Neurodiversity in Football – Why it Matters

Neurodiversity in Football

This heading bothers me. It is a little bit like saying goals in football. Goals have always existed in football, and so has Neurodiversity, because we are all Neurodiverse. This means that our brains are all different. We can have different skills and abilities, different challenges, different tastes, different likes and dislikes, and this is because every human brain works differently. 

The recognition and acceptance of this fact is key to ensuring that we get the best out of ourselves, or those that we have some influence over. This could be our children or family, friends, work colleagues, or it could be people that we have a responsibility to supervise, support and develop. Getting the best out of an individual is both mutually beneficial and rewarding for everyone. We can only do this if we understand the individual. 

More and more people are being diagnosed with Neurological conditions and so it is important that organisations are able to understand these conditions, to spot indicators of them, and to be aware of the hidden differences within individuals. These differences can sometimes be challenges with everyday tasks, which the majority of people complete without thinking about. But they can also have talents and abilities which are far in excess of their peers. 

So this is about diversity and inclusion, it is about embracing the differences and making subtle changes, to make Neurodivergent individuals feel more comfortable, properly accepted and able to fully develop and thrive. And it isn’t rocket science to know that getting the best out of people leads to efficiency, productivity and success. 

Before I became a Neurodiversity Trainer, I was a Police Officer for 30 years. I had completed 29½ years of service before I was diagnosed as Autistic and ADHD. Late diagnosis is a mixed blessing. While it enabled me to look back on certain events and understand how I may have been difficult to supervise when I felt I was not being utilised correctly, it has also given me some feelings of “what if?” and “what could have been?”. I can remember when I was working at my best – I felt fully utilised, fully appreciated, with my skills being tested and sharpened. It gave me a feeling of being unstoppable. But when I felt I was not being adequately used, I would develop feelings of inadequacy, I would lose confidence and direction, and even question whether I was in the right role. 

My first 18 months as a Neurodiversity Trainer has been largely spent educating Police Officers and Staff. I see a definite correlation between someone who is ADHD being drawn to joining the Police and becoming a Footballer or Sportsperson. The roles are both full of challenge and change. There are rules and regulations, but there is scope for discretion and some freedom to hone certain skills and display some flair. Footballers and officers in uniform have some down time, where they perhaps sit and learn, or do reports, but they are at their best, and enjoy their job the most, when they are active. This can mean that they are pushed to their limits at times, and the physical demands can be immense – but this is something they love. Every shift for a response officer is different. Every game or training session is different. This is part of the draw. 

I have a passion for football and used to play when I could. Now that I am older, I observe how managers either succeed or fail in getting the best out of their players. There may be issues of personality clashes at times, and that happens in life. But I can see that a manager (and entire coaching set up) that is more flexible and responsive to different players needs and requirements, is likely to get the best out of them. It goes back to the fact that our brains all work differently. Any manager or supervisor who treats every person the same is likely to overlook the needs of some individuals and will definitely fail some people. Even if they have great success with their methods, they are potentially missing out on even greater success with a wider variety of talents. Neurodiversity acceptance and understanding means embracing the difference that an individual can bring. We hear phrases like “thinking outside of the box” and “someone who can change a game” with a “piece of individual genius”. If the person who can do this in Neurodivergent, but their manager just treats them the same as everybody else – then they may go elsewhere and change the game for the opposition! 

Neurodiversity in Football with Jermaine Pennant and Caroline Turner

The other side of Neurodivergent Conditions are the challenges they can bring. They can be minimised, and even irradicated, with understanding and a willingness to try something different. But up until recently the conversation about Neurodiversity within football has been described as desperately misunderstood and wilfully ignored. It only takes a quick internet search to find an example of a young player, who was at one of the biggest clubs in the world, described by the most successful manager in Britain as, “the best player he had seen at that age”. The player is still young enough to play at 31, but is currently without a club. Unfortunately he never reached his clear and obvious potential. His ADHD diagnosis was only revealed during a Court appearance over a decade ago. There have been other conduct issues since that time, and it appears that the player has suffered taunts of being a wasted talent and an idiot. There was certainly a waste of talent evident in this sad story.  

Identifying the need for change, Creased Puddle have forged a working relationship with Jermaine Pennant, who played for clubs including Arsenal, Liverpool and Real Zaragoza. Jermaine Pennant spoke openly, in an interview with us, about his off-field challenges which were impacted by his ADHD. This is likely to be seen more often in the game, with increased awareness, and is something we can try to alleviate with training. 

Jermaine said: “Now I have my diagnoses, it’s made me understand why I behaved in certain ways in the past. Unfortunately, at the time I was playing professional football, there was very little awareness of ADHD, particularly in adults, which meant my behaviour played out in the media as me being a bad person. Although awareness of neurodiversity in sport is better, there still a long way to go to remove stigma and barriers and create an environment where footballers and other sportspeople feel comfortable enough to disclose their diagnoses or ask for help. This webinar along with my other work will hopefully start some of those discussions.” 

You can learn more about the webinar that Caroline Turner did we Jermaine Pennant on our blog here.