Including “Athletes Who Learn Differently”

As I looked around the locker room one afternoon before practice, I silently counted in my head how many of my players have been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or other “learning disabilities.” Out of sixteen players, six were diagnosed as students who do not learn traditionally. Six out of sixteen! The next thought that popped into my head was, “What am I doing — or not doing — that is preventing their complete understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

I’ve done a great deal of research since that day in coaching athletes with learning disabilities. I’m not an expert (although I’ve talked to some), but hopefully today’s post will help you rethink how you coach athletes in your athletic department that face different learning challenges.

In researching this topic, I contacted Coach Matt Errico of the Hill School in Fort Worth, Texas; a school specifically designed for non-traditional learners. Coach Errico is the varsity boys basketball coach and varsity golf coach at Hill. He has won both the basketball and golf state titles in the Texas Christian Athletic Fellowship.

Interestingly, Coach Errico and the Hill School refuse to use the term learning disability in their education. The Hill School prefers the term students who learn differently. “Learning disability” indicates that the students are handicapped and unable to learn. However, according to Coach Errico:

Most students with true learning disabilities (i.e. dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, Autism Spectrum) have an average- to above-average intelligence and can achieve great things, but since they do not conform to the traditional, “one size fits all” instructional model, they are set aside and told that they will be limited.”

This is a great, positive approach. A school that is staffed to deal with students who learn differently is certainly a blessing in today’s educational climate.

Today, we’ll go over a few general principles to keep in mind when coaching athletes who learn differently. Click here to check out some more very specific tips from Coach Errico on how to best reach these athletes.


Importance of Including the Athlete Who Learns Differently

One of the most important things for any student, especially those dealing with learning differences, is to be included in the school environment.

Few coaches or athletic departments would intentionally neglect or turn away students who learn differently from their programs. However, a student with such differences may be too intimidated to participate.

It is well-documented that each and every student, regardless of how they learn, can benefit from participation in athletics.

The article “How Psychosocial Sport and Play Help Youth Manage Adversity” in the International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation contends that it is important for all children to be integrated into a school’s culture and program. Seamless integration helps students make friends at school and build relationships with trusted adults. (Henley, Schweizer, de Gara, & Vetter; 2007)

Basketball coach and successful blogger Brock Bourgase states in his “Sports and Learning Disabilities” that competition in sports teaches “emotional management and frustration control.”

So be sure to include the student who learns differently in your athletic department. It can be a great help to their overall education, just as it can be for any student.


Don’t Over-accomodate

When working with athletes who learn differently, you and your coaches may be tempted to change the way you coach. However, this can be extremely counterproductive.

Don’t loosen structure for the athlete who learns differently.

You may feel that your practices are too rigid or structured for athletes with certain learning differences. However, as you’ll see in our next post, athletes who learn differently need this structure; it’s comforting for them. Don’t feel like you need to slow down or change procedures.

A coach seeking to accommodate an athlete who learns differently by “coaching down”  to them (for lack of a better term) is creating a potentially destructive situation.

Athletes who learn differently tend to mirror the attitude of the established authority. If a coach is slowing down and stepping outside their normal coaching style, then the athlete may also slow down and or be less focused.

Also, a visibly frustrated coach can create a frustrated and sometimes angry athlete.

Consistency is key in coaching the athlete who learns differently. Don’t over-accommodate; expect the same things of them that you would of other athletes.


Be Proactive in Coaching the “Mental Game”

Athletes who learn differently will fit seamlessly into sports participation when the athletic department is proactive in making sure their inclusion goes smoothly.

Encourage your fellow coaches to coach the “mental game” with athletes who learn differently. Try to identify potentially frustrating game situations and provide your athlete with the tools to cope with those situations. Remember, sports help teach emotional management and frustration control with these athletes. Make sure your fellow coaches are prepared to help athletes who learn differently approach and succeed mentally in competition.

The National Association for Sport and Physical Education provides an excellent guide to “Coaching Athletes with Hidden Disabilities.” This article refers to proactively coaching the mental game as “setting the stage for success.”

This is an area we’ll look at more closely later this week.


In Closing

Just like any student athlete, the athlete who learns differently will succeed when the coaches are “in their corner” and pulling for them to succeed.

It’s also important for all of us to remember what the psalmist said:

“I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made:” – Psalm 139:14a KJV

We all have different struggles, whether they be mental, physical, emotional, or spiritual. The Lord knows about them because He ordained them for His glory.

Don’t shy away from the athlete who learns differently; it’s an opportunity to allow God to use you in helping them succeed.


Do you have learning differenced athletes in your programs?

Jeff is the athletic director at Victory Baptist Academy. He is also the founder and administrator of

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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