The Impact of ADHD and Sensory Processing Challenges on Sports Skills

Sports often play a large role in children’s lives, for better and for worse.  If you have a child who enjoys engaging in athletic activities, whether on their own or in organized activities, their attentional and sensory processing challenges may make it difficult for them to fully enjoy their pursuits.  And for children who may not want to engage, they are still often in a position where they will still be expected or required to participate.  I recently connected with Marga Grey, an Occupational Therapist whom I met during my participation in the ADHD What Now Summit.  Below she shares some of the challenges some children face and some very helpful insights and suggestions to help.

Questions about attention deficits and sports skills:

  1. My son is coordinated and plays well when he and his dad practice soccer in the afternoon. His coach says he is an average player. However, when he plays in a match, he does not pay attention and often becomes the laughingstock of spectators. Team members are often frustrated at this time. Why the disconnect?

Firstly, when practicing with his dad and his team, the surroundings are familiar with fewer distractions.

Secondly, many people with attention deficits have sensory processing difficulties, too. They can feel overwhelmed in places with different sensory experiences, impacting focused attention.

Thirdly, distractions and past failures tend to increase anxiety. Anxiety impacts one’s ability to pay attention, use sensory processing skills, and with their ability to use executive functioning skills.

These three points make it difficult to focus on the correct task during a match. Unfamiliar players are on the field, spectators distract, and team members are tense.

Strategies to help:

  • Continue training in a calm environment.
  • Prepare him well for a match: For example,
    • Orientate him on the colors worn by the opposition
    • Ask family and friends to attend his training sessions as spectators (subsequently, it will help him to ignore the crowd and focus on the match),
    • Consider short intervals playing in the match, alternating with other team members to give him time to ‘rest’ and ‘recuperate.’
  1. The coach mentions that my son will be good in sport if he puts his mind to it and practice more. How can I motivate my child?

Sensory Processing Difficulties have more issues than sensitivities to sensations. Motor and postural difficulties (including dyspraxia) cause coordination and postural issues. Check your child’s core muscle strength and general coordination. Can your child maintain an upright sitting posture? Does the child often slouch, lie down and complain when standing? Postural difficulties might not be visible in more than a lack of joy when participating in sport. While coordination can be well-developed, poor planning of movements impacts effective participation and a clear understanding of the rules.

Strategies to help:

  • A physiotherapist or occupational therapist with a good understanding of dyspraxia will make valuable contributions to intervention and support
  • Assess the child’s core muscle strength,
  • Teach new sports skills in small steps. Break the movement into small chunks and teach one at a time.
  • Teach the rules when the child is calm.
  • Use visual images to support your words.
  • Use short and clear sentences.

[See Cindy’s article Helping Kids with ADHD Thrive for some insights into speaking with the coach about your child’s challenges.]

  1. My daughter enjoys sports but needs prompting and support to prepare for school, sport, and more. She is clever, why can’t she be ready when we leave the house?

First of all, your daughter with an attention deficit has difficulty staying on task and is easily distracted.

Secondly, many people with an attention deficit have compromised working memory and executive function.

Working memory and executive functioning are the ‘end-products’ of motor planning and praxis. She has challenges following daily routines (such as preparing to leave the house) and might be anxious, angry, or sluggish.

She might have been slow to learn the alphabet, the names of the days of the week, spelling, and sentence construction might be an issue. Crawling when a baby, skipping, and cycling might have been challenging at a young age.

Strategies to help:

  • An assessment by an occupational therapist with an understanding of dyspraxia (preferably trained in Sensory Integration Therapy)
  • Use a diary and reminders to support her in planning her day and week,
  • Create visuals to remind her of the steps in a routine,
  • CoordiKids Home Course to develop coordination, improve core muscle strength, coordination, attention, and planning of movements.
  1. Is it necessary to involve my child with an attention deficit in physical activity? He plays many educational games on his phone with excellent attention for long periods. We hope that his attention will improve by using these games.

Unfortunately, the solution is not to play more games and increase screen time. As you have seen in the answer above, posture, coordination, and planning of movements are the building blocks to create working memory and executive functioning. According to a specific developmental ‘program, our brains and bodies are sequenced. The one skill paves the way to develop the next skill. The early developmental stages focus on body movements – the reason for toddlers to be on the go all the time. The toddlers are building these essential early stages of motor planning. Recent research indicates increasingly strong body-mind connections essential for organizing the body, the mind, and the environment.

Caring for one’s belongings, organizing cupboards, a room or a schoolbag, memory of events in the correct order (what did you do before lunch? What did you do yesterday?) all rely on the physical or motor development of the body.

Typical Children and those with issues need regular participation in movements, sport, and exercise to be physically strong and fit AND develop excellent ‘thinking’ skills.

Strategies to help:

  • Encourage your child to start with short physical active sessions, gradually increase the time and effort,
  • Enjoy these with your child, create a pleasant and relaxed experience,
  • Set the example by sticking to your own physical exercise routine,
  • Do not pull your child away in the middle of a favorite game. Set a time for exercise with a period off-screen before – the child should not feel it is punishment.
  • Find activities easy for your child to ensure success; it will add to the enjoyment and positive feelings.

How to help the child with ADHD to excel in sport:

  • Support planning and following routines
  • Practice chucks of movements to improve coordination
  • Support short, concise instructions with visuals
  • Consider sensory processing issues – being overwhelmed or anxious
  • Consider distractions because of sensory processing issues
  • Consider sports that minimize long waiting periods

Consider Individual Sports

Sports that do not involve relying on others for performance may allow your child to focus more clearly on their own skills and intentions. They can also reduce the concern around competition and social interactions. You may want to consider exploring sports such as:

  • Running
  • Rock Climbing
  • Golf
  • Swimming
  • Martial Arts

Marga has served as a pediatric occupational therapist for over 40 years, specializing in sensory integration, developmental delays, learning, and attention problems. Learn more about Marga and CoordinateKids: CoordiKids

Here are links to a few more resources from Marga and CoordiKids:

CoordiKids Quiz to identify motor skills issues in your child.

Motor and postural difficulties (including dyspraxia)

What is Dyspraxia?

CoordiKids Home Course

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