Daggers to the Heart

Pretty much everyone has heard of ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and has some idea of what it is (although there’s a lot of misunderstanding that we’re trying to crack). 

A related acronym, RSD, is largely unknown to the sports world. It stands for Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which is essentially scientific for super, super, super sensitive to any kind of rejection or criticism, even – and this is key – potential or perceived rejection or criticism. 

The term RSD is somewhat controversial, in part because it has not been recognized as an official diagnosis. 

But whatever you call it, there’s no question that this heightened sensitivity is very real; and understanding it is critically important to coaching ADHD athletes successfully.

Why is it such a big deal?

It is difficult, if not impossible, for someone without ADHD to comprehend fully the disabling pain that this heightened sensitivity causes. (Dysphoria is Greek for “difficult to bear,” but that’s a significant understatement.) 

Kids with ADHD aren’t wimps.  Far from it.  It’s not unlike the individual variance in physical pain thresholds. The rejection and criticism actually hurt them more, much more, than other kids. 

And they know it.  They know that they’re more sensitive to yelling, teasing, being embarrassed, thinking they might be embarrassed, letting others down, thinking they might let others down, even thinking they might let themselves down. 

Yes, and particularly important in sports, the dreaded criticism can even be self-imposed. “I’m terrible at remembering things; I’m so stupid; I’ll never get the play right.” Even an athlete’s awareness that he is (once again) different from other kids, that he can’t brush things off as easily, can become more negative fuel for the reactive brain.

Kids with ADHD will tell you how hard they try not to care. How hard they try not to be so sensitive.  They’d love to have the pain go away.  But it’s not that easy.

The difference is biological.  They can’t change how their brains are wired.

A kid with ADHD can actually hear angry yelling when you tell him in a soft-spoken voice that he has been fooling around and should have been in the water 15 minutes ago. And then he’ll think you’re mad at him (or worse) and be hopelessly embarrassed for being called out in front of the team (even if no one is listening). 

When a teammate teases him about the hole in his shorts he can feel like he’s being stabbed (the words of a real young athlete). 

He can feel genuine terror at the thought of bringing the wrong gear to tryouts (public embarrassment is the worst) or not remembering the drill – which of course happens to kids with ADHD all the time. 

No amount of telling the athlete to buck up or to stop being so sensitive will change how the criticism, or perceived criticism, feels. 

Nor will it help with the behaviors that result.  

It won’t help with avoidance.  An athlete who feels every day like he is being stabbed by another kid’s jokes will think of every excuse not to go to practice.  He might well quit the sport.

It won’t help with outbursts.  An athlete who genuinely perceives coaches or kids yelling at him, even if they aren’t, will eventually yell back.

It won’t help with eroding confidence.  An athlete who magnifies criticism, or who takes even anticipated failure straight to heart, will become afraid to try, afraid that he might fail at his goals or let someone else down.

Lecturing and voicing frustration will make all of this worse.  Much worse.

So what can coaches do? 

Most important, you can take the time to establish and nurture a trusting relationship, with an emphasis on the positive and on building the athlete’s confidence. 

It’s true that criticism often hits an ADHD athlete hardest when it comes from someone he least wants to disappoint – like a revered coach.  But the security of a close relationship, together with open communication, will lessen the athlete’s fear of making a mistake and will also help you to read the early signs that the athlete’s sensitivity is ramping up.

This awareness is a huge step in helping the athlete manage his fears and reactions.   

You can head off the worst of the sensitivity by delivering any criticism in private whenever possible. It also helps to use language that addresses the athlete’s behavior or performance, not his characteristics – for example, “Other kids can’t hear when you talk during the instructions,” instead of, “It’s annoying when you interrupt.”

You can notice situations that seem especially tough for the athlete – maybe she feels overwhelmed and reactive in a crowded warm-up setting or when required to demonstrate in front of the group.  

You can proactively separate an athlete from kids that push his buttons.

This isn’t to say that you or others should walk on eggshells around ADHD athletes to avoid hurting their feelings. You shouldn’t. And it wouldn’t work anyway – remember, they can hear yelling in a moderate voice. 

But you can keep calm yourself when the athlete responds in an outsized way to a casual comment.  This will help the moment to pass without escalation.  

Although the instinct is often to address the incident right away, the conversation will be far more effective if you wait until everyone (especially the sensitive athlete) has had time to reflect.  She won’t be able to reason, or maybe even hear you, in the moment anyway. Later, with a solid relationship, you can coach her on recognizing triggers and on strategies the two of you can use to manage the behaviors. 

Coaching highly sensitive kids is not easy. But knowing what’s in the athlete’s head helps immensely, as with so many aspects of coaching.  In particular, try to remember that the athlete is really hurting, not intentionally being disrespectful or lazy or dramatic – and remember that this reaction too shall pass. 




Deep DiveSusan Stout