Nonverbal Learning Disabilities and Sports: How I Debunked the Myth

By Michaela Hearst on
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Flashback: I’m 11 years old and sitting in gym class. The two captains are picking teams for soccer.

I perk up, hoping to be chosen. I want to be an athlete. I want to be strong. But I’m picked last again, and I feel a sense of anger and hurt building up inside me.

Growing up, my difficulties with motor skills and depth perception as well as my visual-spatial issues made it hard for me to do things like kick a soccer ball or hit a baseball. These issues are caused by my nonverbal learning disabilities (NVLD). But because I wasn’t diagnosed with NVLD until I was 14, for years I just assumed I wasn’t good at sports.

Adults and kids would tell me things like: “You’re no good at sports.” “It’s just not your thing.”

Who are you to tell me what I’m not good at? I thought to myself. In my heart, I just wanted to run. Running around the gym 10 times would make me smile. When I ran, I felt alive. I felt free. I felt unstoppable.

Those feelings didn’t last, however. I genuinely started to believe what people said about me, and it shook my confidence. Throughout middle and high school, I told myself I had to accept that I’d never be good enough to be a real athlete. It didn’t help that I was also struggling with my schoolwork.

After high school, I decided to go to Landmark, a college for students with learning differences. When I started, I kept telling myself I was starting a new life. So I mustered up the courage to join the softball team with a few friends. (The school has an open athletics policy for all students.)

I was anxious that people would laugh at me because I’d never played softball before. However, I had a wonderful coach who proved my negative feelings wrong.

She showed me the basics of how to play: how to hold the bat, how to figure out when to swing, how to catch the ball in the outfield. We worked around and with my learning challenges to help me become skilled. I was so happy. I even won an award for “Most Improved Player.”

Having tried softball, I decided to join the cross-country team. Deep down, I’d always wanted to be a runner. I remembered how I used to feel when I ran in gym class, and I wanted that feeling again. In my second year of college, I ran my first 5K race and finished in 28 minutes.

NVLD never goes away. I still have issues with depth perception, motor skills and coordination. But these issues don’t affect my running, as they do with sports like soccer or baseball.

With running, I just see it as putting one foot in front of the other. I also don’t have significant issues with directions and spatial relationships, like some people with NVLD. And when I run outdoors (which I love), I try to run with friends so I don’t lose my way.

This past April, I ran a 5K race with my fastest time ever—24 minutes. One day, I hope to run the New York City Marathon. If I train myself hard enough, I know I can do it.

To me, running is a tangible way to feel a spiritual connection between my body in fast motion, my feet on the ground, and everything around me. There is no greater feeling than crossing that finish line.

I’ve heard many times that kids with NVLD don’t like sports or that they aren’t good at sports. I feel like I’m proving them wrong. I have NVLD, and I am an athlete and a runner.

If you or your child has a learning difference, don’t let others dictate what you can and can’t do. It’s so important to find what drives us in life. The things we’re passionate about pursuing can become emotional safety nets. That’s particularly true for those of us with learning and thinking differences who have struggled in so many ways.


Get tips for talking with coaches about your child’s learning and thinking differences. And check out a list of sports for kids with motor skills issues.

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About the Author

About the Author

Michaela Hearst 

is a writer and advocate.

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