“My On-Court Advantage: How Tennis Shaped My ADHD Resilience.”
“Even before I suspected ADHD, my tennis coach urged me to embrace my way of thinking as a unique strength, and always iterated that we needed to work with my brain rather than against it. It was her words that I clung to when mustering up the courage to pursue a diagnosis.”
Tennis has shaped my life for the better part of a decade now. Most of my days are spent laboring away on court or at the gym. I’m usually on the road for at least 25 weeks of the year, traveling far and wide to tennis competitions. From long nights spent shivering on dingy railway platforms to being hospitalized with full-body cramps, I’ve experienced it all. Still, I can’t help but feel unworthy of the label ‘professional tennis player.’ After so many years, I’m yet to see a major breakthrough, and all my efforts feel like little more than an exercise in futility.
Or so I thought until late 2020, when a few months shy of my 21st birthday I was diagnosed with ADHD. Life suddenly made sense and I realized that, while my tennis career had been many things, futile was not one of them.
Early Signs of ADHD
I was a spaced-out child with an insatiable appetite for conversation, happily hopping from interest to interest. One time, after learning about microorganisms, I badgered my father until he procured an industrial microscope for me. But by the time it arrived, my mind had already moved on to the more fertile landscape of bird watching. The prospect of examining tiny organisms had since been buried in the familiar ADHD purgatory of ‘not now.’
The most telling aspect of ADHD, looking back, was my sensitivity to rejection. The mildest words of reprimand would cut like knives, and even the whiff of failure rattled me on a molecular level. I remember the time I took chess lessons from a professional and got outclassed in the first session. He playfully chided me with a ‘not good enough,’ and the sheer embarrassment put me off the game forever.
I grew up eager to please, dreading anything that presented even the remotest possibility of failure. Initially, it worked. I’d flourished in cognitive assessments, and the consensus was that I was a ‘gifted’ child. I clung hard to this identity — hard enough to cover up the fact that I had no friends, and hard enough to cover up the fact that something felt wrong within me.
As my teen years approached, my grades fluctuated and I couldn’t focus in class or understand any math. Teachers at school weren’t happy, and my parents, who had always viewed my hyper-fixations as the byproduct of a ‘creative, genius mind,’ now labeled them as ‘childish obsessions.’
Discovering Sport as a Safe Outlet
With the pressure beginning to mount, I found my saving grace in tennis. Its nuances captured my imagination, and something clicked in me when I played.
My first taste of competition was a small inter-school event, and it introduced me to a whole new world. Obsession was normal here — everyone was just as fascinated with the sport as I was. My first match, a game of doubles, was an experience like none other. Teammates spurred us on and urged me to express emotions that I’d always repressed. Even though we lost our semifinal match, we were credited for our effort. My partner and I bonded while shaking off our disappointment together, and he remains a beloved friend today.
Yearning for more, I began participating in national ranking events. Winning meant getting to play more matches, so I became committed to getting better, and went up the rankings. The tennis circuit was a safe haven: all my tendencies that usually invited scorn were welcome here. I was free to be expressive and I channeled this into my competitive persona. The challenges of new conditions and opponents satiated my need for novelty, and competing regularly guaranteed consistent stimulation. I also felt a sense of belonging in this community of people who matched my energy and understood me when I explained myself through tennis metaphors.
Challenges Begin Taking Over On the Tennis Court
Unfortunately, my exploits on the court didn’t dissolve all my challenges. There isn’t much of a sporting culture in India and the norm, even in progressive environments, still leans toward convention.
As the end of my high school years loomed, pressure mounted from home and school to justify why I invested so much time and energy into the sport. ADHD symptoms had also started to creep into my tennis. I would often drift away while playing, and my game was inconsistent. It was hard to keep emotions in check, and I would implode in matches for no discernible reason. Impulsivity under pressure skewed my decision-making skills while bad experiences with coaches kept me from opening up and seeking proper guidance. As the demands of competing grew, these factors exposed major cracks in my game, and I fell behind my peers.
My love for tennis, which had never been about winning, was now mutating into a desperate bid to achieve my way out of pressure. Every time I stepped on the court, I was afraid that the only respite in my increasingly turbulent life would be wrestled away from me. It was hard to trust myself in matches, and every loss only served to magnify a growing sense of failure. I felt miserable all the time, and put on a façade to hide these feelings around others.
Diagnosis and Embracing the Sport
When I finally sought help for these mounting problems, the result, to my astonishment, was an ADHD diagnosis.
But it was only after this diagnosis that I was able to shed the narrative I had developed about tennis, and reconcile myself to the true role of the sport in my life. Along with a consistent and structured form of stimulation, tennis has also pushed me to step up to my challenges. I’m methodical, punctual, and have a solid work ethic. These are all areas that ADHD inhibits, but my desire to meet the demands of pro tennis forced me to find solutions. The constant travel and solitary nature of the sport have made me independent. Most of all, tennis has revealed a gritty, resilient side of me. While I experience so many challenges in a more pronounced way than ‘normal’ folks, I believe I can bounce back much more effectively. Failure, rejection, and setbacks cut deeper than for others, but years of tenaciously keeping at it have helped me create an infallible framework for persevering through difficulty.
This framework has also helped me navigate my way outside tennis. There’s no better proxy for figuring out real-life challenges than sport. Each match is like a bite-sized reflection of life and offers a priceless opportunity to introspect and evolve as an individual. Using lessons learned on court, I’ve cultivated a healthy social acumen, maintained a respectable academic profile, and even found footing in non-sporting avenues.
My diagnosis has also helped me accept my shortcomings. I now know why I struggle to contain my emotions, why I lose focus, and why losses sting for so long. I’ve also learned about sensory overload, and the different settings that trigger it for me. Understanding these challenges has helped me be more forgiving of myself and reframe many past ‘failures.’ I was battling a condition I knew nothing about, and just getting through those moments was a victory in itself.
How ADHD Pushed Me to Accept Help
Opening up to the right support has been critical in this transition. At the age of 19, years before my diagnosis, I was able to put my trust in a coach for the first time since my early days in the sport, and she’s proven to be a life-changing influence. Even before I suspected ADHD, she urged me to embrace my way of thinking as a unique strength, and always iterated that we needed to work with my brain rather than against it. It was her words that I clung to when mustering up the courage to pursue a diagnosis.
My current coach has been very accepting of my ADHD, and he always nudges me towards challenges, sure that I’ll overcome them. Therapy has also been invaluable in helping me find the right solutions for my brain. My temperament on and off court is a far cry from the ceaseless misery I projected for so long, and I’m able to approach life with a renewed sense of vigor.
I won’t pretend there’s been any astronomic change in my playing level or results. I’ve made slow, consistent strides at best, and I’m still prone to plateaus and burnouts. On tough days I feel like I’m lagging behind, and have to stop myself from going down the rabbit hole of what-could-have-been. Yes, my diagnosis has given me hope, but it’s also confirmed that my challenges are here to stay and that the path ahead will be scrappy, slow, and frustrating.
But this is something I’ve come to embrace and be grateful for. After all, it doesn’t really matter whether you run, walk or even crawl. It’s all the same when the journey is what you’re truly after.