Tennis for ADHD Youngsters & Adults
Tennis has shaped my life for almost a decade. I spend most of my days working on the court or at the gym. I’m usually on the road for at least 25 weeks a year, traveling far and wide to tennis tournaments. From long shivering nights on dingy train platforms to hospitalization with full body cramps, I’ve experienced everything. Still, I can’t help but feel unworthy of the label “professional tennis player”. After so many years, I haven’t had a major breakthrough, and all of my efforts feel like pointless exercise.
That’s what I thought until the end of 2020, when I was diagnosed with ADHD a few months before my 21st birthday. Life suddenly made sense and I realized that my tennis career was made up of many things, but meaningless wasn’t one of them.
Early Signs of ADHD
I was a distant kid with an insatiable appetite for conversation who happily skipped from interest to interest. Once, after learning about microorganisms, I pushed my father until he got me an industrial microscope. But by the time it arrived my mind had already wandered to the more fertile bird watching landscape. The prospect of studying tiny organisms had since been buried in the well-known ADHD purgatory of “not now”.
In hindsight, the most revealing aspect of ADHD was my sensitivity to rejection. The mildest words of rebuke cut like knives, and even the breath of failure rocked me on a molecular level. I remember the time when I took chess lessons from a professional and was outclassed in the first session. He playfully reprimanded me with a ‘not good enough’ and the mere embarrassment kept me forever from the game.
I grew up eager to be content and feared anything that presented the slightest possibility of failure. At first it worked. I had developed well in cognitive assessments and agreed that I was a “gifted” child. I clung tight to that identity – hard enough to cover up the fact that I didn’t have friends and hard enough to cover up the fact that something felt wrong inside me.
[ADHD Symptoms in Adults: Checklist & Test]
As my teenage years approached, my grades fluctuated and I couldn’t concentrate in class or understand math. The teachers at school weren’t happy, and my parents, who had always viewed my hyperfixations as a by-product of a “creative, genius” mind, now referred to them as “childish obsessions”.
Discover sport as a safe outlet
When the pressure started to grow, I found my salvation in tennis. Its nuances caught my imagination and something clicked inside me while I was playing.
My first taste in competition was a small inter-school event that introduced me to a whole new world. Obsession was normal here – everyone was just as fascinated by the sport as I was. My first match, a double game, was an experience like no other. Teammates spurred us on and pushed me to express emotions that I had always suppressed. Even though we lost our semi-finals, our performance was credited to us. My partner and I bonded while we were shaking off our disappointment together, and he remains a beloved friend to this day.
Longing for more, I started participating in national ranking events. Winning meant being able to play more matches, so I committed myself to getting better and moved up the leaderboard. The tennis circus was a safe haven: all of my inclinations, which normally led to contempt, were welcome here. I have been free to be expressive and I have channeled this into my competitive personality. The challenges of new conditions and opponents satisfied my need for something new, and regular competition guaranteed constant stimulation. I also felt a part of this community of people who corresponded to my energy and understood me as I explained myself through tennis metaphors.
[Click to Read: The Magic of Individual Sports]
Challenges begin to be conquered on the tennis court
Unfortunately, my heroics on the pitch didn’t resolve all of my challenges. There is not a lot of sports culture in India and the norm, even in advanced environments, still leans towards convention.
As my high school years came to an end, there was increasing pressure from home and school to justify why I invested so much time and energy in the sport. ADHD symptoms had crept into my tennis too. I often drifted away playing games and my game was inconsistent. Emotions were hard to contain and I was going to implode in games for no apparent reason. Impulsiveness under pressure distorted my decision-making skills, while bad experiences with coaches kept me from opening up and seeking proper guidance. As the demands of the competition grew, these factors exposed large rifts in my game and I fell behind my peers.
My love of tennis, which was never about winning, has now mutated into a desperate attempt to get out of the pressure. Every time I stepped on the square, I was afraid that the only respite in my increasingly turbulent life would be wrested from me. I was hard to trust in games, and any loss only served to reinforce a growing sense of failure. I felt miserable all the time and put on a facade to hide these feelings from others.
Diagnosis and acceptance of the sport
When I finally sought help for these growing problems, the result, to my amazement, was an ADHD diagnosis.
But it was only after this diagnosis that I was able to abandon the story I had developed about tennis and come to terms with the true role of sport in my life. In addition to consistent and structured stimulation, tennis has also made me face 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 professional tennis forced me to find solutions. The constant travel and loneliness of sport made me independent. Above all, tennis has revealed a rough, resilient side of me. Although I experience so many challenges more pronounced than “normal” people, I believe that I can recover much more effectively. Failure, rejection, and setbacks cut deeper than others, but years of perseverance have helped me create an infallible framework for persevering through difficulties.
This framework has also helped me find my way outside of tennis. There is no better proxy for finding out about real life challenges than sports. Each game is like a bite-sized mirror image of life and offers a priceless opportunity to engage and develop as an individual. Through the experiences I learned in court, I have cultivated healthy social acumen, maintained a respectable academic profile, and even gained a foothold in non-athletic avenues.
My diagnosis also helped me accept my shortcomings. I now know why it is difficult for me to control my emotions, why I lose focus, and why losses burn for so long. I also learned about overstimulation and the different attitudes it creates in me. Understanding these challenges has helped me to better forgive myself and redefine many past ‘failures’. I was struggling with a condition I didn’t know about, and just getting through those moments was a victory in itself.
How ADHD pushed me to seek help
Opening up to the right support was critical in this transition. At the age of 19, years before I was diagnosed, I was able to trust a coach for the first time since I started playing, and she has been shown to have a life-changing impact. Even before I suspected ADHD, she urged me to see my way of thinking as a unique strength, repeating over and over that we had to work with my brain, not against it. It was her words that I held on to when I took the courage to make a diagnosis.
My current trainer has been very accepting of my ADHD and he always nudges me on challenges, sure I will master them. Therapy has also been invaluable in helping me find the right solutions for my brain. My temperament on and off the pitch is a far cry from the incessant misery I have projected for so long, and I am able to approach life with renewed vigor.
I’m not going to pretend my level of play or my results have changed astronomically. I’ve made slow, steady progress at best, and I’m still prone to plateaus and burnouts. On hard days, I feel like I’m lagging behind and have to keep myself from going down the rabbit hole of what could have been. Yes, my diagnosis has given me hope, but it has also confirmed that my challenges will remain and that the road ahead will be bumpy, slow, and frustrating.
But that’s something that I hug and appreciate. After all, it doesn’t matter whether you run, walk or even crawl. It doesn’t matter if the trip is what you’re really looking for.
Benefits of Exercise: The Next Steps
Updated June 16, 2021