Organized athletics can benefit children who have trouble focusing. Choosing the right activity and coach are key.
If your child is easily distracted, has trouble taking turns and can't handle frustration, you might think organized sports aren't a good choice.
But experts say that, on the contrary, sports can teach all kids important life skills and help them handle day-to-day challenges.
“It's really not about the sport; it's about all the opportunities to foster teamwork, to be persistent and to be a good teammate,” said Ben Fields, a clinical child and adolescent psychologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital. “One of the big things kids get from sports is the social experience, and it's one of the most successful, structured, supervised ways to get that. Everybody's looking for that for their children.”
Fields said parents of children with attention issues, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), may be hesitant to involve their son or daughter in sports or may believe that only certain activities would be appropriate. Though he wouldn't suggest a sport with long gaps in the action, such as baseball, Fields said any sport a child is enthusiastic about could work.
Sterling Wiggins of Yellow Springs said his son, Elliot, has used his ADHD as an asset while playing soccer, basketball and Ultimate Frisbee. “His impulsivity allows him to make quick decisions as a defender in soccer, and that ability to switch focus very quickly makes him an excellent defender,” Wiggins said. “If you can, find a sport that allows your child to exercise their hyperfocus, to engage their curiosity and impulsivity.”
Wiggins said sports have helped his son gain confidence, feel successful and be recognized for his skills. Elliot has played soccer since he was 4 years old and added other sports as he grew older. Now 17, he will be a senior at Marburn Academy in New Albany this fall. “Elliot has a body that needs to move, and there's something about movement that can help organize or reorganize the mind,” Wiggins said.
Parents can increase a child's chance of success at organized sports by observing practices when they first join a team, then talking to the coach, he said. “I might say something to the coach like, ‘Elliot has a little trouble staying on task,' ” Wiggins said. He said if he sees that players are standing around a lot during practice, he'd suggest structuring drills so more students practice simultaneously. “It's about creating more access to the activity, and that helps all the kids,” he said.
Jackie Goodway, a professor of kinesiology in Ohio State University's College of Education and Human Ecology, said parents should look for a sport where the coach understands attention-deficit issues. “Ask around and find out the coaches who are supportive,” she said. “These kids can be in any sport with the right kind of environment.”
Look for a coach with strong routines, who uses a variety of methods to teach skills (verbally, physically and repetitively) and breaks down skills into small parts, Goodway advised. Avoid coaches who rattle off a list of instructions all at once and expect players to remember them, she said.
Goodway, whose research focuses on motor-skill development and physical activity in at-risk young children, said parents should explain their child's issues with attention and suggest ways the coach could help. One idea is to have a team buddy system, pairing kids who are less skilled with those who are more skilled. Another is to stop the action during practice and physically move team members rather than just telling them to move, she said.
Jamie Williamson is head of school at Marburn Academy, which specializes in teaching students with learning challenges. He has coached soccer teams where players have attention issues and appreciated when parents had upfront conversations with him.
“It affected how I set up drills, and I'd create activities so that everything moved quickly,” he said. “You have to acknowledge the fact that you have kids who get emotional quickly, are impulsive and have low tolerance for frustration,” he said. “But these kids are often the ones you see tremendous growth in, and anything you can do to enhance their experience enhances the whole team.”
Connecting with each player also is important, said Steve Locker, founder of Locker Soccer Academy in Powell and Gahanna. “I talk to every kid individually and that is critical, so they know they're important to me,” Locker said. He also uses fast-paced games and drills to keep players engaged and, he hopes, expand their attention spans.
Williamson said for some children, individual rather than team sports might be a better fit. Options include gymnastics, swimming and martial arts, with the latter often cited as particularly beneficial (See “The Cover Story” HERE). “Any of the martial arts are really great spaces for these kids because they involve one-to-one coaching that gives them plenty of feedback,” Williamson said. “Rock climbing has good potential because of the focus you need to bring to it. But whatever it is, it has to have a high degree of doing.”