What I Wish I Knew

Fresh out of college, 23 years old, I was following my dream of working with kids – teaching middle school English and coaching club and summer league swimming.  Twenty-five years and four careers later, I still call coaching the best job I’ve ever had (even counting the pool where I had to haul 12-foot steel poles around the deck before and after practice because that was the only way to hang the backstroke flags). 

I thought then, and still think, that I was pretty good coach.  I was all in.  I was paid next to nothing and could not have cared less. I felt lucky to get to spend my days planning challenging sets (and fun rewards), staying after practice with kids whose flip turns needed a little extra help, pouring my heart into creative line-ups, painting my hair pink for pep rallies and cheering my voice away on Saturday mornings.  I ferried kids to practice and meets when their parents couldn’t and got to know their families well. I’m still close with many of them. Nothing that I have done since has been more rewarding. 

Yet now – knowing what I do about brain differences and about kids who struggle with ADHD – I wish I could turn back time and do it better.

I wish I had understood back then why the boy in lane six never, ever remembered the set, even a minute after I had explained it.  I was sure that he just wasn’t listening, was being a pill. 

I wish I had understood why the boy in lane four so often fell apart when I had to call him out for nudging his buddies on the deck or slapping the lane line while I was talking.  I figured he was being dramatic – and disrespectful.

I wish I had understood why the tween girl in lane 2 always (and I mean always) went missing right before the relay events, making the other three girls on her relay crazy with worry and irritation. I thought she was irresponsible and maybe didn’t care.

Now I know I was wrong.  Now I recognize all of these behaviors as symptoms of ADHD and the anxiety that so often travels with it.

When my son, a fourth grader and talented athlete, was diagnosed with ADHD I also went all in. The brain science is fascinating, but that wasn’t my focus. I wanted to understand how he experiences the world (so differently from the way I do). I wanted to really appreciate, not just sympathize with, the challenges he faces.  I wanted to teach him to navigate everyday life so that he can capitalize on his obvious gifts. 

I met with exceptional neuropsychologists, psychiatrists and parenting coaches. I observed the teachers at the school for bright children with learning differences that my son has attended since kindergarten. I read everything that I could find, attended and arranged lectures by experts in the field and devoured podcasts during the long treks to and from my son’s school. 

And I listened. 

I listened to my son, who wants more than anything to succeed in high-level sports.

I listened to other parents whose children have struggled in extracurricular sports and activities, where the expectations are designed for “normal” kids.

And I listened to my son’s coaches, almost all of whom are kind, well-intentioned and experienced – and none of whom has been trained in how to coach kids with ADHD, or anxiety or a host of other learning differences.   

What came clear is that these kids have a ton to offer. Athletes with ADHD, for example, are commonly enthusiastic, energetic, unusually perceptive, passionate and creative, both in their thinking and in their performance.  Think Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Terry Bradshaw (just to name a few).

I saw how badly they want to get things right – to be able to pay attention as well as their coaches would like, to be able to remember the plays, not to feel like running from the room when they are criticized for doing A, B & C and then again for not doing X, Y & Z.

I also saw that these kids’ brains experience the world in an entirely different way from your typical athlete.  They can’t easily fit in the box.  And their behaviors – especially when they are trying to fit in – can be off-putting and can make them very hard to coach. 

I know. 

I look back and regret my frustration with these behaviors and my failure to draw out the best in some of the more challenging, but also engaging, kids on my teams.  Were all of them struggling with ADHD, or anxiety or maybe dyslexia?  Of course not.  But now knowing the prevalence of ADHD (estimated to be more than 10%) and dyslexia (up to 20%) and anxiety (a troubling 25-30%) in kids and teens, I am certain that many were. 

So what to do?  How do you work with these kids successfully without sacrificing your program goals or diminishing the experiences of other athletes?  

It can be done. 

Even better, helping these kids to succeed benefits the whole team – often in its performance and always in growing your athletes into mature, compassionate young adults. 

The first step is to find out when a learning difference or mental health issue might be behind an athlete’s behavior.  Parents and athletes are often hesitant to disclose for fear that the coach will think less of the athlete or, worst case, won’t want him or her on the team.  It’s therefore key to assure both the parents and the athlete that you want to know, that you genuinely want to understand and that the athlete is welcome.

Then begins the work of educating yourself on the behaviors that often come with ADHD, learning differences and anxiety.  That’s where Own Beat Athlete comes in.

ADHD, for example, is way more than the stereotype of a jumpy kid who doesn’t listen. As a general rule, kids with ADHD can be distractible, over-sensitive to criticism, argumentative, forgetful and disorganized. They become overwhelmed easily, and this can manifest as avoidance or what looks like disrespect, even in the sweetest kid. Both ADHD and anxiety cause difficulty with internal motivation, which looks a lot like lazy. The same kids can get hyper-focused on something they are into, which can be great – or can look a lot like not following directions.

But every kid is different. 

The best way to learn about the variety of upsides and challenges is through the voices of athletes themselves – what they experience, how it feels, what they have to offer, how to draw out their strengths. 

That’s what I set out to capture in the Dear Coach letters, which are based on input from athletes and coaches at all levels; experts in behavior and psychology; the latest research and my own experiences as a coach, a teacher and a mom. 

The Stories section brings the lessons to life through the tales of real athletes, many of whom you’ll recognize.

Deep Dive looks in more depth at a variety of issues that affect athletes with ADHD, anxiety and specific learning differences. I dip into the science for context, but the purpose is to understand what makes these kids tick and how to coach them to success. 

I can’t go back and try new ways to reach the super-talented kid who drove me nuts by skipping practice, always avoiding tough events and eventually quitting.  I can’t go back and give the fidgety little boy a task that would have kept his hands busy while I was talking – and kept him out of trouble with his lane mates.

But I can help you do it differently. You can learn to understand and to change the experience for these kids, for your teams and for yourselves.   

And trust me, it will be worth it.