Sports Psychology Tricks That Work for ADHD Brains
Mental toughness. Self-confidence. Persistence. Resilience. The greatest athletes exhibit these characteristics, thanks in no small part to sports psychologists. Here, we learn how ADHD brains can benefit from adopting a Mamba Mentality that powers elite athletes.
Adults with ADHD and elite athletes face eerily similar challenges — just in different ballparks.
As a sports psychiatrist, I help athletes demonstrate their true abilities in their sport. Together, we address a variety of mental factors that influence athletic performance — from focus and motivation challenges to stress levels and beyond.
As an adult with ADHD myself, many of the sports psychology strategies I use with my clients end up in my own toolbox. Managing ADHD, after all, is about anticipating and mitigating its impact on day-to-day performance.
So, train like an athlete. Even if you’ve never played a sport in your life, chances are you already resemble an elite athlete: You’re curious, resilient, a creative thinker, a risk-taker, and you thrive under pressure. Maximize your own performance and champion your ADHD with these sports psychology techniques.
1. Know Yourself Inside Out
Elite athletes know the game — and themselves — inside out. As the ultimate experts on their brains and bodies, pro athletes are highly self-aware. They know their strengths and trouble spots, and they understand how to leverage both to achieve better performance.
I can’t over-stress the importance of self-awareness with ADHD. You must have a strong grasp of your strengths and of the symptoms that you find most impairing in your everyday life. You must accept your idiosyncrasies. You must also understand how your brain operates and how it affects your performance.
Take dopamine, which plays a major role in motivation and the brain’s reward circuitry. Elevated dopamine levels drive athletes to train at intense levels and stay motivated to reach their performance goals.1 ADHD brains, which are dopamine deficient, struggle to stay motivated, especially when rewards are far off.2 ADHD medication helps release this important neurotransmitter.
Armed with intel like this, you’ll be able to respond to performance challenges with practical solutions that align with the way you’re uniquely wired. You’ll be able to play your best game — and that’s winning.
2. Cultivate a Winning Attitude
In an athlete’s pyramid of performance conditioning, attitude and mindset comprise the base — the foundation that determines everything. Mindset is built and strengthened through mental conditioning, which includes learning how to manage emotions, focus under pressure, and cope when things aren’t going according to plan.
For those of us with ADHD, repeated negative experiences at the hands of our symptoms — from emotional reactivity and indecisiveness to impulsivity and distractibility — greatly affect mindset. We dwell on our mistakes, and we can be quite hard on ourselves, even though we live with a condition that doesn’t always allow us to perform at our best. That makes fostering a winning attitude even more important, which you can condition with the following approaches:
- Positive self-talk and affirmations: Affirmations are positive, uplifting statements that brighten your outlook — anything from “I can do this” and “I am worthy” to “This, too, shall pass.” Create a daily practice of reading and reciting affirmations that move you.
- Relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises, meditation, prayer, and even brain dumping can help you de-stress and release your mind of distracting thoughts.
- Rethink failure. Failure is nothing to shy away from or be ashamed of. It is where you learn best, strengthen your skills, and test your resilience. Like Michael Jordan said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
3. Write Your Motivation Playbook
With ADHD, we know that motivating ourselves to get to the finish line is our principal struggle, even when victory awaits. That’s why some experts have taken to describing ADHD as a performance disorder.
Athletes aren’t immune to dips in motivation, but they keep going because they have a process — a structure they abide by to stay on course. The late Kobe Bryant’s famous Mamba Mentality mindset is all about process.
We can take some inspiration from Kobe and come up with a system — a playbook — that supports our desire to stay in the game.
- Plan and prepare: We’re often unrealistic about what our ADHD brains can accomplish in 24 hours. Instead of setting yourself up for disappointment and failure — motivation killers — designate just five tasks you want to accomplish each day. “Clean my work office” isn’t a good task, but “organize my bookcase” is. Planning helps you keep on pace and motivated to achieve. After you plan, think of how you’ll set out to accomplish the day’s tasks.
- Prioritize and produce: Organizing tasks by deadline is one way to do it. Use what you know about yourself to prioritize the rest. Do you like to start with tough tasks, or build your way up to them? Can you save harder tasks for times in the day when you have more energy? Give yourself realistic time frames to accomplish each task and be sure to put all tasks on your calendar.
If you’re having trouble writing or sticking to a playbook, consider working with a therapist who specializes in ADHD. A therapist can help you understand your motivational barriers and how to overcome them. ADHD and executive function coaches can also help you implement motivation and productivity strategies.
4. Fuel Up Like a Champ
When athletes are improperly nourished and dehydrated, it shows up in their performance. The same goes for us, yet we often overlook the importance of fueling our brains and bodies for optimal functioning. Too many of us walk around dehydrated and hungry, and we still wonder why we’re tired, irritable, and mentally fatigued.
- Drink lots of water. Blood, which is mostly made up of water, carries fuel — oxygen and glucose — to your brain. Make sure you’re sipping on water throughout the day. Set reminders if you need to.
- Consume complex carbs. Complex carbs pack more nutrients and digest slower than simple carbs, meaning steadier energy levels throughout your day.
- Remember the three Fs: Omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, avocados, walnuts), folate (beans, asparagus, collard greens, broccoli), and fiber (whole grains, fruits, vegetables) must all form part of a balanced diet.
- Take your vitamins and other supplements if necessary. We don’t always get all of our essential nutrients from the foods we eat.
5. Dropped the Ball? How to Get Back in the Game
In and out of sports, routines help us find structure in our lives and perform our best. But consistency isn’t always easy to achieve. ADHD brains sometimes consider routines boring, rigid, and overwhelming. It can take weeks for a routine to become second nature, which may push our patience beyond the brink. Dropping the ball on our routines also fills us with dread, and it deflates any remaining motivation we need to follow through.
Try these strategies to get back on track and stick to your routines:
- Spice up your routines. You’ll be more focused and motivated to follow a routine if you’re excited about it. Think of how you can change up your routine to keep you on your toes. Could you do it backwards? Maybe a change of scenery will do (e.g., a hybrid work schedule)?
- Focus on the how. From timers to accountability partners, zero in on the strategies you’ll use to reinforce your routines and habits.
- Plan your rewards. You don’t have to wait until the end to get your trophy. Reward yourself immediately after you cross off each step of your routine.
A healthy lifestyle will allow you to bring your A-game to all you do, and nutrition is only one part of it. Prioritize moving your body, getting adequate rest, and staying on top of all your medications.
Athlete Mindset and ADHD: Next Steps
- Free Series: The Adult’s Guide to Treating ADHD
- Read: Leveraging Sleep, Exercise, and Nutrition to Improve ADHD
- Read: 7 Keys to Living a Happy Life with ADHD
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “How to Leverage Sports Psychology to Benefit ADHD Brains” [Video Replay & Podcast #449] with Dawn K. Brown, M.D., which was broadcast on April 5, 2023.
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View Article Sources
1 Schiphof-Godart, L., Roelands, B., & Hettinga, F. J. (2018). Drive in Sports: How Mental Fatigue Affects Endurance Performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1383. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01383
2 Volkow, N. D., Wang, G. J., Newcorn, J. H., Kollins, S. H., Wigal, T. L., Telang, F., Fowler, J. S., Goldstein, R. Z., Klein, N., Logan, J., Wong, C., & Swanson, J. M. (2011). Motivation deficit in ADHD is associated with dysfunction of the dopamine reward pathway. Molecular Psychiatry, 16(11), 1147–1154. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2010.97