- J.T. Thomas played in the NFL from 2011 to 2017.
- He was diagnosed with ADHD 10 years ago, at the age of 24.
- He says sports can be an important tool for children with ADHD.
Looking back, former NFL linebacker J.T. Thomas III can see the signs of ADHD in his childhood. But with a strict mom and a focus on football — which he started playing when he was 5 — Thomas says he had the tools he needed to develop discipline and self-control that helped him manage the undiagnosed condition.
“Football probably was the thing that saved my life in so many ways,” Thomas told Insider. “Sports was truly the platform that allowed me to cope and deal. It gave me a sense of purpose and structure.”
But when Thomas was drafted into the NFL, playing for the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, and the New York Giants, he was required to function at such a high level that he started to notice the impacts of ADHD.
“I was discombobulated off the field,” he said.
He’d sometimes be late for required meetings, which “could make a difference of tens of thousands of dollars,” he says.
Thomas decided to seek help and was eventually diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 24. A decade later, Thomas has learned a lot about his condition. Here’s his advice for adults newly diagnosed with ADHD, and parents of children with ADHD.
Learn everything you can
Once he received his diagnosis, Thomas began to learn more about ADHD and co-occurring conditions like anxiety and depression. His wife, who is a psychologist, was instrumental in helping him understand the conditions.
“When you’re able to understand what’s going on, you have a fighting chance,” he said.
Use a variety of treatments
In childhood, Thomas was able to manage his symptoms with the support of sports and his family. But as an adult, he began to acquire more tools for coping with ADHD.
“You need a good blend of things like sports, interests, medication, and cognitive behavioral therapy,” Thomas said.
Understand the challenges in using the resources you have
Even when you have resources available, ADHD can make it difficult to remember to use them, Thomas said.
“It’s one thing to have Adderall, and another thing to remember to take it,” Thomas said. “Or, in my case, it’s one thing to have a wife who’s a doctor, and another to actually reach out for help.”
Develop strategies that help you better utilize all the resources you have available.
Celebrate the positives of ADHD
Thomas didn’t just excel on the football field. He was also a whiz at math, and naturally a good student, even with ADHD made him procrastinate. Many children and adults with the condition have strengths they should celebrate.
“There’s a certain level of brilliance that you can have with ADHD,” he said. That may include athletic prowess: ADHD is more common in pro athletes than in the general population.
Know the impact of your illness can change at different life stages
Thomas’s ADHD was manageable when he was younger. But after becoming a professional athlete, then a parent, he realized that even seemingly-small symptoms of ADHD, like forgetfulness, could have a big impact on his life. Forgetting socks is no big deal, but forgetting about daycare pickup is.
“When you’re an adult, it starts to hamper certain areas of your life,” he said. “There’s more at stake when I have lives and a household to provide for.”
Consider sharing your story
Growing up in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale, Thomas didn’t even see therapy as an option. Now, he works with the digital health company Done and shares his story to help break down the stigma around ADHD and other mental health conditions. That’s especially important to him as a Black man.
“I often think of how mental health has affected my race. How many guys are in jail or prison because they’re not getting the therapy that they need?” he said. “I hope me speaking out gives someone else the courage it takes to help themselves.”
Prepare for a long journey
Living with ADHD “is a process,” Thomas says. When he retired from football in 2017 he lost his biggest coping mechanism – football – and had to relearn how to manage his mental health.
“I can attest to the ongoing fight that it is to live with ADHD,” he said.
Despite that, children or adults with ADHD can reach their dreams and become the best people they can be, Thomas says.