Tennis the right sport for ADHD kids
by Jian (Jose) Li, Ph.D., USPTA
<i>ADHD kids need sports to channel their hyperactivity.
ADHD kids need sports to channel their hyperactivity.

January 2010 -- As a tennis-teaching professional and USPTA Ambassador, I have found a unique way to promote Tennis - for the health of it! Since 2006, I have had many opportunities to teach tennis to children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

ADHD is one of the most common childhood neurobehavioral disorders, affecting 4.5 million American children. A recent survey showed that a total of 15 to 19 million Chinese children suffer from ADHD as well. Inspired by the success of wheelchair tennis and its founder Brad Parks, I thought that if wheelchair tennis can help those people who have physical disabilities, tennis should make a positive impact on millions of children who are diagnosed with mental disorders. In the last three years, I have tried to prove that tennis is the right sport for ADHD kids.


I frequently see questions in my ADHD-tennis Web site mail box such as this: "Besides physically taking his chin in your hand and pointing his face at yours if your ADHD student is not looking at you during the instruction time, do you have other methods to share with us?" I would like to take this opportunity to share with other teaching professionals my hands-on experience with these children.


ADHD kids lack focus, and are moody and hyperactive. ADHD is known to hamper a child's academic performance. ADHD kids have difficulty reading social cues and have a tough time making friends. They need sports to channel their hyperactivity, however, because they are many times perceived as untalented athletes, they often avoid athletics or are cut from teams by coaches.


Sport participation seems to have a positive effect on the lives of children with ADHD. Tennis is a combination of action and reaction, a physical and mental game. With my years of tennis-coaching experience, I am convinced that tennis could be the right choice for most ADHD kids for two reasons:
  1. A few-second ball rally and little "down" time in the game fit the short attention spans of these students.
  2. Tennis can provide a training ground to improve concentration skills and emotional control.
"Children with ADHD have the same difficulty with sports that they have in the classroom," says Jan Seaman, Ph.D., executive director of the American Association of Active Lifestyle and Fitness. ADHD kids often want to skip the rules in the game. They tend to act before thinking with impulsive behavior. They can be easily distracted, especially during the idle time or game-setup period. They may be prone to tantrums and rages with low frustration tolerance. All of these student characteristics are nightmares for tennis coaches.


The feeling of "not fitting in" the realm of sports is one of the common threads among ADHD kids. However, we should not overemphasize the odds against these children. They can be very smart. We can make a long list of people who more or less had mental disorders but demonstrated tremendous success in their professions. Looking from another, more positive angle, I try to pay more attention to their thinking habits and reasoning patterns, which are different from those of "normal" people. Understanding those differences can help parents and coaches choose the right sports and effective drills for them.


When we play any kind of sport, our brain can process both short- and long-duration visual cues within two separate systems that affect our motor behaviors. These two neural systems work together in non-ADHD kids. The short- and long-duration information passes effortlessly from one system to the other, resulting in smooth visual-motor coordination.


Joan N. Vickers, a professor in the faculty of kinesiology - the science of human movement - at the University of Calgary in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, conducted research and showed that, in kids with ADHD, the short-duration system seems to be working normally (this is good news to ADHD-tennis), while the long-duration system may be the problem.


Below I share three instructional tips and drills for dealing with ADHD kids on the tennis court: mind, eye and racquet ­(orientation).


Converging mind
When I coach ADHD kids in tennis, I find that they tend to ask more questions (deep questions) than other kids. The two most-asked questions are:
  • "What does good timing mean?"
  • "Where should I look when striking the ball - the target or the ball?"
These are smart questions. It is my turn to satisfy their curiosity by following their thinking patterns. It seems that ADHD kids can perform well if they are convinced up front that what they are doing makes sense to their neural systems. In tournaments, players cannot play well on court if they do not use their brains; however, over-thinking when striking the ball is equally detrimental. When I coach ADHD kids on court, I normally divide instruction and drill time into three parts: Part I is just for trial-and-error time so they can "verify" the instructions; Part II is dedicated to a "Q & A" focusing on "why to do this"; and Part III is the drill time in which players strike the ball out of "trust" and instinct. Part II is not necessary for other kids, but adds value to the lesson for most ADHD kids on the tennis court.


I translate their "where to look" question into "what should a tennis player's mind aim at when hitting the ball?" On groundstrokes, the average ball flight time for an 80-mph forehand is about 1.3 seconds. At the end of the flight time, when the ball bounces forward, the receiver needs to respond to the ball by:
  • reacting (human beings' reaction time is about 0.2 seconds)
  • acting in multitasks (e.g., grip change, hit zone setup, and ball strike).
Normally, the receiving player has enough time to react, but feels "too busy" and has "no time" to act. Managing the reaction and action times wisely is a big challenge to every tennis player, and especially to children with ADHD who lack concentration.


I coach ADHD kids to first consider the value-added tasks only (where to hit, shot selection, opponent's signals) when reacting to an opponent's groundstroke. And, then teach them to mentally converge on critical targets to act when the ball bounces in about 0.2 seconds. Finally, I teach them to concentrate on the only object: the ball at impact.


Figure 1: Converging-mind diagram


The mind's path in ball striking follows the "3C" sequence. In about a 1-second time span, as a process: Consider (requiring sound judgment), converge (requiring good habits) and concentrate (requiring discipline). Figure 1 illustrates my converging mind pyramid, which explains the mind target in a dynamic fashion. It applies to every tennis player. However, the second "C" (converge) is more important to ADHD kids. They need the second C to bridge the judgment phase to the concentration phase. A "converging mind" is a good trait that most ADHD kids can be trained to develop on a tennis court.


In the last 1/200th of one second at contact, when the ball is fully compressed, our eyes cannot see the ball on the sweet spot, but our minds can "see" the ball impacting the racquet by imagination and sensation. Here, emphasizing the mind rather than the eye makes more sense to ADHD kids. I keep telling them that "If your eyes are busy as you radar everything (called "bouncy eyes") on court, your mind cannot guide you to time the ball right." It makes more sense to emphasize mind converging ability first before asking them to "look at the ball" in the game. Learning how to converge their mind on court will help ADHD kids to improve their attention ability in their daily life as well.


Quiet eyes
A couple of years ago, I read an article, "My quiet eye," which was featured on PBS' "Scientific American Frontiers" program Web site. Alan Alda not only narrated the piece, but also demonstrated Joan Vickers' eye-tracking apparatus to tune up his basketball free throw. "All along I thought I was focusing my eyes on my target. Little did I know that my eyes were actually busy looking around," he said. In Vickers' recent study, the data reveals exactly how ADHD adversely affects a person's ability to take in and process the visual information needed for good eye-hand coordination in table tennis.


The basic idea behind "quiet eye" is that your brain needs a window of time to receive the right information in order to organize the movement and then control it while it is occurring. Focus and concentration through QE needs to be directed to the locations or objects that matter, while all else can be ignored.


Do ADHD kids have trouble tracking the ball? Vickers' research results showed that:
  1. ADHD kids have much jumpier eyes with a frequency almost double that of other kids.
  2. ADHD athletes have different think paths in processing visual information.
  3. ADHD mainly affects the long-duration system, which requires both memory and concentration skills and they should do as well as other kids in dealing with short-duration tasks.
In tennis, the player has to track the ball early in flight in order to determine where it will be when it is hit by the racquet. The research shows that ADHD players tend to see it later rather than earlier, so they should track the ball closely as it comes off their opponent's racquet and during the first part of its flight. The flight of the ball has to be assessed early so the hitting action can be set up and organized correctly. The challenge is to improve the gaze of ADHD kids so they can obtain all the visual information they need to accurately return the fast ball.


Vickers' research results helped me to develop a "focus on the right thing" drill for ADHD kids. One exercise we use to help ADHD players see the ball while it is coming toward them is to mark signs and numbers (with different colors) on the tennis ball and ask the players to call out the color, sign and number before the ball is received. The drill causes ADHD kids to focus on the ball and also tells the coach if they did see the signs and numbers marked on the ball.


Use imagination: flashlight drill
The brain is thought to process visual and tactile motion separately; however, the latest neuroscience research shows that the senses of vision and touch are closely linked, and that each can influence the other. We mentally rehearse or imitate every action we witness. The power of visual instruction in tennis has been demonstrated and promoted by many tennis-teaching professionals in the past 10 years thanks to the availability of advanced high-speed digital camera systems and sophisticated analysis software. For coaching certain skills, I have found that traditional verbal instruction is not as effective as visual instruction when coaching ADHD kids. In the last two years, I have tried several coaching methods using visual instruction and imaginary drills. Both seem to play key roles in linking the senses of vision and touch as well as the short- and long-duration systems.


For example, when teaching the forehand, I use two stroke keys: 1) Use the racquet cap (butt) to point to the coming ball before the forward swing, and 2) use the racquet butt to point toward the ball as it leaves the racquet face at the finish of the stroke. Those two keys are the "anchors" for coaching the right form of locked wrist at contact and the windshield follow-through on the forehand. I have no trouble with non-ADHD kids following these two instructions. Simply showing the visual images (see photos below in Fig. 2) can help students remember these two keys.


Figure 2: Racquet orientations before and after striking the ball


When coaching ADHD kids on these two stroke keys, I had a different experience, which led me to develop more effective drills for them. I realized that using a flashlight in this forehand drill is really helpful to ADHD kids (see photos below). The visual images show the two checkpoints: before contact and after the follow-through. The first photo shows the flashlight pointed to the coming ball, while the second photo shows the flashlight pointed at the ball after it leaves the racquet. When both keys are applied to the forehand, students have a better understanding of racquet orientation. Making contact with a laid-back wrist and finishing with a windshield follow-through are automatically conducted with ease in forehand coaching.


Figure 3: Flashlight drills help understanding correct racquet orientation


A combination of medications and behavioral therapy is the mainstream ADHD treatment. Playing tennis is a helpful sport supplement for ADHD kids in managing their hyperactivity, impulsiveness, inattention, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.


According to Dr. Paul Wender, author of the bestselling book "The Hyperactive Child, Adolescent, and Adult," many ADHD children tend to behave several years younger than their chronological age. To be a successful ADHD tennis coach, my advice is that you should be prepared and experienced to coach young kids with fun, encouragement, method and passion.


I would like to share a quote from tennis great Martina Navratilova to conclude my ADHD tennis introduction in this article: "I just try to concentrate on concentrating on the tennis court."


Jian (Jose) Li is a tennis-teaching professional certified by USPTA. He is the founder of ADHD-Tennis, a nonprofit organization (, in California's Bay Area. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University. He can be reached at