How Neurodiverse Sport is changing the game
When it comes to making sport more inclusive, Caragh McMurtry understands better than most how high the stakes can be. After her own experiences as an Olympic rower, McMurtry founded Neurodiverse Sport in 2022 as an attempt to raise awareness of neurodiversity in the industry in which she had grown up. But what is neurodiversity, and what are the challenges facing sport if it truly wants to become a space for everybody?
What is neurodiversity?
‘Neurodiversity’, which was coined by psychologist Judy Singer in 1997, is now commonly used as an umbrella term for a number of conditions, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Broadly speaking, ‘neurodivergent’ people may have behaviours, traits or information-processing challenges that are considered to be significantly different from ‘the norm’.
At least 15% of the UK population is neurodivergent. Interestingly, multiple studies – including ones published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine and the National Library of Medicine in the US in recent years – have suggested that conditions such as ADHD are more likely to be prevalent among athletes than the general population.
People who are neurodivergent may or may not have a formal diagnosis, and they may be more likely to suffer from poor mental health.
As Neurodivergent Sport puts it, however, neurodivergence is not something to be ‘cured’. In fact, many neurodivergent people find that their neurodivergence is a ‘superstrength’.
Instead, what is important is making sure that society increasingly acknowledges the wider range of experiences, and puts structures in place to accommodate people’s differences.
Building on experience
As her own journey as a rower unfolded, McMurtry realised how elite sports could be exclusionary to people who, like her, were neurodivergent.
McMurtry grew up in Southampton and began rowing through Project Oarsome, an initiative to increase participation in the sport. Later on, she began to take the sport more seriously, and ultimately she was selected for the national team.
McMurtry, who is autistic, says that she attributes a lot of her early access to her autism, which gave her a drive and focus for her sport.
However, after she began to train with the Great Britain Senior Rowing Team after the 2012 Olympics, she began to struggle. She did not yet have a diagnosis.
“I’d always done things my own way, and that suited me,” she tells Global Sustainable Sport. “But I massively struggled when I was on the team.”
Being expected to perform and behave in a particular way put pressure on the athlete, who began to experience burnouts and mood fluctuations. Her athletic performance also began to suffer.
McMurtry was initially misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, and put on a series of medications. Finally, in 2019, she was re-diagnosed as autistic, taken off medication, and developed a management plan. The transformation was huge.
“No one expected the change that occurred,” she says. “I ended up getting 17 seconds faster, but my wellbeing also just completely took a U-turn, and for the first time in years and years, I started to feel like the athlete I used to be.”
After competing at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, McMurtry retired from rowing. It was then that she founded Neurodiverse Sport in an attempt to make sure that no athlete would have to go through the struggles she had faced.
“An ingrained understanding of neurodiversity was just not there in sport,” she says. “What I’m doing with Neurodiverse Sport is trying to provide a place where sports can go to learn and improve, and to provide a place where athletes can go and not feel so alone.”
Creating an inclusive sports industry
In McMurtry’s view, there are some key issues that the industry must address if it wants to become truly inclusive.
Tradition and long-held norms, rigid coaching philosophies, and stereotypes and misconceptions all stand in the way of an equal playing field.
In elite sport, strictly sticking to one way of working means that there is a lack of flexibility for neurodivergent athletes.
“One issue is tradition – we’ve always done it this way, it’s how we’ve won medals, and we can’t break from it,” McMurtry says.
Coaches adhering to strict coaching philosophies can also contribute to this.
“Coaches often have a dogma or philosophy, and it’s about how athletes can fit into it,” McMurtry adds. “But I’d say the most inclusive and best coaches are those who can look at the athlete in front of them and say right, what can I do to help you? What does your best look like?”
General stereotypes and misconceptions, and judging others based on your own baselines, also mean that neurodiverse athletes can be misunderstood and alienated.
“It’s assuming that there’s only one way of thinking and doing things,” McMurtry says. “But we all have neurocognitive strengths and weaknesses, and there are ways to work around these things.”
In an ideal world, McMurtry says, the industry would look very different.
Importantly, focusing on improving access and inclusion for neurodiverse athletes should be considered as one part of wider efforts to improve inclusion for all groups, across the board.
“In general, there would be more opportunities for people to participate from diverse backgrounds,” McMurtry says.
Other ways of making the industry more inclusive could mean paying attention to universal design, which makes any environment easier to process and more accessible to those who access it. Ensuring that coaches are properly trained and aware is also key.
“It’s about embedding universal design in your comms, your training centres, everything, and making sure coaches are really educated on neurodiversity,” says McMurtry.
A neuroinclusive sports industry is also an opportunity for creativity.
“We could even expand our repertoire – we can create new and more inclusive sports,” McMurtry says. “Why not think outside the box, and think what might be more autistic-friendly, or more ADHD-friendly?”
Critically, taking an approach that understands and supports neuroinclusivity will lay the groundwork for a more inclusive sport for everyone.
“There’s a saying I really like — ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’,” McMurtry says. “Raising the bar on how we treat people and facilitate each other is only going to help everyone.”
To help the industry move from where it is today to a more neuroinclusive future, Neurodiverse Sport focuses on awareness raising, campaigning, and education.
The team provides workshops for sports organisations on neurodiversity and neuroinclusion, and consults with individuals, teams and businesses on neuroinclusion and performance.
McMurtry hopes that this work to raise awareness will change the landscape for other neurodiverse athletes.
“I hope these things together will reduce the likelihood that someone will go through what I went through,” she says.
Recent projects include a pilot programme with the UK Sports Institute, running workshops with different Olympic teams to raise awareness of neurodiversity.
Neurodiverse Sport also collaborates with universities and researchers to expand the understanding of neurodiversity in sport.
The team has worked with organisations including the University of Reading’s Autism Research Centre, and have supported individual researchers on projects focusing on the stressors faced by neurodivergent athletes and the lived experiences of neurodiverse athletes in high-performance sport.
In November last year, McMurtry received the Innovation Award at UK Sport’s PLx Awards, which recognised the ‘significant impact’ of Neurodiverse Sport’s work.
Plans for the future
While there is still a long way to go, McMurtry says that the conversation around neurodiversity is changing.
Making neuroinclusion a reality means putting into practice diversity, equity & inclusion (DE&I) policies, many of which have been developed in recent years.
“I think there’s been a lot of ‘diversity-washing’ – saying something and then not doing anything,” McMurtry says. “The DE&I policies over the past 10 years have definitely paved the way, they’ve put the structures in place, and now it’s time to light the fire.”
In future, the small team at Neurodiverse Sport hope to be able to broaden their impact and work on more initiatives and campaigns.
McMurtry is optimistic about the potential of sport to make a difference.
“Sport is a universal language,” McMurtry says. “The message you put out through sport is incredibly powerful, so I’m excited to see what that looks like.”
Most importantly, neuroinclusion is a crucial element of sustainability.
“It’s about doing the right thing and not just living for yourself and this moment,” McMurtry says. “It’s about thinking about who comes after you, what kind of life they’re going to be able to live, and how what you’re doing impacts that.”