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ADHD hyperfocus as a flow state for achievement

Rob and I both have been really successful at sport, and we both attribute that mostly to our neurodivergent hyperfocus ability. Hyperfocus is the ability to put all of your focus on one thing to the exclusion of all other. We have heard plenty on how this can be a detriment, but we have both experienced many more experiences of it being like a super power with our sport when you realise that it can actually be a "flow" state.

Image is of 14 year old Rob doing long jump at a state championship.

According to Dr. Jeff Chamberlain, tasks that often cause hyperfocus usually have four features: instant feedback, are active or interactive, are fast paced and are enjoyable. So if you find sporting activities that you enjoy, and are in positions where you are an active part of the game a lot, like we did, it makes sense how you can shut down other functions ie, I couldn't feel pain (unless really serious) when playing (I was always covered in bruises), when you are younger you can override sleep (until you crash), and it was one of the times where we couldn't mask as you are just too focused. I suppose that's another reason we loved it - we weren't pretending to be someone else or worried what we looked like or trying to fit in - we were just focused to win!

Rob was great at short, sharp stuff - sprinting, long jump, rugby league - pretty much any sport and athletics. He would spend hours reading Rugby League books, collecting Rugby league cards, reciting Rugby League Stats, and watching Rugby League Games on repeat, even if they were years old.

I was into hockey, softball and mid-distance running. I have always maintained that it was not my natural ability that had me reach higher representative status, but my tenacity to practice things over, and over, and over until I got it right.

My parents ended up having to pull some fishing net over our old trampoline on its side for me to hit against, as I would come home every day after school and smash a ball against our shed repeatedly - much to the angst of our shift worker neighbour! People had a lot more skill than me, but I would hyperfocus of every single part of hitting an undercut (for example) and then do it over, and over, and over until I got it. I was referred to as 'obsessed' a number of times in my life, as a detriment, and yet many achievers of all neurotypes now share that they had to become obsessed to achieve what they have. Interesting...

Image is of Tanya aged 31, sprinting in a warm up in Singapore furtherest on the left, as part of the Australian Country Hockey Team

At aged 15, Rob was asked to be part of the Newcastle Nights Development Team and was part of it for one season, until his hyperfocus changed to girls and partying - sigh, gotta love being a 16 year old neurodivergent boy with no understanding of your neurology or sensory profile, adding in hormones, alcohol and everything else that goes with that. He hates to talk about it now but his ADHD impulsiveness had him quit the Newcastle Nights Development Team for more 'exciting' things happening. Let's face it, he is not alone. Like most 16 year old's he just wanted to be like everyone else, and didn't realise til he was 40, (in his own words), that "the key to how far we can go in life is how much truth and acceptance we can have about ourselves".

Image is of a young Rob at different stages of his childhood playing Rugby for East Maitland.

We both consumed way too much alcohol when we were young as coping tools as most neurodivergent young people do. We wanted to fit in and socialise and needed the "dutch courage" to do so.

I didn't get serious about my hockey until I was 26 and started coming out of my 'I want to fit in at all costs' age, when I made my first QLD Country Team and then went on to make Australia Country. In a lot of ways I feel like a "late bloomer", but what I know to be true is that if we both had the knowledge we have now on how to support our sensory profile and neurology when we were younger, and had leaders of teams supporting that, things would have been a lot different for us. I got my second chance. By the time Rob was 26 he was married with two children, with another to come, and hyper-focusing on sport, doing what is needed to understand your neurology, and prioritising your sensory needs when you have family responsibilities doesn't flow as well and is mostly considered selfish or self-indulgent from those who don't understand how absolutely crucial it is to your mental and physical health (mind/body connection).

Hyperfocus can be — and often is — an extraordinary gift. Not only does it allow people with ADHD to get a lot done in a short amount of time, it allows them to fully devote their attention to something that interests them — improving their skills through hours and hours of focused, dedicated effort. You can’t do that if your brain doesn’t work the way ours does.

And yes, it's easy to find MANY articles on the negatives of hyperfocus, and it can be a detriment if not managed properly. I work from home so that I can let me hyperfocus "do it's thing" and put some strategies into place to make it work FOR me, like these from ADDitude:

  1. Set up external cues to knock yourself out of hyperfocus. Timers, alarms, or phone reminders can alert you to appointments or responsibilities that fade away during a period of hyperfocus. I live out of my calendar - if it's not in my calendar with a reminder in advance, it doesn't happen.

  2. Discuss how family members, coworkers, or friends can help you “snap out of it” if necessary. For many, physical touch is a great way to break the spell of hyperfocus. If your husband calls you a few times without an answer, ask him to gently touch your shoulder, instead — more often than not, he’ll be able to break through.

  3. Set reasonable limits. Spending three straight days working on an art project might make sense to you, but for the people who love and depend on you, it can be frustrating when you “disappear.” Decide beforehand how much time you can fairly dedicate to a project, without ignoring your relationships or shirking your responsibilities — and set alarms to ensure you stick to your plans.

  4. Be honest about hyperfocus. Talk to your friends and family about typical ADHD behaviours and how they manifest for you. Explain that, while you’re taking steps to harness hyperfocus, you may still be unreachable from time to time. Listen to any concerns they may have, and do your best to mitigate them — but remember that you shouldn’t have to apologise for how your brain works.

Sending big love,

- 'WC' T ♡

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