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ADHD and Sports: What Parents Need to Know

Aug 07, 2019
Youth soccer game

Should kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) play sports? Of course! If you have questions about whether your child is physically healthy enough to play a particular sport, consult with their pediatrician. While some features of ADHD my pose challenges, generally speaking, kids with ADHD are able to play sports.

What difficulties might children with ADHD experience in sports? While not an exhaustive list, the most common challenges include:  

  • Attention regulation: These kids may be more distractible during practices/competitions and lose track of their athletic responsibilities (examples: missing a fly ball due to kicking dandelions in the outfield; joking with a teammate and missing coach instructions).
  • Motivation/persistence: This tends to become more problematic as kids progress in sports and less importance is placed on all activities being “fun.” As practices become more repetitive, physically strenuous and focus on improving particular skill deficits, children with ADHD may become disengaged and want to stop participating (examples: not wanting to practice individually between organized events; complaining about attending practice and only wanting to play actual games; resistance to engaging in conditioning activities).
  • Emotional regulation: ADHD-related impulsivity can extend to the child’s emotions. Thus, kids with ADHD are often prone to being easily frustrated, losing their temper, or crying (example: yelling at a teammate who didn’t pass the ball; crying after missing a shot).
  • Note: All of these issues are – to some extent – typical of children of certain ages). However, children with ADHD may experience these issues more frequently and persistently than peers.

Why should kids with ADHD play organized sports? Generally for the same reasons other kids play sports!

Sports can provide physical exercise, often in a setting that is supervised by an adult. This is especially important given research suggesting that children with ADHD are more likely to suffer from obesity, which also places them at higher risk for adult health problems.

Sports can provide opportunities for positive social interactions. Children with ADHD are often rejected by peers due to their behaviors, though research also indicates that kids with ADHD may overestimate the quality of these relationships. Participation in a shared, structured activity can contribute to more successful social interactions and the development of friendships, particularly for children that struggle in unstructured social interactions (e.g., recess, the lunch room, neighborhood play).  

Sports can provide opportunities for children to develop other talents and interests. Children with ADHD often experience academic difficulties; sports can provide opportunities to be successful in other areas, fostering positive self-esteem and sometimes keeping adolescents more invested in school. Of course, the same can be said for a range of other non-academic activities, including participation in the arts and youth groups (e.g., school clubs, Scouts, church groups).

Are some sports better for kids with ADHD? There is no good evidence suggesting kids with ADHD should be steered into certain sports, either because they are more likely to be successful, or because the sport will provide them with some additional benefit.

For example, science does not support the idea that martial arts participation is better for kids with ADHD than, say, basketball or soccer. It is important to note that ADHD tends to cause more problems in situations in which the child finds the activity to be boring or difficult. For this reason, the best sport for a child with ADHD is likely to be one they enjoy and for which they have some natural talent.

Are individual or group sports a better fit? There is no rule, as this likely depends on your child’s interests and needs, as well as your purpose for involving your child in sports. Individual sports and/or individual coaching may be better for a child who is easily distracted in group settings or who needs frequent feedback from a coach to maintain engagement, though this may mean losing out on the positive experience of interacting with peers in a team setting. Even participation in an individual sport (e.g., being a member of a swim or tennis team) may offer increased opportunities for positive peer interactions.

If you have concerns about your child or adolescent with ADHD, Nationwide Children’s Hospital’s Big Lots Behavioral Health Services provides evaluation and treatment for the disorder; an initial appointment can be arranged by calling the Intake Department at (614) 355-8080.
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Benjamin Fields
Benjamin Fields, PhD, MEd
Behavioral Health

Ben Fields, PhD, MEd, is a clinical psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. His primary clinical interests include assessment and treatment of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and learning disorders, as well as parent behavior management training for disruptive behavior disorders.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.