… for the Coach

Coaching kids with ADHD in sports demands considerable challenge and reward for both parents and coaches alike. When you offer a child insight and strategies to guide them through the hurdles, sports participation can be a positive experience for any child.

There are several obstacles when coaching children with ADHD:

  • They often have difficulty with transition, especially when going from activity to inactivity and vice versa (for example, going from recess then to the classroom).  They may need some extra warning time and a friendly reminder or two.
  • They may display stronger than expected emotional reactions (for example, making emotional mountains out of molehills). When this happens, it may be best to send them to sit for awhile until they can get their emotions under control – this will help avoid any impulsive hitting or other actions while they are upset.
  • They may have great difficulty maintaining position in games and in managing their energy output.  They are not doing this out of spite, they just forget in the heat of the moment.  Often they are thinking “Full speed ahead!”  They often do better in midfield spots where they can go to the ball, but may need to be subbed frequently to avoid getting completely exhausted.
  • Often they may tend to play “too rough” – this is out of enthusiasm, not anger.  If they are big for their ages, you need to be especially careful in pairing them with others of their same size – and nipping overly-aggressive behavior in the bud. If the child is exceptionally afflicted (like most disorders, the symptoms can vary in severity), you may need to get extra help. Please don’t be shy about asking the parents to come to help, or asking the assistant coach to pull the child out for special training if he is overly disruptive. On occasion, a child who is severely afflicted may need to special accommodations. For example, if the child tends to be too rough on the field, or to constantly steal the ball from team-mates in their desire to shine, the coach may need to consider putting the child in goal – this is for their own safety and the safety of the other players. The extra physical restrictions often will help such a child to focus, and to perform very well.

To best manage children with ADHD, please remember that ADHD children don’t want to be inattentive, impulsive, aggressive or “wired” – they just can’t stop themselves.

If a coach understands ADHD, any sport can be a wonderful activity for a child with ADHD and it is extremely important, especially for ADHD afflicted children, to be physically active daily.  Sports teaches impulse control, enhances a participant’s self-discipline, adds to a child’s sense of physical well-being, and, perhaps most importantly, can boost a child’s self-esteem as they acquire skills that their peers may not have.  If the ADHD is under good control, interaction with teammates in any sport setting helps promote socialization and cooperation skills, all within an environment where rules can be learned and successfully followed.

It is important to note that parents will address their child’s ADHD differently.  Some will medicate, some will have strict nutritional guidelines, and some will do nothing at all.  Note that medication is not the only answer to managing a child’s ADHD and there are several other coping strategies that can be used non-medicinally.  Many ADHD children may be receiving no mediation whatsoever and sometimes will just be having a “bad day” now and then. To be successful with the ADHD child, coaches must be familiar with behavior modification principles, as these will greatly improve the chances that the ADHD child will be playing as normally as everyone else.

Principles of Coaching the ADHD Child

Many parents are reluctant to share their child’s ADHD condition with the coach.  It is a sensitive subject to discuss and they do not want their child “labeled” difficult by teachers and coaches. To help parents “open up” and to better assess the needs of each child, one suggestion would be that a general questionnaire be given to each parent at the beginning of the season.  In the questionnaire, the coach might state that he or she cares about the “total child,” and would like to know about any special areas of parental concern. Does the child have any special conditions that the coach should be aware of, is the child taking medication, etc.?  These are questions that should be asked anyway (consider a diabetic child) so the parent should feel comfortable enough to entrust the coach entirely.  It is important to reiterate to the parent that all personal information given is in strictest confidence and will not be shared within the league.

When a parent has disclosed to you that their child does, in fact, have ADHD, a good idea would be to have a period of observation take place during the first week or two during practices.  This is important as during this time, problematic (“target”) behaviors will be observed and recorded.  Such an effort places extra demands on a coach’s already limited time and energy and some ADHD children require what amounts to great sacrifice, but commitment to a behavior modification regime will ultimately ensure the best outcome.

Here are some suggestions for any target behaviors that are observed and recorded:

Short time periods for short attention spans:  Some children with ADHD do better with a schedule of, for example, 20 minutes on, 5 minutes off.  ADHD children can often control their behavior for a set amount of time if they know what that time is, and the time is clearly visible to them (ensure a clock is visible).

Communicate and coordinate efforts closely with parents:  For those parents that do medicate, some days medication is forgotten or administered so late that good ADHD control is not achieved until the final ten minutes of practice.

Look for antecedent activities outside the gym that may be followed by an increase in target behavior during practice:  For example, contrary to popular belief, physical activity does not decrease ADHD behavior. In general, a parent should not bring an ADHD child to practice directly from a softball game, after which they will likely be stimulated, or directly from swimming practice, after which they are likely to be fatigued. Fatigue makes ADHD worse. In addition, parents should try not to get into power struggles or arguments with their child on the way to practice, as this will predispose the child to being argumentative and oppositional in the gym.

Be prepared to handle other parents’ resentment:  It is important to be able to explain to the parents of other children that an ADHD child has a medical condition that needs to be accommodated in a special way, and that you would do the same for any other child with any other condition.  Do not disclose the medical condition.

Small classes and close adult supervision are optimal:  At times, it is best for an ADHD child to come to those practices that are sparsely attended so that the coach / player ratio is favorable. Parents may need to adjust their schedule so that the ADHD child can be brought to these optimal practices.

Try to showcase the player (but do not give them “obvious” special attention):  One ADHD baseball player shined at baseball games because they were able to hit the ball farther than any other play.  The audience “oohed and aahed,” which greatly enhanced the player’s self-esteem.

Provide structure:  ADHD children respond best to routine, and the best coach for a child with ADHD is one who is very organized and structured, and whose workouts go as planned.  In addition, the coach should review with the player what is expected of them at the beginning of each practice or game.

“Be a slot machine for praise.”:  ADHD children are in constant need of reward and praise.  When a child follows the rules, pile on the praise.

Act, don’t yack!:  Avoid “stepping into the arena” and engaging in debate with an ADHD child.  You will never “win.”  Either praise, withhold a point, or give a time-out.

Look for welcome behaviors and count on unwelcome behaviors:  Please remember that children with ADHD have bad days and good days, just like the rest of us.

Helping Players with ADHD Maintain Focus (or Any Child that Struggles)

Among other things, maintaining focus for the ADHD player is probably the most challenging task.  Below are some strategies in helping the ADHD player maintain focus:

  • A learning environment that is helpful for an ADHD child will benefit all children – and everything promoted in coaching clinics to help young players develop their skills will help an ADHD player stay actively involved in practices, regardless of the sport. The better we perform as coaches, the fewer problems ADHD players will have. 
  • Children with ADHD will misbehave while waiting in line, but a good coach will avoid asking his players to stand in line. Children learn by engagement, not by standing in line. Movement should be praised, and ADHD kids are experts at moving.
  • Keep instructions and corrections short. Use “coaching points” and catch phrases (“Chop, chop, lollipop” or “Ready, Freddy?”).  Repeat them often and with enthusiasm.
  • Avoid negative feedback. We know that corrective feedback and positive feedback produce better results, simultaneously improving skills and building confidence. Remember to use that “feedback sandwich” – positive-negative-positive.
  • Positive feedback can be given in front of the group, but corrective feedback directed at an individual player should be given privately.  Always make direct eye contact when speaking to your players and ask players to repeat back your instructions to be sure they understand what you are asking for.  The same goes when giving corrective feedback – ensure the child is making eye contact and understands what is being said.
  • Boredom inhibits learning, as do frustration and anxiety.  Break tasks down into small steps so that all players can master each step, but be sure the challenge is great enough to keep your players interested. Success breeds success.
  • Remember that mistakes happen. They are a natural part of the learning process so view them as growth opportunities. Be respectful and be forgiving of yourself, your players and the referees.
  • Disorganized practices invite misbehavior. Plan a fun practice with instructive games and be sure to have fun yourself!
  • Fitness and fun are not mutually exclusive. Start your practice with a warm-up game of tag. Always give your hyperactive players a chance to be “It,” though not to the exclusion of everyone else. The work rate for “It” is significantly greater than for the other players, and a fatigued player absolutely will not misbehave! He or she will not have the energy for acting up and it sure beats running humiliating (and boring) laps.
  • Become a student of the game. Take more coaching clinics. Attend upper level matches. Watch videos. Try playing. The passion you display for the game is contagious and an ADHD player who is passionate about the game will give you 110%.  Always!

There is no quick fix for ADHD, just like there is no quick fix for poor teaching or poor coaching.  By sharing coaching strategies with team parents at the start of each season, maybe we can begin to help ADHD children reach their full potential with and without the ball, instead of simply remaining confounded by their behavior.