Sports and exercise can offer a number of social and behavioral benefits, but it's not always easy for ADHD children to get involved.
For many children with ADHD, the most formidable opponents on the playing field are themselves. Because structure, order and lack of distraction are the keys to sports success, the very issues that plague them in the classroom may get magnified on the playing field.
Additionally, ADHD frequently co-occurs with learning disabilities that affect organization, spatial awareness, and game concepts and strategies. So besides distractibility, other factors that hamper sports success for many ADHD kids are:
- Difficulty following directions. Attention deficit children often want to skip the instructions and jump right into the game or activity.
- Impulsivity. Because ADHD kids often act before thinking, they're quick to operate on instinct rather than employ strategies and rules that are part of the sport. They also may have difficulty waiting their turn and standing in line, especially during practice.
- Inattention. Sports such as baseball that require the child to pay at least moderate attention during periods in which they not fully engaged in the game are particularly challenging. Kids with ADHD often are caught daydreaming or fooling around during low action intervals.
- Low frustration tolerance. Losing is especially difficult for kids with ADHD, and may give rise to tantrums, rages, and other inappropriate or even physically aggressive behaviors.
The Trouble with Team Sports
Most experts agree that individual sports are better for kids whose ADHD isn't well controlled. Team contact sports are the worst.
"They have a hard time grasping the 'play system,'" explains Robert Giabardo, athletic director at Summit Camp for Youth with Attention Deficit Disorders in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. "In order to participate in a game such as football, the player must always be focused not only on his or her role in the game, but must also be aware of the actions and physical placement of other players at all times."
Maintaining keen focus and acute awareness is challenging for any child. For kids with ADHD, it's almost impossible. "Often they do not look around at other players and get hit or hurt during plays," Giabardo says.
"Basketball may be even worse," says Patricia Quinn, M.D., a developmental pediatrician specializing in ADHD at the Pediatric Development Center in Washington DC. "They have to learn the plays, anticipate moves, and strategize. These are exactly the things people with ADHD don't do well."
Giabardo agrees. "They have trouble understanding zones and how defense works. ADHD children just want to get the ball and dribble it. And they get frustrated because basketball requires the player to exercise several skills at one time, such as jumping, passing, dribbling and running."
"So they keep the ball and do all the shooting, or they're in the wrong place at the wrong time," says Quinn, who has watched many a painful scene from the sidelines. "People are yelling at them. The other parents start telling teammates to keep the ball away from the ADHD kid. It's terribly deflating, exactly the opposite experience you'd want your ADHD child to have."