When you coach youth sports, you almost always have a couple of kids who don’t fit the mold. They’re harder to instruct because of their attitude, behavior or lack of focus. You may even wonder if they really want to be there.

To be sure, sometimes overzealous parents force them to play. However, in more cases than you realize, they do want to be there. Badly, in fact. But many of them face internal challenges that most adults don’t recognize or understand. I’m talking about differently-wired athletes. Kids who are neurodiverse, whether it’s ADHD, clinical anxiety, intellectual giftedness or something else.

Neurodiversity, as a whole, affects more than 20% of children. Because of their unique “brain wiring,” these kids interpret input (written, verbal, nonverbal) differently from “typical” kids. They often respond to input differently, as well – in ways that, to most adults, may not even seem related to the situation at hand.

As you can imagine, traditional coaching approaches don’t garner the best results with these athletes. That may sound daunting, especially if you’re a parent who agreed (perhaps reluctantly) to coach your child’s team on a volunteer basis.

Teaching differently-wired athletes doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming, though. More than anything, a little background information – and a mindset shift – will go a long way toward reaping better results.

Insights become real-life results

Susan Stout knows this firsthand. Her son has ADHD and dyslexia, and despite excelling in sports, he struggled with the demands of selective programs, like travel and Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams.

Differently-wired kids can be difficult to coach. When you use these tips, it benefits everyone – the child, other athletes and you.

As Stout researched ADHD, and discovered how her son’s brain works, she also realized what probably had been going on with kids she had coached years earlier on swim teams.

Stout also discovered that, if coaches pivot a bit when they interact with these kids, it can completely change how they respond. In fact, they can become some of the team’s strongest athletes! (Notable examples include Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and A’ja Wilson.)

These realizations inspired Stout to create Own Beat Athlete, a website that helps youth and college coaches understand differently-wired kids – and leverage their strengths.

“These young athletes’ behaviors – especially when they’re trying to fit in – can be off-putting and make them difficult to coach,” admits Stout. “However, they can contribute a great deal when coaches know how to effectively guide them.”

I couldn’t agree more because I’ve seen this with my “kite kid.” When he got a baseball coach, who recognized he was neurodiverse (even before I did), my son’s performance began to improve. He also felt valued and capable.

Common challenges for kite kids

Many kite kids have a psychomotor overexcitability, which means they have an abundance of energy, in their brains and bodies. This can play out in many ways, such as fidgetiness, constant talking or even obsessive organizing. Like children with ADHD, getting some energy out can calm kite kids’ brains and bodies, and help them focus better. In addition, kite kids are at higher risk for developing anxiety, particularly if they’re perfectionists, or they have a lot of social challenges (which is common due to their uneven development).

And if the child is twice exceptional (gifted + a learning disability), Stout’s tips for coaching athletes with learning differences can be very helpful.

Differently-wired kids can be difficult to coach. When you use these tips, it benefits everyone – the child, other athletes and you.

Change-ups that work

Own Beat Athlete offers tips for coaching various types of differently-wired kids. Although the site doesn’t address intellectual giftedness specifically, many traits of the G-word mirror other disorders, so some of the same techniques help.

Summarized below are suggestions from Stout’s tips for coaching athletes with ADHD and tips for coaching athletes with anxiety web pages that are particularly helpful for kite kids, too:

  1. Emphasize the positive. Notice and point out the positives, even if you must search for them. This is money in the relationship, and builds confidence and trust.
  2. Get them moving before you talk. Have all your kids run, swim or jump before you talk or give instructions (so no one is singled out).
  3. Let them fidget. Differently-wired athletes can get bored and restless really fast. Find a way for them to fidget appropriately while you’re talking or while they’re waiting a turn (sitting on a ball, standing up in the back, fiddling with goggle straps).
  4. Keep your speeches short. Lecturing doesn’t work. Even with short talks, ask them to repeat back what they heard. Also, post (or hand out) visual reminders of what they need to remember.
  5. Acknowledge fear and uncertainty, but don’t ask if he’s feeling anxious. Project confidence in his ability to handle the situation.
  6. Then, let the athlete solve the problem. Don’t hover. For example, in a low-key tone, without frustration, say, “They’ll be calling your event in about 20 minutes.” Then walk away. Solving the problem boosts the athlete’s confidence and sense of control – two powerful antidotes to anxiety.
  7. Get them moving when they’re upset. When these kids get derailed, wait to address what happened. Get them moving instead (in a positive, not punitive, way). Until they calm down, they won’t hear you, anyway.

Start early

Like so many aspects of sports, timing is important. In a perfect world, coaches should understand these, and other, coaching strategies before the season begins. Additionally, it’s best to reach out to parents (or athletes, if they’re old enough), before the first practice. The Teamwork page of the Own Beat Athlete site offers a sample email you can use, or adapt. You’re also welcome to draw inspiration from my article about how one of my son’s coaches set the tone before his team’s first practice.

In fact, you can do both: send out an expectation-setting email that parents can read with their kids. Then, send a separate message containing your version of the questionnaire.

Creating parent connections

Stout also says it’s important to understand that many parents, who have a neurodiverse kid, often don’t know what to divulge, if anything. I wholeheartedly agree because I’ve been there myself.

Many other kite kid parents feel the same way. We’re scared to mention the G word because of the misconceptions and knee-jerk judgements it usually brings.

Differently-wired kids can be difficult to coach. When you use these tips, it benefits everyone – the child, other athletes and you.

And by the time differently-wired athletes approach middle school, they’re self-conscious, too – no matter what type of neurodiversity they have. They don’t want to be viewed as different in any way.  

“Start this dialogue early. One of the key tenets of coaching differently-wired kids (and, really, all kids) is to get to know them well,” says Stout. “Athletes and their parents are the best sources of information on what has worked in the past, what definitely doesn’t, how to recognize early signs of frustration, and how to get the kid back on track.” 

More coaching tips

Want more information about these often-misunderstood athletes? Visit OwnBeatAthlete.com. Stout has poured her heart into this resource and it’s so well done. It includes tons of facts and insights. In addition, the Coaches’ Toolkit contains links to video simulations for ADHD, learning disabilities and organization, and information about Angst, a documentary about anxiety featuring Michael Phelps.