On Coaching a Child with ADHD

By Gabriel Villarreal

There are a number of ways you can coach a child with ADHD or that is suspected to have ADHD. It seems like every year I change my approach to programming for this population, but it always works, and the updates are always based on new research or from my own sample size. However, what never fails is how I coach this population. You can program the perfect way for an ADHDer but if you talk to, treat or teach that person like the elementary school teacher hell bent on the class learning “responsibility”, it won’t matter in the slightest.

But first, why should you even listen to me? I’m an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) in the state of Virginia, I own my private practice “ADHD Counseling in the Roanoke Valley” and also own “LostBoys Strength & Conditioning”, the oldest Mash Elite Performance Affiliate. It’s at my gym where I coach kids with ADHD, ASD, anxiety, depression and other special needs, as well as run (pre-COVID) the only group class for kids with ADHD in the country.

Enough of my credentials, let’s discuss how you can help your athletes and kids with ADHD in the gym, so they can be their best selves out of the gym. As I stated in the previous paragraph, I coach a kids class specifically for children with ADHD. I’ve been doing it since 2018, but at the start of the 2019 school year I switched up the entire class structure. All the kids have heart rate monitors and we track their heart rate live in class on a TV they can all see. The reason being: research has been telling us that if we can get the heart rate for boys to their maximum (90%), their brain immediately produces the neurochemicals: norepinephrine and dopamine, among others. The reason that’s important is because those two neurochemicals in particular aren’t produced as readily or as easily in ADHDers. In fact those two neurochemicals are what’s being targeted with their ADHD medications.

Because we are tracking their heart rate live once they hit that max heart rate I have them sit down and do breath work to drop their heart rates back to resting. Once they hit resting I send them back to work.

I’m doing this for a couple of different reasons. For one, there’s no clear data on the difference of impact for sustained cardiovascular activity or a sustained max heart rate. A lot of the data just says, “subjects got to a max heart rate and then we see these benefits” (Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E., 2013). I wanted to test if I could have a kid get to a max heart rate and then sit and deep breathe and still get benefits.

But also because there is a good amount of data about heart rate variability in terms of just overall health, but also in regards to one’s mental health; if you can dial down your heart rate in a scary situation or a situation where you’re anxious, depressed, or maybe in a fight or flight response, you’re better able to manage the situation.

They don’t know they’re getting that benefit, but one day they will recognize that their heart is beating fast and they can calm their heart rate down because of the skills we’ve practiced together.

TO NOTE: Girls with ADHD often present completely differently than boys. What you need to look for, is the “staring off into space” or out of the window. Girls are socialized to not talk and just to pay attention and to be sort of seen, not heard. They may not have the behavioral issues that boy’s have; where he is up out of a seat, walking around, asking random questions, girl’s typically don’t present that way. Girl’s may just look outside the window and be very quiet, but the teacher is not going to notice because they’re not causing a problem (Nadeau, K., Littman, E. B., & Quinn, P. O. (2015). Understanding Girls with ADHD. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Adfo Books).

As I mentioned before the perfect programming doesn’t matter unless it’s being presented appropriately, and the coach is aware of the ADHDers’ needs. Let’s talk about how to coach the ADHDer. First and foremost, the average ADHDer receives 3000 negative messages a day from teachers, family, and friends, whereas the neurotypical child only receives 100-300. Coaches, do not add to the 3000; make it your mission to offset it.

Secondly, prepare to repeat yourself… a lot. Then hold yourself accountable: if you tell an ADHDer 1 time what to do and they forget, weren’t listening, or got distracted, that’s on you coach. As an example, I always review the workout for the day and make sure they’re looking at me or the board. If not I gather their attention and then go over it again. Once I send them to their stations or to get the equipment I ask them to repeat the movement and ask them the set and rep scheme, and gently correct them if need be. After they complete the first set I ask them how many more they have left. These simple questions are delivered nonchalantly, like I was the one who forgot (I’m an ADHDer too, so for all they know I did forget; and here I’m normalizing ADHD, that forgetting happens and we just move on. It’s all good, here) and again correct if need be. The point of this is to keep them in the gym so they don’t zone out. I’m grounding them in the now.

Thirdly, I’m overly complimentary. Remember the 3000 messages? I’m going to offset that in the hour I have with them: “That’s looks perfect! Great job! Looking strong! Do you feel strong?” And my favorite, which always makes the boys laugh “You’re gonna get so big you’ll have to walk sideways through doors!”

Lastly, I keep things lighthearted.

We have fun.

It must be fun!

Exercise is literally medicine for us ADHDers and often this is their first experience in the gym. All that to say it’s your job to make it a positive experience, otherwise we run the risk of turning them off to working out all together. If this happens they lose the cheapest, best, most effective medicine they will ever find: exercise.

These are just a few simple things to keep in mind. Utilizing all of these things, having patience and trying to understand what their life (and mind) is like, will take you a long way. Slow down. Be purposeful. And you might inform a child’s entire life in the gym all the while prescribing the medicine they really need.

If you’d like to learn more about ADHD for yourself or a loved one check out any of my books on Kindle. Or if you’d like to learn more about taking your coaching to a completely different level check out ClinicallyInformedCoaching.com or my book “The Bridge Between Counseling and Coaching”. But, if you have specific questions about any of this shoot me an email at Gabriel@clinicallyinformedcoach.com or message me directly on Instagram: GabrielV_LPC