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How Phelps Found Focus

You already know Michael Phelps is an Olympic hottie, and he’s a pretty good swimmer too. But what I didn’t know, and what kind of makes him even more of an Olympic hero to me, is that when he was younger it was predicted that he’d never be able to focus on anything, because Michael Phelps has ADHD.

zz7d746c36bb7.jpg Starting with preschool, teachers complained: Michael couldn’t stay quiet at quiet time, Michael wouldn’t sit at circle time, Michael didn’t keep his hands to himself, Michael was giggling and laughing and nudging kids for attention.

As he entered public school, he displayed what his teachers called “immature” behavior. “In kindergarten I was told by his teacher, ‘Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus,’ ” recalled Ms. Phelps, who was herself a teacher for 22 years. The family had recently moved, and she felt Michael might be frustrated because the kindergarten curriculum he was getting in the new district was similar to the pre-K curriculum in their old district.

…In the elementary grades at their suburban Baltimore school, Ms. Phelps said, Michael excelled in things he loved — gym and hands-on lessons, like science experiments. “He read on time, but didn’t like to read,” she said. “So I gave him the Baltimore Sun sports pages, even if he just read the pictures and captions.”

She will never forget one teacher’s comment: “This woman says to me, ‘Your son will never be able to focus on anything.’ ”

… When he was in fifth grade, during his annual check-up, Ms. Phelps and the family physician, Dr. Charles Wax, discussed whether Michael might have A.D.H.D. — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. By then, the Phelpses were a swimming family. (Michael’s older sister Whitney at 15 was ranked first in the country in the 200-meter butterfly, though her career would be cut short by a back injury.) Dr. Wax’s children also swam, and he’d noticed Michael at the Phelps sisters’ swim meets. “Michael used to run around like a little crazy person mooching food off people,” said Ms. Phelps.

The doctor suggested sending assessment forms to his teachers. Their consensus: Can’t sit still, can’t keep quiet, can’t focus.

Well, it looks like someone hadn’t heard of hyperfocus.

It’s no secret that children and adults with attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD) often struggle to focus on tasks they find uninteresting. High distractibility — in children with ADHD who are unable to stay focused on a classroom lecture or in adults with ADD who never get around to doing their paperwork — is a key ADHD symptom and diagnosis criterion.

A lesser known ADHD symptom is the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit disorder to focus very intently on things that do interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them.

For children, the object of “hyperfocus” might be playing a video game or watching TV. For adults, it might be shopping or surfing the Internet. But whatever holds the attention, the result is the same: Unless something or someone interrupts, hours drift by as important tasks and relationships fall by the wayside. “

It’s something I’ve experienced myself. Yes, I hyperfocus when I’m online reading articles and blog posts. I hyperfocus when I’m writing a blog post. There are drawbacks to hyperfocus (and the key is knowing when to get out of it, or allow yourself to be pulled away), but there are benefits too.

After all, blogging has led to opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. What else would have led to me sitting down with CEOs and executive directors and teaching them about blogging and social media? What else might have caused me to end up sitting at a table with the Speaker of the House, asking questions of her? Why else would anyone want to interview me for a magazine article or radio show?

How else could I be sitting here in Denver, at the Democratic convention, waiting to witness history in the making … with any kind of actual credentials?

It’s probably due to hyperfocus, to some degree.

It’s probably what helped make Phelps an Olympic legend, that combined with his own gifts related to swimming.

And his mom? Well, for my money, she deserves a gold medal for parenting. And the reporter summed up why better than I can.

More to the point, I think, is the moral of her story, which offers hope for parents of any child with a challenge like A.D.H.D.: Too many adults looked at Ms. Phelps’s boy and saw what he couldn’t do. This week, the world will be tuned to the Beijing Olympics to see what he can do.

I don’t know how I missed this story before. I must not have been paying attention.

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