Ready to Play Ball with ADHD

 ADHD Weekly, April 4, 2019

Springtime means your child may head outdoors to practice for softball or another team sport. We certainly hope so! Of course, her ADHD goes along with her. You worry a little about what that will mean on the playing field. Will the coach understand and support her? How can you help?

Most coaches are volunteers and their experiences with ADHD will vary. Often a parent—occasionally an aunt, uncle, or family friend—will volunteer to coach a children’s sports team. If you’re the coach for your child’s team, you know your own child—but ADHD affects each child differently.

When you coach youth sports, you give generously of your time to teach and coach young people with a wide range of abilities. At some point one of the athletes on your team will have ADHD. Are you prepared to coach this player?

It’s important to know that some of your players need additional time and practice to master new skills in their sport. Your understanding of ADHD symptoms can help your whole team develop as players and have a great season.

Athletics for children with ADHD

Organized sports provides a positive outlet for most children and teens. Physical activity and sports help lower stress levels, anxiety, and depression. For youngsters who have ADHD, exercise can improve impulse control, memory, and behavior. They may even get along better with adults and peers than children who don’t participate in sports.

“Many coaches assume an athlete behaves one way or the other not because he has an attention issue, but because he’s being defiant,” says Margaret Flores, PhD, professor of special education at Auburn University. Dr. Flores wrote about youth coaches and ADHD with her colleagues, Robbi Beyer, PhD, and Tiffanye Vargas, PhD. They jointly authored Effective Coaching for All Athletes within Youth Recreational Sports.

“We want coaches to do things that are good for everyone,” says Dr. Flores, “including setting up practice activities and drills so that no matter who you are or what your abilities, strengths, or weaknesses are, everyone can participate and you aren’t shining a light on one or two particular athletes. If you give your athletes options, they can choose based on their strengths and weaknesses, and everyone can have an engaging experience.”

Some young athletes with ADHD may struggle with their gross motor skills—anything that affects movement, balance, and coordination. Others strive to master fine motor skills, meaning their hand-eye coordination may be challenging. The distractibility many people associate with ADHD carries over into sports. Examples include the softball player who gazes up at cloud shapes, the hockey player who can’t distinguish between his teammates and his opponents, or the basketball player who stops dribbling mid-court to wave to her parents in the stands. All these players are coping with common symptoms while playing their sport.

Youngsters with ADHD often worry about standing out in school and among their peers. Many feel anxious about joining a team even if they like the sport, especially if they think other players are better athletes. They also have a harder time shaking off team losses or their own errors, no matter how insignificant. Try to avoid singling out the child with ADHD or spending all your coaching energy keeping track of her, while the rest of your team grows bored and resentful.

It’s all in the planning

When you send home information about practice times and needed equipment, Dr. Flores recommends including a few questions for parents and guardians. Ask for a little advance information about your players. There’s no need to ask about specific disabilities. Instead, aim for broad questions:

  • Tell me a little about your child and his or her experience playing this sport.
  • Under what circumstances does your child perform best?
  • What might get in the way of that?
  • Is there anything else I should know about your child?

That leaves room for parents to share information about what Dr. Flores refers to as “invisible disabilities,” including ADHD.

Setting up all your athletes for success includes not leaving equipment lying around to help prevent impulsive misuses. When you give instructions, keep them short, say them twice, and ask everyone to repeat them to be sure they heard and understood.

Skills corrections during practice

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you just can’t get a player to focus or follow the game play. As with all your athletes, you’ll want to be sure those with ADHD don’t feel like they’re being punished for misbehaving. Brock Bourgase, a Toronto-based basketball coach, points out that ADHD often leaves children with low self-esteem. Too many negative consequences for behavior or effort on the playing field only increase the loss of self-esteem.

“Skill correction from the [coach] should be objective, private, and to the point, perhaps a quick verbal cue word to use in future attempts,” says Mr. Bourgase.

The popular UK website Footy4Kids supports youth soccer coaches. Its writers recommend using the “feedback sandwich” approach, if you need to correct behavior or playing style. When you correct a behavior or a skill, be sure to bookend it between two positive comments.

Take another look at your practices and games. Are you sure the environment you’ve set up allows everyone to succeed? Maybe you could assign the player with ADHD to a special assistant coaching job. Collecting equipment or scorekeeping during a scrimmage might keep her focused and make her feel successful. Ask your player’s parents for their thoughts on what works with their child.

“We’ve found sometimes parents don’t tell the coach exactly what’s going on because they don’t want to shine a light [on their child],” Dr. Flores explains. “They already have problems in school, and parents just want them to have fun. But if you can have an honest, candid conversation about what works best, you can start out with one step forward instead of having to figure it out.”

As best you can, remember that “the point of playing sports is to have fun.” Keep in mind the upside of ADHD, which may bring a special kind of energy on the playing field.

“Being impulsive can be good in sports, where having endless energy is a good thing,” says Dr. Flores. “Going to school [can be] hard, but sports can be a great outlet.”

Looking for more?

Join the discussion: What’s one tool you’ve used successfully in coaching young athletes with ADHD?