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Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, affecting around 8.8% of children and youth under the age of 17. It’s often characterized by inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity (1, 2).

Though these symptoms often occur together, not all children will exhibit all three. Many times ADHD can lead to an array of challenges such as low self-esteem, poor academic performance, and difficulty socializing (2).

That said, many children with ADHD are interested in participating in sports, which may help mitigate some of these issues. Though, you may wonder which sports are most suitable for children with ADHD and how to pick the right one for your child.

This article tells you all you need to know about ADHD and sports for children.

ADHD is a disorder that affects children differently, meaning an intervention or treatment that may benefit one child may not serve another. The same applies to sports, where one child may excel playing a specific sport, yet experience difficulties with another.

Team vs. individual sports

Some children with ADHD that are hyperactive thrive with sports that require individual focus, such as solo sports where the coach can dedicate more one-on-one attention and help them focus on one task. Examples include wrestling, track and field, tennis, swimming, and martial arts (3).

Though more one-on-one time may be helpful, your child may miss out on some benefits of team sports, such as socialization, teamwork, and making friends. Still, if your child becomes easily distracted in a group environment, then solo sports may be best.

But, if your child is interested in playing a team sport, you should encourage them to do so. Team sports offer practice with many of the social skills that are challenging for some kids with ADHD. Researchers have found that for some individuals with ADHD, team sports improve social skills defecits (4).

Open-skill vs. closed-skill sports

Sports that are fast-paced and require adaptation during dynamic gameplay are known as open-skill sports (5). Closed-skill sports, on the other hand, are sports where the skill required is consistent, predictable, and self-paced, like running or swimming (5).

Research has found that open-skill sports such as basketball, tennis, or soccer are often beneficial for attention problems, whereas closed-skill sports are helpful for hyperactivity or impulsiveness (6).

Indoor vs. outdoor sports

While there are certainly benefits to both indoor and outdoor sports, some research has suggested that individuals with ADHD benefit the most from exercising in outdoor “green spaces” (4).

Sports that may benefit kids with ADHD

Though not exclusive, here’s a list of sports that may benefit children with ADHD:

  • martial arts (e.g., taekwondo, karate)
  • swimming
  • tennis
  • wrestling
  • gymnastics
  • soccer
  • horseback riding
  • track and field
  • cross-country running
  • basketball
  • volleyball
  • hockey

These sports tend to help kids with ADHD as they require focus and have little downtime. They also tend to involve more one-on-one attention from the coach, which may help keep your child attentive.

Sports such as football and baseball are less ideal as they usually involve a lot of downtime between plays and often require attention to what the entire team is doing during the play, rather than the individual.

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For example, soccer and basketball are team sports that involve constant moving and gameplay. In contrast, baseball can involve a lot of standing around between plays, which increases the odds of distraction.

Sports that require a lot of rules, strategizing, and plays may be overwhelming for your child. Often, kids with ADHD do best when there is a specific goal (e.g., swim to the end of the pool) rather than situation-based sports (e.g., changing plays during football) (7).

Two major benefits of team sports are team-building and positive peer interactions. If your child has fun with their friends while being physically active, that’s a win-win. What’s more, in a team sport, you win and lose together, taking some of the pressure off of your child individually (7).

Ultimately, which sport your child plays is dependent on their unique personality, preferences, and diagnosis.

If you’re wondering what sport is best for your child, the first thing you should do is ask them what they enjoy.

Most kids will experiment with different sports and activities until they find one that piques their interest. Forcing your child into a sport they do not like can increase the odds that they’ll become disengaged and less motivated to play.

It may be helpful to let your child experiment with different sports before signing up for one. Often they can try different sports during school, in after-school programs, and at camp, for example. This can give your child time to figure out which ones they find joy in.

Once you’ve decided on a sport, give your child enough time to learn the rules and develop the right skills for the sport. It’s common for all children — with or without ADHD — to change their mind a few times about which sport they want to play.

You’ll also want to let the coach know about your child’s ADHD diagnosis and provide supportive guidance when necessary. Often recreational sport coaches are well-meaning volunteers who may not know much about the condition (8).

For example, a coach punishing your child with running laps for not paying attention isn’t effective and may increase anxiety and stress, which may lead to further disengagement and lack of participation (8).

Overall, it usually takes some trial and error to find a sport that’s right for your child.

If you’re considering signing your child up for a sport, consider these benefits.

They’re being physically active

With only 24% of children ages 6 to 17 meeting the daily recommendation of 60 minutes of physical activity, it’s important that parents find ways for their child to be more physically active (9).

Sports provide an excellent outlet for exercise, since they’re often a few times per week and are fun for children. What’s more, exercise can be an effective way to manage ADHD symptoms.

Benefits of regular physical activity include strong muscles and bones, increased lung capacity and heart health, better performance in school, healthy body weight, and lower risk of developing chronic diseases later in life (10).

Positive social interactions

Team sports can be a great way for your child to make friends and learn to work in a group environment.

In some cases, children with ADHD may struggle to develop strong friendships with other children due to their condition. They may also struggle with unstructured activities (e.g., recess, neighborhood play), making it harder to socialize with their peers (11).

By joining a team sport, your child can learn to socialize in a structured environment and develop stronger social skills (11).

May improve confidence and self-esteem

Learning a new sport can be a great way to build confidence, which tends to be lower in children with ADHD (12).

As your child develops the skills required to play the sport, they may feel more comfortable in their abilities and begin to recognize their own talents. What’s more, they may feel more confident in social situations and engaging with their teammates.

That said, your child’s environment plays a key role in promoting or hindering confidence. Having a motivating and supportive coach that highlights your child’s skills, rather than pointing out their flaws, is crucial to boosting self-esteem and self-efficacy (11).

As a parent, it’s also important to emphasize what your child is doing well and how their skills are improving. Placing too much emphasis on performance and winning, rather than their enjoyment of the sport, may diminish their interest over time (8, 11).

While there are many benefits of playing sports for children with ADHD, they do not treat or cure the condition. Instead, they can be a positive adjunctive therapy to other traditional treatments.

Participating in sports may help to boost your child’s self-esteem, improve their social skills, and promote better physical fitness. It may also help your child improve their decision-making abilities, cognitive function, and help them identify their unique strengths (13, 14, 15).

However, it’s a myth that playing sports will help them “run off extra energy” or reduce their hyperactivity. Instead, sports are a constructive avenue that can replace being sedentary and can help your child focus on a specific task (13).

While you may notice improvements in your child after signing them up for a sport, this does not mean it is a standalone treatment for ADHD. In many cases, medications and other treatments are still necessary (16, 17).

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental disorder that affects millions of children. Though there are some challenges that come with the disorder, your child can thrive with the right environment.

Participating in sports has been shown to help improve physical fitness, self-esteem, and social skills in children with ADHD. Though, choosing the right sport based on your child’s needs is vital to their success.

The best sports for children with ADHD involve those that have little downtime, have more one-on-one coaching, and have straightforward rules and gameplay. Some children may thrive with solo sports (e.g., swimming, tennis) while others may enjoy team sports (e.g., soccer).

Deciding which sport is best for your child may take some trial and error. Ideally, involve your child in the decision-making process by asking them which sports they are interested in. Over time, you’ll likely find a sport that suits their needs, interests, and skills while building their confidence.