Helping Kids with ADHD Thrive in Sports -- Q&A for Coaches and Parents

This first appeared as a guest blog on the PTS Coaching website. Cindy Goldrich, the founder of PTS Coaching, trains parents and teachers to work more effectively with kids who have ADHD. Her website — includes resources for all who desire to understand ADHD, how it presents and how to help kids with ADHD thrive.

Why are sports important for kids with ADHD?

Sports are a great training ground for all kids to build physical health, social skills, and camaraderie, as well as to learn to set goals and to succeed and fail with grace. These benefits are even more important for kids with ADHD. Exercise is one of the best tools for combatting the challenges of weak executive functioning and a busy brain. We all know how going for a walk (or tossing a football) can focus our minds and make it easier to sit through a long meeting.  The effect is exponential for these kids. 

For some kids with ADHD, sports can also provide a place to shine and recover the confidence that they lose at school. Even for those who aren’t star athletes, fitting in can be easier with a shared team goal and the involvement of a skilled coach. This is especially true for older kids, who are aging out of social experiences that are set up or monitored by adults. 

How can ADHD impact kids’ participation in sports? 

This is a really important question. Coaches' understanding of ADHD is often limited to the stereotype of a child who can't sit still, interrupts, and can’t keep his hands to himself. But other characteristics of ADHD can cause just as much, if not more, difficulty in a sports environment.

And although most coaches don't realize it, the incentive to understand these kids is huge.  On average, 10% of a team’s players could be affected, many more in certain sports.  

A few examples of how ADHD might show up:

  • An athlete who is highly sensitive to criticism can shut down (or quit) when playing for a coach who yells.

  • An athlete who is quietly distracted might miss the instructions and mess up the play even when she’s trying hard to listen.

  • A disorganized teen might bring the wrong uniform (or none at all).

  • An anxious, overwhelmed kid’s avoidance of practice can look to his coach like lazy.

  • One who struggles to manage emotions, especially at the end of the day, can be set off in a competitive environment.

  • An athlete who has weak executive functioning skills can struggle with setting and following through on long-term goals.

Coaches should also know the many upsides that athletes with ADHD can bring to a team - high energy and enthusiasm, the ability to thrive in the middle of a chaotic game and a talent for hyper-focus or getting into The Zone, to name a few.

How can a coach better understand and manage athletes with ADHD?

The first step is to get to know every kid really well at the start of the season before any troubles arise. With younger athletes, this often involves reaching out to parents, and in all cases it requires connecting with each kid at every practice. Yes, this takes time, but it’s the only way to learn what’s behind the behavior.

For example, the educated coach will know that what may look like disrespect or intentionally not following directions is really an athlete who lacks the impulse control to not bounce the ball during a long talk or the processing speed to memorize the drill before it’s time to start.

The coach needs to understand that these kids want to do well.  Their brains are just different in ways that result in both low frustration tolerance and immature skills for dealing with frustration once it occurs – a double-whammy that leaves them feeling (and sometimes acting) out of control. Their brain development can also lag behind their peers by three years, or even more. They’re almost always the most upset with themselves for messing up (again), even if it doesn’t look like it on the outside.

These aren’t excuses, just opportunities to turn the behaviors around. Let them know that you understand their need to move; let them fidget in a non-disruptive way (sitting on a ball, playing with goggles); assign them special responsibilities (putting out cones, collecting jerseys); set up familiar routines; keep directions short and to the point.  This last one is a biggie. If you want something to stick, let them walk it through.  Most lectures will fall on deaf ears. 

One of the best tools is to catch them doing something well – even if you have to look really hard. Kids with ADHD are beaten down by the end of a hard school day and challenged by the transition to practice.  Some are also coming off of medication in the late afternoon, and that can cause a short-term uptick in symptoms. Even just getting to practice with their shoes and socks can be a win.  Noticing what they’re doing right and ignoring (at least for the moment) what they’re not will pay off in spades.

What about when a kid explodes?

Just knowing that the behavior isn’t intentional or personal can take the edge off for the coach. The coach is then better able to do the best thing in the short-term, which is to let the moment pass. Calmly get everyone back on track and wait to address the behavior until tempers have cooled. This can be really hard in a charged situation, but it’s a total non-starter to try to reason with an upset kid with weak executive functioning. 

Kids with ADHD are often extraordinarily perceptive and sensitive. This allows them to reflect with surprising maturity on their behavior in hindsight.  This is how they grow, with repeated practice — don't expect change to be quick.  But it also means that they are their own harshest critics and feel everything, including criticism, more deeply than most.

It often goes like this: they do something frustrating; they hear disapproval (or anger) in the coach’s voice; they feel bad that they’ve messed up again but don’t have the skills to deal with it productively; so they act out more, and the situation escalates. If the coach can remain calm and use an even, encouraging tone with redirection, at least the emotional aspect can be greatly diminished.

The coach can later talk with the athlete alone (speaking in private is very important) about what happened and strategies to avoid the frustration or react differently to it next time. The pre-existing close and trusting relationship is what makes this possible – and eventually successful. 

What if the coach still thinks the behavior is intentional and personal?

This comes with time. Understanding about the kid's unique wiring is much harder to remember in the heat of the moment than an obvious physical disability. I encourage coaches to recognize that kids with ADHD can’t change their wiring – and therefore their behavior – by trying harder, just like a blind athlete can’t make herself see.  

Making matters trickier, kids with ADHD might have armored up to the point that their sensitivity comes out as anger or disengagement, neither of which draws much empathy. And their ability to control their behavior or pay attention is often inconsistent from one day to the next, again making slip-ups seem intentional.

If all of this sounds challenging, remember that these kids really want to do well. They really want to be able to do what you say. Their wiring just makes it more difficult.

But isn’t it wrong not to treat all kids the same?

This question reminds me of a quote by the legendary coach Bear Bryant: "When I was a young coach I used to say, 'Treat everybody alike.' That's bull. Treat everybody fairly.”

Like young Bear Bryant, many coaches think that they need to treat all athletes the same to be fair, or they take comfort in following one coaching roadmap. But one of the keys to excellent coaching is understanding each athlete as an individual and figuring out what makes each one tick. All kids, not just kids with ADHD, learn differently, respond differently and are motivated differently.

For example, one athlete might thrive on tough talk or playful banter, while a more sensitive kid might be hurt and demoralized by yelling and joking. One might be an auditory learner who will easily learn a new drill orally, while another might need a walk-through to make it stick. One might be able to handle hard training for weeks in a row, while another might need more frequent physical or mental breaks to recharge.  

Kids tend to appreciate that fairness really means giving each athlete what he or she needs to thrive. Plus, all kids can benefit from the strategies that help kids with ADHD – for example, writing the multi-step workout on a chalkboard or solving problems calmly and in private.  All kids also benefit from routines, emphasizing the positive and lots of motion. And all coaches and parents benefit when their athletes are feeling good.