This Guest Post was written by coach Dan McCain for ParentingAces. You can get more information on Dan by visiting his website, DanMcCain.com, and by listening to our recent podcast, A New Way to Analyze Matches ft. Daniel McCain & David Howell.

An Article About Working with ADHD Tennis Players

THE PREREQUISITE 

At every level, successful tennis players have people surrounding them that positively impact their experiences in some kind of meaningful way.  As a coach, whether I’m working with 8 or 9 year olds, juniors playing national level tournaments, or the guys on my college team, trust is paramount.  Genuine trust is earned by being consistent with them over time, and the belief in the messages sent and received.  It’s earned by developing the relationships, learning personalities, tendencies, and sharing the right amount of your own.  

Earning that trust with anyone who has ADHD often means traveling down a slightly different road.  With some empathy and education, parents, coaches and teachers can be effective leaders and communicators with ADHD kids and students.

THE NEURODIVERGENT MIND

Open up a video on your phone and press play.  This video, playing at normal speed: let’s say that’s how thoughts move in a neurotypical brain.  Now use your thumb to scroll right quickly, fast forwarding it at 100 times speed to just before the end.  Stop, scroll back by shooting your thumb quickly across the screen to the left to rapidly rewind, and now swipe through 500 other images or videos as fast as you can in the next 7 seconds.  That whirlwind of imagery zooming past your eyes: that’s how thoughts fly through many neurodivergent, ADHD minds – including mine.  

When normal thought patterns emerge and drift away, people with neurotypical brains get to choose to hang out with those thoughts, develop them, modify them, or get rid of them.  I constantly get dozens of high speed fly-by’s per second and I don’t always get to choose what slows down, what stops or what sticks.  As thoughts race by, catching up to the ones you want or the ones you need in the moment can be exhausting – and keeping them around long enough to matter can be equally exhausting.  

Imagine the energy it would take to manage all of that when you’re interacting with a group of friends, or chatting with someone you’re interested in.  Imagine having to do your homework under these conditions.  

Imagine the frustration you might have when your racing mind is too difficult to manage to get anything done, to do the right thing, to comfortably engage with the person or people in front of you.  Imagine the self image complications and baggage that may accumulate as a result.   

 

THE CAUSE 

Adolescents already go through plenty of challenges as it is, so being dealt another stack of things to sort out can contribute to the already higher risk factors young people with ADHD have for acute impulsivity, emotionally reactive sensitivity, time blindness, low frustration tolerance, and an inconsistent short term memory.  

According to the National Institute of Mental Health,  9% of kids in the US between the ages of 13 and 18 have ADHD, but it’s suspected to be twice that in athletes.  It is 4 times more likely to be diagnosed in boys than in girls.

People with ADHD do not possess all the same characteristics, but whether they’ve been diagnosed as having hyperactive ADHD, inattentive ADHD, or combined, many of the traits we share originate in our brain chemistry.  We have low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and our brains don’t regulate dopamine levels normally.  

People with ADHD are chemically wired to seek more dopamine on an ongoing basis.  The body makes it and the nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells.  The body uses dopamine to create chemicals called norepinephrine and epinephrine, which affect the areas of the brain that are responsible for controlling attention and action.  

The more dopamine we have, the better we do with attention and action.  While ADHD’ers have low levels of dopamine, our brains don’t regulate it well enough to cap it either.  When we have too much, this increase in attention and action leads to hyper-focus mania.  

This is why we are absolutely incapable of focusing on certain tasks at times and become totally immersed in other things obsessively.  What we lack in our ability to execute the mundane, many of us make up for it in our often exceptional ability to perform under pressure.  

 

STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES 

The strengths linked to ADHD include a propensity to thrive in chaotic situations, enhanced creativity, non-linear thinking, an adventurous spirit, resilience, high energy, risk taking, calm under pressure, and the capacity for hyper focus in something we find fascinating.

These strengths translate well to sports.  Tennis players need what ADHD’ers naturally have: short and intense bursts of attention, to be in the present moment with a heightened awareness of their immediate environment.  They need to excel in chaotic conditions, to thrive under pressure, take instinctive risks, come up with creative, out-of-the box solutions.  ADHD’ers don’t over think, enabling them to play without hesitating over possible consequences.  Their impulsivity, if controlled, can also lead to quicker reaction times, saving precious microseconds that can mean the difference between winning or losing.

A recent study found that the ADHD brain tends to produce more Theta waves.  Theta waves indicate a state of deep relaxation, and ADHD’ers over-abundance of theta waves can make them great in a crisis.  We often see higher rates of ADHD among E.R. doctors and nurses, police officers, fire and rescue personnel, stock traders, professional athletes and entertainers.  When others are in crisis, those with ADD can be cool, calm and under control.

Dopamine is released when our brain finds something rewarding.  This gives feelings of motivation that encourage us to continue doing what we’re doing, which is why we function extremely well when we’re interested in something… and why other times we feel that our brain is resisting.  That inconsistency is due to our brain chemistry.  

Because our brains often aren’t getting enough dopamine, ADHD’ers tend to lean towards actions, thoughts & tasks that provide instant dopamine.  Our brains are constantly seeking it out.  

Because of this, we often lack the motivation needed to do what we need to do.  Finishing homework, completing our chores, organizing our possessions…these are rarely going to be areas we excel.  We tend to start things and not finish them.  We get bored quickly.  We forget to do things as often as dogs wag their tails.  We daydream a lot.  

Asking us to follow verbal instructions?  You might as well tell us to smell the color 9.  

ADHD is not a learning disability, so don’t treat us like we’re slow to grasp things.  Research shows there is no correlation between ADHD and IQ scores.  Our brain is constantly seeking out more desirable options or tasks that give us this shot of dopamine that dramatically revitalizes our brain chemistry and therefore our executive functioning.  If what’s in front of us doesn’t intrigue us, our attention will shift somewhere else immediately.

While this information on ADHD’ers can be useful in opening some of the remaining ignorant eyes of the public, I hope to bring awareness and offer some solutions for those who live or work with ADHD’ers.  

 

COLLABORATING WITH ADHD’ers

Research shows that ADHD brains function better than non-ADHD brains in certain areas and for certain tasks, so teachers and coaches that make little to no effort to find, develop and harness these strengths are missing the boat and doing these kids a disservice.  

People with ADHD have a short attention span.  Duh!  Don’t fight it – go with it.  

Dr. Russell Barkley has discussed how parents can use the 30% rule with kids and teens.  Whatever their actual age is – reduce it by 30% and that’s the attention span you can expect from this child.  

Parents should choose the right moments to communicate not just the fact that their child has ADHD to any long term coaches their kids have, but also any pertinent day to day issues that may arise (whether that includes any updates in how medication or therapies are going is up to the parents).  This communication will go a long way in helping the coach understand the player and therefore will enhance the effectiveness of their relationship. 

A 2006 study demonstrated that, due to their widened attentional focus and reduced inhibitions, ADHD’ers have neurologically enhanced creative abilities when compared to non ADHD’ers.  

To access this with a couple of 11-12 year old students of mine (1 of whom had ADHD), we played games where they would role play and certain strokes or parts of their game became “superpowers” and other parts became weaknesses.  This enhanced their interest level, developed technical skills, and increased their understanding of tactics and strategy.

As that same 12 year old with superpowers grew up, we developed different systems to offset many of the problems we knew would occur.  We got his older sister to help monitor his punctuality (to minimize his time blindness).  We found that scheduling specific things for him to do in his iPhone calendar, which offers multiple alerts for each event in the schedule, useful because it prevented him from forgetting to pack his tennis bag, call different people for practice matches, show up to those matches, find out info on tournament sites, write papers and even get gas in his car.  

This is a kid who ended up with a near perfect score on his ACT test who never wore matching socks, who drove 4 hours to a tournament only to realize upon arrival that he forgot his racquets, who showed up late to lessons in sandals multiple times (realizing when he stepped on court that he forgot his shoes), and one day after going to the movies, reported his car stolen only to find it an hour later sitting in the theater parking lot about 30 feet from the theater entrance.  He went on to play Division 1 college tennis and recently graduated. 

 

FUELING CREATIVITY WITH STRUCTURE 

Off the court, parents can employ the same basic strategies as coaches can on the court.  Keeping expectations consistent, limiting distractions, providing frequent feedback, using a reward system, utilizing different tools, having flexible rules, taking frequent, short breaks and being cognizant of not overloading them with information are the pillars of working with these kids.

On court, coaches can get and keep the attention of an ADHD player by providing a structure of drills and games that have competitive elements.  For example, instead of having them practice down the line forehands, mark off certain target areas and turn the drill into a game of H.o.r.s.e., like in basketball.  Or reframe the drill into a game of SkeeBall, which uses a high score system that awards more points for increasingly accurate shots.  

Allowing and encouraging ADHD players to create games within a framework stimulates the creative minds of these kids and access their natural strengths.  For example, in a recent lesson with an ADHD player where we were working on using shot combinations to create chances to attack, I simply said “Ok, let’s play a game to 5.  I’ll feed it in & you start each point with a specific 2 shot combination.  What would you like that combination to be in this game?”

“I’ll hit a Neutral cross court forehand deep in the corner pocket.  You loop it down the line or up the middle, and I’ll take an inside out forehand to the ad side and we’ll play it out,” she said.

We played a game to 5 after that with a different combination and a game to 5 after that with a different combination and we kept going until we ran out of time.  The short duration of these games allowed us to quickly and frequently evaluate during the dozen or so 30 second to 1 minute breaks we took throughout the 90 minute session.  It also gave us a chance for a few practice reps in between games to reinforce technical and tactical concepts.  

In a 2020 study where ADHD’ers were told that they had the opportunity to win a bonus, they generated more ideas on the task than people without ADHD.  This provides more compelling evidence as to why ADHD’ers are drawn to competition.

Scoring systems with bonus points are nothing new to a full time coach or teaching pro, but finding tangible bonuses beyond that – or rewards – for performances can help optimize training sessions. In 1 memorable case with a small group a few years ago, the reward for winning the game was oddly chosen to be the same as the punishment for losing: 1 of the kids really wanted to perform “the worst cartwheel ever” in front of the others while another desperately did not.  I am still upset with myself for not getting any of it on video. 

Generally, effective lesson structures for players with ADHD must keep things moving.  Long breaks or drawn out lectures can lead to the ADHD mind wandering.  Messages need to be brief, clear, with a lot of eye contact, contain visual demonstrations, and if many of them are delivered in reasonably close proximity – even better. 

Effective on court training structures often contain a series of segments that all move in the same proverbial direction and often call upon a variety of strategies to assist these students.  While they typically incorporate progressions and regressions, it’s advantageous to the ADHD player to go through multiple iterations of progressions over shorter periods of time.  Doing the same drill for 20 minutes is a recipe for disaster.  

Coaches can also combine the quick movement through progressions with the use of technology – like showing video of the pros to the player from a smartphone, and/or using the smartphone to shoot video of the player as a different method of feedback.

 

PRIORITIES

The ADHD Centre, a leading specialist private ADHD assessment and treatment service in the UK, said that tennis “is perfect for kids with ADHD,” because “it’s a quick and fast-paced game” that “requires energy, strength and coordination.”

At its core, working with ADHD kids requires putting the person first and the player second.  It’s a journey of empowering kids to evolve, to develop awareness, to learn to be responsible for their actions, to be solution focused, and to build self confidence through action, education and experience.  

In that sense, it’s no different than working with anyone else.  Just be ready for a few speed bumps and speeding tickets along the way. 

 

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