Coaching neurodivergent players…and how it just might be a better way to coach, full stop.

A learning week!

Neurodiversity training from Headstuff ADHD Therapy, through one of my “zero hours contract” workplaces.

An online webinar in the always interesting Myths of Sport Coaching webinar series (hosted on YouTube by Sequoia Books), on the proactive role of sports psychology.

And more reading, away from the functional “what to coach” and towards the more productive, much more interesting “how to work with people”.

And out of this has emerged a series of ideas on how to better support players with ADHD and autism.

But as I re-read the list of accommodations and adjustments, it became very apparent that what I had written down could be profitably applied to most coaching activities.

What experience do I have of working with people with ADHD or autism?

The first time I (knowingly) coached a child with a diagnosis on the autistic spectrum was 4 years ago. A colleague, more sensitive and knowledgeable than I, suspected that the child’s behaviour might have an explanation beyond “just being difficult”, and confirmed the diagnosis with his mother who had stood, anxiously, beside the hall throughout the session. The most we did was to accommodate the child’s preference for a red bat over blue. But we managed to keep him with us, and reasonably happy, through the 10 week term.

More recently, I have coached a group including two boys, each with a diagnosis of autism, but with quite different presentation. Both hate losing, but respond in very different ways.

I am charged with helping this group prepare to play cricket this summer, and I can’t see how to avoid losing in a game of cricket. One (or both) of them has had to face losing, every time we challenge their developing skills in a game format.

I’m sure there have been others that we weren’t told about, either because the child was not diagnosed, or because their parents chose not to tell the coaches.

And I’m also sure that I’ve not been able to do much to help them enjoy our practice sessions.

What have I been told about coaching people with ADHD or autism?

There are some resources for coaches who work with neurodivergent players (nothing, as far as I know, specifically for cricket coaches in England), but they do all come with the (genuine, and very important) caveat that what works with one person might not work with another.

So advice comes down to getting to know the child, and accommodating them, as far as possible.

See the Resources section, below.

Neurodiversity training with Headstuff ADHD Therapy

A fascinating presentation and Q&A with Lex from Headstuff, starting with a description of how individuals with ADHD or autism present, before moving on to discuss how to work with neurodivergent people.

And at this point, I started to see things I already did (a few) when coaching and things I had done badly in the past. From a long list of suggestions, specifically for working with people with ADHD in the workplace, the following leapt out at me as directly applicable to what I (try to) do when I coach.

  • If the coach/leader shows respect, he will be respected.
  • Maintain regulated communication — no shouting!
    • I had not realised the negative, often painful, impact that noise, especially sudden and unexpected, can have. And, in truth, I doubt that anyone really likes being shouted at!
  • Don’t be too prescriptive — allow (encourage, even) innovation, because people who think differently are adept at finding alternative solutions.
    • An important corollary to this — make sure that your expectations are clearly explained. Telling someone “find a way” then saying “but not like that” is a sure way of losing respect. So it might mean taking a little longer to fully explain the context of an activity, and perhaps what “success” might look like. Maybe by emphasising that even failing to find a workable solution is still a “win” — “now we know not to try that in a game, until we have had the chance to practice a bit more”.
    • On a related line — emphasise that no-one has to worry about losing. In every game, there will be a winner and a loser (unless it’s a draw, when nobody wins…), and there’s something to be learnt whatever the result.
  • If someone wants to fidget, let them. The effort of standing still might make it impossible for the neurodivergent individual to listen and follow instructions.
    • In the workplace, it was suggested that fidget toys, or doodle lads, be allowed. But the minute I want to tell the players about the next activity, it is always “put the balls down, stand still, listen!” Going forward, I just might give everyone a ball to hold on to!

Myths of Sport Coaching — The role of the Sport Psychologist

The webinar delivered a rebuttal of the belief that the only job for a sports psych is to “fix” people, presented by Laura Swettenham and Kristin McGinty-Minster from their chapter in Myths of Sport Coaching, edited Dr Amy Whitehead and Jenny Coe (most highly recommended reading!).

Key takeaway, for me, was the importance of proactively creating a supportive environment for the athletes, whether through interventions & education of staff, or by developing and enhancing organisational culture and leadership skills.

Way above my pay grade!

But it did chime with the ambition of making our coaching environment more supportive to neurodivergent participants.

What have I learned?

Just this morning a former colleague shared this article, by Nancy Doyle, advocating for workplace adaptations for ADHD.

Consider the ADHDers your proverbial canaries [in] the coal mine, showing you where you need to make changes for all…

Nancy Doyle, 4 Reasons Why Workplaces Are Talking About ADHD, Forbes, 6 Feb 2023

But as I re-read the list of potential actions from the Headstuff presentation, I realised that what I had written could be applied to any coaching activity.

It became apparent that the list of adaptations for neurodivergent players fitted so well with both an athlete-centred and a rights-based approach to coaching, with all players.

Showing respect to participant, and maintaining regulated communications are obvious, perhaps…but how often do we, as coaches, slip?

Explaining the context of an activity. What we are doing, and why? What might “success” or “winning” look like? And what can we lean from “failure”. Also, getting buy-in in advance, even having the players design the activities. (I do still feel the need to caveat this with “within reason”…I do work with some very free thinkers!)

Allow (encourage) innovation. With the coach to bring moderation and the dull hand of the reality check (“would that reverse-hit really work in a competitive game?”) but never to stifle ideas.

Undoubtedly a session based on these ideas would garner criticism from traditionalists.

But I get complaints (less often, now, than when I started coaching), if we aren’t in the nets, fully kitted up, for the full hour, or however long the session is. So the idea of trying to encourage the players to think about how they will learn and develop, maybe co-designing activities, is going to jar with some observers.

But I’d happily defend the thinking behind it.

And very much preferable to abdicating responsibility and just “letting them find a way”.


National Autistic Society — Sport — a guide for sports coaches and clubs

UK Coaching — Coaching people with autism

Autism Association of Western Australia — Autism in cricket resources

Myths of Sport Coaching webinar series, Sequoia Books

N.B. The webinar with Laura Swettenham and Kristin McGinty-Minster was not available online when this post was published (23 Feb 2023), but should be available soon.

Published by Andrew Beaven

Cricket coach, fascinated by the possibilities offered by the game. More formally - ECB level 2 cricket coach; ECB National Programmes (All Stars & Dynamos Cricket) Activator Tutor; Chance to Shine & Team Up (cricket) deliverer; ECB ACO umpire.

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