more importantly, how vital it has been and is, to my mental health and wellbeing.


I am an Autistic and Dyslexic who spent his formative years loving sport but struggling to find my sport. I never really found where I fitted in.


I was too good at sports to be bullied at school, though I can’t help but feel that today what I suffered would now be called bullying. I was on just about every team going; but I just didn’t fit in. I wasn’t part of the in-crowd and had only a tiny handful of friends. This lack of friends is something I have carried with me my whole life. I just find people let me down when judged against my expectation of them. An expectation that is simply too high. If I say I’m going to do something, I will do it, why can’t others?


I don’t seek friends in my sporting activities; however, I do need people who will help me achieve my own goals both psychological and physical. If I happen to enjoy their company that is most definitely beneficial and is a key part in finding my gang. Finding where I fit. It does all become a bit chicken and egg though.


I’ve tried everything, but found that I wasn’t terribly good at sports that required fine motor skills i.e. racquet and ball sports. Without realising why, I was drawn to sports that require mental toughness and an ability to push myself hard and that coincidentally didn’t have a strong social element to them.


I was a runner, not too shabby at that, with my times for 800m and 1500m placing me well inside the top 10 for my age group nationally. I distinctly remember a 1500m race I ran as a 17-year-old against a fellow athlete who had just won the national schools. Everyone on the start line was saying well he’d win. Was I the only one thinking, ‘oh he will, will he?’ Sure enough, I went flying past him in the last 50m much to his and everyone else’s surprise. It’s that inner steel of wanting to prove everyone wrong that I really started to demonstrate from that age forward.


You’ve probably heard of Alan Sillitoe’s book, ‘The loneliness of the long distance runner’ - well that was me. I thought nothing of 15-20 mile training runs where I could be alone with my thoughts, chasing buses through Brighton where I grew up as they stopped for their passengers. The passengers watching me out their windows must have thought I was mad, or just chasing after my dog.


I then dabbled with hockey playing County U18 and U21, but never really fitted in with the social ethos of the sport, sitting off to one side at the end of matches. Likewise with rugby. Despite being 6’3”, and invariably the fastest player on the pitch I always played as a forward. In those days it was ‘you’re tall, you’re a forward’. Again, the social element of rugby was completely alien to me, and indeed confused and repelled me.


I do recall however, at the age of about 12, watching the Boat Race on TV and the hairs sticking up on the back of my neck thinking ‘that is what I want to do’. Rowing however was not a big sport on the south coast when I was young. I didn’t realise it, but I had found my ‘gang’. It just took me a number of years to get to it.


I went to ‘Poly’ as it was known then, Nottingham Trent University as it is now, to do a degree in Sports Science. What particularly attracted me to that course was the element of ‘Sport for the Disabled’ as it was called. I had volunteered at a Special Olympics event in 1982, and seeing the pleasure people with learning disabilities were gaining from sport inspired me. I thought it was great.


At the end of my degree I started working for a charity, the British Sports Association for the Disabled (BSAD), developing sporting opportunities through the sports national governing bodies and organising competitive sporting events. I really enjoyed this period of my professional life, but the pay was terrible!!


When working for BSAD, I co-developed a training course for local authority workers promoting the provision of sporting opportunities for people with all types of disability and impairment. One of the sessions in this course was entitled, ‘The benefits of sport’. We knew that we should talk about the benefits, but thinking back with horror we never really knew what to say, so the 45-minute session normally lasted only 10 minutes. Today, I could speak for a whole day on the benefits of sport both physical and mental. I would focus primarily on the mental health benefits, which I believe are particularly pronounced for those of us who are neurodivergent. Ultimately it is about creating that sense of belonging and oneness that can help us feel whole and part of something beyond ourselves and our own heads. It is also about calming the noise in our heads.


It was only when I finished my degree that I took up rowing. I gained entry to my ‘gang’, but it is only now, nearly forty years later that I am beginning to understand why it was my gang.

First and foremost, it was the social or relationship side of rowing that made me feel like I fit in. People who didn’t drink, people who were 100% committed to achieving a goal and because of the level of commitment required, an activity that filled a relationship void in the rest of my life. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t really have friends; I wouldn’t even really say the people I rowed with were friends. They were acquaintances with a shared goal, winning; and that was sufficient for me.


Does that perhaps re-define what social relationships can be?


In part, the mental relaxation that sport gives me is derived from a focus on a single thing, but it is also the environment within which I’m active that relaxes me. Water for me has always had a calming effect. Though I need to be on it, rather than in it… waterfalls, the sea, flowing rivers. Watching the moving water brings a calmness and deadens the noise in my head. Squeaky shoes on a gym floor however go right through me and I find such environments stressful.


Music can drown out some of my brain activity. Indeed, there is no ignoring the potential of music to calm me down, I find music can ‘feed’ or ‘counter’ specific moods. Depending on my mood, the music can deaden my brain activity. It can be classical or heavy metal – nothing in between. Lyrics are unimportant, it is the beat – look up the ‘Hu’, a Mongolian band that resonates with me to illustrate this! I have also been introduced to 8D music; it doesn’t seem to work for me, but it might for you. However, at times I simply can’t listen to anything and am happy being in silence for hours. The music at those times increases the noise in my head.


I've also found that my own brand of meditation slows my brain down - though I find mindfulness and meditation difficult, and it takes practice. My brain won’t let me stop, even for a minute. What I have found working for me quickly and simply is ‘square breathing’: breathe in for a count of 4, hold for 4, breath out for 4, then hold for 4 and repeat. I can actively feel my pulse lowering and my brain calming. I also practise the plank and wall sits as a sort of meditation. Both are evidenced to reduce blood pressure along with many other physical benefits. I practise square breathing whilst I do the plank – 2 for the price of 1!


To understand my relationship with my sport and help me choose the right sport for me, I needed to understand that I demonstrate obsessive personality traits. I thought what I did was normal. For example, at work there was a charity running event, the aim was to run 2 miles a day for 125 straight days. I ended up running 960 miles rather than the required 250. In 2022, I set myself the task of rowing 1,000,000m on an indoor rowing machine in a year. I did that by March and went on to row more than 7 million metres (over 4,350 miles) before the year was out. This meant I was rowing an average 21,097m a day which, should you not know, is a half marathon. By the end of this challenge, I was rowing 2 hrs a day. I was so obsessive that the earliest I got on the rowing machine to make sure my daily distance was done was 02:50 am. I came 28th in the world for distance rowing, whilst holding down a responsible, more than full time job. I would suggest in hindsight that this is not evidence of a standardised mind, I have learned that it is not normal. But it does mean I have skills suited to high-performance.


After both challenges, I crashed. Not physically, but mentally. The task was done, I had no idea what was next. This has caused me to reflect heavily upon always having at least one open-ended goal so that when the immediate aim is achieved there remains something further still to do. The alternative, a mental health crash, is not somewhere where I want to go back to.


Coincidentally whilst my children were growing up, I felt selfish if I did anything for myself and basically stopped playing sports. This had the same negative effect on my wellbeing. This was a huge error as it caused my mental health to suffer. It may seem counterintuitive, but we owe it to our families to keep ourselves physically active. We will be better parents/siblings/children for it. You need to give yourself permission to do this.


One of my many reflections is that I choose these obsessions to try and wear myself out mentally and physically so I can sleep. I don’t know if it’s my age, I’m a very youthful 59 (where did those years go), but I can’t sleep. Once I wake, regardless of the time of the night, I am fully awake and will struggle to get to sleep again. I know of someone who was diagnosed as ASD having gone to the GP with their inability to sleep. I live in a state of perpetual tiredness.


Sport helps.


So, what have I learned from my years of sport involvement and my increasing understanding of my own neurodiversity?


Ultimately it is, for me, about choosing an activity that reinforces the positives of our characters, where we get positive reinforcement from. It is not about gaining a greater understanding of what we struggle to do, that’s negative.


Being Autistic, a structured list seems to be in order to outline my learning:


  1. That sport or physical activity is critical to my mental well-being. 


  1. It’s vital that you give yourself permission to get involved, your mental health is critical; so compromising this by focussing solely on others i.e. children, will not help anyone in the long term.


  1. It’s about finding the right sport/activity for you, this will include consideration of:

  2. The physical environment you are comfortable in, considering light, sound and immersive feelings i.e. being in water.

  3. Asking yourself whether you have a natural capacity for fine or gross motor skill. If you lack fine motor skills and a complex skill is required, how best will you learn this and does your coach / trainer understand how to communicate this to you?

  4. Do you want the activity to be structured or unstructured – for example going to the skatepark so you can free wheel or exercising with a set structure, time and location?

  5. What sort of social activity or interaction, if any, are you seeking and can exclude yourself from this without issue?

  6. Is it a team sport that you want to play, but perhaps one where you play it as an individual? Cricket and rowing are two good examples of sports that require team effort but not necessarily by interacting with the other team members. Talking is kept to a minimum, it’s an individual team sport that requires mental effort - almost like physical chess. 

  7. How will you find the head space that works for you? Is this about total concentration so you can’t think about anything else or the opposite - a state where your mind can wander? Music may or may not help depending upon the headspace you are in…

  8. How organised do you have to be? Can you be spontaneous, or will it require a level of organisation that you struggle with? Do you have to be at a given place at a given time or can you just do it whenever you want to? Will you be required to visit new places all the time, for example away fixture locations? Is this a barrier for you? Do you prefer a routine in a place that is known to you?

  9. Are you hypermobile, something that is particularly common amongst the neurodivergent? If you are, you may need to seek advice on what sports are suited to you.


  1. It’s about setting yourself a challenge, but also ensuring you have an on-going challenge. The nature of our brains may cause us to shut down once the initial goal is achieved, the benefit sport provides needs to be accessed long-term. It's about stopping the yo-yo of active, inactive, active, inactive. Target setting it is critical.


  1. That you need to understand how you deaden the noise in your head – be this through music, focus in the moment or creating a point of physical exhaustion. This I believe will help you sleep. This understanding of how you can focus in the moment is critical.

  2. And finally, have fun! You may struggle with an activity, for example dance, but as long as you are moving it will be doing some good and if nothing else it might give someone else a laugh – providing you are comfortable with that.



Whether you're a coach seeking to better understand your neurodivergent athletes mindset, or a neurodivergent person seeking to better understand your own mind, I hope you gained some sort of learning from reading this blog.


Paul

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