What We Can Learn From Michael Phelps About ADHD

Michael Phelps, diagnosed with ADHD as a child, wins his 19th Olympic Gold.

Posted Aug 08, 2016

At age 31, Michael Phelps has had an astonishing career as an Olympic gold medalist swimmer. As flag bearer for the United States team at the Rio Olympics this week, he continues to make America proud. He now has an unprecedented 23 medals with nineteen gold, two silvers and two bronzes. He is the most decorated Olympian athlete of all time. How proud his parents must be as they watch their son win gold after gold.

Struggling with an ADHD Diagnosis

But the road to Rio wasn't an easy path for Phelps or for his parents. When Michael was in the sixth grade, he was fidgety and had trouble paying attention in the classroom. His pediatrician diagnosed him with ADHD and prescribed Ritalin. Michael took the medication for several years, and it seemed to help. At age 13, however, however, he decided that he was using the drug as a crutch, even though it did help make him less "jumpy" at school. He thought that if he applied his mind to controlling his behavior and focusing, he could help himself without taking pills.

As Phelps recalls in his autobiography No Limits, he felt humiliated in front of his friends when the school nurse came to find him in class to remind him to take his Ritalin.At the age of ten, Phelps had attention and focusing problems at school. He also acted out in class. Eventually, he was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed stimulant medication for several years.

"Ritalin is a crutch"  --Michael Phelps

Feeling that the drug was a crutch,  Phelps decided to learn to use his mind to focus and control himself in the class room. However, like they say, nothing is impossible. Phelps found that swimming helped him control his energy and stopped him from being fidgety.  Michael weaned himself off the medication with his doctor's support, and learned to use the power of his mind to focus on his school work and control himself in the classroom.

"He'll never succeed at anything" his teacher said.

At this point, Michael's teacher told his mother that her son would never succeed at anything because he couldn't focus on anything for a long enough time. His mother was also concerned about stopping the medication.

Defying his teacher's and his mother's grim predictions, Michael Phelps went on to become the most decorated athlete in the history of the Olympics. He had found in vigorous and disciplined swimming a solution for the nervous energy that made him jumpy and fidgety. He learned self-discipline by forcing himself to go to swim practice.

Phelps was a high energy boy, not mentally disordered

Of course Michael Phelps had an exceptional gift of athletic talent to boost his self-confidence to take control of his behavior and shake off the label of "ADHD." But even with his exceptional gifts, it is unlikely that Phelps could beat his ADHD diagnosis if it were truly a biologically-based disease or brain defect.

So often, when parents are intimidated by a doctor's ADHD diagnosis, they believe that medication is the only solution and don't look for alternatives like sports and diet.

Sadly, 23 million prescriptions for ADHD medications are written each year for American children, most of them boys. What is truly tragic is that most parents do not realize that most ADHD medications are simply amphetamines—more commonly known as "speed."

The "speed" within

Phelps was able to utilize his high energy to find the "speed" in his own nature without relying on medications. Hopefully Phelps' story will be an inspiration for the millions of active boys who are currently diagnosed with ADHD.

Update 8/10/16: Michael Phelps has now won his 22nd gold medal at the Rio Olympics and continues to make Americans proud.

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