7 Tips for Coaching Kids With Learning and Attention Issues

By Erica Patino

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As the team coach, you can help kids work around common challenges and experience success when playing sports. Use these tips if you know or suspect one of your players has learning and attention issues.

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Keep instructions short.

Lengthy explanations may confuse kids with learning and attention issues. Multi-step directions can also be hard to remember. It’s good to repeat or rephrase instructions to make sure everyone is clear on them. When you give directions, you may also want to ask a child privately to repeat them back to you to make sure he understands what to do.

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Focus attention.

If one of your players has trouble staying focused, it’s good to stand next to him when you’re about to say something important. Whenever possible, make eye contact to help get or maintain his attention. Keep in mind that kids with attention issues may also get caught up in the details. It helps to include reminders about the game’s rules or the team’s overall strategy.

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Try to use positive feedback.

Instead of repeatedly pointing out what a child does wrong, praise him when he does something well in practice or in a game. When you give constructive criticism, try to take him aside instead of correcting him in front of a group. After he makes a mistake, look for ways to help him refocus. Saying something like “That’s OK—we’ll learn from that and move on” can make it easier for a child to bounce back than hearing “You missed that shot again!”

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Keep practices organized.

Kids with learning and attention issues need structure. During practice, try to keep downtime to a minimum. For an overactive child, it may help to start practice by burning off some energy, such as running laps or doing jumping jacks. You can also give him a meaningful task to keep him busy, such as organizing game equipment. If a child is struggling to keep up with an activity—such as dribbling a ball—slow things down and repeat the dribbling until he feels more comfortable.

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Emphasize good sportsmanship.

Talk to the team about sportsmanship. Be clear that if your team wins, it’s not OK to make fun of members of the losing team. If your team loses, you will not tolerate name-calling or blaming individual players. Also, if a child plays too rough, pull him out of the game or practice. Tell him to take a break to cool off. Explain why he was separated from his teammates. Kids with learning and attention issues need to be held accountable just like other kids.

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Partner with parents.

Listen carefully when parents talk about their child’s issues. Ask what helps at home or in school. Try to identify challenging situations before they occur and have some strategies to keep things from getting out of hand. For example, if a child often acts out while waiting in line, have him go first and then ask him to step away to do a specific task, such as fetching sports equipment. That can keep him occupied in a way that helps both of you.

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Brainstorm alternatives.

Offering support and encouragement can help kids succeed, but finding the right sport is also important. If you think the particular sport you’re coaching doesn’t seem well-suited to a particular child, help his family think about other sports the child might excel at, given his strengths and weaknesses. Try to share any concerns or recommendations with his parents in a positive and supportive way.

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About the Author

Portrait of Erica Patino

Erica Patino is an online writer and editor who specializes in health and wellness content.

Reviewed by

Portrait of Sheldon Horowitz

Sheldon H. Horowitz, Ed.D., is senior director of learning resources and research at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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