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By Matt McMillen
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Patricia Quinn, MD

Sports are a key part of many children's lives. There's no reason they shouldn't be for kids with ADHD as well. Although little research has been done on the subject, doctors often field parents' questions about the benefits of sports for their kids with ADHD.

The answer? Get in the game. Sports and ADHD are a winning combination.

Sports Boost Self-Esteem

Kids with ADHD often feel isolated from their classmates, and sports are a great way to help them get involved, says Jay Salpekar, MD. He is a child psychiatrist with the ADHD Clinic at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"Sports offer lots of social interaction in addition to physical fitness," says Salpekar. This helps kids with ADHD bond with their peers, "and it helps get them out of their shell."

James McGough agrees. "A common issue with ADHD kids is to find something to help them gain confidence and self-esteem," he says. McGough is a child psychiatrist with UCLA's ADHD Clinic in Los Angeles. "They can use sports as a vehicle for making and having friends. And healthy activities like sports are better than sitting alone or in front of the television."

Choosing a Sport

How do you know what sport will be best for your child? Ask them what they'd like to do.

Many kids, says McGough, will see or try a lot of different athletic activities, whether at school, during camp, or in after-school programs. That gives them the chance to decide what appeals the most. "Identify and support your child's own interests," says McGough. "That's your starting point."

Keep in mind that the sport should be one that will hold your child's interest. For example, McGough points out that baseball involves a lot of time standing in the outfield, and that invites distraction. Soccer, on the other hand, keeps a child moving.

McGough says that some reports -- but little research -- suggest that individual sports such as tennis, swimming, and running may better suit kids with attention problems. In team sports such as football or basketball, players need to pay constant attention to other players, strategies, and plays. That will be tough for a child with ADHD. But if your child really wants to try a team sport, you should encourage it, says McGough.

Both McGough and Salpekar say that martial arts, particularly karate, tae kwon do, and others that emphasize forms, are very popular with kids who have ADHD. "In classes, the kids line up to do the same moves, and that reinforces timing and focus," says Salpekar. "Kids with ADHD really take to that."

Salpekar, who coached kids' soccer for many years, also recommends that parents pay close attention to their child's personality when choosing a sport. If they're not very competitive, he says, don't put them in a competitive activity.

"Enjoyment, participation, and peer bonding are much more important in the long run than the competitive aspect," he explains.

That said, if your child has real talent and drive for a certain sport, by all means, encourage them to compete, says McGough. ADHD should not limit a child's ambition. Look at Michael Phelps. He has the disorder. He also has 18 Olympic gold medals for swimming.

"If you're really good, go for it," says McGough.

No Magic Bullet

Despite the benefits of playing sports, parents should realize that it won't affect or improve the disorder itself.

"Playing sports does not impact the core features of ADHD," says McGough. "You can't, for example, expect that your child will run off all of their energy. That's naive and ineffective."

As for medication, says Salpekar, some kids do fine without it, but most do better when they take it. "Kids often keep up much better with medicine, but it's not essential," says Salpekar. "See how it works."

The decision may also depend in part on the sport. If you have a child who wants to try football, medication may be quite useful.

"Football has a lot of detail in the plays, and kids don't do as well without medications, parents have told me," says Salpekar.

Again, McGough says, the real impact of sports will be on your child's self-esteem, confidence, and social life, all of which are crucial to build up as early as possible.

"It's part of an approach to ADHD that is underappreciated," says McGough.

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