"To play, or not to play?" That is the sports question parents of children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) often ask. My usual, positive response is based on the good things we know: Children in sports generally do better in school, manage their time well, develop friendships, and, of course, have some good, old-fashioned fun.
As a psychologist, I view sports as a training ground for not only the sport itself, but also for life and social skills. Here are some of the social and personal pluses of being involved in athletic activity, and how you can help your child achieve them.
I've seen many children with ADD successfully participate in team sports, such as soccer, basketball, and softball. A large part of their enjoyment comes from sharing the experience with teammates. The child with ADHD can have a rough time "letting go," and learning not to "hog" the ball may be the first great step towards interacting well with a team. You might hear "It's not fair!" from your child in the beginning, but with help from a patient coach and plenty of encouragement, the results can be amazing. Plus, you'll see your child's progress in social interaction on the playing field spill over into other areas of his life.
Speaking of coaches, some are so invested in winning that they won't give playing time to the distractible, "wiggle worm" youngster. However, there are many dedicated coaches out there. Look for one who will appreciate your child's special needs and allow her time to understand directions and follow rules. (For tips on talking to your coach, see "How to Help Coach Your ADHD Child Athlete.")
To help your child with specific skills, arrange for pre-practice training with the coach, or hire a personal trainer. One boy told me how his soccer "helper" taught him the rules in a one-on-one setting. He had the chance to grasp the basic rules, and he was better prepared for the team's next game. Rehearsal with Mom or Dad can also help your young athlete follow the coach's directions.
If you have the skills, you might consider coaching yourself. As long as you don't play favorites, this could be an excellent solution for helping your child in his sport.
A child with ADHD is easily distracted, but having a job as part of a team can help him learn to focus. One mom beamed as she reported that her son was the best goalie the team had. When the action was near him, he was riveted to the task and put his heart into the effort.
Just as important as selecting the proper sport and position, figuring out the right time to cast the ADHD child into the action may be another key to success. During soccer games, Jessica couldn't sit still on the bleachers. She wandered around the stands, examining bugs or wildflowers along the sidelines. Jessica's team got tired toward the end of the game, and the coach knew that her tremendous energy could be used to turn the tide. He let her know that the team needed her. By good fortune, Jessica saved the day with a great kick near the end of a game. After that, the team would yell, "Put in Jessica!" The grin on her face as she answered the call could make you cry.
While team sports are great for some children, many can't cope with the quick shifts in focus, the boredom of waiting for the ball to come near them, and the intricate rules and directions. Such children may instead find success through individual performance sports. Swimming, fencing, skating, skiing, or gymnastics allow the ADHD child to take pride in personal skill development, without direct comparison to others on the same team. I remember one high school girl who came to see me, beaming, with ribbons she had earned at her latest track meet.
How do you decide which sport is right? Talk to your child, observe her development in motor and social skills, and make a plan. Encourage her to experiment with different types of sports. If time and effort convince you that this one's not for her, try another. In the end, you'll both be glad you did.