Emma O'Driscoll in action during round two, season seven, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

FREMANTLE defender Emma O'Driscoll has opened up about being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) several years ago, saying she feels most "on task" while playing football.

ADHD is a neurodevelopment condition which affects a person’s ability to manage their own emotions, thoughts and actions. It often manifests as a difficulty in focusing, sitting still, or executing tasks.

In an exclusive video recorded by O'Driscoll for the AFL Women's social media channels, the Docker discussed – while baking banana bread - how ADHD affects her and what it means for her football.

"Women mask ADHD very well. It's because we associate ADHD with a seven-year-old boy who's climbing up the walls. I was diagnosed quite late (at 21), like most women, because we do mask it very well," O'Driscoll said.

"ADHD can overwhelm you so much because your brain isn't processing information like a neurotypical person. I am the hyper-fixated and hyperactive type of ADHD, that's where my anxiety then comes from, because I get so fixated on things and doing them the right way.

"You're able to take on lots of things and you want the challenge of being able to juggle a lot in your life. 

"Another thing, high energy levels, if you can't tell. I run late all the time, it's really hard when I'm fixated on something, and then leaving that task."

Emma O'Driscoll speaks after being selected in the 2023 AFLW All-Australian side on November 27, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Fellow AFLW player and academic Dr. Erin Hoare has recently published a review with her team at Deakin University, searching for and highlighting the limited research worldwide on neurodiversity in elite sport.

People who are neurodivergent may include those who live with ADHD or autism, among others. 

"We found, basically, very, very little, athletes have not been well studied in this space. But what was even more interesting, is that it seems to be that ADHD in particular seems to occur in higher rates in athlete groups compared to the general population," Dr. Hoare told AFL.com.au.

"I say 'seem' quite carefully there, because we haven't got a whole lot of data to confirm that. But certainly the evidence that we do have suggests that the differences ADHD represents may in fact be more common in athletes, and therefore, we may hypothesise that there's some real strengths that can be offered from our ADHD population to elite sport. 

"This is all hypothesis at this stage, but it's a really interesting stage. I guess the overall conclusion from the work we've done is we need to study ADHD, autism and neurodiversity in athletes more, but also the way we have our sports structured – we would advocate for a neuro-inclusive environment, and really making sure the needs of people who've got attentional, cognitive or communication differences are understood and supported so that they can thrive as well."

Aiden O'Driscoll (centre) with older siblings Nathan and Emma. Picture: Supplied

O'Driscoll has played 45 games for Fremantle, barely missing a game since establishing herself as a key pillar in defence.

She had a stunning 2023 season, finishing second in the Dockers' best and fairest and named in the All-Australian team for the first time.

So when it comes to a game of football, O'Driscoll's ADHD can work well in her favour.

"I don't know if anyone's watched me play football, but cat on a hot tin roof energy is what I give off, because of that hyper-fixation and hyper focus. If I don't have squirrel eyes, I'm not ready, I'm probably going to be horrendous and just sit me on the bench," she said.

"It's the one thing in my life I would say I'm completely on task with, at that point in time.

"It's definitely a strength of mine, ADHD, I wouldn't be the player I am without it." 

Kiara Bowers (left) and Emma O'Driscoll thank the crowd during round two, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos/Getty Images

The AFLPA released its "Insights and Impact" report last year, which noted in season seven ADHD had "emerged as a new presenting issue" for AFLW players utilising AFLPA services, albeit sitting at four per cent of all mental health cases.

"The key thing is that everyone's experiences are different. In terms of the learning that occurs in an elite sport, when you're understanding processes to develop skills, where skill development is core to being an athlete," Dr. Hoare said.

"The way in which a neurodivergent brain may learn could be quite different to a typical population, and the ways in which we teach skills to a typical athlete group. 

"It could be the way in which we present information, or the way in which game structures are communicated, or the way in which athletes are offered the opportunity to regulate – a neurodivergent athlete may have sensory needs or have a different way of focusing. 

"It’s the lived experience that really drives the understanding or what's going on for an athlete with, say, ADHD. It really comes from the athlete themselves in terms of what they need. 

"Historically, ADHD has been characterised with a presentation that often hasn't fitted all genders. Women in particular have been excluded from a lot of that historical research. That means our understanding of how ADHD might present in different genders is only just beginning to be understood."  

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is different for everyone and can affect a person’s ability to focus, pay attention and control impulses or restlessness. Find out more at  Headspace.org.au 

If you or anyone you know needs support, contact:

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au
  • 13YARN: 13 92 76 or 13yarn.org.au
  • BeyondBlue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au
  • Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800 or kidshelpline.com.au
  • Headspace: 1800 650 890 or headspace.org.au