Sports and ADHD: A Positive Connection?


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It’s almost a rite of passage — at some point in childhood, many kids participate in some kind of organized sport, whether it’s in gym class, a local town league or the dream track to the pros. Organized sports can offer a challenge for any kid to stay focused or patiently wait their turn, but for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, that challenge can sometimes make parents pause before signing up their child in the first place — something they may want to reconsider.

“Research shows that people with ADHD function best when they’re in situations that provide frequent and immediate feedback,” says Laura Rhoads, Ph.D., a psychologist specializing in ADHD at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Sports can provide immediate feedback for kids with ADHD. She cautions parents, however, not to think sports will work as a cure, because it could just tire their child out.

“It’s a myth to treat (ADHD) simply by ‘getting the energy out,’ as this has not been shown to improve ADHD symptoms,” Rhoads says. “But if the sport is structured, and with positive adult monitoring and mentoring, it can help buffer kids with ADHD from other types of difficulties, including depression, anxiety, and more severe behavioral problems like oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder.”

Michelle Byars, a developmental therapist and founder of the Move to Grow program in Durham, agrees. “Kids with ADHD don’t lack attention skills,” she says. “They have too much attention. They’re being stimulated by a lot of things and have a hard time focusing on just one of them.”

Sports offer a great way to practice things like strengthening short-term memory and inhibiting actions, she says, and it gives kids a social component. “Kids have the opportunity to interact and learn socially appropriate skills within the rules of the particular sport,” Byars says.

When sports activities become part of a balanced lifestyle that also includes good nutrition, healthy rest and possibly medication, a child can experience definite benefits.


Using Sports to Create Balance

If you’d like to incorporate sports into your child’s life to improve his or her ADHD symptoms, keep these things in mind:

Find the right sport.

The best sport is the one your child is interested in. Just because you always had a love of baseball doesn’t mean your child will develop that same passion.

“If they’re highly active and need a lot of stimulation, consider a sport where they won’t be waiting around a lot, something like flag football or basketball,” Byars says. “If you have a kid who’s more shy, think about something individualized, like fencing, where they don’t have to be drawn into a crowd.”

Find the right setting.

“If your child has sensory issues, factor that in,” Byars says. For example, if you choose swimming, consider the echoes from yelling at an indoor pool that might bother a kid with auditory issues. “An outdoor pool would be a much better fit,” she says.

Talk with the doctor.

If your child is on medication, have a quick chat with his or her doctor to discuss timing of doses in relation to practices and the impact high levels of physical activity might have.

Research the organization and coaches. 

“It’s very important to choose a sport or organization that’s very well-organized and structured with positive and consistent coaches and mentors,” Rhoads says. Keeping an open line of communication with the organization leaders can help coaches get to know your child and be aware if your child seems frustrated or overloaded.

Focus on fun.

In today’s hyper-competitive world, trophies and medals are all the rage and take up much of the attention in organized sports. Put the emphasis on personal growth and enjoyment, rather than stressing your child out even more about achieving a shiny plastic reward.

Try to put your child in the same age group.

Remove the pressure of competing against bigger, stronger kids with more experience by finding a similar age group and, if possible, the same ability level.

At King Tiger Tae Kwon Do in Charlotte, Master Rome Chin-Beightol believes one key to the program’s success is making sure young athletes are in a class with other children their age.

“We have kids with ADHD in our classes and they’re able to be part of the large group during warm-up, but learn curriculum at their own pace in the smaller group setting,” Chin-Beightol says.

Multitask.

Put a little thought into a sport that can emphasize your child’s strengths to maximize success and enjoyment, but also consider something that can strengthen weak areas at the same time.

“We’ve been referred by pediatricians, occupational therapists and physical therapists,” says Chin-Beightol. “We’ve even had speech therapists send kids to us, because we ask children to speak out loud, counting, saying things verbally, even speaking Korean.”

What’s more, she adds, they’re actively engaged with the instructors — interacting, repeating and talking back and forth. Implementing both physical and mental skills at the same time increases focus and concentration.

Keep an open mind.

Sometimes, kids with ADHD can feel isolated or different from their peers and classmates. Being part of a team can help boost self-esteem. Focus on that angle of success, rather than how many points he or she puts up on the board.

Be realistic.

Being a part of a sports program or team is not necessarily a “silver bullet.”

“The symptoms of ADHD can post challenges in sports settings,” Rhoads says. “For example, inattention can make it difficult to learn the rules or notice important plays in a complex sport. Impulsivity can lead to errors in judgment during a game, leading to injuries or poor sportsmanlike reactions.”

Rhoads stresses that ADHD is a neurocognitive condition, so “burning off energy” isn’t going to be the end-all answer. Talk with your child’s pediatrician and your child, be flexible and you may find integrating sports into a healthy overall approach to your child’s ADHD might be a winning goal.


Kathleen M. Reilly is a writer and mom in the Triangle. Learn more about her online at kathleenreilly.com

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