+ Swimming As Therapy in Attention Disorders

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An article in the Santa Clarita Valley paper, The Signal, states that swimming, especially competitive swimming, can help persons who have ADD or ADHD.

Michael Phelps’s mother, Debbie Phelps, has been very public and forthcoming about Michael’s struggle with ADHD, and how swimming helped him.

Nikki Miller (who has been a swim school owner for 30 years) feels she is qualified to explain why.  She begins by explaining that children with ADD/ADHD are far from the average “active child” or garden variety “couch potato.”

The complexity of ADD lies in the fact that there are12 different areas in which symptoms can arise.  They are focal maintenance, alertness, mental activation, processing depth and detail, saliency determination, satisfaction control, mental effort, previewing, facilitation and inhibition, tempo control, self-monitoring and reinforceability.

As she explains it, any single child may be overactive or underactive in one or more of these areas.  The child might be overactive in one area, underactive in two others, and have no symptoms in the remaining nine.  This gives a staggering number of possible manifestations in our children.

A diagnosis of ADD/ADHD means that a child has a problem with focus and/or attention that dramatically interferes with academic/occupational, social, or behavioral life.  According to Michael Phelps’s mother and Miller, there is also a potential for greatness.

Debbie Phelps balanced Michael’s difficulties by building on his strengths.  The hyperactive side of ADD includes an amazing enthusiasm, and in Michael it was to result in magnificence.

Here is what Miller feels swimming can do to help remediate each of the twelve factors.

  • Focal maintenance  — The inability to concentrate long enough, or even too long, is dictated by the amount of time in the water.  With very few choices, concentration tends to last as long as the task at hand.
  • Alertness  — just as we splash water on our faces to wake up in the morning, or roll down the window, sing  or bounce in the seat to stay awake on a long drive, the hyperactivity of a child is an effort to keep the brain awake.  When we take those steps of splashing water or bouncing, we’re becoming temporarily hyperactive.  This is how a hyperactive child lives each day.  But in water, there’s no need.  In fact, hydrostatic pressure and resistance in water slows the world down, and can be quite calming and soothing to someone who always has to be wound up to stay awake. 
  • Mental activation  — underwater is a perfect forum for daydreaming and free association, which is what ADD children get in trouble for.  Underwater, there are no complaints of the mind wandering off, leaving plenty of time for dreams and aspirations without reproach.  Muscle memory takes care of the swim and flip turns, so that the heart can condition the athlete.
  • Processing depth and detail  — with kinesthetic practice, more and more physical detail is required, starting with the “big picture” and then fine tuning the details.  In swimming, it can start with one detail at a time, until muscle memory can add it to the “big picture.”
  • Saliency determination  — the barrage of sounds and background noises that so often distract the student are not present in water.  This sensory deprivation leads to better focus on the task at hand.
  • Satisfaction Control  — the noticeable restlessness that craves excitement can be satisfied in competition and swim meets, which also breaks up the routine of workouts, including peaking and tapering.
  • Mental effort  — the difficulty in getting started with work, or finishing work that has been started, is ended when a coach is on deck holding the athlete accountable for the daily workout.  With good coaching, very little goes undetected, and when the athlete slacks, the workout gets harder, reinforcing the idea of always working hard.
  • Previewing  — impulsivity and failure to look ahead to see possible consequences can be dooming and habitual.  Obviously, the demands of swimming address these issues.
  • Facilitation and inhibition  — hyperactivity itself is calmed and soothed in the aquatic environment, and in a tough workout, there is little ability to say or do inappropriate things while underwater or while panting for breath in between sets.
  • Tempo control  — timing is completely controlled by the coach.  After months of daily swimming, the athlete learns correct pacing, and may apply this to other areas in life.
  • Self-monitoring and self-righting  — in a workout it’s hard to lose track of what you are doing.  Unlike the inability to read social cues and fix whatever it is you did or said, the cues come from your own body; and there is some pain if you fail to correct behaviors.
  • Reinforceability  — people who fail to learn from their mistakes, or those who do not respond to rewards, are reinforced in the pool.

We know that people with ADD are smart; often very smart.  But they are better aware of what is going on internally than they will ever be aware of what else is going on externally.  We often try to reinforce or punish in ways they hardly respond to.

Parents and coaches might be able to bring these kids great benefits through swimming, especially competitive swimming.  Perhaps even into the ranks of true heroes with ADD — like Walt Disney, Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill.  And Michael Phelps.

sole source: article by Nikki Miller in The Santa Clarita Signal online 10/3/08.  www.the-signal.com

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email   aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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