When kids compete in sports, their own mental and emotional issues can quickly become their fiercest competition. This is especially true of young athletes coping with learning disabilities (LD) or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Fragile egos and personal struggles make them more prone to internal and external interference. Performance on the tennis court or soccer field takes on undue importance as a host of issues are brought to the fore. Trouble with frustration tolerance, recovery skills, communication, or self-assessment can transform sports into a battleground of negative self-talk and limited self-control.

You may wish to be proactive in coaching the “mental game” to your child who struggles with learning and/or attention problems. Strategies that help kids manage the emotional challenges of competition help preserve the fun and positive contributions sports can make to character development. Also, sensitizing your child’s coach to the challenges LD and ADHD present during sports can further protect your child from future problems.

Coaching your child before the game

Help your child understand that sports are as much a mental pursuit as a physical game. Explain how having LD or ADHD poses additional challenges due to the cluster of symptoms that can interfere with one’s performance. Such symptoms include:

  • slow processing of visual and/or auditory stimuli
  • slower reaction times
  • distractibility
  • forgetfulness
  • poor impulse control

Gently suggest that your child’s sense of sportsmanship and teamwork may also take a backseat when these troubles surface. Offer an optimistic forecast that preparing for these hurdles will increase the odds of your child enjoying — and succeeding — at sports. While it’s important to carefully consider your child’s preferences in sports, don’t hesitate to tactfully present your own point of view. Certain roles, such as infielder in baseball or offense in soccer, offer much more “game-time stimuli” to keep your child’s attention on the game. However, children with certain types of LD are better served by team roles offering intermittent stimuli since they have more time to prepare themselves for the correct response. Other factors, such as a preference for team vs. individual sports, should also be reviewed in light of your child’s unique pattern of strengths and limitations.

Try these strategies to help prepare your child for sports:

  • Train your child to recognize his self-defeating patterns. A history of academic and/or social struggles may compel children with LD or ADHD to focus solely upon winning or peak performance to compensate for deeper feelings of inadequacy. This can leave them devastated by disappointment. Consider the child who loses to a younger sibling during tennis and is consequently unwilling to ever play another tennis match. Explain how this narrow view of sports acts as a “blindfold with one small hole,” blocking out positives such as athletic improvements, social opportunities, and mental game growth.
  • Encourage your child to identify his “break points.” Break points signify those events that usher in emotional meltdowns. Defeat at the hands of a younger opponent or sibling, repeated strike-outs, or on-field mistakes may bring on a cavalcade of painful emotion. Familiar and negative self-talk or “put-down-myself talk”  tied to the chronic frustration of LD or ADHD, acts as quicksand, pulling some children to the point of self-loathing. Encourage your child to identify his break points and also share what you have observed.
  • Offer your child “positive self-talk” messages to replace his self-defeating ones. Two of the most important goals in helping a child with LD or ADHD adjust are to help him develop self-acceptance and set realistic expectations. Sports offer an opportunity to guide him towards these goals. Suggest he practice saying to himself, “I may lose or not always play my best, but I will try my hardest not to beat myself by losing my mental game.” Similarly, ask your child to balance effort and expectation with the self-statement: “I will try my hardest to win but be prepared to deal with whatever happens.” Ask him to come up with positive self-talk for one of his break points. Write down his response so he can refer to it as needed. Do the same with his other “break point” scenarios so that he is mentally prepared for those situations.
  • Emphasize the influence of confidence and self-control to success, no matter the score. Athletic competition parallels many of the academic and life challenges faced by all children, including those with LD and ADHD. Developing skills such as poise under pressure, graceful defeat, and quick recovery from error help build character. Help your child understand the “bigger picture” of how sports provide a training ground for life. Strategize how to handle fooling around by teammates, harassing opponents, and other challenges. Inoculate him to these inevitable experiences by having him rehearse positive self-talk while practicing at home.

Collaborating with your child’s coach

Your child’s coach is another key player to include in pre-game preparation. Because disclosing your child’s LD or ADHD may backfire, it is wise to proceed with caution. However, too much caution can invite problems when your child takes to the athletic field when the coach remains unaware of his difficulties. Informed guidance delivered by a supportive coach will greatly benefit your child.

The challenge is to communicate helpful information to the coach without insulting him or coming across as a pushy parent. In approaching the coach, consider the following:

  • Define your child’s specific problem rather than giving a broad label that is open to misinterpretation. Simply explaining that your child has LD or ADHD can invite misunderstanding. Well-intentioned coaches may err in the direction of “over-accommodating” the problem, creating the impression your child is receiving preferential treatment. It could also lead the coach to reduce your child’s playing time. Here’s an effective approach: “My child has ADHD, which means his ability to pay attention for extended periods and to control distracting behaviors is not as strong as others his age. If these problems surface, please privately discuss them with him and remind him that being on a team carries responsibilities. Also, let me know if this happens.” If your child has LD, focus your message on those skills of the sport that are particularly troublesome, such as coordination, quick decision making, or concise communication.
  • Suggest approaches that are easy to implement, not embarrassing, and linked to home-based strategies. Most coaches will consider suggestions for simple and effective strategies. For example, suggest that the coach emphasize appropriate behavior if he observes your child misbehaving by calling out your child’s name and pointing to his own head with a forefinger to signify the need to keep the child’s “thinking side” in charge. Tell the coach that having LD or ADHD makes it hard for children to pick up important clues used by players to give themselves instructions, such as the need to back up the short stop if playing left field. Ask the coach to conference with your child about the role of clues and self-instructions as they apply to the game. Emphasize that when your child’s teammates misbehave, your child may be tempted to join in. Suggest the coach address the baiting behavior of your child’s teammates.
  • Tactfully stress the value of positive reinforcement, close supervision, and appropriate boundaries and consequences. Coaches should be aware that the behavior of children with LD or ADHD varies greatly depending upon certain factors. Explain how relaxing the rules and boundaries can be problematic for kids like yours, who need structure. Also mention that when an adult loses his temper, it may trigger a similar reaction in children with LD or ADHD.
  • Ensure your child is aware of the discussion and prepared to receive the coach’s signals. Remind your child of the importance of “mental game preparation” before games and practices so the coach won’t have to provide frequent reminders. Consider including your child within at least part of the conversation with the coach in order to facilitate active participation. Depending upon your child’s age and maturity, he can be encouraged to advocate for himself in this process, and learn valuable lessons about seeking helpful accommodations and communicating his needs in a respectful manner.
  • Express appreciation. Wrap up your conversation with the coach by saying, “I appreciate your willingness to listen to my suggestions and I realize in the heat of competition you won’t be able to follow them all. All I ask is that you try and also that you keep me posted.”

Careful coaching for a winning outcome

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