Why ADD Doesn’t Equal B-A-D
A heart-breaking but ultimately productive conversation with a young student this past week brought to mind a post of mine from a few years back. We were talking about the sudden disinterest his mom had noticed he had in all his activities, including school and karate. This child, a very bright kid who’s had great success so far in his martial arts despite occasional focus issues, is in the process of being tested for Attention Deficit Disorder. During that time, he had apparently heard the grown-ups talk about how he struggles at times to stay on task in class and on the mat. He had come to equate those comments to mean that he was “bad” at those things. As you can imagine, that conclusion put quite the damper on his enthusiasm.
I am right at home discussing this topic. Not just professionally—and a lot of people young and old come to us with attention disorder issues ranging from mild to maddening. My interest is also quite persona. I have no doubt I would have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD had such diagnoses existed when I was growing up. Instead I was slapped with far less clinical labels, some of them diplomatic and some of them cruel. I was the kid who could not sit through a lecture—or sit through anything else, for that matter. Navigating life for me was like walking through pitch darkness with a book of matches. My attention on something would flare brightly for a moment but quickly die out, leaving me feeling lost until another match was struck.
Then, at 18, I took my first martial arts class (my parents wouldn’t let me take karate as a kid; teaching fighting skills to a hyper kid with apparently poor impulse control somehow seemed like a bad idea to them). And I found something I never had before: entire classes where my mind didn’t wander for one moment. Twenty-five years later, that’s still true.
This revelation would come as no surprise to Richard Friedman, the author of an article in the New York Times that made me look at the subject—and myself—in a whole new light. Professor Friedman writes about the genetic makeup of ADHD patients, in which the body tends to have lower levels of certain dopamine receptors, is not as new as the rising number of ADHD diagnoses would suggest. Rather, people born this way are increasingly finding themselves born into a society less suited for their particular makeup. A person who “suffers” from ADHD today was actually well-suited for life in the age when one’s diet consisted of things that ran from or sometimes attacked you. Indeed, the person who’s head was always “on a swivel” looking for the next meal or threat actually thrived. To Professor Friedman, it would only make sense that I only started to really become productive at things once I found myself in pursuits – like martial arts or firefighting — that are all about immediacy.
Our Dojo training demands constant attention to detail, but in a way that is immediate and engaging. Simply put, it’s hard to daydream when you have someone’s foot flying at your face. That’s why, I think, so many doctors and occupational therapists have been recommending our Dojo to people with ADHD. We teach focus and mental discipline in an environment in which those aren’t just abstract ideas but crucial skills – even life-saving skills, should one ever find themselves threatened with physical violence. Through my first martial arts classes all those years ago, I learned that I could indeed stay focused in the right environment. Through my practice over the years I’ve learned I could carry that focus over to other parts of my life. Now my mission, and that of my fellow instructors, is to set other people along that same path.