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Tip #5: Win (And Lose) As A Team - #ADHD

Learning the rules of team sports can be tough for any kid, let alone a child who is also juggling ADHD. Use these tips to help your child follow directions, learn the value of teamwork and discover her place on the field.


During my early days of coaching school sports, there was a young girl with an amazing amount of energy on the basketball team. During practice, she was the first one out of the locker room, dressed and raring to go. She was also the last one to leave the gym. A coach’s dream? I thought so, until the frustration set in — for both of us.

Angela could really handle a basketball, having grown up in a houseful of brothers. But she didn’t understand strategy or teamwork. When she was on the court, she performed as if she were the only one there. How could I help her see that enthusiasm, while admirable, was no substitute for team play?

One afternoon, when Angela’s dad picked her up from practice, he asked how things were going. I voiced my frustration and he shook his head knowingly, explaining that his daughter had ADHD. He said that she loved sports and had tried several, with little success. We decided that he would attend all the practices, and together we would figure out how to help this young athlete achieve success at something that she really wanted to do.

Our effort helped Angela to see that basketball was not her sport. Her poor spatial awareness and strategic thinking, compounded by emotional triggers during a game, thwarted her success. Yet Angela also came to learn that her spirit, enthusiasm, and motivation could help her shine in another sport: cross-country track. She excelled at track in her first year of high school, and she also gained insight into her capabilities. This partnership between coach, parent, and child ended in a win-win.

Cheerlead for Your Child

There is no better advocate for a child with ADHD or other neurological disorder — or for any child — than a parent. Parents, along with teachers and coaches, need to realize that each child’s behavior is unique, even if it’s not considered age-appropriate. It is our job to recognize our children’s strengths and weaknesses and guide them to appropriate activities, including sports.

Team sports are particularly difficult for children with ADHD, because the variables can be overwhelming. We need to set these children up for success. You have researched, experimented, and lived with your child’s special needs. Use what you know. Remember that, outside of school, most coaches are well-meaning parents who know little about ADHD. Even coaches with specialized training will value your input, expertise, and wisdom about your child, so they can support him in a team-sport endeavor.

When choosing a sport for your child, consider his challenges as well as his strengths. Some children with ADHD have difficulty with losing. Try to assess whether a team sport, in which the child can absorb a loss with teammates, or an individual sport is best. A child with attention problems will likely benefit from a sport with constant motion and excitement. Share your concerns and recommendations with the coach.

Talk to the Boss

I encourage you to share the following strategies with your child’s coach, strategies I’ve learned through years of working with children with ADD and other special needs.

  • Never humiliate a child. This would seem to be common sense. Unfortunately, that is not what I have observed in sports programs. Some coaches feel that embarrassment, humiliation, and punishment (running 30 laps if a drill is not done correctly) will get a child to pay attention. This approach will not work with a child with ADHD.A coach should take the time to find out what a child does not understand and help her work through it. Perhaps the coach can designate a team buddy who guides your child through the plays.

  • Drill with energy. Children with ADHD get bored and distracted standing around waiting their turn. Encourage the coach to do drills that require change and continuous movement.

[The Magic of Martial Arts (and Other Individual Sports)]

  • Go one-on-one. Kids with ADHD get lost in group directions. But they do well in one-on-one coaching situations. Ask the coach to talk to your child individually to explain instructions.

  • Do a double-check. Suggest that the coach ask your child privately if she understood directions, asking her to repeat what she heard. This goes a long way toward avoiding communication breakdowns. If a child appears to be disengaged or confused, the coach should try to find out where the breakdown occurred so the problem can be corrected with further explanation.

  • Win — and lose — as a team. Many children have a hard time with losing. The coach should make sure that the players know that winning or losing is a team responsibility. A player should not be held at fault, even if he missed the last shot or made the last strikeout. It is the coach’s job to instill and demonstrate sportsmanship values for all players, beginning with the first practice. Support, encouragement, and respect for all players should be a top priority.

  • Move players around. The coach should rotate positions so that everyone on the team has an opportunity to be in active positions. This will help your child — and the other players — to use excess energy well and possibly to learn a new skill.

  • Manage excitement. Children with ADHD often get caught up in the action of the game, forgetting about strategy and teamwork. Awareness of this will help the coach help your child focus.

  • Keep ’em busy. Your child should have a job to do while waiting on the bench or during downtimes: assisting scorekeepers, keeping equipment in order, anything that will hold her interest.

  • Let ’em rest. The coach should devise a take-a-break plan with your child. Breaks offer respite to children who become overwhelmed.

  • Think young. Children with ADHD are often socially and emotionally younger than their age. If they play with children a year or two younger, they may have more fun.

  • Think positive. Ask the coach to assess your child’s strengths and emphasize them in practice and play. For example, if your child’s soccer coach sees that she is doggedly determined to block the ball, he might make her the goalie.

A good coach will consider it a gift when you inform her of your child’s special needs. Coaches have the opportunity to make a huge impact on students’ lives. They can help each player feel like an important member of the team — each with his own talents that help the team as a whole.


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