Sports & Activities

The Magic of Individual Sports

Not all sports are created equal. As a result of symptoms like difficulty following directions, kids with ADHD often excel at sports that offer one-on-one coach attention and clear rules. Learn more from these expert recommendations.

Sports and activities for kids with ADHD: tennis
Sports and activities for kids with ADHD: tennis

Individual sports for kids can offer a number of social and behavioral benefits, but it’s not always easy for children with ADHD 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 kids with ADHD are:

  • Difficulty following directions. Attention deficit children often want to skip the instructions and jump right into the game or activity.
  • Impulsivity. Because kids with ADHD 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 kid with ADHD. It’s terribly deflating, exactly the opposite experience you’d want your child with ADHD to have.”

Individual Sports Are Key

As a general rule, children with ADHD do better when they get plenty of individual attention from coaches. That’s why they’re more likely to succeed with individual sports such as swimming and diving, wrestling, martial arts, and tennis — or even more rarified endeavors such as fencing and horseback riding.

Even though these sports themselves may be “individual,” children with ADHD still derive many of the social benefits of being on a team because they’re frequently taught in groups with other kids. “In the case of swimming, wrestling and tennis they often are on teams,” says Quinn. “It’s just that the effort and instruction are individual.”

The team situation also enables children to spread the guilt for a loss over the group, not just on him or herself – which is acceptable as long the child understands his or her role in the loss, and doesn’t verbally blame or abuse teammates. Which means parents need to be closely involved.

In fact, parents are the key to sports success for most kids with ADHD, particularly when they’re young and selecting activities to pursue. “You have to work at seeking out what your kids are good at, what they’re interested in, and what fits their personalities,” says Quinn. “There’s no one formula because no two kids with ADHD are alike.”

The Magic of Martial Arts

One group of activities that Quinn promotes for nearly all kids with ADHD, though, is martial arts such as taekwondo. “Martial arts are all about control. You learn to control your body. The movements are smooth. There is an element of meditation (internal self control) in taekwondo.” In addition, she says, teachers instruct rather than coach; when the child is shown step by step how to do something, there’s little opportunity for distraction.

A lasting benefit of martial arts comes from its use of rituals such as bowing to the instructor, Quinn believes. “Rituals are good for kids with ADHD) because they make behavior automatic,” she says. “For most of us, daily actions such as remembering to take your medicine are automatic. But without rituals such as ‘every time I brush my teeth I take my medicine,’ people with ADHD don’t remember.” Martial arts rituals can help teach kids with ADHD to accept, develop and use rituals in other areas of their lives.

What sports have worked well for your childern with ADHD?

Modifying Sports for Children with ADHD

Despite the pitfalls of team sports, many kids with ADHD are strongly motivated to join them for social reasons as well as athletic interest. Indeed, learning to be a part of a team is a thrilling and therapeutic experience for kids who are up to the task.

But whether they choose to pursue team or individual sports, an understanding professional coach or gym teacher who makes adjustments and modifications for kids with ADHD can make or break a sports experience for your child.

Modifications in team sports should be designed to keep your child active and engaged in the sport with strategies that minimize downtime and boredom. In baseball, for example, modifications might include:

  • Changing drill patterns frequently to keep the child from becoming bored or desensitized.
  • Changing field positions as frequently as every five minutes to re-stimulate the child’s attention to the game, particularly if the child is posted in the outfield.
  • Putting a child with ADHD in an active field position as much as possible to keep him or her busily involved in the game.
  • Alternate between multiple practice stations to keep kids constantly engaged.
  • Giving the child with ADHD a coach’s assistant job while waiting his turn at bat. Keep the task simple but engaging so he’ll stay out of trouble and build a sense of purpose and self worth along the way.

Even individual sports may require modifications. Mauro Hamza, a fencing coach in Houston, Texas, allows children with ADHD frequent breaks in routine. The fencing club rents space from a rec center, which enables children to break for checkers, TV, snacks, or even an occasional ping pong game during the two hour fencing club practice.

Pick Age Appropriate Sports

Finally, keep in mind that children with ADHD usually are about a third younger emotionally and socially than they are chronologically, which explains a lot of their troubled interactions with peers. If you can think of your eleven-year-old child as really being eight, it makes it easier to accept and understand his or her behavior.

The difference between the playing field and elsewhere, though, is that you can use the sports arena to your child’s advantage by placing him or her with a younger age group, something you can’t do realistically at school.

Quinn advocates holding your child back in sports by two or more years whenever possible. “Make the way smoother for them by putting them with younger children,” Quinn suggests. “They’ll have a chance to hang around with peers they can relate to, and to be in a position where they can shine.”

Let the smiles begin.

And the Winning Sports Are

The following common childhood sports are based on opportunities for distraction, level of physical contact, frustration factor, complexity of rules/strategies, and use of gross motor skills.

Gold Medal

  • Swimming/Diving
  • Martial Arts
  • Tennis
  • Gymnastics
  • Wrestling

Silver Medal

  • Soccer (Goalie position not recommended)
  • Fencing
  • Horseback Riding
  • Track Events

Bronze Medal (recommended only with substantial modification)

  • Baseball

Losers (not recommended)

  • Football

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