8 Tips for Coaching Neurodivergent Athletes

8 Tips for Coaching Neurodivergent Athletes


I have a confession to make. I used to be one of those coaches who did not believe ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) was a real “thing.” I cringe as I write this, but there it is.

I can remember YEARS ago as I was in the midst of coaching a group of young boys for an ice show number. The boys were a handful, and I had been informed that several of them had ADHD.

“Right,” I thought to myself, “all these kids need are a strong hand and firm boundaries….seriously.”

So I cracked down. I was firm, and strict. Hell, I ran that practice like a drill sergeant. And those poor kids had no fun whatsoever.

When I think back to that time, I can’t believe how ignorant I was…..I had no knowledge of ADHD, and just assumed in my hubris that it was the result of inadequate parental discipline. I still shudder to think of my lack of empathy and understanding for those poor kids suffering with invisible conditions, as well as the parents doing their best to help them.

Fate has a twisted sense of humor, and she decided I was in need of a serious karmic tune-up. The first person put in my path to teach me valuable lessons was a competitive skater. I had worked with many recreational skaters in the past with ADHD and other special needs, but I had not had the pleasure and the challenge to work closely for a long period of time with a higher level athlete.

It was an eye-opening experience. There were so many behaviors I observed over the course of our years together that I was to learn were simply not in my athletes’ control, and I experienced first-hand the physical, mental and emotional struggles these brave kiddos face every-single-day.

I also learned that despite all of my coaching experience, my university degree, and my thousands of dollars spent on my NCCP coaching courses over the years, I had received virtually no training in 20 years of coaching with my association, (up until that point in time) on how to coach neurodiverse athletes.

It was an aha! moment, and I immediately went to work to learn as much as I could about conditions like ADHD, ASD, giftedness, dyslexia, processing disorders, executive function issues and so many others…..and let me tell you, there is a LOT to learn.,

After taking courses in Learning Disabilities and ADHD with different associations and colleges, I felt better equipped to be the best coach I could be for my skater.

Then fate hit me with the second of it’s one-two punch.

I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. My miracle baby after years of infertility. And it quickly became apparent that there was something different about her; not better or worse, (although she certainly demanded MORE of me than other babies and toddlers her age seemed to demand of other parents)…..just….different.

Sure enough, after years of research, advocating, homeschooling and fighting against judgement and stereotyping…..I had a diagnosis….well, one of possibly many diagnoses….my daughter has ADHD. And anxiety. And executive function issues….and autism spectrum disorder level 1 (also known as Asperger's). Let’s not forget possible dysgraphia. Or the possibility of processing issues….oh yeah…and pretty sure she’s gifted too!

Holy fuck.

On a personal level, I found out just how amazing, wonderful, frustrating, overwhelming and draining it feels to be the parent of a kiddo with an invisible disability and superpower like ADHD.

Not gonna lie though, sometimes it feels like I am drowning.

Over the course of the years, as my daughter tried different activities like skating, karate, soccer, and dance, I was able to observe many different types of teachers, coaches and dance instructors as they worked with my daughter.

I felt I had a unique viewpoint given my many years coaching, and my years parenting a neurodivergent child to REALLY understand what it takes to teach kiddos with unseen disabilities.

And I was, unfortunately, often disappointed.

I say this with the utmost respect to those amazing teachers and individuals I have encountered who were fully educated about my daughters needs, and those who went over and above to help her and really individualize her learning experience.

Some of my best friends are teachers, educational assistants and coaches to special needs kiddos, so I see and appreciate those who actively work to make a difference every day.

Unfortunately, most teachers, coaches and dance instructors simply don’t have the tools in their toolbox, the knowledge, or even the motivation to learn the techniques required to work with these kids.

And even MORE UNFORTUNATELY, most sports and educational institutions don’t supply adequate training or compensation for their teachers/instructors who deal with children with special needs, and are equally lacking with resources and supports for those who need it most.

I remember clearly my daughter coming home sobbing from school, not understanding why her teacher got mad at her for not finishing her work on time, or taking off her outside clothes after recess before she was late for class.

Even though I stressed that my daughter struggled with executive functioning, working memory, and fine motor skills, all of which required more time and assistance to complete most tasks, her teacher was not able to give her the time, grace or help she needed.

I also remember a couple of my daughters’ dance teachers making the students sit on the studio floor for long lectures, a task that is painful for kids with ADHD.

I also watched them giving long lists of instructions or corrections that were difficult for my daughter to follow and, in my opinion-the cruelest thing of all-telling the kids that only the students that could sit still and be quiet enough would be the ones who would get the best parts in the dance.

My daughter felt unseen, unheard and unworthy. She still has nightmares about that particular dance studio. We ultimately changed studios and spent many years with a wonderful, inclusive studio where my daughter found her love of dance again.

But the damage was done.

So in an effort to save my fellow coaches some time as they work with athletes that may have these invisible disabilities, I thought I’d compile a list of the things I’ve experienced and information I’ve researched in an effort to better help YOU help YOUR students.

Before we get started, I’d like to impart a few words of caution.

When talking to your athletes parents about what you are seeing with their children, don’t normalize the behavior in an attempt to make them feel better. How often have you heard or been part of a conversation like this?

Tired parent: “So how did Sally do in her lesson today?”

Coach: “She did well, but she was pretty busy, she had trouble standing still and listening to me giving directions.

Tired parent: “Sorry, she has a hard time maintaining attention, but she is listening….(sigh), she’s just very busy and it takes a lot of work to keep her on track.

Coach: “All kids are busy, but she just needs to pay attention to the instructions so she knows what to do in the lesson.

Sounds okay, right? The coach didn’t sound mean, just explaining what behavior is required in the lesson. I mean, we’re taught to be clear about our expectations, right?

The problem lies with the “all kids are busy” part.

You may think by down-playing that child’s hyperactivity you are making the parent feel better by pointing out that all kids are busy, or have difficulty paying attention.

But you aren’t making them feel better. In actual fact, you are making them feel awful.

Think about it.

Kids with invisible disabilities have an actual, proven, neurological and physical disability. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. They simply are MORE, and because of these deficits they demand MORE from parents and coaches.

Would you tell a parent of a child with cerebral palsy, “it’s okay, all children have trouble with movement and muscle tone.”

Pretty sure you wouldn’t. But when you tell a parent of a child with an invisible condition that “all children” are like that you are devaluing their entire experience of parenting their child.

You are in actuality giving credence to the judgment they hear every day from people with no knowledge of the biological reasons for their children’s differences.

You are, in effect, saying that if all children are like that, then it must be an issue with the environment or parenting.

And that’s just shitty. Even when it’s meant with the best of intentions, it still hurts. The shame and recrimination we feel and think every day as the parent of a neurodivergent kiddo is a pretty heavy burden. Trust me, we already judge ourselves more harshly than other parents. So don’t add to that guilt, okay?

Next, as the saying goes, “if you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.” (Steven Shore)

This means that no two neurodiverse athletes will have the same characteristics, strengths and weaknesses as the other. Every neurodivergent individual is unique, as coaches it is our job to figure out what works, what doesn’t and how to adapt our teaching styles to best accommodate them. It’s not their job to accommodate us…..they are physically unable to do so.

You have to approach every neurodivergent student as if they are a puzzle to figure out. You have to observe their behavior, discuss their needs with their parents who are often the BEST source of information, research their conditions, talk with other coaches or teachers who have had success with their own special needs students, and finally, use trial and error in your approach to coaching them.

Coaching students with invisible special needs is not for the faint of heart. These kids can try your patience and knowledge to the Nth degree, but when you figure out how they learn best, you will be richly rewarded. Without further ado, here are a few common sense and easily applied strategies you can use in your every day coaching these athletes.

1. Keep Your Instructions Short

Really short.


Seriously guys, I can not stress this enough. Asking kids with attention deficits and executive function issues to sit through long lectures, explanations or any instructions longer than a few chunks of information is actually not only unrealistic, it is almost cruel to them.

Give instructions in short, easy to remember chunks. Then send your student off to try it.

If you use “cue” or “key” words when you teach (and you should, because…hello!) then you need to try to use the same 4-5 keywords for everything.

I know, this is hard to do….especially if you are working on two very different skills in a lesson, but do your best. It is critical that you make your instructions as easily accessible for their brains as possible.

Think about it, learning is an incredibly complex process-when you learn something new you have to be able to access and rehearse the information as you hold it in your working memory, and then incorporate it into your motor program carefully enough so that you myelinate the correct pathway!

And let’s not forget that the brain also has to convert that information from your short-term/working memory to long-term memory, and then be able to figure out where you stored the correct information when you need to access it in subsequent practices.

And of course, if you struggle with regulating attention, this will hamper the process of encoding the information….this is what happens when you have students who have seemingly grasped a skill or concept one day, then appear to have no knowledge of the skill the next. It feels like you are re-teaching skills constantly and can get quite frustrating. This leads me to my next point.

2. More Patience, More Understanding, More Kindness

Imagine what the learning process feels like for your neurodivergent students. These athletes are giving you every effort they can, doing their best to attend and learn, and they still struggle to retain skills from one day to the next, watching their neurotypical counterparts pick up the skills more rapidly and with less effort.

It’s not fair, and as a coach, you absolutely have to give support and empathy to these athletes. They will require more understanding, more patience, and more kindness than you may have ever thought you have.

Don’t think you have that level of support in you? Trust me, you will find wells of empathy you never knew you had, because when these kids finally achieve a skill they have worked and cried and literally bled for, it will feel like they have won the freaking Olympics.

(For a great infographic on how we encode, store and retrieve information, check out learnupon.com)

The learning process for any new skill is hard enough for a neurotypical learner, let alone a child who has a deficit in the brain processes required for these tasks…which leads me to my next point, kids with processing disorders.

3. Give the Gift of Time

A neurodiverse athlete or learner will often have difficulty in any one of the steps required to encode, store or retrieve information.

Often, upon hearing verbal instructions, students with processing issues require time for the auditory input to reach their brain. I think of it as that swirling circle you see when you type information into your web browser and are waiting for it to load.

You have to give your neurodiverse athletes more time then you would normally give your neurotypical athletes when you give instructions. If working in a group setting, give the instruction, using only a few chunks of information (remember, SHORT instructions) and send your neurotypical athletes out first to practice the skill.

Then, use the time with your neurodiverse kiddos to check for understanding. You can ask them to repeat what you said, and if you detect they are having difficulty you can repeat, rephrase, or reform your instructions, perhaps drawing a picture, or demonstrating the skill yourself while stressing the cue words.

Even more helpful would be pictures of the instructions posted for them to refer back to when necessary.

Too often, I see coaches blaming kiddos for not paying attention, or not caring, when they don’t understand given instructions. Remember, A CHILD WILL DO WELL IF THEY CAN, if they cannot, it is our job to help them to do well.

Talking louder and repeating the same instruction to your athlete when they struggled to understand it the first time will. not. help. It only creates anxiety and frustration in the learner.

I heard a brilliant analogy of this from the “Leaky Brakes” Brake Shop Webinar offered from the Child and Parent Resource Institute in London Ontario. I highly stress you check them out, because it will CHANGE THE WAY YOU THINK about kids with impulse control problems.

Here’s the analogy: Imagine you have a beautiful sports car. This car is the top of the line, it can drive faster than any car on the road. Now imagine, there’s a leak in the brake line of this beautiful car. This car simply cannot stop when it needs to.

Will yelling at the car and repeating “stop, stop, stop!” help the car to stop?

Will threatening to take away the best oil from the car if the car doesn’t stop help the car to stop?

No, identifying that there is a problem with the brake line, that the car is physically UNABLE to stop at this time, and figuring out how to fix the brake line is how you fix the problem.

We have to change how we approach and work with these kids, realizing we cannot have the same expectations from them as we have from neurotypical kids.

And we absolutely cannot use the same language, motivation, or discipline techniques with our neurodiverse athletes as we do with our neurotypical athletes.

It just won’t work.

4. Help Them Prioritize

Often, athletes who seem to not give their best effort in a task are not procrastinating out of disinterest, they are unsure how to begin. Many neurodivergent athletes have deficits with executive functioning, which impedes how they access information to complete tasks.

In order to complete any task, we must be able to organize our thoughts enough to pick a beginning point. This involves prioritizing the elements of a task and picking the most important to complete first, organizing each subsequent element of a task in sequence, and finally, accomplishing the appropriate portion last.

This act of determining which elements of a skill must be practiced or completed first is sometimes the biggest obstacle to a neurodiverse athlete as they attempt to learn new skills and incorporate instructions.

In order to help, first, keep instructions short, and repeat them as many times as necessary for the athlete to remember. Where you might teach a skill with the “whole-part-whole” approach for a neurotypical athlete, when it comes to dealing with students who think differently, you must parse your instructions down even more.

Lower your expectations with regard to the time it takes to learn new tasks, and break skills down into chunks involving only 2 chunks of information or physical actions at a time.

Next, give your instructions using this phrase: “First…….then….”

Giving instructions in this format helps neurodiverse kiddos pick the most important step to begin with, and the next step to do after they have accomplished the first.

This gives them a clear path to learning the skill with much less use of brain power on their part, allowing them more enjoyment in the learning process itself.

I also highly recommend writing these instructions down where they are easily accessible, such as laminated lists you can re-use daily. Having instructions posted where neurodiverse learners can see them helps them when they lose focus and become distracted.

5. Dial It Down

Many student athletes have “sensory processing” disorders, which deals with the way a body receives and processes sensory information from the outside world. Children that have sensory issues often experience stimuli more strongly than others, and things like loud noises or bright lights can be painful for them.

If you know or suspect that an athlete may have sensory issues, you might want adapt their learning environment, choosing times when there is less stimuli, less people, and less noise. If you are teaching a sport in an environment that requires music, then watch the volume of the music, and make sure to modify it if it causes issues for the athlete in question.

Teaching group lessons with students who struggle with distraction may be difficult, however, kids that struggle with social cues learn so much about how to interact with their peers when they are working with a group of friends toward a common goal and under the guidance of an instructor.

I recommend a balance of group lessons for work on social skills and private for intensive skill work in order to provide the best benefit for your neurodivergent athletes, but remember, every neurodivergent kiddo is different, so trust your instinct for what you feel will work best for them.

From taste, touch, pressure, sight and hearing, be prepared for your neurodivergent athletes to exhibit sensitivity in any of these areas, and work to lessen the discomfort so they can train free of distractions.

6. Delayed Development

All coaches have received training concerning the difference between chronological age (years) and developmental age (maturity). When working with neurodiverse children, it is important to remember two things:

First, it is very common to see delayed development in kiddos that have hidden disabilities like ADHD or ASD. Children can often lag behind several years from their counterparts.

This means that while you might be teaching a student who looks 12, he or she may be up to 5 years behind their counterparts in not only physical, but also social or emotional development.

As coaches, we have to recognize this lag and adjust our expectations on everything from emotional control to reading social cues.

Second, development in children with hidden disabilities and issues is often ASYNCHRONOUS, particularly in children with multiple special needs-often called twice- exceptional children.

This means that you could be dealing with a gifted 8 year old child who knows more than you about the Canadian political system, yet struggles to grasp basic time management each practice, and may have the emotional control of a 6 year old.

Be prepared to meet your neurodivergent athlete on all levels in order to best engage them as they learn.

7. Embrace Anxiety

This sounds funny I know, after all, who wants to embrace anxiety? What I mean is, as a coach, you have to realize that anxiety goes hand-in-hand with neurodiversity. Children who suffer with invisible disabilities often know they are different before they are even diagnosed. They know things are harder for them, and they feel shame and anxiety about not fitting in.

Often anxiety will show up as perfectionism, negative self-talk, crying, or reluctance to practice. Even more often, the anxiety about failure, or being different, will manifest in stomach aches, headaches, aches, pains and melt downs.

It is important to remember that if you have a child athlete that exhibits these symptoms often, and all possible physical causes are ruled out, then you are likely looking at a physical expression of their psychological turmoil.

Don’t accuse them of making excuses or trying to get out of work. They didn’t ask for this. Instead do what you can to alleviate their anxiety.

Help them name their fears, if they can’t express how they are feeling then they can’t address how to control those feelings.

Once your neurodivergent athletes have named their fears, don’t discount them or issue the typical “stop worrying” advice that we so often hear. While it is important to recognize your students’ anxiety, it is equally important to not try to fix it, or tell them to stop worrying. Doing this invalidates your athletes feelings, after all, they are allowed to feel what they feel.

Instead, start teaching mindfulness, growth mindset and relaxation strategies EARLY and OFTEN. Then practice, practice, practice.

I can’t stress this enough. As a coach of neurodivergent athletes, you must stay on top of their mental training….it will be as important as their physical training.

Once you have the basis of these strategies, stress to your athlete that anxiety is natural, but they have the tools to cope with it and you have faith they can do it.

Anxiety is a tricky monster for neurodivergent athletes, but it CAN be controlled with CONSISTENT EFFORT from them, and CONSTANT support from you, their coach.

8. Change Your Thinking

As coaches, we have this belief about what it takes for kids to be coachable. We’ve all seen those memes we circulate on Facebook, hell, I’ve even circulated some of them.

I know you all know the ones I’m referring to, memes that start like this:

Ten things that have require zero talent.

Being on time. (ten times harder for kids with executive function issues.)

Work ethic. (hard for kids with ADHD or ASD that are prone to distraction, which is often mistaken for laziness.)

Effort (often neurodivergent kids are so riddled with anxiety they give up, or they don’t even know where to begin due to executive function or processing disorders.)

I hope you are all starting to see what I am talking about here. It’s time to stop posting these motivational memes. We need to stop applying these neurotypical expectations to our neurodivergent athletes because they shame those athletes for which these behaviors are ten times harder.

We have to adjust our expectations when teaching kiddos that think differently. This means:

Stop asking them to look you in the eye when you are talking to them, often this makes it HARDER for neurodivergent kiddos to focus.

Stop asking them to stand up straight and stop fidgeting when you are explaining a task to them. Many kiddos have balance or coordination issues that require them to lean on something for support, and some have chemical imbalances that make it next to impossible to not fidget.

Stop asking kiddos to stand in line and wait their turn. Aside from just poor coaching (yes, I said it) asking neurodivergent children to stand in a formation and do nothing but wait their turn is not realistic and sets them up for failure.

As coaches, we need to change our beliefs about how we teach our students and what we expect from them. There are more neurodivergent athletes out there than we realize, and we simply haven’t adapted our teaching techniques to accommodate their needs.

It’s time we let go of outdated practices, and started really exploring how to best help this underserved population of athlete.

Sports can be a life-saver for kids struggling with invisible disabilities, following these simple tips can change lives for the better, both yours and your students.

If you have any tips for teaching and supporting neurodivergent athletes, feel free to share!



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