Study: Sports good for kids with ADHD, but there's a catch

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Numerous studies have examined how students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) deal with the demands of the classroom, but athletes who struggle with ADHD hadn’t gotten the same attention from researchers.

A recently completed study at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center aimed to reveal how many college athletes have ADHD and how the disorder affects those athletes.

“What we found was somewhat surprising,” says James Borchers, MD, director of the division of Sports Medicine at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center's Department of Family Medicine.

Dr. Borchers and other researchers spent five years studying more than 850 student athletes competing in 32 different sports at The Ohio State University. About 6 percent of those athletes had been diagnosed with ADHD.

“We expected athletes with ADHD to gravitate toward individual sports, like golf or tennis, where they have more control, there is a little bit more repetitiveness and they don’t have to worry about the responsibilities or roles of teammates or opponents,” Dr. Borchers says. 

“What we found was our athletes with ADHD were twice as likely to compete in team sports, and their rate of participation in contact sports, like football, hockey and lacrosse, was 142 percent higher.”

What could that mean for athletes with ADHD? 

Trevor Kitchin, MD, a researcher and Primary Care Sports Medicine fellow, says those with ADHD tend to exhibit more reckless behavior and that behavior can put athletes at higher risk for injury, especially in contact sports. 

Dr. Borchers noted that, with team sports, “you have to understand all the different things that another player is doing on the field for the team to function appropriately.”

That could be more difficult for an athlete with ADHD, he says, who might be better suited for a sport like swimming, where a repetitive motion allows the athlete to focus solely on their own actions.

"It may be more difficult for them to accomplish their task when they know that they have to pay attention to what others are doing and be focused on those things as well."

Athletes with ADHD who suffer concussions – which are more prevalent in contact sports – might also take longer than most athletes to recover. However, Dr. Borchers says, athletes with ADHD are not necessarily more likely than other athletes to suffer such an injury.

Keep playing sports!

Other research has shown that participation in sports in general can be helpful for students with ADHD, because sports can relieve some of those symptoms.

“I don’t think we should ever limit anyone from participating in a sport or pushing them in a certain direction just because they have ADHD,” Dr. Borchers says.

“But if we do have more student athletes than we might have expected that are in contact, team sports, we need to understand the challenges those athletes may have with ADHD and how we can better help support them so that they’re successful in that sport.”

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