ADHD and Classical Karate: A Match Made in a Public School Gym

by GregFahlgren

My Story on How Karate helped me with being ADHD, and how it can help others.

Hello everyone! Taking a break from my usual subject matter of video games, science fiction and comic books to talk a bit about myself, and to share with you an article I wrote nearly two years ago for my tumblr.

For those readers who don't know (I don't think I've mentioned it before), I am ADHD. Not a terrible disorder, nothing to be ashamed of, but it is something I have to deal with. I am also a third degree black belt in Shorin Ryu Karate-Jutsu, something that I started to help take control of my particular "affliction" (credit to my good friend Kyoshi Mike Woodworth for that term). In this article, you are going to learn about my journey into martial arts, and how it helped me rise up and take control of my condition, and use it to my advantage. I hope this informs you guys on the nature of the disorder, and how martial arts can help people with problems like mine.

To start, why don't I give you a brief glimpse into my world...

Four Horsemn of Legacy Camp Bushi

Mike, Steve, Adam, Me
My Brothers
My Brothers

Inside the Mind of ADHD

Hi ho everyone!  And yes, I’m leading this off with a Muppet Treasure Island quote.  Muppets rule.  Man some great actors were in the Muppet movies.  Diana Riggs starred in The Great Muppet Caper.  She was probably the greatest Bond girl ever, and that’s even with being in the movie with the worst Bond, George Lazenby.  To be fair though he had to follow Sean Connery and that’s a tall order.  Did you know that Sean Connery wore a wig in every Bond film he ever did?  The man was bald by the time he was thirty.  Great actor though.  His last movie was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore.  Not a bad movie but not great either.  Alan Moore also wrote Watchmen and V for Vendetta, two of the greatest graphic novels of all time.  Too bad he hates the comic book industry now.  He says superheroes are bad for society and that grown adults idolizing them is foolish.  He also thinks that Grant Morrison is an idiot, which is really weird considering Grant Morrison has himself written some amazing graphic novels.  His run on Batman was legendary.  He also wrote All Star Superman which was incredible. The animated movie, not so much.  Oh, you wanna know a great DC Animated Film? Watch Batman Superman: Apocalypse.  Awesome movie.  Summer Glau played Supergirl.  Summer Glau is so underrated as an actress.  She played a Terminator in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, which I felt never got a fair shake.  First saw her in Firefly and thought she was amazing.  Then again Firefly was awesome to begin with.  Another show that was gone too soon.  Joss Whedon is the man.  I should watch Buffy again…

Confused? You should be.

That paragraph is a perfect example of what being ADHD is like.  There is no focus, no straight line of thought, and the slightest thing can change the subject faster than most people can follow.  And as fun as this sounds, it can extremely frustrating for both myself and the people around me.  My day to day is a struggle to control this, and has been since I was young. Many things have helped me take control of my condition, my medication is a big help, little exercises and techniques that help me keep myself organized when my mind doesn’t want to. But the biggest thing that helped me was karate, and I will say right now that it above everything else allowed me to channel my condition into something positive.

My History

Before we get how I got into karate, let’s talk about ADHD for a moment. Firstly, one of the things that irritates me the most in life is when people say that conditions like ADHD don’t exist.  These people will profess that ADHD is something that parents blame when their kids misbehave, and something people use as an excuse for their problems. This attitude, and I’ve had to deal with a lot of it, drives me up the wall. ADHD is not something that you can just reason away as “bad parenting” or “that’s just your attitude”. It’s something I have to live with every day, and despite what those people think, it is very, very real.

I don’t blame these people too much for those ideas however, not fully anyway. Given the nature of ADHD it can be difficult for an outsider to understand what it’s like.  They think it’s all in my mind, and I need to overcome it, shouting phrases like, “STOP FIDGETING!”  I must have heard that hundreds if not thousands of times growing up, along with, “WHY CAN’T YOU SIT STILL?”  That one was always funny because I legitimately thought I was sitting still only to find out that I had been tapping my foot for twenty minutes straight without realizing it.  My personal favourite though is, “ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?”  I’ve heard that so many times the words have lost all meaning.  The one that hurts the most however is, “WHY DID YOU DO THAT?  DIDN’T YOU THINK IT THROUGH?!”  The answer nine times out of ten is, “NO, I DIDN’T!”.  Most of the time when I blurt something out it just happens.  Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s inappropriate, and sometimes, I end up hurting people I care about without meaning to. Growing up I had teachers, family members, friends, coaches, and countless others going after me for my behaviour.  Very few of them understood or tried to understand that I couldn’t help but be that way, that my affliction wasn’t something that I could just turn off and “be a good boy”.  I can’t turn off my ADHD any more than a man with no legs can walk.

Consider this.  You are watching TV, and The Big Bang Theory is on.  You’re mind starts thinking about other shows you like and the channel switches to NCIS.  As angry as you are, you run with it, planning to go back to Big Bang after NCIS is finished. However, you’re mind wanders again, and you start thinking about the WWE show on the next night, and the channel switches to WWE. This instance repeats itself over and over again, your mind moving faster and faster until the TV is flicking so quickly you can’t even follow what show it’s trying to go to. At that point, all you want to do is turn the TV for a while, but the unfortunately the TV is your mind, and you can’t shut it off. Sound frustrating? Well, it is, especially for a ten year old kid that legitimately wanted to focus on something for five minutes and couldn’t do it.

To help with my condition I started to take Ritalin in small doses, eventually figuring out the right amount to take every day. Today I’ve replaced it Biphentin, which works even better. Now, I know there are people out there that don’t like medications, especially psych meds, but I am no way suggesting every ADHD person needs meds. They work for me, but that doesn’t mean they will for everyone, and medication should only be taken by someone who is comfortable taking it. To the parents out there, if you are going to pursue that route with your child for any mental disorder, do your research thoroughly and make sure you have a good doctor (preferably a Psychiatrist and pharmacist to help you get the right drug and dosage for your child. I stress this because too many parents start giving their kids drugs to calm them down and they end up becoming zombies, in the end doing more harm than good.

As much as the meds was helping, it wasn’t enough (as they never are with treatment for a mental disorder). The biggest problem was that like most kids with ADHD, I had no focus in my life.  I did ok in school for a few years, becoming the smart, funny kid the teachers liked having around, even if I could be a bit of handful at times. As the years went on though, my impulsive and constant state of distraction stopped being so funny to my new teachers, and I started to have more and more trouble keeping my focus in class, often getting bored and acting out, which was made worse by having more than a few teachers that didn’t understand my condition or flat out didn’t think it existed (idiots). My parents tried sports for a bit, and I ended up playing soccer for a while, but I was never any good at it.  Played baseball for one, maybe two years, and hated it, even tried swimming for a bit, but like everything else I just ended up getting bored. When I was ten I started singing lessons and it was fun for a while, but I wasn’t really interested to start with so I never went anywhere with it. My parents even tried putting me in a church youth group and for the most part I hated it because I flat out didn’t want to be there.

Bottom line, I didn’t fit in anywhere I went. I was the weird kid that couldn’t sit still. As a result, I was heavily bullied at school, with most times the teachers not able to do much to help, often pointing to my behavior as justification for the bully’s actions against me (sound familiar ladies?). The end result of all this was that I was becoming a pretty angry kid. I began lashing out at other kids any time one of them even looked at me wrong, telling teachers off when I thought I was being treated unfairly. Got suspended from school a number of times, and began to get a reputation as a “trouble maker”, a far cry from the funny, energetic kid that everyone had loved just a few years before. I was headed down a pretty bad path, looking back I probably never realized how bad I was really getting. The anger combined with the impulsiveness got worse and worse until I ended up hurting to other kids during my outbursts. I was seeing a therapist, and my parents tried to help, but it seemed that nothing I was doing could curb the anger that had built up inside me after years of frustration.

But then, almost by chance, karate came into my life, and things for me changed forever.

Quick Note

Classical vs Sport

Now, I want to make something very clear before we continue. When I say karate, I mean classical karate, not sport karate. To any outsider, I know that distinction doesn’t seem like much, but there is a HUGE difference between the two. In sport karate, it’s just that, a sport, and that is not what I’m talking about. Classical karate is an art, an art that teaches you discipline, honour, respect, commitment, and a whole host of other attributes that sport karate does not. So, from here on out, when I use the word karate, place the word classical in front of it, and then underline it. Go it? Okay, moving on.

Me, Jaiden and Steve

Grading Picture

Convincing My Parents

Now, I want to make something very clear before we continue. When I say karate, I mean classical karate, not sport karate. To any outsider, I know that distinction doesn’t seem like much, but there is a HUGE difference between the two. In sport karate, it’s just that, a sport, and that is not what I’m talking about. Classical karate is an art, an art that teaches you discipline, honour, respect, commitment, and a whole host of other attributes that sport karate does not. So, from here on out, when I use the word karate, place the word classical in front of it, and then underline it. Go it? Okay, moving on.

In order to tell you how I got started in karate, let’s backtrack a little to the fall of 1993. Fox Kids programming was in its heyday back then, every afternoon after school for my brother and I spent watching shows like Batman, Spider-Man, and X-Men among others. I liked these shows, but they didn’t grab me like they did for my brother. Then one afternoon, a new show came on the air called Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, which featured a bunch of teenagers fighting intergalactic bad guys karate and other martial arts. Within one episode I was hooked. Looking back, I can admit that the show is probably not the pinnacle of television greatness, but for a six year old it was best thing ever! I wanted to be like the kids on that show. I wanted to learn karate.

So, for the next five years I went to my mom and dad and begged them to let me start karate. They were reluctant at first, my dad wanting me to wait until I was a little older.  Some of you might think this is unreasonable, but you have to understand what I was like as I kid. For one, I don’t think I was ready for something like that back then. Secondly, I was bouncing around from one interest to the other at the time and he wanted to make sure I really wanted it. I kept pressing though, and when I was becoming that angry kid I was telling you about, they finally pulled the trigger.

Joining Up

I started karate when I was 11 years old, my therapist putting my parents in touch with a gentlemen by the name of Charlie Kirby. I went to a class at the old Davenport Public School in Aylmer and watched with my parents. To say I wanted to jump on the floor right then and there would be an understatement. We spoke to Charlie afterwards and signed me up immediately, Charlie becoming Sensei Kirby in an instant, as well as a man I am eternally indebted to. Took my first class on February 23rd, 1999, a day that I won’t ever forget.

I’m not saying it was an immediate improvement and all my problems went away. When I first started, I had a hard time staying focused for even a few minutes. I would talk out in class, not do what I was told, and though it wasn’t often, I would get into my fair share of trouble. But Sensei Kirby and later Hanshi Legacy, the founder and head instructor at our school, and the rest of the teachers at Legacy Shorin Ryu never gave up on me. They saw something in me that I wasn’t seeing in myself, and decided that I was worth the trouble. I will never be able to pay them back for that kindness.

Once I got used to the training, things started to pull together. Showing up for class and doing the same thing every week gave me a routine, but that was only part of it. Karate gave me goals to accomplish, something to focus my unbound energy on. I had to learn so much, I didn’t have time to mess around, and I wanted to make sure that every stance, every punch, kick or block, was done as perfectly as I could get it. Having goals like this forced to learn how to manage my time, how to stay organized, and how to focus on what I was doing so I’d do things properly. My teachers were hard on me of course, I wouldn’t expect anything less, but they showed far more understanding than the majority of teachers and coaches elsewhere in my life. They treated me with respect, and that made me want to work that much harder so I wouldn’t disappoint them.

That hard work in the dojo translated to every other part of my life. The harder I worked at karate, the better I did at school. By learning how to stay organized and set goals for myself, I could focus better in class, do presentations without getting off topic, and finish my homework before it overwhelmed me. As my marks went up, I started becoming that loveable kid the teachers got along with again. There were a few hiccups along the way but for the most part the good outweighed the bad.

The part of karate that helped me the most however was the structure it provided. There were students, there were teachers, there were people higher ranking than me and eventually there were people lower ranking than me. That structure provided the goals I need like I said, but it also gave me people to go to when I was having trouble, people that wanted to help me get better. That kind of support was something I desperately needed. Slowly, I stopped being afraid of asking for help and started to trust people again, something that I hadn’t been able to do for a long while. To this day, I know that if I have a problem with something, I can go to the dojo and talk to my Sensei, and he will always try to help me as best he can.

It was not an easy road though, nothing worth having ever is, but that’s the nature of the beast, and like everything else I’ve mentioned, it was a work in progress. For instance, our old dojo had mirrors wall to wall. Mirrors are an ADHD person’s worst nightmare. We can’t help but look at ourselves. While fighting or training, I would be looking at the mirrors constantly. I blame those mirrors for a lot of bruises I got as a teenager, looking at them just long enough for my buddies Mike or Steve to nail me with a punch (my best friends everyone... it’s karate, it happens). It took a lot of hard work and discipline to correct this problem, but I kept working at it, and never gave up on the knowledge that I knew I could control it. Today, I can do a entire kata without looking away and can fight for over an hour without taking my eyes off my opponent. Outside of the dojo I can sit down and work on my books most days without getting distracted every five minutes by something shiny (OH LOOK A PENNY!).

Of all the things karate has given me over the years, the most important has to be giving me people I could depend on. ADHD people, like all those that suffer from mental disorders, feel alone because it seems like there is no one out there that understands what they are going through. Through karate, I met people who not only understood, but tried and continue to try their best to help me in any way they can. By joining Legacy Shorin Ryu, I now have a group of people that, no matter what, I can rely on.

What Could it do for You?

There are a lot of people out there with ADHD and other disorders that feel alone and that nothing can help them. They feel that they are cursed and nothing can ever save them from it. I am going to speak directly to those kids right now.

Number one, you are not cursed. This is not something that you brought on yourself. You cannot blame yourself for something you were born with. There is nothing wrong with you. Number two, you are not alone. There are dozens of people out there willing to help you if you let them. So stop suffering in silence and seek those people out. They’ll help you. Number three, there are things out there that can help you. Karate is one of them. I went from being an angry, confused kid that couldn’t get his homework done to a guy who has written multiple novels, runs his own blog, and became a third degree black belt.

The fact is that without karate, I don’t know where I’d be. I probably wouldn’t have been able to keep focused on writing enough to try making a career out of it. I probably never would have been able to focus in school and gotten into university, and never would have the dedication to continue to pursue my interests to their fullest they way I do. Karate taught me how to focus my mind so that I could get the things I wanted, and it could help you too if you just give a try.

Karate gave me the discipline to take control of my mind and my body, gave me the structure to set goals and achieve them. Most importantly however, karate gave me a family so that I would never feel alone. Karate gave me my life, plain and simple. If you follow the link below, you will find all the information about Legacy Shorin Ryu you need to give us a shot. I make no promises, but if it can help you a tenth of how much it helped me, what do you have to lose?

Steve and I


My 3rd Dan Grading

Updated: 12/13/2015, GregFahlgren
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Linda hole on 02/02/2016

Wow....this makes me think...great article

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