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Swimming aids in attention disorders

Posted: October 2, 2008 9:38 p.m.
Updated: December 4, 2008 5:00 a.m.

There has been lots of buzz lately around anything Michael Phelps, shattering the record for most gold medels won in the Olympics.

With that said, his mother, Debbie Phelps, has been very public and forthcoming about Michael's struggle with ADHD and how swimming helped him.

As a 25-year licensed psychotherapist who specializes in ADD/ADHD, and a 30-year swim school owner, I feel qualified to clarify.

First, a brief explanation of Attention Deficit (Hyperactive) Disorder: ADD/ADHD is so much more complicated than just the "active child" or "couch potato."

There are 12 different areas of symptoms for ADD, and each of these areas may be overactive or underactive. Someone with ADD may be overactive in one symptom, while underactive in two others, and have no symptoms in nine areas.

This leaves us with the equation 12 which translates to more than 479 million different combinations of ADD/ADHD symptoms.

The fundamentals for a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD is a problem with focus and/or attention that dramatically interferes with academic/occupational, social, or behavioral life.

What isn't included in the diagnosis is the potential for greatness that I have seen in most people I have come across who have ADD/ADHD.

Debbie Phelps seems to have balanced this by building Michael up in all of his wonderful traits.
The hyperactive side of ADD includes an amazing enthusiasm, which has the potential for magnificence.

Even ADD, without hyperactivity, has a quiet, unfailing determination that has accomplished feats which seem superhuman.

Of the 12 symptom areas of ADD/ADHD, swimming aids in:

n Focal maintenance - the inability to concentrate long enough, or even too long, is dictated by the amount of time spent in the water. With very few choices, concentration tends to last as long as the task at hand.

n Alertness - have you ever splashed water on your face to wake up? Often, the hyperactivity of a child is an effort to keep the brain "awake." Think of when you are driving and need to stay alert. You may roll down the window, turn up the radio, sing along, even bounce in your seat a little. In effect, you become temporarily hyperactive. This is how a hyperactive child lives each day. In water, there is no need. In fact, hydrostatic pressure and resistance in water slows the world down, and can be quite calming and soothing to someone who always has to be wound up to stay awake.

n Mental activation - underwater is a perfect forum for daydreaming and free association, which is what ADD children get in trouble for. Underwater, there are no complaints of the mind wandering off, leaving plenty of time for dreams and aspirations without reproach. Muscle memory takes care of the swim and flip turns, so that the heart can condition the athlete.

n Processing depth and detail - with kinesthetic practice, more and more physical detail is required, starting with the "big picture" and then fine tuning the details. In swimming, it can start with one detail at a time, until muscle memory can add it to the "big picture."

n Saliency determination - the barrage of sounds and background noises that so often distract the student are not present in water. This sensory deprivation leads to better focus on the task at hand.

n Satisfaction Control - the noticeable restlessness that craves excitement can be satisfied in competition and swim meets, which also breaks up the routine of workouts, including peaking and tapering.

n Mental effort - the difficulty in getting started with work, or finishing work that has been started, is ended when a coach is on deck holding the athlete accountable for the daily workout. With good coaching, very little goes undetected, and when the athlete slacks, the workout gets harder, reinforcing the idea of always working hard.

n Previewing - impulsivity and failure to look ahead to see possible consequences can be dooming and habitual.

n Facilitation and inhibition - hyperactivity itself is calmed and soothed in the aquatic environment, and in a tough workout, there is little ability to say or do inappropriate things while underwater or while panting for breath in between sets.

n Tempo Control - timing is completely controlled by the coach. After months of daily swimming, the athlete learns the correct pace, and may apply this to other areas in life.

n Self-monitoring and self-righting - in a workout it's hard to lose track of what you are doing. Unlike the inability to read social cues and fix whatever you did or said, the cues come from your own body and there is some pain if you fail to correct behaviors.

n Reinforceability - people who fail to learn from their mistakes, or those who do not respond to rewards, are reinforced in the pool.

People with ADD are smart; often, very smart.

But they are better aware of what is going on internally than they will ever be aware of what else is going on externally. We often try to reinforce or punish with all the other stuff going on and they miss it.

So Michael Phelps has joined the ranks of other GREATS with ADD, including Walt Disney, Benjamin Franklin, and Winston Churchill, to name a very few, with the help and guidance of a devoted and wise mother and the talent and efforts of his coaches.

Nikki Miller is a licensed psycholterapist and Santa Clairta resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily that of The Signal.


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