Michael Phelps’ amazing Olympic triumph belies the notion of a chronic disorder
In the next view days you are certain to read more about Michael Phelp’s childhood including his being diagnosed with ADHD and treated with medication at age nine for two years. A front page New York Times piece on Michael today suggested the diagnosis when his third grade teacher, Mrs. Kines, was quoted in a recent letter to his mother, Debbie, as recalling Michael having “immense difficulties concentrating and sitting still” leading Mrs. Kines to wonder “if he would ever be able to focus on anything.”
A quick Google search revealed a July 22nd local Baltimore TV news piece interviewing Debbie about Michael’s ADHD and a FaceBook essay by Debbie about the same subject. Apparently Michael was a very good athlete, talented in a number of sports growing up (no surprise – most athletic superstars have similar multi-sport histories, e.g. Roger Federer and soccer). But he was also quite hyper and not a particularly good student. So, at age nine he was taken to his doctor, given an ADHD diagnosis and started on medication which Debbie only gave him on school days because his weekends and vacations were filled with sports in which he excelled.
By age eleven he had committed himself only to swimming, which Debbie believes was particularly helpful because it was especially structured and highly regimented given his increasingly intense training. Swimming even for a team is also relatively individualistic. From my years of experience treating children with ADHD, I know that they do better with individual oriented sports like swimming or track (even tennis) compared to team sports like baseball (that’s death for an ADHD with all the waiting around in the outfield) or even soccer. At that point he no longer needed medication for school. My guess is that he had matured significantly or was so excelling at sports so as to feel more comfortable even at school. Debbie feels that Michael as an adult still has some aspects of ADHD. She feels his thoughts at times may still jump around some—apparently though not enough for a national media catering to America’s sound byte short attention span to notice.
Still Michael’s story and success are revealing about the ADHD diagnosis and prognosis in children’s mental disorders these days. I’ve said many times, it doesn’t take much in terms of under performance or misbehavior these days for worried and loving middle/upper middle class parents to take their children to a doctor to at least rule out ADHD. Besides giving parents’ an illusion of security in a name, the diagnosis opens the door for school accommodations and services. Stimulant treatment (Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, etc.) improves everyone’s performance in boring and repetitive tasks so improvement on medication doesn’t necessarily confirm a diagnosis of ADHD but will definitely increase focus and grades on the short term – especially if there are minor learning difficulties (I strongly suspect Michael’s strengths weren’t in academics in his early years).
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