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- Ishmael Burdeau - Ultra Running - Autistic
This blog post features a story written by Autistic ultra runner and UESCA certified running coach Ishmael Burdeau. Ishmael writes about his life, his sport, and his observations of Autism in sport. I came across Ishmael after reading an article he had written for the online magazine I Run Far. In the article Ishmael comments on the number of Autistic people both drawn to and excelling in ultra long distance sports such as ultrarunning. We were thrilled to see Autism in sport so positively framed and couldn't wait to get in touch with the author! Ishmael and I had a great chat, and we're hoping he'll write for us again in the future. 🙏 Follow @sublimechaser on Instagram to keep up to date with Ishmael's races! If you're a dot watcher, you'll have something to entertain you most weekends! 😉 Ishmael's Story "As a kid growing up in the USA in the 1970s and 80s, being good at sports was the easiest and most effective way to be accepted by one’s peers, and even more so for boys. The stereotypes often seen in American films and TV shows were certainly accurate, at least in my experience. As an undiagnosed and unrecognised young autistic who really struggled with social acceptance and spent most of his time avoiding bullies, I longed to be good at a sport, any sport. Unfortunately for me, and many other autistics, I had a degree of dyspraxia and physical awkwardness that meant I was generally far behind my peers in my ability to catch, throw and sprint, which are the building blocks of nearly all popular sports in America and in fact most countries. Even while seeking refuge in the library, I still longed to use my body and physicality the way I had done as a small child, before the need to ‘fit in’. In this time there were a few small glimpses of the athlete-to-be, even if these went mostly unrecognised. One very distinct and early memory I have of this was during a PE class, when I was aged about 9. In a change from the usual lessons which were spent in teams, catching, throwing and sprinting, this lesson was different - we were simply told to run laps around the field for an indeterminate period of time. I remember setting off with my classmates, enjoying this somewhat novel and less structured activity. After only a lap or two, I found myself far out in front, just moving along at my natural pace. It felt fairly effortless, I was certainly not that fast, but I also had something else which the other kids didn’t. Sadly this lesson was a one-off, and aside from a few tiny moments of sporting joy (which generally involved simple, aimless running) it would be many years before I began to learn that far from being a hopeless athlete I would become a lifelong one. Looking back, it’s a little odd to think that none of my teachers or PE coaches picked up on this. Doubtless things would have turned out quite differently if they had. Instead, I was strangely drawn to an even odder and more marginal endurance sport: cycling. This was indeed very strange for a young teenager in southeast Alaska, where basketball, baseball and American football were the only socially acceptable forms of sporting activity. Despite the fact that I was a fairly good cyclist - I was invited to the US Olympic Training Center and raced at a high level in France and Italy - something was missing. While I loved many aspects of the sport, especially long days training alone in the mountains and the simple yet strict and regimented life of an athlete, many other aspects of the sport held little appeal or were actively in opposition to my sense of self. Cycling is a strange hybrid activity, combining both individual and team skills. I had little interest in riding as part of a team, and reading the rhythm of the peloton and anticipating the tactics of others held little appeal. I also lacked the bike handling skills of many of the other riders and had a strong dislike for group riding. My preferred terrain was the long uphill, where skills, tactics and teamwork fell away. Hampered by these limitations, I also found myself in frequent opposition to my team coaches. Partly through a level of autistic focus on my ‘special interest’ (I was an avid student of sports science) and partly through a generalised defiance towards many authority figures (especially those granted this status through no obvious knowledge or talent) I refused to fit in or do as I was told by these authority figures. By the age of 20 I had given up all thoughts of competitive sport, feeling burned out and somewhat disgusted by the very notion of competitive, elite-level sport. After a decade lost to masking, I felt the urgent need to return to an athletic life in my early 30s, for both my physical and mental health. This time I took up marathon running in a fairly serious way, dedicating most of my free time to planning, executing and recovering from training and racing, primarily on the roads in the south of England. My focus and dedication paid off, with 34 minute 10Ks and a 2:46 marathon. By no means fast times in any absolute sense, but pretty quick by most standards. At this point in my life I was also beginning to hear of the term Asperger's Syndrome, but it was one I eventually rejected, based on the mistaken belief that there was no way that someone with Asperger’s Syndrome would be able to perform in any sport. How wrong I was. 15 years later, and I had spent each of these intervening years dedicated to the pursuit of endurance sports, first moving back into competitive cycling, and then ultracycling. Even by the standards of road racing cyclists, ultracycling is a tough sport. For me, it began with 24 hour time trials, in which I covered as many as 485 miles without stopping. This eventually led to two completions of the now-legendary Transcontinental Race, riding from London to Istanbul, self-supported. After facing the often terrifying roads of eastern Europe and achieving my goals of racing across Europe, I knew it was time to return to the simple sport that had truly touched my heart: running. But, given my new-found inner strength and mental toughness, I knew that ‘normal’ running would not be something for me. Instead I turned to ultrarunning, beginning with ‘easy’ 50km races before eventually completing events such as the 268 mile Spine Race in January 2017 and, more recently, the North and South Wales 200 mile races, as well as many shorter events such as the Lakeland 100 and the West Highland Way race in Scotland. But for some reason it was not until the global Covid pandemic that I began to fully acknowledge and eventually embrace my autism, and it took me a little while longer to see the connections between my deep appreciation of ultrarunning and its connection to my autistic experience. I now understand that my autism and athletic life are inextricably linked, in that my well being requires an athletic outlet, and my autistic strengths are a wonderful complement to my ultrasport endeavours. Through the recent achievements of much younger autistic ultrarunners like Zach Bates and John Almeda, both of whom I followed to outstanding performances in this year’s gruelling Western States 100 mile run in California, I now see that in many ways the sport of ultrarunning is very well aligned to my autistic strengths. These include: resilience and the ability to stick things out; a love of routine which keeps us on track with our training and planning; the ability to focus our minds for extraordinary lengths of time to achieve our goals; and a willingness to do things which most others would consider very odd or even crazy. Far from being a disability which impedes us, I have come to realise that once we find the right activity to match our autistic interests and we have the right support systems in place, it can be difficult to stop autistic athletes from achieving their goals, whatever they might be. In my own case, this has led me to aspire towards becoming a lifelong endurance athlete." Thank you Ishmael 🙏🙏🙏
- James Lovatt - Horse Riding - ADHD
This week’s blog post features horse rider and animal enthusiast James Lovatt. James didn’t discover his ADHD until later in life, but it was this realisation that opened a door to not only healing, but self discovery. Content warning: Discretion is advised for readers of this blog post as James’s story touches upon the topic of vulnerability and grooming in sport. If on reading this story you would like to reach out for help or advice, we recommend approaching either Sport Integrity or Crimestoppers. Sport Integrity is a three-year pilot project that has been developed to support National Governing Bodies to deliver their responsibilities for upholding conduct in their sports [see the Whyte Review]. Individuals can raise a concern regarding any of the following issues; bullying, harassment, discrimination, abuse (verbal and physical), sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, victimisation and breach of an applicable policy. Crimestoppers is an independent charity giving people the power to speak up to stop crime, 100% anonymously. You can contact them by phone and online, 24/7, 365 days a year. James’s Story James was a self-admittedly awkward child, but being from a military family, circumstances forced him to learn to make friends. If it wasn’t for his upbringing, there’s every chance he would have been bullied for being ‘weird’. He felt most comfortable hanging out at games workshops and playing Warhammer – partly because the people were more understanding and accepting, but also because he was drawn to the strategic and tactical challenges of playing - they kept his brain positively stimulated. The same couldn’t be said for his experience of sport at school, which was (like many schools) largely confined to rugby. According to James, if he wasn’t being “smashed around” he was falling asleep! The stereotypical preconception of ADHD is the kid who can’t sit still - and although this is the case for some - for others it’s an inability to regulate attention that can swing both ways. Understimulation can be as detrimental as overstimulation. Standing at the bottom of a pitch waiting for a ball… is very understimulating. Having to sit down in the classroom all day was also pretty understimulating. For James it led to a vicious cycle of poor sleep, reduced energy, reduced capacity and reduced executive functioning. He staved off bullying from his peers, but in retrospect was in effect bullied by his teachers - earning the nickname ‘late again Lovatt’ for his inability to turn up to lessons on time. On speaking to James, you can tell immediately that he’s a pretty intelligent guy, and yet he left school with minimal GCSEs (two Cs in science being his best grades), a ‘lazy’ label and an intense feeling of shame. Especially when pitched against his high achieving sisters. James’ dad was in the army, so from a young age he was familiarised with horses and stables, but it wasn’t until his teenage years that he became hyper-fixated on riding. For three years after his GCSEs, nothing else mattered. James' ambition was to be the next Mark Todd, but this was an unlikely prospect given his background. James’ family weren’t poor, but to make it as an elite horse rider, a very very large amount of money is required… there aren’t many people in the UK with that privilege. If James was going to make it he would need a sponsor. Abuse of power James took on as many jobs in as many stables as he could, trying to earn money and make connections. One summer a man started talking to him and offered him riding lessons on his horses. This man made himself out to be a significant individual on the equestrian circuit. He was also a chiropractor. I’m not going to divulge the details of what ensued, but I would like to highlight some key factors that make neurodivergent individuals particularly prone to abuse in sport. They’ve often, like James, suffered years of dealing with unseen barriers, bullying and/or unfair treatment. Their self-talk as a result… “Maybe I invited this… Maybe I was asking for it… Because after all, I am weird.” To add to this were the socio-environmental pressure James felt to prescribe to a certain doctrine; to be a man, to provide for others, and to not be a burden. His self-talk… “Suck it up. Tell no one. I’m the problem.” Finally, James needed sponsorship to ride... He needed sponsorship to achieve his dreams. What did this teach him? “I can’t afford to speak up.” How did it end? Fortunately for James, leaving for University put an end to the abuse he was suffering. The geographical distance gave him space to reflect and to build his self confidence back up. Unfortunately it temporarily put an end to his dreams of becoming a professional horse rider. Today In his 20s and 30s, James put his talents to use in sales. Regardless of the barriers and trauma he had faced, he emerged as an energetic and enthusiastic ‘people person’, but the healing didn’t really start until he recognised and addressed his neurodivergence. This revelation came as a result of his work with Dr Elizabeth Guest and her organisation Aspiedent, In helping others understand and embrace their neurodivergence, he recognised it in himself. James finally took the time to drop his mask and truly reflect. This wasn’t easy though and it’s been an ongoing effort since - a battle with himself to stop putting the needs of others before his own. Altruism might seem like a positive trait from the outside, but when it serves not only to keep others happy, but to keep them at arm's length too, it can be incredibly isolating… this has been James’s experience. Exploring the past in the context of his neurodivergence has allowed James to make sense, to forgive himself and to rid himself of the shame that’s plagued him for most of his life. Ensuing opportunities to work within the realm of neurodiversity awareness, education and intervention, have provided him with an opportunity to positively influence the lives of others, and his current mission is to address the significantly high rate of suicide associated with neurodivergence in the veterinary industry. On a personal level, James is now married to his wife Jemma and owns his very own horses - Boris and Maizey. He rides and competes at various equestrian competitions in the Yorkshire area focusing on show jumping and dressage. If you’d like to reach out to James about his work, you can connect with him on LinkedIn. A little bit of Boris to end on a lighter note...
- Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) - Mike Nichols
Our latest blog post looks at Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) and the continuing work of Mike Nichols - the founder of NLPS Global. Sport has always been a huge part of Mike’s life and after a career in Basketball in the UK and US he decided to pursue a degree in Sports Development. Midway through his degree in 2011, the government announced it was cutting the role. Feeling a little lost, Mike was perusing a book in a shop when he stumbled across a book on NLP. His interest was peaked and he soon gained a qualification in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) - a qualification that sparked his career to date. Mike primarily works with elite and/or aspiring athletes to help them reframe their communication and optimise their understanding and performance. After speaking to Mike about what we do and the perspective of neurodivergent sportspeople, athletes (and staff), Mike was inspired to write a blog post about how NLP techniques can be utilised from the other side - by coaches. The key points Mike makes in his blog are: 👉Neurodivergent athletes perceive information differently, so coaches should adapt communication styles. 👉 NLP provides tools to help coaches understand athletes' nonverbal cues, emotions, and learning styles. 👉 NLP techniques like positive reinforcement and affirmations can build neurodivergent athletes' trust, confidence, and motivation. Another of Mike’s blogs breaks down NLP into simple terms. We particularly like “Mindset Magic…” and the deep-dive into NLP and its ‘Meta Model’ centred around: “Deletions, Distortions, and Generalizations.“ NLP makes a lot of sense to us, but whether or which model of communication you subscribe to, the important takeaway is this; we all experience the world differently - we all process, communicate and behave differently, and effective communication therefore relies on a) an understanding of this, and b) all parties to ‘meet in the middle’. We’d like to leave you with an analogy (courtesy of Mike)... "After our conversation yesterday I wanted to come up with an analogy to help coaches understand communication with neurodivergent athletes and came up with a radio analogy... I think the analogy would benefit coaches a lot. *The Radio Frequency Connection: Communicating with Neurodivergent Athletes* In the vast spectrum of human communication, understanding neurodivergence is akin to tuning into different radio frequencies. Each frequency represents a unique way of processing information and perceiving the world. For coaches working with neurodivergent professional athletes, mastering this analogy can be the key to fostering effective communication and support. *Tuning In: Understanding Neurodivergence as Frequencies* Neurodivergent athletes, like different radio frequencies, have diverse cognitive styles, sensory sensitivities, and communication preferences. Some athletes might process information rapidly, akin to a high-frequency transmission, while others might navigate the world with a deeper, more nuanced perception, akin to a lower frequency. Recognizing and respecting these variations is essential for meaningful communication. *Clear Reception: Tailoring Communication Strategies* Much like adjusting the radio dial for a clear signal, coaches can tailor their communication strategies. For athletes with heightened sensory sensitivities, using clear, concise language and minimizing distractions can enhance their reception. Providing visual cues or allowing extra time for processing information can be invaluable for athletes operating on different frequencies. *Creating Harmonious Communication: Nurturing Trust and Understanding* Effective communication with neurodivergent athletes isn’t just about transmitting information; it’s about creating a harmonious frequency between coach and athlete. Building trust and understanding is fundamental. Coaches can achieve this by actively listening, being patient, and adapting their coaching style to resonate with the athlete’s unique frequency. It’s a two-way transmission where the athlete feels heard and supported, fostering a relationship based on mutual respect. *The Symphony of Success: Embracing Neurodiversity* Embracing the analogy of radio frequencies in communicating with neurodivergent athletes transforms coaching into a symphony. Each athlete's unique frequency contributes to the harmonious melody of the team. By understanding, respecting, and embracing these diverse frequencies, coaches not only empower neurodivergent athletes but also create an inclusive, supportive environment where every athlete can shine, fostering a culture of acceptance, understanding, and success." Than you Mike for reaching out, exchanging ideas and mutual learning!
- Daley Jones - MET Detective, Football, Running - ADHD, Dyspraxia
This week's blog post features MET Detective Daley Jones! Daley was diagnosed with ADHD and Dyspraxia in his late 30’s and alongside his difficulties (with motor planning and coordination in particular), he has an abundance of energy, enthusiasm and passion, which make him an absolute pleasure to interview. On a personal note, I was absolutely thrilled to speak to Daley because it was always my childhood dream to become a detective! However, I didn’t think it was possible because of my neurodivergence… BUT after speaking to both Daley and his very lovely co-worker Teresa (Chief of Staff Support), I can now confidently DEBUNK this myth! Daley himself is the Co-Chair and Founder of The National ADHD Alliance for the MET Police - an organisation whose large membership base alludes to the depth of neurodivergent representation in the police force as a whole. He also supports the Disabled Staff Association (DSA) and the National Police Autism Association! So as much as this blog exists in part to highlight what’s possible in sport - know that it's also possible elsewhere! Neurodivergent people can be included, and they are capable. It was hard to edit Daley’s interview down to 20 minutes (maximum attention span) as in typical ADHD fashion, we went down A LOT of ‘rabbit holes’ and had quite a few mishaps - very interesting and incredibly funny - but not necessarily on point! 😅 One portion I had to edit out, included Daley’s description of being a 6 '5' man with Dyspraxia. He described himself as looking like a “drunk tigger” but feeling a strong sense of shame and embarrassment - sometimes even anger. Feelings of frustration and self-loathing often come hand in hand with feeling different and not knowing why. This can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming, and it’s taken Daley gaining two diagnoses, discovering regular exercise, and finding his community to consider self-compassion… to forgive himself for what he fundamentally cannot control. Again in typical ADHD fashion, Daley supplied me with reams of information and photos to supplement this post AND he even wrote a blog post prompted by our interview - I’ve included it below the video. We hope you enjoy watching, listening and/or reading. Daley has some very interesting observations to make about Dyspraxia in particular. One of them being the distinct lack of role models - hopefully we’ve added one to the list today. 🙏😉 Daley’s blog post: “Been a little while since I've written anything. Busy busy busy as per. Speaking of being busy, one thing that I have been endeavouring to find time for of late is exercise. Now, I don't need to say anything about the obvious benefits of regular exercise with regards to people's physical health. There are plenty of articles out there, written by people far more intelligent (and fitter) than me that will explain all of that. But what has become increasingly apparent to me is how important regular exercise is to my mental health, and in particular my ADHD and Dyspraxia. Now, like many I've always hated running. However during lockdown (Remember that!?) having nothing to do and not being able to take part in team sports (football for me) I decided going for a run was better than doing nothing. I won't lie....the first few weeks were bloody awful. I hate every single run. But then one day, quite unexpectedly I found myself enjoying my run. It was such a shock I remember the moment clearly as if it was yesterday. I was running along a canal one morning. It was a beautiful autumnal day, I'd run past some canal boats (cooking bacon the bastards) and some swans. And found myself thinking "well isn't this nice" I eventually set a goal of doing a half marathon, which I trained for and completed in June 2021. However, thanks to my good old ADHD.....as soon as I completed my goal my brain said. "That's it. Done now" and honestly I've struggled to get back into running again. The thing is. My physical fitness massively improved. But what I came to realise, only quite recently in fact, was the massive benefit the exercise was having around my ADHD. There is the obvious point. ADHD man = he likes to move. But what I started to miss was the headspace going for a run gave me. I'd literally have nothing to focus on, or worry about. It would just be me, the road/path/tow path. It was an extremely liberating state of mind. Then there's my dyspraxia. I got my ADHD diagnosis first. But quickly realised the issues I had controlling my big old frame (6 '5 and fairly broad ladies and gents) and my fine motor skills was causing me far greater self-esteem issues than my ADHD. It's always been there. I avoided going to sports day at school. There was an expectation that I'd excel at certain sports like long and high jump due to my size.....this was obviously not true. Hop skip and jump.....forget it....with my sequencing issues. Javelin and Shot put.....my force feedback issues prevented me from using the requisite effort. And then there's one of my life's great loves, football. I've always played football. But it was always apparent there were issues for me that others didn't seem to have. Heading the ball? Ha that requires me to anticipate the movement of the ball, and get my brain to engage my legs to jump with the correct amount of force, move my head back and then forward connecting with the right part of my forehead......NO CHANCE. In goal. Sure I save a few shots because I'm a big lad. But judging a low driven shot? By the time I'd worked out where the ball was heading and processed what I needed to do.....the net was already making that satisfying yet galling ripple sound. Point is. All these perceived failures have put me off physical activity. I recently had the pleasure of speaking to Caragh McMurtry at a neurodiverse speaking event we were both at. As well as being a generally all round lovely person Caragh Is an Olympic rower, representing Great Britain in rowing, appearing at the Tokyo Olympics. She also happens to have a diagnosis of high functioning ASC. I urge you to have a look at Caragh’ s brilliant website, read her story and find out how she is trying to help neurodiverse athletes and their coaches maximise their potential I've been lucky enough to have an in depth conversation with Caragh about the issues I've had as a neurodivergent person wanting to get into sport. She really is very inspiring! She helped me come to the realisation that regular exercise was having massive benefits to my dyspraxic self-esteem. When I was running, I was no Mo Farah, but I was really proud of my achievements. I was getting out moving regularly, and only occasionally crashing in to things (low hanging branches along towpaths have a lot to answer for) Needless to say my new levels of understanding around the importance of regular exercise means I am trying to get back into regular exercise. I won't lie, it's proved difficult. Primarily due to issues being organised and executive function. But I've re-joined the gym and have benefitted from getting advice from a neurodivergent friendly Personal Trainer - The lovely Shelley Rudge. She has explained the weight based gym exercises in a way my dyspraxic brain can comprehend. And has really listened to my feedback around the ones I find more difficult and found excellent easier to understand replacements that have the same desired effect. Check out her socials! So I implore you, get out there! It doesn't matter if you aren't going to look like a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, or be the next Laura Muir. Regular exercise will have such a transformative effect on your mental health, as well as your physical. I just need to start following my own advice on a regular basis!! Daley Jones” Follow Daley on LinkedIn for more hilarious and hard hitting content!
- Nerys Hall - GB Junior marathon kayaker - ADHD
We’re thrilled to introduce Nerys Hall to the blog this week! Nerys (left in the picture) is a Junior European medallist in the marathon canoe (sport) double kayak (discipline) - she also has ADHD, some associated struggles and a lot of associated strengths! We met Nerys during a joint interview with British Canoeing (s4 e6 BCAB Coaching Podcast) and loved her outlook on neurodivergence in sport, so couldn’t wait to interview her ourselves! Watch the full interview below: Key themes from the interview: During our interview with Nerys, she debunks some of the common misconceptions surrounding ADHD and 'laziness' and opens up about what she struggles with the most and what other people can do to help her: 1️⃣ The benefits of sport for ADHD For Nerys, the benefits of being active, of being outside and of being on the water are clear. The routine and structure sport provides allows her to break the frequent hyperfixation cycles she tends to fall into at home. Physically moving from one place to another helps this, as does being amongst nature, being on the water, and receiving a good dose of dopamine from exercise... Dopamine being the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that ADHD brains are often lacking. Nerys highlights the particular benefits of water sports to neurodivergent people: “When a boat runs well, when it’s feeling flat, it’s feeling smooth, it’s really powerful, it’s such a satisfying feeling… especially on the water - if it’s going right, it kind of feels like everything’s right.” I can certainly testify to this - there’s something innately mesmerising and relaxing about rhythmical water sports. Yes, exercise is vigorous, but when you enter ‘the zone’, or that ‘flow state’, it can feel soothing to an overactive mind… 2️⃣ Common misconceptions vs reality An overactive mind. That is often labelled as ‘lazy’. Confusing right? Nerys confronts this misconception, having been labelled as such herself. For Nerys, her fear of judgement (born from past experiences) sometimes holds her back from participation - this is confused with laziness, which further compounds her fear of judgement… In actuality, Nerys’s mind (like most ‘ADHDers’) is hyperactive - surely the opposite of lazy? When Nerys struggles to concentrate on the task at hand, it may not be that her mind has simply slowed down, stopped, or drifted off; it may be that it’s receiving too much information that is distracting and difficult to filter. As Nerys highlights, people with ADHD “tend to feel things to a greater degree.” 3️⃣ What other people can do to help Nerys discusses various strategies coaches and teachers have used to help her with her variable attention. For example, on relaying an instruction, a coach might ask Nerys to repeat it back - not to catch her out, but to ensure the message has been received (this was on my ‘communication plan’ too!) Given that ‘ADHD brains’ potentially receive more or filter less unnecessary information than ‘neurotypical brains’, it follows that multi-layered instructions would be hard to process and retain. Therefore, a coach could also break down instructions into segments to avoid overloading their neurodivergent athlete - this is something that works well for Nerys. However, as previously alluded to, the effectiveness of any support strategy is reliant on the coach-athlete relationship; on honesty and genuine trust. Yes, most athletes would benefit from forming trusting relationships with their coaches, and most coaches attempt to establish trusting relationships with their athletes, but due to their unseen differences, neurodivergent athletes are often left ‘on the outside’. The way in which a trusting relationship is fostered from person to person will inevitably differ, and will depend on their unique neurology and behaviour traits. Therefore, the key first step to fostering a trusting relationship with a neurodivergent athlete is for a coach to truly get to know them; to rid themselves of any assumptions or preconceived notions, and to ask. Nerys’s coach knows her well. He knows that she has a very curious mind, and that as a bottom up thinker, she has to know ‘the why’. However, he also knows that she can become overwhelmed. So he makes a judgement as to how much advice or information to convey at any given time - he knows when to satisfy her curiosity, when to keep it simple, and when and how to ‘drip feed’ information. Post-interview update Since the interview Nerys has taken some time to come to terms with her diagnosis and what it means to her, and to reflect on her approach to sport and exercise. This season she’s focused on shifting her mindset from results driven to being present in the moment (as much as possible with ADHD) and enjoying herself. The irony is that this mindset shift will probably yield better results in the long term anyway! As Nerys comments in the interview: 👉 “When you feel better within yourself, you’re capable of so much more.” It’s amazing that Nerys has this level of awareness at only 18, and we’re convinced it’s going to help her succeed in whatever she chooses to do - whether that be securing a place on the LA 2028 Olympic Games, inspiring other neurodivergent people to take up sport and exercise, or simply enjoying sport and using it as a self-management tool for her ADHD. We hope you find Nerys as inspirational as we do. It isn't easy to speak openly about your neurodivergence in sport - especially when you're still competing. But Nerys is determined to be a role model and change the narrative - now. If you haven’t watched the interview, we highly recommend taking 20 minutes to do so… Follow Nerys on Instagram @nerys_hall
- Thinking Outside the Box - Bambers Inclusive Swimming
This weeks blog post features a letter written by Nicola Bamber of Bambers Inclusive Swimming For us, it highlights a few key themes: 👉 Bambers Inclusive Swimming is a great example of how a family has rallied together to support and provide opportunities not only to their own children, but to others too. 👉 Perhaps the greatest part of their story is that they’ve handed over autonomy and responsibility to those who were once participants and learners. You’ve likely heard of the phrase “nothing about us without us” in regards to neurodiversity; well Bambers' strategy is a great example of how this concept can be achieved in actuality. Given the right understanding and support, at the crucial early stages of learning, most neurodivergent and/or disabled people can and will excel beyond the expectations of themselves and others. Sport and exercise can provide a safe and structured environment for this learning and progress to take place. 👉 Unfortunately, these opportunities are currently few and far between, reflected in the low employment rates of Autistic people (at just 20% - a percentage likely far lower in the sport and recreation sector). But, stories like the Bambers' suggest we’re missing out on an easy win - an opportunity to upskill and encourage a lot of people. People who currently feel both dis-abled and disillusioned. 🏊♀️💪 Oh, and when it comes to Autism, swimming seems to be by far the most popular sport! Maybe because of the soothing nature of water… whatever the reason, it seems like an important area for investment. Bambers Inclusive CIC “We are a group of out of the box thinkers, with many years’ experience teaching disabled people to swim. It all began with Jasmine the youngest Bamber. As a young child the only place she wanted to leave the house to go to was the swimming pool. We used to spend hours at the pool with her just floating and lying on the bottom of the pool. Jasmine was enrolled in swimming lessons where the teacher told me I was wasting my money. From that moment on I (Nicola) an experienced SEND Mum set out to create the provision my children needed. Today we have 3 sites, one in the High Peak Derbyshire and 2 in Manchester. Providing swimming for 160 disabled young people each week. We are Occupational Therapy based led by our very own Occupational Therapist and director of the CIC Ellie Bamber. So, each child has a person-centred experience and learns at their own pace, without having to meet unreasonable expectations. To keep us sustainable we teach our older swimmers how to teach our younger children: we provide them with Swimming Teacher Qualifications which allows them to get paid work at local pools and Swim Schools. Our first success story is the final Bamber, Alan. He is a fully qualified Swimming Teacher and Coach, who works as a school swimming teacher and who is also Head Coach at a local swimming club. We hope Alan can be an inspiration to other Autistic young people. We think of Bambers as our Butterfly. The Butterfly effect is the idea that a small change will make a huge difference to a person’s future by teaching them a life skill while growing their confidence, teaching them how to learn and improving their wellbeing. It allows people who would struggle with ‘classic’ exercise pathways to have fun and do something that aids their body and their minds.” Email Nicola or visit their website Great job Nicola and co! 💪
- Ben Holmes - Sunday League Football - Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia
We’re back from our summer break and ready to promote another story of neurodivergence in sport! This week’s blog features former football player and current Autism and Neurodiversity Coach Ben Holmes. Ben really helped me out when I was making the transition into self-employment and inspired me to have confidence in thinking outside the box when founding Neurodiverse Sport. So for me, it’s a pleasure to tell his story and to promote someone who is honest, authentic and generous (the type of person who’s typically under-promoted…) Themes There are two key themes that struck me on interviewing Ben formally; one was the multiple accounts of problem solving ‘to get by’ and the other was his gradual drift away from the mainstream: ➡️ Problem solving skills are a characteristic shared by many neurodivergent people, and while it’s very possibly innate to the neurodivergent mindset, it’s likely a force of habit too. Being neurodivergent is not yet widely understood or accommodated for within society, let alone in sport, so neurodivergent individuals such as Ben MUST problem solve multiple times a day, an hour, a minute to simply participate and engage…for some such as Ben, this becomes their ‘super strength’, but for too many others it’s simply too exhausting and serves to exclude. ➡️ ➡️ Divergence from the mainstream and 'anti-establishment ideologies' are again characteristics often associated with neurodivergence and, although these characteristics may be innate to the neurodivergent mindset, they too may be strongly influenced by the widespread lack of understanding and support afforded to neurodivergent people. If you’re neurodivergent like Ben, and the onus is consistently on you to hide your difficulties for fear of shame, or to find ‘work arounds’ simply to get by, it follows that you may eventually become apathetic or even begrudging. What’s clear is that for Ben and for many other neurodivergent people, participation in sport and exercise has kept him healthy, grounded and connected to the most positive influences in his life: football and his father. Ben’s Story Ben presents with many of the strengths and struggles associated with Autism, ADHD and Dyspraxia and was diagnosed Autistic in 2018. In the last few years, he’s made a career out of being different; out of being ‘divergent’ and to degree anti-establishment. Yet when you listen to his story, you truly understand why. Ben was a child of two halves. He was and is underlyingly anxious, but sport gave him confidence - in the classroom he was quiet and reserved, but on the football pitch he came to life. He remembers not quite understanding the ‘rules of engagement’, opting to wrestle his peers because that’s how he communicated with his dad… needless to say, the other parents weren’t his greatest fans, but after having the situation explained to him, he understood and changed tack. When it came to football, Ben didn’t just like to play, but loved to watch, learn and memorise too. 90’s football was and still is his obsession and he would religiously memorise all of the players, games and statistics - sharing this information at any given opportunity. Fortunately, football was seen as an acceptable obsession, so no one clocked on to the intensity of his interest and he was accepted by his peers and teammates. As well as his football knowledge and enthusiasm, Ben had other strengths that made him a valuable player and a valuable team member. His unwavering dedication meant that his fitness was always guaranteed and his ability to recognise and predict patterns and plays made him a great interceptor. His favourite move was a slide tackle because he loved the thrill it gave him, but if it ever aggravated his opposition, he feigned ignorance to maintain the ‘status quo’. He actively avoided both conflict and attention. Although Ben’s neurodivergence has afforded him many strengths, he remains an underlyingly anxious person. But this anxiety always seems to have a root cause - hypervigilance. Ben is determined not to let his struggles overcome or define him and so he’s always having to think ahead, plan, problem solve and avoid. I’m sure that feeling a constant threat of ‘exposure’ or ridicule would make anyone anxious. Here are some good examples; Ben struggles with tasks requiring dexterity, and to avoid potential ridicule he problem solves his way out of any situation that might ‘expose’ these challenges. For instance, he finds tying football nets incredibly challenging, so when it came to setting up, he always ensured he was preoccupied with an ‘easier task’ such as positioning the corner flags. He also finds getting changed into his kit both difficult and time consuming, so to avoid the inevitable changing room ‘banter’ he would change at home. This often made him late - but it’s better to be late than be exposed or ridiculed… Ben also struggles with his sense of direction and anxiety around driving. When driving himself and teammates to away games he had to psyche himself up before he arrived at the meeting point, then he had to procrastinate just enough to follow one of the other cars out of the carpark and all the way to their destination! He would also ensure that at least one trustworthy teammate was in the car with him; behaviour born from necessity but disguised as camaraderie. When it came to game play, Ben didn’t struggle quite as much, but he was still ‘different’. If the ball was on his left, he still kicked it with his right, and he feels more comfortable controlling the ball with the outside of his foot, rather than the inside. He very much dislikes the anticipation of watching the ball mid air, so would always opt to scissor kick rather than head the ball, and actively avoided being positioned next to the crowd. Where many of Ben’s workarounds often went ‘under the radar’, some set him apart from his friends and teammates. Ben, like many Autistic and Neurodivergent people is an avid rule follower with an enhanced sense of moral justice (we’ll be covering this in a future blog, so watch out!) This characteristic should be positive, but can make socialising difficult both practically and in regard to mutual understanding. For Ben, what’s right ranks above friends and teammates on the priority list, but this is unfortunately often interpreted as antisocial. For instance, Ben would never go to the pub after training or a match because it’s disrespectful to socialise in dirty kit. Following Ben’s logic, that decision is entirely valid and reasonable. Following his teammates' logic, it’s antisocial. It can feel incredibly confusing and demoralising to be treated poorly, ostracised, or excluded for ‘doing the right thing’, and this is something that Ben and many Neurodivergent people struggle with on a daily basis. Whether driven by binary or bottom up thinking, literal interpretation or honest communication, Neurodivergent people can bring a different perspective and a fresh approach to the team, but accessing these benefits requires mutual understanding and respect. Mutual understanding and respect is a two-way process. Visit the Autism and Neurodiversity Coaching website at https://www.autismandneurodiversitycoaching.co.uk/ where you'll find a link to all their socials, or follow Ben on LinkedIn
- Michelle Lau - World Ranked Amateur Golfer - Autism
Meet this week’s neurodivergent athlete - Michelle Lau! She's a world-ranked amateur golfer and she's also Autistic. According to Michelle, the awareness Neurodiverse Sport are raising gave her the confidence to pursue a world ranking, and we couldn’t be happier for her! A little bit of context It’s stories like Michelle’s that make all the hard work we do oh so worth it! It’s proof that we’re making a difference and that we’re beginning to achieve our ultimate goal… To ensure that every person – no matter their neurotype, has a place in sport wherever they feel most comfortable and capable. For some this will be able-bodied sport, for others para-sport, and others yet again, ii sport… But what’s really important to remember is that not everyone fits nicely into these categories… For example, some Autistic people may feel capable of training and competing in ‘mainstream’ sport, and if this is the case, thy should be supported to do so and not excluded. Others may experience greater difficulties than are apparent at first glance, and for them, opportunities to compete in disability sport are essential. Understanding of neurodiversity is everyone’s responsibility because neurodiversity exists everywhere. Michelle’s story Michelle (like so many neurodivergent women) wasn’t diagnosed as Autistic until well into adulthood, and the years leading to her diagnosis were filled with feelings of confusion and isolation. Michelle always loved sport - as a child she was forever running around, and as a youth she would take part in every sport accessible to her. But her personal challenges meant she could never take it as far as she would have liked. She knew she found school tough, and she knew she found the crowded corridors, noise, lights, and “chaos” overwhelming, but she didn’t know why. How do you give everything (or anything in some cases) to sport, academics, or even self-care when simple day to day tasks are a struggle? They don’t have to be, but if you don’t know the cause, how can you possibly find a solution? Regardless of her challenges with sensory sensitivities, introspection, and transition, Michelle excelled academically at school, college, and university, eventually graduating with an MSc in Law and Accounting After being “called to the Bar” as a Barrister she made several successful career changes also; from Court Advocate to Chartered Company Secretary, and most recently, Software Developer! But her immense successes only served to mask her difficulties. Successfully struggling & struggling successfully Michelle and those close to her started to suspect she might be Autistic when she was in her early 20s. At that time, Autism in women and girls was only just being talked about. But it wasn’t until her late 20s, following a significant downturn in mental health and a period of unsuccessful and arguably harmful counselling (harmful because it wasn’t neurodiversity informed), that Michelle was referred for an assessment. Michelle attributes her mental health crisis to extremely long working hours; hours spent in open office environments, requiring her to tolerate constant noise and stimulation whilst masking her difficulties and continuing her productivity. The result was utter and prolonged exhaustion and a complete lack of human connection or belonging – something that arguably every human’s health and wellbeing relies on – Autistic or not. Her reduced capacity for anything beyond work prevented her from participating in the one thing that could have offset her difficulties – sport. So, Michelle was in crisis, but there was a light at the end of a tunnel – she was on the waiting list for an Autism assessment. Of course, an assessment and/or a diagnosis is not a solution in itself, but it could provide Michelle with some semblance of clarity, direction, guidance… Unfortunately, she wouldn’t receive this clarity for six years. Because Michelle was on the NHS Autism assessment waiting list for six years… Yes, you read that right – six years!!! For six years, Michelle had to tolerate this uncertainty. For six years she couldn’t with any certainty ask for reasonable adjustments at work, and for six years she couldn’t buy into discovering what Autism meant to her. She couldn’t buy into the learning journey that we should all have access to as children, but that many neurodivergent people don’t get to start until their 20, 30, 40, 50 years old. She couldn’t get to grips with exactly why she thought and felt so differently to her peers, or how she might live and work in the most productive and sustainable way for her. Sport During her six years in limbo, Michelle unsurprisingly struggled to balance work, life, and self-care. She tried to stay in touch with her lifelong sporting passion – football, but her limited energy and capacity made her overly vulnerable to injury, and after one too many hard tackles, she decided to make the switch to golf. In 2022 Michelle finally received her Autism diagnosis, and with this she was able to register with EDGA who are responsible for some of Europe’s most popular disability golf tournaments. In EDGA she found a space and a community in which she felt seen, supported, and accepted. Although Michelle had only been playing for a year by this point, she was already obsessed, and was getting pretty good… so, inspired by Swedish golfer, Erika Malmberg (also Autistic), Michelle began the qualification process for world ranking with Virtus. Michelle’s application was accepted in April this year and with the support of Joel Rickard (Coach and PGA Professional), she’s already competed in two tournaments finishing 4th and 2nd place in her category. We decided to write about her experience of the tournaments below to give a little more insight into the difficulties some Autistic people face where sport and physical activity is concerned. The Tournament Michelle’s first tournament wasn’t plain sailing by any means – in large part due to the build-up. Not only was she recovering from an operation, but she was also working on an exam piece when she was unwittingly drawn into a neighbourhood dispute. Most people find conflict difficult, but for those who are Autistic, such interactions can be intolerable. The harm they can cause is perhaps far more than people might realise. Michelle described the fallout: “My anxiety was through the roof, and I didn’t want to leave the house – even to go into my own garden.” Michelle’s energy levels were already low post-surgery and mid-exams, so this incident was the last thing she needed. Before she arrived to play her practice round, she had to take a detour to the bathroom to cry. Once on the course, she couldn’t make eye contact with the tournament director, and her speech was slowed and compromised, but she ploughed on, nonetheless, balanced precariously on the edge of a meltdown... The word meltdown is one I use begrudgingly in leu of a better term, because it’s often wrongly attributed to ‘bad’ or even malicious behaviour. However, when used in the case of Autism or ADHD, it rarely describes a conscious choice. A meltdown is an automatic response to nervous system overwhelm. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour – and even then, all behaviour is communication – isn’t it? A meltdown can be avoided with adequate self-understanding, self-management, and support, but it cannot be prevented once in motion. Only time, space and comfort will help an Autistic individual in the midst of a meltdown. The most important part of the ‘process’ is the learning that takes place afterwards; in the past I’ve asked myself “what led to this point; what can I change going forwards; how can others help?” For Michelle, she almost always ensures her meltdowns are a private affair (as do many Autistic women), but in the case of this tournament, where a world-ranking was at stake, Michelle gambled a public meltdown to stay on the course until the very end. Unable to hold it in anymore, she turned to her friend and caddy, Sherrie Nash, and broke down on the 18th green after her final putt to end her first ever world-ranked golf tournament. Michelle’s story will be continued in our next blog post
- What Every Coach Needs To Know About ADHD & Athletes
This week, we are drawing attention to the first in a series of articles written for The Sprint Project by University of Birmingham MSc research student Kirsty Brown. Informed content and reliable advice regarding ADHD & sport is currently VERY hard to come by. It's why we wanted to draw attention to Kirsty's articles - they're informed, objective, and incredibly helpful, and we feel privileged to share them with you all! We're also very excited to follow the progress of The Sprint Project's up and coming Sport and Neurodiversity research project, and hope to draw attention to their discoveries later down the line... Expert from article one: What Every Coach Needs To Know About ADHD & Athletes "This post is the first in a new series on the SPRINT project website. It will focus on what ADHD is, how to recognise its symptoms and outlines key benefits of participating in sport for people with ADHD. This understanding will help coaches to better support their athletes with ADHD to reach their full potential and experience positive mental health. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD affects 3-5% of children and 2% of adults, but these rates may be even higher in athletes. Some of the World’s most successful athletes are known to have ADHD, including for example: Michael Phelps (swimmer) Louis Smith (gymnast) Bubba Watson (golfer) Simone Biles (gymnast) Ashley Mckenzie (judo) and Adam Creek (rower). Given how common ADHD is in athletes, it is important for every coach to better understand neurodiversity, or the different ways human brains may function, and the effects of ADHD. This knowledge is not only important for coaches, but anyone in the sporting support network of athletes (e.g., managers, teammates, captains and nutritionists). [...] ADHD is a misunderstood and complex condition, not helped by its name. The name suggests that all individuals experience the same symptoms, have a deficit in attention, and are hyperactive. Calling it a disorder implies that all the symptoms of ADHD are negative. However, not everyone with ADHD will experience all symptoms or show them in the same way. Also, there are far more symptoms than the name suggests..." Read the full article here
- Alfie Poyser - Ambassador - Update
We’re really excited to post our first update, and to announce our first ambassador, Aflie Poyser!!! Alfie Poyser was the first athlete we interviewed – he’s an up-and-coming strongman and he also has ADHD! Alfie is only 19, but recently competed at the UKs Strongest U23, where he placed 5th overall! He also came first in the unofficial U19s category! Alfie's hard work and the connections he's made through training and competition have afforded him some fantastic opportunities in recent months. Since competing at the UKs Strongest U23, he’s been offered a number of sponsorship deals, and alongside some of his fellow competitors he's used this support to kit out a private training facility! Together, this group of strongmen and women are well on their way to becoming fully fledged pro's! The cherry on top is that we get to hang a Neurodiverse Sport banner in the gym! Alfie’s next goal is to place top five at England’s Strongest U23, earning himself an opportunity to compete for the title of Britain’s Strongest U23. Yes – the various titles are confusing, but from what I understand, Britain’s Strongest U23 is where it’s at! The competition What we love about Alfie is that he’s so open to talking about his Neurodiversity. He doesn’t worry about stigma or discrimination, and he doesn’t let it ebb away at his own confidence. I think that speaks to his supportive family and friends and also to the inclusive culture of Strongman as a whole. Alfie’s attitude makes him the perfect ambassador for Neurodiverse Sport. He’s open and honest about his struggles, but he doesn’t fixate on them. He’s always looking to progress and is prepared to work for it. So, what does Alfie struggle with? In general, focus. If he’s not hyper focused, he’s distracted. A 90-minute session can easily take 2-3 hours… not ideal when you have a job! Around competition, his ADHD and associated attention issues manifest as obsessive thoughts and ‘red mist’. If you’ve never heard of the phrase, it describes an overwhelm of aggressive emotion. When harnessed, it can be very helpful as an athlete, but too much of it and extra effort can very quickly become inefficient and ineffective. In terms of obsessive thoughts, Alfie might obsess about being ready for competition – about not working too hard at his manual job, or he might become very rigid with planning and hitting targets in the gym – emotionally effected if those targets aren’t met. Not only is this exhausting in the short-term, but it’s incredibly exhausting in the medium- and long-term too, because every thought we have requires energy, and if a person with ADHD for instance is experiencing x number of extra thoughts per second, plus the ever-changing emotions associated, they’re going to feel the impact eventually! By the time competition comes around, they’re likely to feel mentally and physically cooked. I say physically, because our brain, our nervous system, and our body are intricately and infinitely connected. A mental ‘issue’ is a physical issue. For Alfie, he felt he over-cooked it this time. But he’s learning. He didn’t help himself by visiting the venue the night before, and in the future, he won’t. He’ll also steer away from ‘relaxing’ in the hustle and bustle of the main gym, because for him he needs to calm down before competition, rather than hype up! The solution? Alfie had already identified visualisation as a possible management technique for his nervousness around competition, but I couldn’t resist making my own suggestion when we spoke. I made this suggestion after Alfie described a particular lift that didn’t go to plan: he was nervous, his attention slipped, he saw red, ripped the bar off of the ground, wobbled, and failed the lift because of it. It was a lift he had completed before and was fully capable of completing again – in fact he did when he got home to prove a point to himself! Something that helped me with my nervous inattention as an athlete was ‘grounding’ myself – giving myself one sensory thing to focus on… “how do my feet feel on the footplate? how do my feet feel on the footplate? how do my feet feel on the footplate?” For Alfie it might be that in the moments before a lift he thinks “how do my hands feel on the bar? how do my hands feel on the bar? how do my hands feel on the bar?” It draws scattered thoughts into one place, and if it’s been well rehearsed in training, it might just work! A humble brag... Just to humble brag on Alfie’s behalf, he failed to deadlift 300kg at competition, but did lift this weight before and after. In a lifting suit in December, he deadlifted 312kg! At this most recent competition he also log pressed 120kg (over his head), threw a 22kg bag over 4m high, and lifted a 140kg (round and slippery) stone over 1.4m high! According to Alfie, a few ‘silly mistakes’ cost him the competition... this time... Follow Alfie @asg.strong on Instagram Check out their private gym @theloadingbaygym (currently invite only - but watch this space for the future!)