Phelps story offers hope for children with ADHD

As the 2008 Olympic Games draw to a close, one story has attracted the attention of the world. It is about a young boy born with oversized hands and feet, the wingspan of a condor, and misshapen ears.

At age nine he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Yet he has become arguably the greatest athlete in the world. The story of Michael Phelps epitomizes the ability to turn a potential tragedy into victory.

Athletes must make critical decisions regarding their careers, training, and nutrition. The parents of young athletes make many of these decisions. Deborah Phelps made a parental decision to have her son channel his energy into the sport of swimming and the rest is history.

Dr. Alnoor Ramji is a psychiatrist in Norwich who treats many children and adults with ADHD. He believes that establishing a structured environment is the most important element for successful treatment.

“The problem with setting up an orderly regimen for a child is that often the parent who must oversee the process also has ADHD and things fall apart,” Ramji said.

Structure is crucial since ADHD patients are easily distracted and frustrated. Many adults realize they too suffer from ADHD only after their child is diagnosed. There is a strong genetic linkage.

Stimulant medications like Ritalin are also an important part of treatment. The need for medication is optional in milder cases. Typically, the hyperactive component of ADHD improves at approximately 22 years of age.

Sports are strongly encouraged since they require discipline and provide an essential outlet. Sports involving a singular focus like swimming, martial arts, and running are ideal. Sports that require divided attention like football, basketball, and soccer are more challenging and often result in frustration.

This story is a reminder that when both parents and children are committed to a specific task, many obstacles can be overcome and success in sports and life attained.

Anthony G. Alessi, MD, is Chief of Neurology at The William W. Backus Hospital and in private practice at NeuroDiagnostics, LLC, in Norwich. E-mail him at, listen to his podcasts or go to the Healthy Sports blog at

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