How Swimming Saved Michael Phelps: An ADHD Story – ADDitude
what does it take to succeed despite attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (adhd)?
It takes a lot of work, for starters: the willingness to meet challenges head-on. it requires the support of family members, teachers, therapists and coaches. and it’s hard to overstate the benefits of adhd medication.
But of all the ingredients necessary for a happy and successful life, nothing is more important than a good parenting. Behind nearly every adhd success story, including those of michael phelps, ty pennington, and danielle fisher, are one or two dedicated parents. In honor of moms and dads, let’s give credit where credit is due and heed their advice for adhd parents.
The three mothers described here helped their sons and daughters achieve great things, more than they could have imagined. Steadfast and resourceful, they saw strength where others saw weakness and kept looking for ways to help their children when others were willing to give up. Let their stories inspire you!
michael phelps: an adhd role model
debbie phelps, principal of middle school in towson, maryland, and mother of olympic swimmer michael phelps
Without a doubt, Michael Phelps has made waves in his chosen sport. In 2004, at the age of 18, he won eight swimming medals (six of them gold) at the Summer Olympics in Athens. When the 2016 Olympic Games ended in Rio, he was the most decorated Olympian of all time, with 28 medals, 23 of them gold. Now retired from swimming, he holds 7 world records, including the 200-meter butterfly and the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay.
[take this quiz: could your child have adhd?]
however, michael might not have liked swimming at all, if it weren’t for the wit of his mother, debbie phelps. “At seven years old, he hated getting his face wet,” says Debbie. “we turned him around and taught him the backstroke.”
Michael showed ability to swim on his back, then front, side, and every way in between. but in the classroom, he faltered. the inability to concentrate was his biggest problem.
“One of her teachers told me she couldn’t concentrate on anything,” Debbie says. he saw a doctor and nine-year-old michael was diagnosed with adhd.
“That really touched my heart,” Debbie says. “It made me want to prove everyone wrong. She knew that if she worked with Michael, she could achieve anything she sets her mind to.”
[click to read: why praise is so important for kids with adhd]
debbie, who had taught high school for more than two decades, began working closely with michael’s school to provide him with the extra attention he needed. “Every time a teacher would say, ‘Michael can’t do this,’ he’d say, ‘Well, what are you doing to help him?'” she recalls.
after michael continued to grab a classmate’s paper, debbie suggested he sit at his own table. when he complained about how much she hated reading, she would start passing him the sports section of the newspaper or sports books. Noticing that Michael’s attention wandered during math, he hired a tutor and encouraged him to use word problems tailored to Michael’s interests: “How long would it take you to swim 500 meters if you swim three meters per second?”
at swim meets, debbie helped michael stay focused by reminding him to consider the consequences of his behavior. She recalls the time when 10-year-old Michael came in second and was so upset that he took off his glasses and angrily threw them over the edge of the pool.
during the ride home, she told him that sportsmanship counted as much as winning. “We came up with a signal that she could give him from the stands,” she says. She would “make a ‘c’ with my hand, which meant ‘behave.’ every time she saw him frustrated, she gave him the signal. once, he gave me the ‘c’ when i got stressed while making dinner. You never know what’s sinking until the tables are turned!”
debbie used various strategies to keep michael in line. Over time, as her love of swimming grew, she was delighted to see that she was developing self-discipline. “For the last 10 years, at least, he’s never missed a practice,” she recalled in 2007. “Even at Christmas, the pool is the first place we go, and he’s happy to be there.” /p>
debbie also made sure to listen to her son. in sixth grade, she told him that she wanted to stop taking her stimulant medication. despite serious misgivings, she agreed to let him stop, and she did well. Michael’s busy schedule of practices and meets imposed so much structure on his life that he was able to stay focused without medication.
[read: considering a vacation from your adhd medication?]
debbie and michael disagreed on every challenge that came his way, but he always understood the role she played in his swimming success. immediately after receiving her first gold medal in athens, she stepped down from the winners’ platform and walked to the stands to present debbie with a bouquet and the garland on her head. that moment he is vivid in debbie’s memory. she “was so happy that she was crying,” she recalls.
Michael ended his career as a swimmer after the 2016 Olympics and is a philanthropy through the Michael Phelps Foundation. debbie has become the principal of windsor mill high school in baltimore, maryland. She applies what she learned raising Michael to all of her students, whether they have ADHD or not. “All kids can let us down sometimes,” she says. “But if you work with them, nine times out of 10, they will make you proud.”
“I built with the gifts that adhd gave him”
yvonne pennington, clinical psychologist in marietta, georgia, and mother of ty pennington, star of abc-tv series extreme makeover: home edition
As the happy-go-lucky handyman on the hit TV series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Ty Pennington hammered (and hammered) his way into our hearts. His mother, Yvonne Pennington, is, of course, his biggest fan, though she’s quick to point out that Ty’s manic energy wasn’t always to his advantage.
“In first grade, he would shoulder his desk and use it, running around the classroom while the other kids laughed,” she says. “The teachers insisted that he was brilliant, but he just couldn’t sit still. he constantly received calls from the principal’s office. I felt like the worst mother in the world.”
at home, ty was a handful. Yvonne says that he would always jump off the roof and run into the street without checking for cars.
At the time, yvonne was a single mother struggling to raise two children, while attending graduate school by day and waitressing at night. she sensed something was wrong with ty, then seven years old. but what?
One day, while doing research for a psychology class, he stumbled upon the answer. “I read some case studies about kids who had trouble concentrating and they were a lot like ty,” she says. a doctor evaluated her and confirmed the diagnosis.
in the early 1970s, doctors didn’t use the term “attention deficit disorder.” kids like ty were given a more sinister-sounding label: “minimal brain dysfunction.” Yvonne wasn’t sure if she should tell her son. “Imagine hearing that,” she says. “He already felt like a bad boy. why make things worse by telling him?”
yvonne chose not to tell ty about her diagnosis. But she turned to psychology textbooks, learning all she could about minimal brain dysfunction and ways to treat it. she read about a form of behavioral therapy that involved the use of tokens and decided to give it a try.
Here’s how it worked: For every 10 seconds that ty managed to stay focused and do what was asked of him, he earned a token (one of yvonne’s drink coasters). Ty was allowed to trade the tokens for rewards: 10 coasters for, say, an extra half hour of TV or time to play with his construction game.
In the beginning, ty rarely made more than a chip or two before he went back to his usual antics. but yvonne stuck to it; he even convinced ty’s special education teacher to use the technique in the classroom. Ty’s demeanor slowly improved, giving his self-esteem a much-needed boost.
“In the past, people only paid attention to ty when she did something wrong,” says yvonne. “but with the token economy, we turned it around.”
As ty learned to channel his energy, he became passionate about building things – the bigger the better. “At age 11, he traded his comics for the help of his friends to build a three-story treehouse,” says Yvonne. “I knew then that I would grow up to be a carpenter, or a Hollywood stuntman.”
ty mostly got bs and cs in high school. But he hit a wall shortly after entering Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in 1982. The lack of structure left him reeling; he retired a year later.
around this time, in the early 1980s, the term adhd came into use, and with the stigma surrounding the condition fading, yvonne decided to tell the truth. “He always knew that he was hyper, and I thought that was all he needed to know,” she says. “But when I realized it was ADHD that was holding him back, I told him and suggested we see a doctor.”
with the help of stimulant medication, which he continues to take, t and finally learned to focus. She went back to school, this time at the Atlanta Institute of Art, graduating with honors. After that, she dabbled in construction and graphic design work, and also did some modeling and acting. he then got a job as a carpenter in the commercial spaces of the learning channel. three years later, he was selected to lead his own renovation team in an extreme makeover: home edition.
“Even today, his spontaneity gives me heart attacks,” yvonne admits, recalling the moment she turned on the TV to see ty speeding down a steep path using an ottoman for a skateboard. Still, if her experiences have taught her anything, it’s that parents need to learn to appreciate the unique gifts that ADHD can offer. “The same traits that once held you back are now her greatest assets,” she says. “Many parents in this situation focus on what their children are doing wrong. I encourage them to focus on what they are doing well. do that, and the possibilities are endless.”
“I told my daughter, the sky is the limit”
karen fisher, a high school teacher in bow, washington, and mother of danielle fisher, the youngest person to climb all seven of the highest mountains in the world
tracking was always a challenge for danielle fisher. “I would start her homework but not finish it, or finish it but not turn it in,” recalls her mother, Karen Fisher. But Karen was understanding, because she, too, often strayed. “It would take me all day to clean the kitchen, because I would move to another room, then another room,” she says. “Things didn’t seem as easy to me as they did to other parents.”
when danielle entered sixth grade, it occurred to karen that they might both have adhd. After a doctor confirmed her diagnosis, mother and daughter took medication. everyone’s ability to concentrate improved, but the problems persisted. “in the classroom, girls with adhd are often overlooked,” says karen, a middle school teacher. “It’s hard to believe that a student has adhd if she’s a good, nice, calm kid who doesn’t cause trouble.”
To make sure Danielle got extra help in the classroom, Karen applied for a 504 plan, which gives students accommodations like extra time to complete homework and the option to take tests in a private, distraction-free room.
Despite everything, Karen has done her best to maintain a positive relationship with Danielle. “Relationships are very important to girls with adhd,” she says. “If I got mad at her, I would have a hard time. but if she could convey that she is needed and appreciated, she would do better. and I also. I tell Danielle that she can do or be whoever she wants to be.”
With the encouragement of her mother, Danielle clung to one of the highest goals imaginable: climbing the Seven Summits (the highest peaks on each of the seven continents). An avid hiker as a child, Danielle got serious about mountaineering in high school. In January 2003, she flew to Argentina to climb her first great mountain, the 22,848-foot Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere.
“The mountains bring her into focus,” Karen explains. “Maybe it’s the exercise, or the fact that there’s less chaos up there and no daily worries like cleaning the house or doing the laundry. Or maybe it’s the fact that all climbers have the same goal: to reach the top. it’s a comfort to her.”
Two years and six mountains later, on June 2, 2005, Karen and her husband got the call: Danielle, then 20, was calling from Mount Everest, having just become the youngest American to climb the mountain. highest mountain in the world (and the youngest person to climb all seven summits). Karen couldn’t be more proud and encourages other parents of children with ADHD to hold out high hopes for her children.
“I always tell my daughter not to give up,” Karen says. “It’s hard, but if you focus on one step at a time, you’ll hit those mini-goals along the way. eventually, you’ll get to where you’re going.”
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michael phelps on adhd
the most decorated olympian of all time, michael phelps is a world-class role model for kids with and without adhd, plus a few billion adults too. Now you can read the full story of his life in Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface, Now Out.