How Sports Changed My Son’s Life
On the playing field, my son could channel his ADHD energy in appropriate, effective, and life-affirming ways. Here’s what we’ve learned about excelling at — and because of — ADHD-friendly sports for teens.
Everyone knows by now that gold medal Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps’s long hours of training in the pool helped him manage his ADHD symptoms. What about the rest of us? Can sports help other people with ADHD be more focused, less impulsive, and happier?
For my son, Jarryd, the answer was yes, yes, and yes.
Diagnosed with ADHD as a child, he had boundless energy. The football field and the wrestling mat were safe havens for him — the only places where he could knock people down without getting into trouble. Throwing a shot put and shooting a basketball released his aggression. On the playing field, Jarryd could channel his energy in appropriate, effective, and life-affirming ways.
“As a teen, I felt that everyone hated me,” he recalls now. “I was always doing something wrong, it seemed. It’s hard to feel good about yourself when everyone is complaining about you. Sports turned those negative feelings into positive ones.”
You don’t have to go for the gold to benefit from sports. For teens with ADHD, the payoffs can be immediate and long-lasting:
Achievement: The classroom is tough for many teens with ADHD. Shifting focus and hyperactivity rarely come in handy in school. On the athletic fields, though, those qualities are often assets, allowing a child to excel at a sport.
Focus: Exercise sharpens cognition. Physical activity helps the brain focus. According to John Ratey, M.D., author of Spark, 30 minutes to an hour a day of physical activity helps kids manage ADHD symptoms. An after-school soccer practice will meet or exceed those recommendations.
Friendship: Children who are part of a team have a group to hang with and something in common to talk about.
Motivation: Being part of a school team provides an incentive to do well academically. Kids have to maintain a certain GPA to be eligible to play.
Higher Education: Athletic talent and achievement in high school may help a teen get into college — sometimes with a scholarship — when his test scores and GPA are less than stellar.
Academic Support: When Jarryd entered college as a Division I athlete, he was required to put in 20 hours a week of study time — in the college athletic office. The office had a study area with on-site tutors and academic advisors to assist him.
Get Ready…Get Set…Play
Finding the right sport for your child takes time. Here are four steps that will get you moving:
1. Find a sport that matches your teen’s interests and attention levels. Sports that our older son (without ADHD) enjoyed were not for Jarryd, whose attention span was shorter. To Jarryd, baseball was slow and boring. Soccer couldn’t contain his high energy level. He needed a fast-moving sport — basketball or football. Community teams that emphasize fun over winning may be a better match for your teen than a school team.
2. Find a coach whose philosophy matches yours. Coaches who are focused only on winning play their best players more than less-gifted athletes. And those coaches may be more critical of ADHD symptoms on the field. Find a coach who makes sure that everyone plays, develops skills, and has fun.
3. Stay positive. All athletes need positive reinforcement, especially those with ADHD, who often have low self-esteem. Praise is critical when a child lacks confidence in a sport he hasn’t played before.
4. Go the extra mile. Help your child raise his skill level by arranging for practice sessions, sports camps, or a coach outside of regular practice. Extra help builds skills and, more important, confidence.