People who donʼt love sport, fail to recognize that itʼs so much more than winning and losing. In fact, the winning and losing is nothing more than the culmination of any athletic competition, the true stories, the good stuff, happens behind closed doors, away from the spotlight, off center stage. And knowing the back story, the history, is what makes athletics compelling. And sometimes, there are even lessons to be learned by us all.
It goes back to long hours we may have spent as kids under the sun shagging fly balls at little league practice, nights spent under a street lamp trying to perfect our free throw form, or time spent on the road, one foot in front of the other, mercilessly pushing ourselves to run faster, farther, stronger, longer.
That brings me to freak Olympic athlete Michael Phelps and his dump truck full of gold medals. Iʼve watched him in interviews and in competition and always been favorably impressed. When I heard a story from his youth about overcoming Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, I was hooked.
When he was a kid, Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD. He was talkative and restless in class. His teachers singled him out as a problem, one even commenting that heʼd never be able to focus enough to ever accomplish anything. His mother, a teacher herself at the time, took him to a doctor and after some discussion, placed her son on the drug Ritalin.
Now I want to stop for just a brief moment here to point out that I fully appreciate and understand that some people need, benefit from and prosper through the use of Ritalin. Iʼm not trying to go Tom Cruise on your ass and rant about how the aliens donʼt want us using drugs of any kind. Thatʼs not the point.
The point is that, in my humble (and always correct) opinion, drugs like Ritalin are overused, just as real disorders like ADHD are over-diagnosed. Kids, by nature, are hyperactive and some more than others; the sad fact is though, that medication has become a first line defense, when there are better alternatives available.
This brings me back to Phelps, who took Ritalin for a couple years and then told his mother that he wanted to stop taking it. And unlike many parents who are just happy to have a less hyper child and ignore a request like that from an 11 year old kid, his mother listened to him.
Phelps stopped taking the drug and put all of his energy into swimming.
Now hereʼs where the tale, in the wrong hands becomes propaganda. Swimming wasnʼt some cure-all for his hyperactivity, but his mother was amazed at how this child who had trouble sitting still in school, could wait patiently all day for a 5 minute period in which heʼd compete at a swim meet.
Whoʼs to say if he could have become the athlete he is today while taking a drug that might have, at times, made him lethargic? Maybe he could have, I donʼt know.
What I do know is that instead of trying to fit her son into some preconceived mold that parents tend to have for their kids, she let her son be the person he wanted to be. She encouraged him in the pursuit in which he found fulfillment instead of pushing an agenda of getting straight Aʼs and getting an Ivy League scholarship.
The kid loved to swim. He was the proverbial fish in water. She encouraged him and now, her ADHD kid is the greatest Olympic champion of all time.
The lesson here isnʼt that the drugs are good or bad or in some gray area. Itʼs not a question of science at all. The lesson is that maybe, whatʼs best for kids, is that instead of trying to fit square pegs in round holes, parents go out of their way to find the particular square hole their particular kid fits into.
I spent 13 years as a youth coach and it never ceased to amaze me the way some parents reacted to their kids athletic ineptitude. Itʼs a crime how many kids are forced to play sports by parents who once played themselves. Especially when those kids talents lie in art or music or theater or in some undiscovered place that might never be found because of the instance that they be athletes.
In Phelps case, he was an athlete, though not in one of the more traditional kids sports and the Phelps family went with it. Today, this kid with ADHD is regarded as one of the most gifted and FOCUSED athletes in the world. Heʼs a square peg who found a square hole in which he learned to thrive.
It makes me wonder if the real problem isnʼt a hyperactive kid, but a parent with preconceived notions about what their child should be, instead of one flexible enough to help their kid find their place in the world?
But God forbid we each be unique and find our own way in the world! There are structures and guidelines and protocol to follow so that we can all be the same and average and normal and like everyone else. Get good grades, earn a scholarship, get a good job, find a nice spouse, have 2.5 kids, pay your taxes, retire and complain about the weather, fertilize the earth.
The road less traveled? Are you kidding? Werenʼt you paying attention? Thatʼs the hard road, the different road, itʼs not the way everyone else is going! Why should anyone take that route?
Well Michael Phelps did, with some help from his mom and just like Robert Frost tells us it will, itʼs made all the difference.