Champion for a Cause

Olympic champion Michael Phelps&s mother, Debbie Phelps, discusses how she and her son teamed up to claim victory over his ADHD.

Feb 06, 2013

Michael Phelps, winner of eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, was born a swimmer. But surprisingly, this remarkable athlete, known for his focus and determination, struggled with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child. Here, Michael's mom, Debbie, shares how her son overcame ADHD to win the most gold medals (14) in Olympic history, and how she is helping other parents of kids with this disorder. 


Parent & Child: What were some of the early signs that made you wonder if Michael had ADHD?

Debbie Phelps: Hyperactivity, definitely. His impulsiveness was another. Not being able to focus on any one thing for a long period of time. My two daughters would play quietly or draw. Michael never sat still, shut up, or stopped asking questions.


P&C: Did you seek out swimming as a way to help Michael channel his hyperactivity?

Phelps: It didn’t start out that way, but it definitely assisted in doing that. Swimming was our family’s sport, but as a parent you always want to provide as many opportunities as possible for your child to find his niche. So we went in all directions, from music to sports.


P&C: It seems clear now that Michael’s niche is in the pool. Was it always that way?

Phelps: He loved swimming from a very young age, and it helped build his self-esteem and his confidence. But as Michael reached more advanced levels of training, he was put with older kids who often bullied him. He could sometimes be a little “twit” because he wanted attention, but he was also teased about things he had no control over. His wingspan [the distance between outstretched arms] was wider than his height, so when he was an adolescent, his hands were down around his knees, and he had big ears. But I think those experiences helped give him the mental toughness, determination, and maturity he has today.


P&C: When was Michael diagnosed with ADHD? How did you treat it?

Phelps: When he was about 11. He was put on medication, but he wanted to try to handle it without. So I set parameters for Michael and began teaching him behaviors that could help him adjust, like pacing himself when he worked and using a checklist to “see” his tasks and responsibilities. Around that same time, Michael’s coach, Bob Bowman, came into our lives. Michael couldn’t focus when he was younger, but with his coaches’ help, he focused on swimming.


P&C: You were a middle-school teacher when Michael was a kid, and you’re now a principal. How has your career in schools let you help Michael, and vice versa?

Phelps: As a parent, I could see my own children in my students. When I saw kids in the classroom drumming their fingers, tapping, and leaning back in their chairs — all things that usually bother teachers, but that I had experienced with Michael — I would think to myself, “If this were Michael, how would I handle it?” Now as a principal, I try to share what I’ve learned from raising Michael with my teachers. I tell them there are probably more kids in middle school who have ADHD than have been diagnosed, and there are ways we can help those children. We can build their self-esteem, help them overcome barriers, and captivate them, despite their shorter attention span.


P&C: You’re now a “mom leader” in the ADHD Moms online community on Facebook. What inspired you to get involved?

Phelps: When I was raising Michael, my resources were our pediatrician, Dr. Spock, and my mom. My social network was mostly moms in the playgroup or the swim club. The fact that parents today can go online in their homes or during a break at work to gain some knowledge or connect with other parents about helping their kids is a very good and powerful thing.


P&C: Do you have advice for moms today raising kids with ADHD?

Phelps: Keep abreast of what’s happening in your child’s life, and be aware of warning signs — whether it’s for ADHD, depression, or trouble dealing with a divorce. If you have a concern, share it with your child’s teacher because school is where your kids spend most of their day. It’s also important to reach out and ask for help to get the resources you need. No question is stupid, and no question is silly. In terms of specific advice, I recommend helping your child balance his life in ways that are simple and basic yet very important, like I did with Michael. Help your child get organized with lists and by teaching him to prepare school supplies or sports equipment. It can really calm him and allow him to think in a clearer, more structured manner. It also makes a big difference to eat healthy, talk with your child about his concerns, and build in “quiet moments” of journaling or chatting together.


P&C: While watching Michael win in Beijing, did you think back on his childhood at all?

Phelps: When I had a few moments in the evenings I did. I thought about the many obstacles Michael hurdled during his life. He overcame them with dignity, focus, and class.

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