Athletes Have More ADHD Symptoms in School but Not Sports

Sports might be just the kind of activity that the ADHD brain is made for.

Competing in a sport provides ongoing stimulation and clear, immediate rewards. You don’t have to sit still, either – in fact, moving constantly is part of the job description!

Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, has shown that ADHD doesn’t have to be a barrier to athletic success. As Phelps wrote in No Limits: The Will to Succeed, he “could go fast in the pool, it turned out, in part because being in the pool slowed down my mind.”

Among high-level athletes, Phelps isn’t alone in his ADHD diagnosis. A 2019 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found the prevalence of ADHD to be about 7-8 percent among elite athletes.

Now, a newly published study has added more evidence for the idea that ADHD-like cognitive profiles may be common among athletes.

In the study, researchers at Karlstad University and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences surveyed 200 students who fell into two groups: accomplished athletes who were enrolled in Sweden’s sports talent program and non-athletes.

The researchers then used the Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale to measure participants’ levels of ADHD symptoms both at school and during a leisure activity (playing sports in the case of the athletes).

A striking pattern of ADHD symptoms emerged among the athletes, who tended to report high levels of ADHD symptoms in a school setting but low levels when playing sports.

That fluctuation in symptoms between school and sports is consistent with the idea that environment can make a big difference for people who have ADHD. Some settings might clash with the way the ADHD brain works, exacerbating symptoms like inattention, while others might be a natural fit for the ADHD way of doing things.

It may be that people with ADHD can thrive, and even focus intensely, when engaged in activities that align well with their brains – such as sports for the athletes in this study. Those same people might struggle in settings like school that demand a more neurotypical way of operating.

The authors of the study highlight this possibility when summarizing their results:

In conclusion, in this study, ADHD criteria are highly presented in the athlete group in the school environment and very low during leisure time compared to the non-athlete group. This supports the suggestion that ADHD symptoms might be more prevalent in an athlete population, but importantly, it varies with contexts.

As is often the case with psychology studies, there is a need for more research to better understand why that pattern holds. And the researchers acknowledge limitations in their study, such as only relying on participants’ subjective reports of school performance. They call for future research into how athletes “handle different contexts including sport and school settings.”

But their study does underscore two useful takeaways about ADHD: sports are an area where some people with ADHD thrive, and one’s environment can make a difference in managing ADHD symptoms.

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