For someone who claims to know very little about the neurodevelopmental condition he was diagnosed with aged eight, James Haskell has done a remarkable job of organising his life to support it.
“This is the first interview I’ve done about ADHD [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder],” he says. “I’ve talked more about it now than I ever have before.”
In 45 minutes of part-interview, part-impromptu therapy session, the ex-England rugby star turned DJ, podcaster, author and cage fighter veers between telling i how he’s never consciously worked to understand his diagnosis, yet inadvertently caters for its traits.
This contradiction remains common among the estimated 15 to 25 per cent of people who are neurodivergent. Given the long-standing paucity of diagnoses and wider obliviousness to conditions like ADHD, autism, Tourette’s and dyslexia, most neurodivergent people go through their lives without truly understanding their conditions.
In many ways, Haskell is a poster child for what the ADHD brain can achieve when provided adequate tools and allowed to pursue what it loves. Whether he appreciates it or not, the 38-year-old has crafted his existence to benefit his condition.
Research suggests that people with ADHD have a defective gene which restricts dopamine uptake. Dopamine regulates attention and feelings of pleasure, and susceptibility to addiction is often a side-effect of its scarcity.
Haskell’s two vices are quickly apparent. As those with ADHD often are when their passion and job overlaps, he is a chronic workaholic. This is one of eight calls he has today, alongside a meeting and a few hours to work on a DJ set as a treat to end the day.
Since retiring from rugby in 2019, Haskell has written three books and started and finished a career in mixed martial arts (MMA). He’s done a stint on I’m a Celebrity. He features in an array of award-winning podcasts on topics as varied as rugby, trying to become a comedian, and his sex life with his wife. He has a record deal as a DJ and has performed in Dubai, Tokyo and Ibiza.
“Now I’ve retired, I struggle with the monotony of doing one consistent thing,” he explains. “In rugby, there was never an end. You could always get better, do more. If I had good coaches and purposeful training, I never got bored. If I hadn’t had sport as a spine to support everything I did, everything would have been much worse.”
His second obsession is another ADHD staple – validation. “MMA was an opportunity to push myself physically, but still perform with a big crowd, ” he explains. “DJing is performing in front of a crowd. Writing books and podcasting are both storytelling, performing. Everything I do is centred around performing, danger, testing yourself, basically getting paid to be an attention seeker.”
Haskell has visited therapists since he was 17. The two areas he has aimed to improve are self-confidence issues and not handling criticism well, but he does not believe this is connected to his condition.
ADHD expert Gabor Mate once wrote: “Low self-esteem and merciless self-criticism are so much part of the ADHD personality that it would be difficult to know where ADHD ends and low self-esteem begins.”
This is one of many examples of Haskell working tirelessly for 20 years to understand his mind, without really knowing it was his ADHD he was supporting. To describe his seemingly insatiable mind, the ex-Wasps forward uses the analogy that if a shark stops swimming, it dies.
“I’m constantly searching for purpose and direction,” he says. “I’ve had to work very hard on working out where I’m going. A lot of the time I’m just running away from something, just finding the next high, instead of thinking ‘Why am I actually doing this?’”
Many ADHD athletes consider their condition something of a superpower when utilised and supported correctly. Haskell is no different. “The energy and desire to consistently get better, the ability to do it and not rest, that helped me,” he explains. “I was never satisfied. With ADHD, if someone shows you the way, the energy to work on it then makes it very easy.
“If you’re just told you’re not very good, if your mind isn’t channelled, it can be your undoing. But if you find a purpose, then you consistently keep working because the voice in your head says you need to do more. My ADHD was essential to what I achieved. With the right help and structure, ADHD can make you achieve more things than you would ever believe.”
Given the work he has put into his own mind, Haskell is well placed to criticise rugby’s approach to mental health and wellbeing.
“In rugby, the mental side is massively neglected, it’s not on most people’s radars,” he continues. “They don’t understand how it works. Most teams have psychologists, but coaches don’t believe in its importance, so they’re always on the periphery. It’s very backwards.”
Although Haskell calls his ADHD a “blessing” for his rugby career, it triggered early issues. He took Ritalin from his diagnosis until he was 17. Yet after he was selected for England’s 2003 U19 Six Nations squad, he was forced to stop taking it, as it appears on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list.
Although it is possible to receive a therapeutic use exemption, this is an arduous process. Haskell hasn’t taken it since, yet was still forced to pull out of a game against Scotland at short notice as he would have failed the drug test.
“Because I was in good shape, my team-mates decided I was on steroids, and that was why I’d pulled out,” he explains. “The myth followed me around my entire life, but it was because of Ritalin. I didn’t want to talk about it, because Ritalin has a stigma and ADHD just wasn’t talked about. I didn’t know anyone that had it.”
Haskell remains a controversial figure as, by his own admission, “I’ve done some pretty stupid s**t”, yet he is now perhaps the highest-profile British athlete to discuss their diagnosis at length.
Aided by supportive parents, a private education and a talent in a field he loved, Haskell harnessed ADHD to his advantage. Most do not enjoy the same privileges, but his success demonstrates the extraordinary possibilities if people with ADHD are given opportunities and support. Sport, and society, can learn from his example.