How Sports Can Help Kids With ADHD

Medically Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD on August 25, 2014

Sports are a key part of many children's lives, and there's no reason they shouldn't be for kids with ADHD.

Little research exists about the benefits of sports for kids with ADHD. Doctors often field parents' questions on the subject, though.

The answer? Get in the game. Sports and ADHD are a winning combination.

Sports Boost Self-Esteem

Kids with ADHD often feel isolated from their classmates. Sports are a great way to get them involved, says Jay Salpekar, MD. He's a child psychiatrist with the ADHD Clinic at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"Sports offer lots of social interaction in addition to physical fitness," Salpekar says. This helps kids with ADHD bond with their peers, "and it helps get them out of their shell."

Child psychiatrist James McGough, MD, of UCLA's ADHD Clinic, agrees. "A common issue with ADHD kids is to find something to help them gain confidence and self-esteem," he says. "They can use sports as a vehicle for making and having friends. And healthy activities like sports are better than sitting alone or in front of the television."

How to Choose a Sport

How do you know what sport will be best for your child? Ask him what he wants to do.

Many kids will see or try a lot of different athletic activities, whether at school, during camp, or in after-school programs, McGough says. That gives them the chance to decide what appeals the most. "Identify and support your child's own interests," McGough says. "That's your starting point."

The sport should be one that will hold your child's interest. McGough says baseball involves a lot of time standing in the outfield, and that invites distraction. Soccer, on the other hand, keeps a child moving.

He says some reports -- but little research -- suggest that solo sports like tennis, swimming, and running may better suit kids with attention problems. Team sports like football or basketball require kids to pay constant attention to other players, strategies, and plays. That will be tough for a child with ADHD. But if your child really wants to try a team sport, you should encourage it, McGough says.

Both McGough and Salpekar say martial arts, particularly karate, tae kwon do, and others that emphasize form, are popular with kids who have ADHD. "In classes, the kids line up to do the same moves, and that reinforces timing and focus," Salpekar says. "Kids with ADHD really take to that."

Salpekar coached kids' soccer for many years. He suggests that parents pay close attention to their child's personality when choosing a sport. If your child isn’t competitive, he says, don’t choose an activity that pits one kid against another.

"Enjoyment, participation, and peer bonding are much more important in the long run than the competitive aspect," he says.

If your child has real talent and drive for a certain sport, though, encourage her to compete, McGough says. ADHD shouldn’t limit a child's ambition. Look at Michael Phelps. He has the disorder. He also has 18 Olympic gold medals for swimming.

"If you're really good, go for it," McGough says.

No matter what sport your child picks, make time to talk to the coach. Tell him about your child’s ADHD, and talk about ways to make sure your kid gets easy-to-handle instructions.

No Magic Bullet

Despite the benefits of playing sports, parents should realize that it won't affect or improve the disorder itself.

"Playing sports does not impact the core features of ADHD," McGough says. "You can't, for example, expect that your child will run off all of their energy."

As for medication, Salpekar says, some kids do fine without it, but most do better on it. "Kids often keep up much better with medicine, but it's not essential," he says. "See how it works."

The decision may also depend in part on the sport. If your child wants to try football, medication may be useful.

"Football has a lot of detail in the plays, and kids don't do as well without medications, parents have told me," he says.

Again, McGough says, the real impact of sports will be on your child's self-esteem, confidence, and social life, all of which are crucial to build up as early as possible.

"It's part of an approach to ADHD that is under-appreciated," McGough says.

Show Sources


Jay Salpekar, MD, child psychiatrist, Children's National Medical Center, Washington, D.C.

James McGough, MD, child psychiatrist, UCLA.

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