Sports & Activities

How to Help Young Athletes

Tips to help coaches and parents bring the best out of their athletes with ADHD.

Close up of ADHD child's foot on soccer ball preparing to kick a goal
Close up of ADHD child's foot on soccer ball preparing to kick a goal

In the classroom, impulsivity, distractibility, and hyperactivity are liabilities. But in the world of sports, these common ADHD symptoms can be assets.

Take ice hockey. This fast-paced sport rewards the abilities to pay attention to several things at once and to change focus rapidly. Each player must be aware, at all times, of where the puck is. In addition, each player must know who is where on the ice, where the blue line is, who is onside, who is off. It’s a lot to keep track of, and everything is in constant flux. No doubt about it — hockey favors the ADHD mind. So do many other sports, including soccer and basketball.

Yet, in order to excel, athletes with ADHD need appropriate coaching. Typically, coaches tell athletes what to do, and how and when to do it. But ADHD athletes often have a hard time absorbing spoken instructions. They tend to learn experientially — that is, by making errors. At first, they may make lots of errors. The coach might bench them for failing to follow the rules — or kick them off the team.

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If your child plays sports, it’s probably a good idea to tell the coach a bit about ADHD and how it affects behavior. Let him know that making mistakes does not necessarily mean that your child has little potential. If the coach demurs, remind him of what coaching legend John Wooden once said: The team that makes the most mistakes usually wins, because doers make mistakes. (Wooden coached UCLA to 10 NCAA basketball championships in 13 years.)

Attend a practice or two and talk to people who have had experience with the coach. Is the coach approachable? Is he fair? Is he patient? Does he have a sense of humor? Above all, is he sincerely interested in all his players? Steer clear of any coach who seems to be a humorless, winning-is-the-only-thing taskmaster. Attending practice will also let you see whether the youngsters are required to spend lots of time standing in line — a golden opportunity for kids with ADHD to get into shoving matches.

Young athletes need support and encouragement from their family — but let them be responsible for having their uniforms and equipment ready for practices and games. Responsibility is part of what sports are all about. Remember, it’s not your athletic “career” that’s unfolding. It’s theirs .

No matter what sport your child chooses, make sure he or she gets a full physical exam before the season starts. If your child takes medication for ADHD, ask the doctor if you need to make any changes in his or her drug regimen. Once the season starts, do your best to make sure your child finishes it. No quitting in mid-season to do something else.

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For more information about techniques for coaching athletes with ADHD, see U.S. Youth Soccer and Positive Coaching Alliance.