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Neurodiversity in Sports Coaching

by | Jul 5, 2022

Here’s a question. How neurodiverse are you?

When we think of neurodiversity, we tend to automatically think of dyslexia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), or ASD (autism spectrum disorder). But we are all, in truth, neurodiverse to some extent. And by choosing sports coaching, we’ve (perhaps unconsciously) self-selected into one of the most neurodiverse-friendly learning environments on the planet!

As coaches, for example, we are intuitive kinesthetic learners; the use of touch and movement is as natural to us as breathing. Recall running sprints in training; the feel of the track underneath your fingertips as you ready yourself for the starting gun, the wind in your hair and blood pumping through your quads and hamstrings as you sprint. Ragged breath powers you past the finish line. It’s a memory that is hard to forget, and from which we naturally learn. 

The same goes for experiential learning. When have we ever coached a kid without asking them to pick up the bat and swing for themselves? Visuo-spatial learning? We couldn’t run a play without it. Adaptative movement, awareness of space and physicality are, after all, tools we use to shape our athletes every day. And visual & auditory aspects of coaching – the half time talk, running plays using a whiteboard, video feedback analysis, observing training – are all par for the course.

Yet school classrooms and corporate boardrooms the world over struggle daily to integrate these ‘new’ blended approaches into more traditional modes of learning and coaching. To us it comes naturally, and we rely on it every day. In fact, it remains the backbone of everything that we do.

 

Neurodiversity in Sport

You’re likely already familiar with a few cases of neurodiversity in athletes. Olympic legend and swimmer Michael Phelps has ADHD. Prodigious surfer Clay Marzo is autistic. And basketball legend Magic Johnson, greatest point guard of all time, is dyslexic. 

But it’s easy to dismiss these examples as anecdotes. Does sport really have a wider, and unique, role to play in neurodiversity?

Turns out it does.

 

Neurodiversities & High Testosterone

First, young adults with a learning difference (a neurodiversity like ADHD) who also have high testosterone may be at greater risk of social exclusion and anti-social behavior. Sport offers a unique and powerful means of channeling ADHD hyperfocus and offering an outlet for boundless energy, while capitalizing on the strength, focus and competitiveness that characterizes high testosterone. In sport that can create great performance. In a classroom it can be misinterpreted as trouble making. Subsequently, youngsters labelled troublemakers in the classroom can fast become champions – with higher confidence and self-esteem – on the field. 

Second, neurodiverse youngsters often learn differently. Traditional classroom-based learning (written word and handwriting-based, for example) can make them feel stupid or frustrated, whereas the blended kinesthetic, visuo-spatial, auditory, and experiential approaches of sport can help them see – and achieve – their real potential.

Third, youngsters who take ASD medication are more at risk of gaining weight, which exercise can help to counter. Neurodiverse youngsters are also statistically more likely to suffer from anxiety, which exercise can powerfully reduce (sometimes even removing the need for medication). Given that post-Covid anxiety levels amongst youngsters have reached an all time high, this fact has never been more prescient. 

 

Find out more

If you’re interested in learning more about how to adapt your coaching for specific neurodiversities, or to simply continue the conversation, why not reach out to us today? 

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