The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 6.1 million U.S. children have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) at some point in their lives. The American Psychiatric Association defines the symptoms of ADHD as including “inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting) and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought).”
Parents of children with ADHD have many decisions to make alongside their attending physicians, including the usage of medication, behavioral treatment and the need for modified academic instruction. One such decision may be whether to place their children in youth sports programs.
We spoke with Dr. Arman Taghizadeh, a board-certified adult, child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in sports psychiatry who operates an independent practice in Baltimore. We also connected with Gerry Herman, director of the Bennett Institute for Physically Challenged Sports Program at Kennedy Krieger Institute, to address this topic.
What are the benefits?
Both Taghizadeh and Herman believe that the benefits of organized youth sports far outweigh any risk for children with ADHD.
For children with ADHD, Taghizadeh reports, “There’s a lot of research and information that shows that consistent exercise helps brain development, helps improve attention, helps improve focus and helps improve organization and problem solving. There are a lot of protective factors just by being in consistent, regular exercise, and I think organized sports allow for that.” He also notes, “Kids who have ADHD tend to be more prone to developing addictive behaviors (such as) technology addiction …. Sports allow them (to participte in) an organized activity where they’re away from technology. They’re engaging in not only exercise (but also) social interactions and problem solving.”
Herman says, “Sports have benefits for everyone …. Whether you’re able-bodied, disabled, have ADHD or not, you get the same benefits—the physical benefits and the psychosocial benefits of being involved in an activity.”
What sports are best?
“You name a sport, and at the highest level, there are athletes with ADHD,” Taghizadeh says. A famous example is Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time.
As far as specific sports, “Sometimes, I think that the individual sports can be a little easier, but also a little bit more effective …. These sports (such as swimming, wrestling or squash) allow you to focus on something specific. It’s about you, and it’s easier to focus on a goal-directed activity in shorter bursts versus a big-field sport where you may not be touching the ball for a period of time,” Taghizadeh adds.
He believes that children should be exposed to the environments offered by various sports: “They’re going to learn different things in different ways from those sports,” Taghizadeh explains.
What should parents know?
Parents should take a few concerns into consideration when making decisions about getting their kids into organized youth sports programs.
“As far as kids who are on medication, the concern is, ‘Should they be on medication during sports or should they not?’ Taghizadeh says. “A lot of times, the medication is wearing off when they’re in the middle of … practice, depending on the timing of it.” Medication for ADHD can interfere with appetite and sleep schedules. Taghizadeh notes, “Managing ADHD, as far as treatment … can become really challenging when you have an organized activity like youth sports.” He encourages parents to work with their child’s prescribing physician to ensure they properly address nutritional needs and medication schedules.
Herman believes that parents should consider the quality of the athletic program when making decisions for their children. “If they can visit the program … try to determine the number of positive comments (instructors make) versus the number of negative comments. That will give (parents) a baseline.” He adds that parents may also find it productive to discuss any concerns about their child’s participation with the potential coach.
What resources are available?
Taghizadeh and Herman encourage parents to research youth sports organizations for information on options available to their children. Visit baltimoreschild.com/sports-program to browse our directory of sports programs.
Taghizadeh lists Children and Adults with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) and the ADDitude magazine as helpful resources. For sports-specific questions, Taghizadeh’s website mindsettraininginstitute.com can provide additional information for parents.
If your child with ADHD is physically disabled, Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Physically Challenged Sports program, administered by Herman, may be a good fit. Herman notes that the earlier children can get involved in adaptive sports programs, the better. His program “provides therapeutic sports and recreational programs for children with varying degrees of physical abilities,” according to the Kennedy Krieger website. Additional information can be found at kennedykrieger.org.
In the end, “It’s really about trying to (get) a healthy, well-balanced child,” Taghizadeh says, “and to help them acclimate to the world rather than withholding them or limiting them because of their learning difference or their attentional difference.”
Why should children with ADHD play organized sports?
1. Sports offer physical exercise.
2. Sports provide positive social interaction experiences.
3. Sports allow children to explore new talents and interests.
4. Sports instill values of self-esteem and self-confidence.
5. Sports can teach children about emotional regulation.