Dear Coach -- Constant Fear

Dear Coach:

I’m sorry.

I shouldn’t have missed practice yesterday – terrible timing after being sick last week and right before the big tournament. 

I didn’t plan to skip.  I packed my bag this morning and brought it to school. I even arranged with Matt to get a ride because my mom had a meeting. 

Then as the day went on, my stomach started to clench. I felt pretty bad after fourth period. I was suddenly super tired and felt like I needed to lie down. I know I’m not sick. I know by now that this is different — but it feels just as bad as the flu, or worse. 

I also know there are no excuses, but maybe it will help if I share how my doctor explained it to me.

He said that kids like me, who have ADHD, walk around in constant fear. 

It’s not a momentary, terrifying fear, like before trying a complicated platform dive for the first time. It’s not butterflies, like when you’re lining up against a tough rival, who happens to be five inches taller than you, in the state basketball championships. Those fears pass pretty quickly once you try the new trick or once the game is over — like the “fight or flight” fear that kept cavemen safe from a lion attack and passed once the coast was clear.   My doctor says that’s “good fear”. 

What makes me feel so awful is a more free-floating kind of fear that isn’t tied to one thing that will pass. It’s a constant feeling that something could go wrong – that I’m likely to do something wrong – at any moment.  It makes me feel out of control and on edge pretty much all the time.  

The worst is that when I start to feel bad, I try even harder not to do something wrong, but that gets me all stressed out to where I really can’t pay attention or do what I’m supposed to do.  And then I feel even worse. 

It’s a non-stop vicious cycle.

When it gets to be too much, I feel physically terrible. And that’s when I know I’m likely to lash out in a way I’ll really regret if I don’t completely shut down, like skipping practice. 

My doctor says this underlying fear comes from knowing that I can’t always control my blurting out or my moving hands or my emotions or my wandering mind.

I know every day that I’m going to mess up. I’m just waiting for it to happen – and then waiting for you to yell, for the other kids to get on me, for my mom to start taking away all my stuff. 

Sometimes it’s not even 8:00 a.m. and I already feel like a failure.  

The tricky thing is that my stress symptoms look a lot like my ADHD symptoms.  Fighting off constant mind chatter about how you’re sure to embarrass yourself or get into trouble is super distracting, and the extra distraction causes extra stress, which is super distracting, and so on.  

When it really ramps up, I can’t pay attention to anything but what’s in my head. I can’t remember anything but the negative thoughts that my mind is kicking out. And I make horrible decisions, like skipping practice.

My doctor says that this kind of “bad stress” also causes physical symptoms that cause problems for any kid but especially for an athlete. One is muscle tightness, which obviously is a big negative for basketball. Another is difficulty sleeping, which crushes endurance and strength and is terrible for my mood (just ask my mom). I also get sick more often than other kids because both lack of sleep and stress weaken the immune system.

The good news is that after dealing with this for years I’m finally figuring out some things that ease the fear and help me get through the day and handle my responsibilities.

The first one is routine.

My brain is wired to notice everything at once. This is great for seeing the big picture and makes me really good at dealing with the unexpected in the middle of a game – like how I can spot the path that’s about to open because one defender missed his route, or when I notice that my soccer teammate is getting tired and pick up the slack so that he’ll still have legs in the second half.

But outside of performance, I need routine.  Routine calms my anxiety by reducing the distracting thoughts about what might go wrong. My mom said some expert told her to set clear expectations and then run the house like boot camp (minus the yelling) – she does, and it mostly works.

Lots of things at practice are already pretty routine – prepping my gear, warming up, running familiar drills and a scrimmage to close. I learned last summer on the swim team that it helps even more if I have a specific job, like putting in the lane lines. Maybe I could be in charge of getting out the balls and lining up the cones or something like that, anything that keeps me busy and needs doing every day in the same way.

A second key is when the rules and consequences are predicable. 

Like I said, I know that there are no excuses when I slip up. But I feel way less anxious (and then slip up less) when I know that being late will always mean extra laps but won’t ever get me benched, or that you won’t scream at me. 

A third is when the adults around me are calm.

I know that I can be super frustrating, and I get why you yell sometimes.  But no matter how hard I try not to be over-sensitive, screaming makes everything worse – my anxiety, my behavior and my performance. 

My doctor says that kids with ADHD have “overly attentive and highly sensitive emotional systems”.  All I know is that an irritated tone or a raised volume that other kids might not even notice is like a dagger to me. I’m so jealous of kids who can let criticism roll off their backs, but I just can’t.  When I look like I’m being defiant or shrugging you off it’s just because it hurts so much.

When I mess up and the adults are calm, I can usually get back on track pretty quickly. My mom and my teachers are big on “do-overs”. And when I know that the reactions will be calm, or what the consequences will be, then I feel less uneasy, which means that I can focus more energy on my performance – and on following your directions.

So you see, I try really hard to look cool on the outside, but most days I struggle just to make it through.  Sometimes it seems so hard that I feel like quitting, but what I really want to do is stop letting people (including myself) down and find a way to be great. 

Being great at the sport I love, or even being able to give it my all every day, will calm my fears like nothing else can.  And that’s the positive circle – succeed, have less fear of messing up, focus and perform better, succeed more, and so on. I know you’d like that too.

I’ll see you at practice tomorrow.   Let me know if I can help with those cones.