How sport can create a sense of belonging and inclusion

To coincide with UK Coaching Week, Josh (23) from the ADHD Foundation, shares his experiences of being neurodiverse and the impact participating in sport has had on his sense of belonging.

Sport can affect the emotions like nothing else, whether you are playing, watching or simply thinking about it, and it has been one of my true loves since I was very young. My first true sporting memory was kicking a ball about with my grandpa, shooting at a small goal we had in the back garden. He would rate my effort – gold, silver, bronze or tin can – and in many ways, that was how we got to know each other. He was a keen sportsperson in his day, and would show me pictures of his old rugby team in Northern Ireland, or tell stories of his friends who never seemed to be quite as good as he had been. Obsessed, I would draw my favourite athletes, putting all my pictures in a folder which mum still has in the house somewhere.

When I was around six or seven, I joined my first football team. I trained every week without fail, played every match, feeling truly bereft when the season ended. Playing consistently brought a routine which no other activity could, as well as an opportunity to spend time with my friends and do something I really enjoyed. I’d feel sad when a session ended, but satisfied, and safe in the knowledge that I’d be back same time next week. Belonging to a team was and has always been crucial for my wellbeing and social life.

Three years ago, as a 20-year-old, I was diagnosed with ADHD. This is associated with impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattention, which can be both detrimental and advantageous characteristics for a sportsperson. A particularly inattentive sportsperson might try things that nobody else even thinks of, just to keep things interesting to them – but they also might switch off. An impulsive sportsperson might play with freedom and without thought, but they may also lash out in anger. A hyperactive sportsperson might be hard-working and full of energy, but difficult to manage if they won’t stop and listen during your coaching sessions.

To clarify, I’m not describing myself here – I’d love to be a truly uninhibited and creative sportsperson! But perhaps you can imagine someone you have coached or taught that fits some of these descriptions.

To conclude, here are three top tips for sports coaches or PE Teachers, coming from a young person with ADHD, and focussing on executive function difficulties. These might include working memory impairments, emotional dysregulation, lack of self-control, etc.

1. Teach through demonstration – let’s get right into it!

Whenever a coach or a teacher introduces a new drill, I always ask that we run through it, whether that be at full speed, a walkthrough, or even a demonstration. It’s important to use more than your words, and in my experience, many coaches and teachers tend to waffle and over-explain activities. Why don’t we learn ‘on the job’?  I didn’t come to training to listen, I came to do – let’s reap the rewards from an engaging session, and learn the benefits and technicalities whilst we play!

2. Understand emotional needs

Impaired emotional control can present as disproportionate frustration with teammates, with oneself, or even at a teacher, coach or official. How can we manage this? Personally, I tend to beat myself up when I make any sort of mistake, no matter how minor – the best teachers and coaches I’ve worked with have recognised this and reminded me to keep going, used affirming language, and helped put things in perspective when feelings are running high. As a coach or teacher, you can set the example by keeping your own emotions in check, and perhaps you could introduce drills to practice how best to react when things aren’t going to plan. For example, during a training game, you could act as a referee (or umpire) and actively make wrong decisions, so the sportsperson with ADHD can practice how to stay level.

3. Be positive but realistic

By the age of 12, people with ADHD are said to receive 20,000 more negative messages from parents, teachers, and other adults when compared to their peers. When working with young sportspeople who have ADHD, resist the urge to correct in a negative way; instead praising accomplishments and patiently offering advice. This way, they will be much more likely to come to you for advice or tips, and will enjoy your sessions much more. Offset their perfectionism, reminding them that they are good enough, whilst encouraging them on what they can improve.

National School Sport Week is just around the corner, register now to support young people to experience the benefits of sport and play and feel a sense of belonging.

Josh is the Digital Innovation and Project Manager for the ADHD Foundation – The Neurodiversity Charity. For further ideas on Tips and Guidance please view our document to the right of this page.


Working with children who have ADHD

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Published on 6 June 2022