Coaching players with ADHD

How to coach soccer to children with ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD/ADD) is a type of disability which apparently involves some mis-wiring of the brain or the hormonal systems in the body.

As a result of the disorder, children tend to be markedly inattentive and often are hyperactive (sometimes to the point of being almost frantic in their movements). The disorder usually is treated by administration of stimulants (such as amphetamines) – which have the unusual effect of slowing these children down (while the rest of the population would be highly-stimulated by these same drugs).

This disorder is NOT the fault of the parents. It does NOT mean that the child lacks discipline (either by the coach or by his parents). What it DOES mean is that, just like a child with diabetes or the player with asthma, this player needs to take certain drugs to be able to function normally.

While these players can create some headaches and frustrations until the coach learns the proper way to handle their particular problems (and gives the parents enough feedback to adjust dosages, if necessary, to handle disruptions at practice), most of these children can do just fine in soccer. In fact, because of their high energy levels, these players often make terrific little players once their energy can be harnessed.

To be able to harness their energies, the coach needs some more information about the disorder. Characteristics of ADHD/ADD arise in early childhood, often before seven years of age, for most individuals. Boys are about three times more likely than girls to have symptoms of ADHD/ADD. Individuals with ADHD/ADD may know what to do but do not consistently do what they know because of their inability to efficiently stop and think prior to responding, regardless of the setting or task (in other words, they tend to be very impulsive – and to act without thinking). This can result in serious social problems, impairment of relationships, and/or lack of success. Doing things without thinking about the consequences can put them in dangerous situations (as they might run into traffic without looking, or climb the tree while the coach’s back is turned). Thus, coaches of children with ADHD must be vigilant in keeping an eye on these charges, especially when they are fairly young.

The official definition of ADHD can be found at the CHADD website (an organization for children and adults with attention deficit disorder). Children may have attention deficits (i.e., be impulsive and unable to focus) without being hyperactive – or they also can display the additional frenetic hyperactivity which is commonly associated with the disorder.

ADHD should be diagnosed by a physician or qualified mental health professional. It is not uncommon that children are suspected of having the disorder, when they simply are “full of life”. Therefore, most coaches will not be able to diagnose the disorder. Nonetheless, if the player appears to be demonstrating many characteristics of an ADHD child, the coach may wish to quietly and confidentially approach the parents to report his observations – and ask for assistance and advice on the best way to deal with the child.

What We Need To Know About ADD

It has been estimated that six to ten percent of all children (17% to 35% of adopted children) display an attention deficit difference. These ADD children are prone to learning difficulties, have problems developing good social skills, suffer from an inability to pay attention and are extremely likely to harbor unrecognized frustration and anxiety. They may endure quietly, in silence, or if also beset by hyperactivity, may assertively, or even aggressively, seek attention. ADDers, who often “wear their feelings on their sleeve,” may deal with their extreme sensitivity by acting out combatively (Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or ODD), or by turning in upon themselves and displaying depression. Many suffer from impulsivity, frequently speaking out of turn or acting intrusively without thinking.

ADD is a brain-based imbalance of neurotransmitters which can show up on PET (Positron Emissions Tomography) scans and other recently developed methods for studying the brain. It is genetically linked and usually runs in families. It is often accompanied by allergies. Some ADDers require medication to deal with the overwhelming stimuli of their environment.

ADD without hyperactivity-referred to medically as ADHD: Predominately Inattentive Type-rarely presents overt behavior problems at school or in soccer. In fact, these children often quietly remain undiagnosed. They are, however, prone to depression, anxiety, alcohol/drug abuse and solitary behavior. Often they prefer individual activities (swimming, tennis, horseback riding, computer games, reading, music, etc.) over team sports (soccer, football, basketball, etc.) which may provide too much stimuli for them to assimilate comfortably. When bombarded with sensory input-for example, a coach or parent shouting encouragement or instructions-these children will withdraw. ADD without hyperactivity often remains undiscovered until puberty and sometimes until adulthood.

ADHD or ADD with Hyperactivity-medically referred to as ADHD: Predominately Hyperactive/Impulsive Type (or, if inattention is also a major problem, ADHD: Combined Type)-is most commonly treated with Ritalin. If given too high a dose of this drug, a normally hyperactive child may exhibit “spacey”, almost catatonic behavior. On too low a dose, he or she may show no reduction in hyperactivity and inattention at all. Parents may, or may not, appreciate feedback on their child’s reaction to medication.

Physicians advise some parents to medicate their children while at school, not to increase the amount they learn-studies show that the use of Ritalin does not increase academic achievement over the long run-but rather to help their child relate positively to the school environment. A child who is disliked by his peers or by school personnel will develop a poor self-concept and make few, if any, friends. The difficult task of learning good social skills now becomes impossible because no one wants to be around the child. Parents need to be advised if this circumstance carries over to soccer practice.

An ADHD child should expect to benefit from the social interaction at games and soccer practice. If the child finds the experience frustrating or humiliating, the parent needs to be informed. An ADHD child is already at risk for developing anti-social behaviors and poor self-esteem without being forced to participate in a competitive after-school activity which is counter to his or her best interests. If the parents’ well-meaning attempt to give their child a weekend “drug holiday” makes the child an insufferable, ineffective teammate at the game on Saturday, the “drug holiday” may best wait for summer vacation when stress levels on the child are usually greatly reduced.

Ritalin may ease an ADHD soccer player’s struggles in dealing with the competitive environment of youth sports. An ADHD player can become a team captain or star goalkeeper if parents and the physician persevere in their search for the proper dosage of medication for the child.

Medications other than Ritalin are available if it cannot be properly dosed. A competent child psychiatrist who works regularly with ADD can mix and match various drugs that can impact the level of neurotransmitters in the brain. These medications can help an ADHD child learn to begin controlling impulsivity and inattention and should help the child make better decisions in social situations. If that is not happening, the dosage or the medication needs to be changed.

Helping the ADD Player Maintain Focus

A learning environment that is helpful for an ADD child will benefit all children. And everything espoused in USYSA coaching clinics to help young players develop their skills will help an ADD player stay actively involved in soccer practice. The better we perform as coaches, the fewer problems ADD players will have.

An ADD child will misbehave while waiting in line, but a good coach will avoid asking his players to stand in line. We learn by touching the ball, not standing in line. Soccer, after all, is not a static game. Movement should be praised, and ADD kids are experts at moving.

Since we learn by touching the ball, each player should have a ball. Keep instructions and corrections short. Use “coaching points” and catch phrases. Repeat them often and with enthusiasm.

Avoid negative feedback. We know that corrective feedback and positive feedback produce better results, simultaneously improving skills and building confidence.

Remember to use that “feedback sandwich.”

Positive feedback can be given in front of the group, but corrective feedback directed at an individual player should be given privately. Always make direct eye contact when speaking to your players. Ask players to repeat back your instructions to be sure they understand what you are asking for.

Boredom inhibits learning. Frustration and anxiety inhibit learning. Break tasks down into small steps so that all players can master each step, but be sure the challenge is great enough to keep your players interested. Success breeds success.

Mistakes happen. They are a natural part of the learning process. View them as growth opportunities. Be respectful and forgiving of yourself, your players and the referees.

Disorganized practices invite misbehavior. Plan a fun practice with instructive games.

Have fun yourself!

Fitness and fun are not mutually exclusive. Start your practice with a warm-up game of tag. Always give your hyperactive players a chance to be “It,” though not to the exclusion of everyone else. The work rate for “It” is significantly greater than for the other players, and a fatigued player absolutely will not misbehave! He or she will not have the energy for acting up. It beats running humiliating laps.

Become a student of the game. Take more coaching clinics. Attend upper level matches. Watch videos. Try playing. The passion you display for the game is contagious and an ADD player who is passionate about the game will give you 110%. Always!

There is no quick fix for ADD, just like there is no quick fix for poor teaching or poor coaching. By sharing a copy of this article with team parents at the start of each season, maybe we can begin to help ADD children reach their full potential with and without the ball, instead of simply remaining confounded by their behavior.