Nicola Adams and Simone Biles both have ADHD

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The role model tag gets bandied around in sport, but in the case of Olympic greats Nicola Adams and Simone Biles, it is more than justified.

Pioneers of their respective sports, both Adams and Biles have another thing in common, a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

ADHD is the most common behavioural disorder in the UK, affecting 1.5 million adults. Yet the condition is often overlooked in women, with 12.9 per cent of men diagnosed in their lifetime, and just 4.9 per cent of women.

It is hard to imagine Adams, the first female boxer to become an Olympic champion after winning gold at London 2012 and defending her title four years later, as anything other than disciplined, hardworking, and laser-focussed. However, in her own words, she is “hyperactive, very easily distracted; forgetful; and [has] a short attention span.”

Constantly fidgeting, school was a “nightmare” for Adams, who was repeatedly moved through academic sets – she concentrated better in lower sets with fewer people, but as soon as she was placed in a big group she was unable to sit still and focus.

“It was just frustrating because I was very intelligent, but just very easily distracted at the same time,” says the 38-year-old. A diagnosis of ADHD, then, at the age of 15, finally offered an explanation for Adams’ restless behaviour.

“ADHD is a disorder of chronic behavioural patterns that results in abnormal levels of inattention and hyperactivity,” explains Lorraine Collins, a psychotherapist who treats people with ADHD. “They find it very hard to just be still,” observes Collins, who says people can get “angry and anxious” due to their inability to self-regulate.

After a quick Google, Adams discovered it wasn’t just her. “Even before that [the diagnosis] I knew I was going to be an Olympic boxer – that was just my dream,” she tells The Telegraph. “And then finding out that so many high-profile people have ADHD completely just blew my mind. I was like wow, there must be a connection and I’m gonna be the next big thing.”

A study from the University of Montreal in September 2020 suggested that girls between the ages of six and 10 who take part in extracurricular sports exhibit fewer subsequent symptoms of ADHD than girls who do not. These changes were not seen in boys, however.

American gymnast Biles, who will look to add to her total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals in Tokyo, became an even bigger hero by taking a stand against ADHD stigma following her success in Rio.

The 24-year-old said the condition was “nothing to be ashamed of” after hackers leaked documents showing that she took methylphenidate (the common ADHD medication Ritalin) during the 2016 Games. The medication is allowed if approved for individual needs, which for Biles it was and still is.

Another American who enjoyed golden success in Rio, shot putter Michelle Carter, has been similarly vocal about her own ADHD. The 35-year-old was first diagnosed aged five, and she says that as a child she was “hyperactive, such a busybody.”

After her diagnosis, Carter was prescribed Ritalin, but ended up stopping it after a day. “I remember cleaning my bathroom with a toothbrush for about five to six hours,” she says. “Eventually, my mom said, ‘Michelle, that’s enough, stop cleaning.’”

Growing up, the athlete says that her ADHD was never treated as an impediment, and her parents encouraged her to be proud of it. “My mom always told me, ‘Hey, you just think differently, there’s nothing wrong with you.”

The three-time Olympian will unfortunately no longer be competing in this year’s Tokyo games after having a benign tumour removed from her ankle. When she was training each day, however, she avoided triggers like caffeine and sugar that she knew would impede her ability to focus.

While Carter says that there are days when her symptoms are so bad that she “can’t get anything done”, it has not held her back in previous competitions; if anything, she says it has helped her. “I think it’s definitely benefited me because I’m able to see things differently,” she reflects.

Similarly, Adams says that being hyper-focused made her training more efficient. “I would be able to pick up the things that most people would miss in an opponent,” says the now-retired boxer. “It came in really handy just having that extra focus and that extra awareness both inside and outside of the ring.”

Not suppressing natural instincts, but learning to cope with them have helped her immensely. Recalling her first couple of days in both Rio and London she says she was almost overwhelmed with energy. “I was really excited and I wanted to see and hear everything. So that’s what I did: I went to see everything, do everything, and I just got it out of my system so that then I could just focus on the competition.

"Too often people immediately write off having ADHD as a negative, says Collins, “when what I have seen is quite a few people who have gone on to have brilliant careers and they have actually turned it into an asset.”

For Adams, it was a combination of taking Concerta medication everyday and harnessing her gift for boxing that proved the ideal outlet for her pent-up restlessness. “Being an athlete made it so much easier because I had a way to release my energy which allowed me to focus on something.”

A study from the University of Montreal in September 2020 suggested that girls between the ages of six and 10 who take part in extracurricular sports exhibit fewer subsequent symptoms of ADHD than girls who do not. These changes were not seen in boys, however.

Carter is keen to show others with ADHD that the condition needn’t hold them back in sport, as her own success demonstrates. Her advice to aspiring Olympians with ADHD? “Don’t let other people tell you what you can do with ADHD – you decide what you can do, and when you decide that, then you’re totally unstoppable.”

“I think that people are embarrassed, and they don’t have to be,” she says. “So when young girls actually hear me say that I have ADHD and dyslexia, they look at me differently. They’re like, ‘Really? You have it?’… You can tell that it does change their attitudes about themselves.”

Overcoming adversity and challenging stereotypes is something Adams also believes fervently in. She also has asthma, which she was diagnosed with at the age of three. “I was told I wasn’t allowed to run about or do any athletic activity,” she says, “and then I became a two-time Olympic champion. I have come a long way,” she says proudly.

Nicola Adams is working on a new campaign called ‘Lung Letters’ with healthcare company, Chiesi. The campaign aims to inspire asthma sufferers across the UK, as well as underlining the importance of seeking the correct medical advice.