ADHD and PE / Sport

Boy jumping high wearing sports clothes, watched by two girls.


In this blog post we will explore ADHD and the challenges that ADHD students face in PE and (sports clubs). We will go on to look at how ADHD can be a strength and explore strategies that can make PE more inclusive.

What is ADHD?

ADHD or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a difference in how the brain is wired. It is a neurotype1 or condition which ‘impacts the parts of the brain that help us plan, focus on, and execute tasks’. It is not a behaviour disorder, mental illness or specific learning disability as it sometimes thought.

Impulsivity and hyper-activity are key characteristics of ADHD, with children struggling to sit still, wait their turn, act without thinking, moving and talking a lot and having a poor awareness of danger (NHS).

How common is ADHD/ADD?

It is estimated that about 5% of children in the UK have ADHD or ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

However, children often wait a long time for a diagnosis, and ADD/ADHD is often overlooked in girls. So it is possible that several children in your class may fit the diagnostic criteria or identify the descriptor of ADHD/ADD but not yet have a formal diagnosis.

ADHD commonly occurs with Autism and specific learning difficulties such as Developmental Co-ordination Disorder and dyslexia. We can describe children with ADHD or ADD as being neurodivergent.

There is also a higher prevalence of ADHD within the following groups:

  • Children who were born prematurely
  • Children with anxiety and/or depression
  • Children with epilepsy


Just as dyslexia and other neurotypes can be viewed as strengths, so can ADHD. Children with ADHD can be high achievers if their strengths are understood and their energy channeled. (For Michael Phelps, swimming became a way he could channel his energy, develop self-discipline and access learning.)

ADHD strengths can give an advantage in sport. Researchers estimate that almost double the number of professional athletes and baseball players have ADHD compared to the general population.

Children with ADHD can thrive in athletics because of the following strengths:

  • Ease of switching between tasks and ability to multi-task
  • Risk taking
  • Calm under pressure
  • High energy
  • Creativity
  • Resilience
  • Ability to ‘hyper-focus’ on an area of interest – if sport becomes an area of passion, they will throw all their energy into it
  • Ability to take in multiple things at once
  • Impulsivity can lead to quick reaction times and the ability to play without overthinking possible consequences

Sports people with ADHD have been very successful in their field include Simone Biles – American Olympic gymnastic, Louis Smith – British Olympic gymnast and Michael Phelps – Olympic swimmer.

What is the impact on PE?

PE can be problematic for children who are impulsive, as there is often so much waiting or inactivity involved. (A study of nearly 11,000 British Year 7 students showed that only 31% of the average PE lesson was spent in moderate or vigorous activity!)

In a PE lesson a child who has ADHD may look like ‘Hamid’:

Hamid bounded into the gym. Instead of sitting down with the rest of the class,he started climbing all over the equipment. After several attempts, the teacher got him to sit down. A few minutes later, eager to do more jumping, Hamid skipped the queue. “Miss, he’s pushing in again.”

Do you know children like Hamid? Children who always struggle to wait, who call out, who push in, who can’t resist touching everything?

Students have to wait for their classmates to get changed, wait to bat at rounders or stand in line to shoot a hoop – not only do children have to wait a lot, but we expect them to do so in a very tempting environment. PE equipment can be very attractive and after sitting at a desk all day, jumping off equipment or kicking a football is hard to resist.

Unsurprisingly, lots of children find it hard to wait and follow instructions in such a context. This is challenging for teachers as they fear disorder, excess noise and injuries if other children follow children like Hamid and all start climbing on equipment or kicking balls around. In addition, conflict can arise as other children perceive it isn’t fair – as the child in the example above complained, “Miss, Hamid is pushing in again.”

When a teacher is under stress and worried about children’s safety and other children are upset, it is likely the teacher will deal with the situation in a reactive way and give the impulsive children a consequence like sitting out, waiting until last or being sent out of the lesson. This is likely to only make the situation worse.

The strategies below suggest ways to limit the amount of waiting, and to channel children’s energy positively.


Strategy #1: Limit time spent waiting. Give instructions in the classroom where possible and have activities ready to start as soon as children enter the PE space e.g. practicing target throwing, warm up exercises at stations.

Strategy #2: Reduce the need for queuing and turn-taking. Have circuits or several activity stations set up so children can alternate between activities.

Strategy #3: Instead of having large groups where children need to wait their turn, work in pairs or small groups. For example, instead of having one game of football or badminton, set up lots of stations to practice the skills.

Strategy #4: When children need to wait, try offering an activity to do whilst waiting, e.g. explaining something to a partner, jumping on the spot, etc.

How could Hamid’s experience of PE be different as a result of employing these strategies?

Hamid was the first into the hall. He loved PE and had loads of energy. His teacher got him to give out all the equipment and then had him model the activity. She loved his enthusiasm and energy and saw how engaged he was in the lesson. The PE lead invited Hamid to join the school football team.

This article was adapted from a chapter in my book ‘Inclusive PE for SEND Children’. This book also has other chapters on ADHD including supporting communication and managing transitions. Buy a copy here.

  1. A neurotype refers to a type of brain wiring and how it interprets and responds to the world. For more see the link to my blog article explaining neurodiversity ↩︎