ADHD and Joining Athletic Teams

A football game

children with ADHD are often the last ones chosen — and the first ridiculed — on the team. While their behavior may not be intentional, it can antagonize teammates and coaches. By mid-season, children with ADHD are often outcasts ready to quit.

It’s especially unfortunate because being on a team serves a positive developmental purpose: children learn how to work cooperatively with others, play fair, and win or lose graciously.

Be Your Child’s Sportsmanship Tutor

For children with ADHD, social skills — including good sportsmanship — have to be taught just like math and spelling. Parents must also maximize external opportunities for success. Here’s how to help:

  • Rehearse stressful Encounters: Role-play situations in which your child reacts poorly. Develop and rehearse appropriate responses.
  • Practice Losing: Ask your child, “What’s the plan if you lose? How can you be a good sport?” Together, develop and rehearse acceptable reactions.
  • Practice Playing: Playing catch or shooting hoops between practices will improve your child’s athletic skills. When it’s just the two of you, the pressure is off. When skills improve, he’ll be more relaxed with peers.
  • Keep Them Busy: Idle time is when children with ADHD get into mischief. Make sure your child isn’t sitting in the dugout waiting for trouble. Talk to the coach about keeping him occupied with homework, serving refreshments to teammates, or organizing equipment.
  • Maintain medications: Some parents discontinue medication whenever the child is not in school. If your child takes medication to concentrate and focus on schoolwork, don’t expect him to concentrate and focus on teamwork without it.
  • Consider Coaching: When their parents coach the team, children with ADHD gain opportunities — and close supervision — they might otherwise lack.
  • Stay Put: Don’t drop off your child at practice and show up 90 minutes later. Your presence is required to keep him on track — or get him out of there. If he’s about to have a meltdown, better to leave RIGHT NOW (“Sorry, we have an appointment.”) than to wait for your child do something that alienates teammates and coaches.
  • Locate Mellow Leagues: Some leagues are highly competitive and high-pressure, not a good fit for children with ADHD. Look for mellower teams — oriented more toward “fun” than “winning is all.” Ask around. YMCA teams may be more relaxed than town teams.
  • Position Counts: Children with ADHD have trouble focusing on mundane tasks, but are capable of hyperfocusing on tasks that stimulate them. A lousy guard may be an excellent goalie. Ask the coach to let your child try various spots on the team.
  • Pick Sports Wisely: Sometimes, children with ADHD do better with teamed individual sports like martial arts, tennis, gymnastics and swimming. These sports provide both one-on-one attention and the “team experience” children with ADHD need, without requiring them to constantly coordinate their efforts with others.

If these strategies don’t work, wait. Many children with ADHD are young for their chronological age. An eight-year-old who acts five may do poorly on a team, but a ten-year-old who acts eight may do just fine.

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