My Son Has ADHD: What I Want Parents, Coaches and Officials to Understand - Soccer Parenting

My Son Has ADHD: What I Want Parents, Coaches and Officials to Understand

If you are the parent or coach of a child with ADHD and would like to join a Soccer Parenting Association working group to develop a Best Practices Guide for Coaches of Children with ADHD based on your personal experiences, please email Skye@SoccerParenting.com.  

My son, a goalkeeper, then age 9, had completed his first year of travel soccer.  He’d had an irregular season, sometimes doing outstanding, sometimes doing poorly.  We were looking to change coaches, hoping to find someone who could tease a little more consistency out of him, and so took him to tryouts at larger local club with three teams for his age group.

He attended three practices with the new club, and the coach had raved about him, telling us he definitely had a place for my son, perhaps even on the silver elite team.  In practices, he hustled, he was aggressive, he was commanding, and he displayed a high technical ability for his age.  But then, the coach asked him to attend a scrimmage.  He went in with a lot of enthusiasm, but when actually on the field he played tentatively.  He dropped several easy balls.  He failed to come out on the one v ones.   And he seemed obsessed with doing just one thing his goalkeeper coach had recently drilled into him: getting his angle right against the shooting attacker and taking a little space.  He was so focused on doing the one thing that he would forget to do other things like watch the ball or call out his usual goalkeeper commands.  The coach after that one scrimmage thanked us for coming out and said he couldn’t use my son.

My son was performing academically and the school had never suggested that he might have a learning disability.  Homework was a bit of a struggle , and we had come to regard him as being “lazy” when it came to academic pursuits, even though he had a curious mind and would go through periods where he would intensely study a subject he liked, whether it was the Titanic or gravity.  But the inconsistency in his sports performance, coupled with what happened in the tryout that day, made us think: maybe there’s something going on with him?  I had read an article about ADHD and I had begun to wonder: even if he’s doing well in school, could he have ADHD?  We took him in to see a therapist, and eventually had him tested, and the results showed that yes indeed he had ADHD.

What is ADHD? 

ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is classified as a “mental disorder” where a person has difficulty paying attention, excessive activity and/or behavior without regard to consequences.  Doctors and scientists aren’t sure yet what causes ADHD (we are in many ways living still in the Dark Ages of psychological disorders), but it is believed to be related to a deficiency of certain chemicals in the brain, most notably dopamine.  The Centers for Disease Control has stated that up to 11 percent of US children have ADHD, but that percentage has fluctuated depending on how the issue is surveyed and the tightness of the criteria, though there are some professionals that also believe that the condition (being a spectrum from borderline cases to severe ADHD) is wildly underdiagnosed. ADHD is diagnosed approximately two times more in boys than in girls, perhaps due to the tendency of boys to more easily exhibit the hyperactive symptoms of ADHD.  But not all kids with ADHD are impulsive, behavioral problems, or out of control.  Some kids with ADHD can be quiet day dreamers, the symptoms of ADHD are varied from person to person, and not all symptoms appear in all ADHD persons.  But regardless, the symptoms of ADHD can have a real impact not only on a child’s academic pursuits, but also on their ability to play sports like soccer, and to fully achieve their potential.

Difficulty Paying Attention

At the heart of ADHD is a difficulty in achieving focus, which is why ADHD used to be known simply as “Attention Deficit Disorder” or “ADD”.  A child with ADHD may appear not to be listening to a coach’s instructions, may need to have instructions repeated several times, or may get yelled at by coaches or instructors for failure to follow directions.  While the other players are engaged in trying to score a goal, a child with ADHD might see a butterfly (some of them have uncanny abilities to see random things neurotypical people might miss) and stop focusing on the game.  Sometimes a child, even though he professes to love soccer, may appear bored during practice or a game, because he or she is unable to focus on the task at hand.  Because of the lack of attention, some children with ADHD may be labeled “day dreamers” as a result.  In schooling or sports instruction, this means that not all the information the student is being taught is being received by the brain and processed properly, which is where the difficulties in learning come in.  As a result, a coach may become irritated with a child who has ADHD for their failure to pay attention, disruption of practice due to a failure to following instructions, and/or lack of technical progress after receiving instruction.

Though it is difficult to prove, some have suggested that a portion of kids with ADHD are able to achieve “hyperfocus”-- a period of intense concentration on a subject or activity that interests them (sometimes to the detriment of other things around them, and sometimes bordering on obsessiveness).  It’s speculated that this “hyperfocus” may be due from the hit of dopamine otherwise dopamine-deficient ADHD people get from the activity.  That’s why kids who have ADHD might stereotypically be able to play videogames for hours, but struggle when it gets time to sit down and do homework.  Some famous athletes, mostly notably Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps, have been able to reach the highest levels of their sports due, in part, to their ability to hyperfocus on their passion.   But not all children with ADHD are able to obtain hyperfocus, and for some it may only develop later in life as they mature and grow.

Hyperactivity

Another of the primary symptoms of ADHD is hyperactivity.  A hyperactive child may, for example, not be able to sit still, lack patience, fidget or interrupt coaches and other adults when such adults are speaking.  A hyperactive ADHD child may have problems waiting his or her turn, and drills (such as shooting drills) where the child is expected to line up and wait his turn may be difficult for such a child.  Children with the hyperactive symptom of ADHD are described as being “constantly on the go” and that energy may sometimes be an advantage on the soccer field, provided the child’s attention can be maintained.

Hyperactive children may also tend to be impulsive, and act fearlessly.  The trait is a double edged sword on the soccer field.  It’s great when it causes that goalkeeper to come out on the one vs. one and make a fantastic save, stopping an otherwise inevitable goal, or when a striker jumps on a through ball to shoot and score.  It’s problematic when it causes a defender to endanger another player with a reckless foul, or if an attacking player takes a risky gamble that winds up costing the team the game.   A hyperactive attacking player, in particular, might get challenged by coaches and parents for being a “ball hog”, trying to beat the defender on a one vs. one instead of looking for the creative pass, or for taking an impossible shot when the correct answer was to look for the open outlet.

And despite the word “hyperactivity” being part of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, not all children exhibit the hyperactive trait of the disorder.  Some are just largely inattentive, and the hyperactivity tends to be more noticeable in boys.  The hyperactivity is also what leads to some ADHD children being labeled problems in the classroom, or cut from teams due to behavioral issues.

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Memory

Another symptom exhibited by children with ADHD, even though it is not one of the criteria used to diagnose if a child has ADHD, is a problem with memory.  Perhaps because of the inattentiveness, it may take longer for a child with ADHD to move something they learned into long term memory.  While it might take a neurotypical soccer player only a few practice sessions to learn a new skill move a coach has demonstrated, a child with ADHD may take longer to learn the skill, or even seem to know it at the end of practice one day, but then forget it completely the next day and have to learn it from scratch.  As a result, a teacher or coach who fails to understand what the child is going through might get irritated at the player for their lack of progress, and may label that child “slow” or “stupid”, even though the child might otherwise have a high IQ.

Another memory problem exhibited by a lot of people with ADHD is a problem with working memory.  Working memory is the part of the mind responsible for short term memory—holding the various facets we need to remember in order to complete an immediate task.  The working memory of a person who has ADHD is just smaller, and holds less, than that of neurotypical person.  The classic example of this is the way children with ADHD can struggle with multipart word problems in math: by the time they get to the third part of the math problem, they’ve forgotten the facts laid out in the first part.  For soccer, this means the boy or girl might struggle with drills that have multiple portions, or which involve a long series of instructions before the drill starts.

Finally, the person with ADHD might also experience problems with memory retrieval.  There may be a fact or skill they’ve known forever by heart, and have performed well repeatedly, but because of the noise in their heads, they are unable to retrieve it when called upon to do so. A coach may become irritated if the player, for instance, can’t explain the offside rule, or doesn’t remember where a teammate plays when quizzed.  The information is in there, but the player has just blanked out and can’t retrieve it.

Motivation and Time Management

A person with ADHD might also exhibit problems with what they call “executive function”.  For example, because of their problems with self-regulation, it might be difficult to get a soccer player with ADHD out of bed and ready for a morning game.  It may seem that they have difficulty with motivation, not wanting to practice or put in additional work, even though they say they love soccer and don’t want to switch to another activity.  It might take them a while to get into a particular drill, and once they are finally into the swing of things and get it, it might be jarring for them to stop and move onto other things.  They may seem like they lack an internal clock, being late for practice regularly, or having a poor sense of time management during a game (hurrying when they should be stalling, or stalling when they should be hustling).  For a person who has ADHD, a minute might seem like an hour, or an hour might seem like a minute.

Kids with ADHD are sometimes labeled as being “lazy”.  But it’s important for coaches and parents to realize that it’s not that the child is unmotivated.  Indeed, the child may be deeply passionate about their sport, but because of the ADHD, they find it difficult to get started and get engaged.  The child may perceive that starting a task is like climbing an impassible mountain, when really it’s just a series of small hills that the child just needs to start hiking.

Emotional Regulation

One symptom often present across the broad spectrum of ADHD and not very often discussed is that people with ADHD may have problems with emotional regulation.  The logical portion of their brains might have difficulty controlling the primitive emotions, such as fear and anger.  As a result, the child when frustrated might have their anger go from zero to sixty, and once it’s up at that level, have problems calming down and bringing the emotion under control.  This can result in temper tantrums, breakdowns or fights on the soccer field.  For example, most children feel badly after losing a match, but the child with ADHD might rage after a loss in an otherwise routine game when his teammates get over it quickly and are already thinking about the post-game snack.  A goalkeeper with ADHD that otherwise had a good performance, but let in one or two goals, might breakdown in tears after the match for letting down her teammates.  Or if fouled by another player, the child with ADHD might unexpectedly react with violence, earning themselves a red card in the process. 

The problems with emotional regulation might trigger other downstream issues for the child with ADHD.  They may, for example, seem to be a few years less mature than their teammates, such as a ten year old appearing to act more like an eight year old.  The lack of maturity and ability to control themselves may make it more difficult to make friends and interact with teammates.  And in extreme cases, children with ADHD might develop oppositional defiance disorder: a condition where the child gets angry when restricted by a person in authority, whether parent, teacher, coach or referee.   Some children may also develop symptoms of depression, particularly if their conditions are undiagnosed and/or left untreated for a length of time.

In some athletes, the emotional aspects of ADHD might manifest themselves positively, like if the athlete is particularly aggressive under pressure, or if the athlete has a very strong desire to compete and win.  But in others, particularly those where their frustrations get built up over time, the ADHD might undermine self-confidence and be a roadblock in the athlete’s road to achievement.

Anxiety

Closely related to the problems of emotional regulation, about 1/3 of children with ADHD experience symptoms of anxiety.  Specialists aren’t sure if the conditions are connected (perhaps due to the lack of emotional regulation resulting from ADHD, or perhaps from repeated frustrations the person with ADHD has experienced), or if maybe they just tend to exist together simultaneously.  A person with anxiety will feel long-lasting feelings of fear and worry, perhaps out of proportion with the situation.  And if the player with ADHD is focusing on those feelings of fear and worry, particularly since he or she already has problems with focus, the athlete will not be focusing on the soccer field. For my own son, he really struggled with the fear of letting everyone down (me, his teammates, his coaches, himself), and that in turn really impacted his performance on the field.

ADHD is a Real Condition

I’m not a doctor and this is not intended as a complete guide to diagnosing ADHD.  If you suspect your child has ADHD, I would urge you to discuss the matter with your pediatrician.  I can only share with you what I’ve learned as a parent along the way, trying to help a child that was misunderstood by coaches and teachers, and having talked with various specialists, gone to numerous seminars, and read a ton of books as I launched into our crazy, sometimes frustrating, but always fascinating journey. 

ADHD is a condition which others will sometimes react to with skepticism or misunderstanding due to a lack of information.  Sometimes what you will hear is that the child is unfocused, misbehaved, or emotional because of the upbringing by the parents.  I can assure you, having taken the journey we’ve taken, that such assumptions are entirely mistaken.

ADHD is a real thing.  I’m a relatively strict parent that enforced discipline and made sure my child had his nose to the academic grindstone.  It didn’t make the ADHD go away.  There is something very real about my son that differs from the way neurotypical children process information, and because he could perform in school, it went hidden for a very long time.  Deep down in our gut, we knew something was different…but we just couldn’t put our finger on it.  It could even be his ADHD brain is just the way it’s supposed to be.  Perhaps early humans with ADHD were the ones who might spot a wolf threatening the hunting party, or who became obsessed with reproducing fire?  Maybe it’s the modern world, with its regulations, time schedules, tournaments, and academic demands that should be adapting to him, instead of the other way around?  Yeah, I know…but one can dream.

Having ADHD doesn’t automatically mean that a child can’t play organize sports, or is destined for failure.  In fact, there are many notable athletes with ADHD who have advanced to the highest levels of their sports, and some aspects of ADHD might even be performance enhancing for an athlete.  But if an athlete has ADHD, they are virtually guaranteed to encounter, somewhere along the way, challenges in their sports career, particularly if the condition goes unnoticed or unaddressed, and particularly in a sport like soccer, where mistakes by players are punished with an astonishing ferocity.

It’s my hope that this information is useful to the parents, coaches, and officials who might not understand what the condition is, and how it can impact athletes. In future articles, I hope to explore what we might do to help children with ADHD who are in love with the beautiful game.

If you are the parent or coach of a child with ADHD and would like to join a Soccer Parenting Association working group to develop a Best Practices Guide for Coaches of Children with ADHD based on your personal experiences, please email Skye@SoccerParenting.com.  

About the Author Yesenia Torpoco

Yesenia Torpoco is the proud soccer mom of a goalkeeper, and AYSO and club soccer referee.

  • This is such a great article especially to those parents who has a child with ADHD. I agree that when you’re gonna coach a kid, you should really know if he has conditions like this so you can train him the right way. Yes, ADHD is really a real condition that we shouldn’t take for granted. Just like the other comment, it is much better if you have any tips for coaching kids with ADHD.

  • Anthony D Perry says:

    Great summary of the different variations on the condition. As a coach of several fantastic, soccer-crazy, kids who also have ADHD, I was hoping for more practical advice about how to coach kids with ADHD. How should I design practices? Beyond simple instructions, what are some ways to communicate differently? It would be great to end this article with a list of tips/recommendations for coaching kids with ADHD at the end of the article or recommend another source?

    • Yesenia says:

      Yes we’ll be working on a follow up giving coaches some tips. This article is the first step since understanding what’s going on with the kid is usually the first step for coaches. Skye is putting together a working group which in part will brain storm soccer tips and I’m reaching out to my own expert sources for input. My own forte is primarily in the area of goalkeeping since I don’t coach field players. If you are interested in joining the working group please reach out to skye!!! The more the merrier.

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