Are Youth Sports Beneficial for Children with ADHD?

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Youth sports can be beneficial to children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). If parents consider the sport, communicate with the coaches and listen to their children about how much they want to participate, if at all, their children may be able to enjoy the experience.

Coping with ADHD

Brian Kowitz has an 18-year-old daughter with ADHD who played sports most of her life—basketball, soccer and lacrosse. He and his wife found out she had ADHD in the first or second grade.
“Athletics is definitely a tremendous release and an outlet for those who are managing the ADHD challenge,” he says. “It’s hard for her to stay focused in the classroom … very fidgety … she drifts off, daydreams and ends up losing concentration pretty quickly. When you’re in the heat of a sporting event, because of the pace of the game, it kind of locks her in a little bit more.”

The disorder can frustrate parents—from getting a diagnosis to helping their children cope with the way it affects their daily lives. A person with ADHD has differences in brain development and brain activity that affect attention, the ability to sit still and self-control.

According to the National Institutes of Health, ADHD symptoms can appear as early as between the ages of 3 and 6 and can continue through adolescence and adulthood. Symptoms of ADHD can be mistaken for emotional or disciplinary problems or missed entirely in quiet, well-behaved children, leading to a delay in diagnosis.

Factors to consider when choosing a sport

Ryan Defibaugh is a licensed counselor for MBS Performance Counseling in Frederick County. He sees adolescent athletic clients with a focus on the mental and emotional side of competition and performance.

“Children with ADHD in sports have difficulty regulating their attention and emotions and can also struggle with motivation,” he says. “I think a parent needs to know that going in and to be patient with the process. Know the reasons why they’re getting their kids involved in sports in the first place.”

He says a child with ADHD may get pressured more easily and angrier more quickly if practices are too routine or there is too much standing around. The child may not want to participate or will disengage from practice and possibly not want to return to the sport.

Defibaugh says there are some considerations when choosing a sport. He says first choose a sport the child is interested in.

“There is some thinking that individual sports are best, such as wrestling, track, swimming or even martial arts. There are benefits to team sports for children with ADHD as well—working with others toward a common goal and positive peer interaction.” He suggests a sport with less downtime and more active participation.

Defibaugh addresses the concern about potential risk to children with ADHD who play sports. “Sometimes, they (children) perceive less of a risk, so they are more (inclined) to risk-taking sometimes in sports.” He says parents and coaches should understand how exercise and dehydration affect the medication that a young athlete is taking.

Possible red flags that the sport is not working out as an activity can center around children’s safety. “If they can’t follow directions that keep themselves and others safe it may be time to rethink the sport,” Defibaugh says. “Listen to your children. If they are getting overly frustrated and crying a lot and not wanting to go back, it is a sign to perhaps choose something else like music or art.”

Communicating with coaches

Kowitz says the sports his daughter took part in were fluid without a lot of stopping and starting. His daughter, who will be graduating high school this year, plans to play college lacrosse.

Reflecting on his daughter’s sports participation experience, Kowitz says, “I feel like when they’re drawing up plays, if you’re not locked in listening to the coach, and you’re not using strategies that you’re being taught on how to pay attention and repeat back the plays, that can be a small disaster on the field—not executing the right play.”

He offers his biggest piece of advice for parents. “Make sure they sit down with the coaches and really explain to them what the challenges are and ways to cope with the ADHD. Communication is so important.”