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A Game of Strengths and Weaknesses: Athletics Amid Academics

The following is based on my clinical experience and familiarity with the general research regarding issues of learning disabilities. It is not meant as a guide for therapeutic intervention or scientific review, but to promote “food for thought” regarding the potential benefits of sports in the world of learning disabilities. Hopefully, it will encourage students, parents, and educators to expand their thinking regarding how to investigate strengths.

While we may, in sum, be created equal, one does not have to look far to see notable differences in where and how our skills are distributed. At first glance, many view a need for separation between academics and athletics in the scholastic setting. However, sports may serve to enhance the performance of the learning disabled or attention disordered student, and integrating sports and academics may enhance performance in both. At the very least, learning problems in the classroom do not automatically translate to similar difficulties on playing field or gym.

As a neuropsychologist, I carefully consider my role in serving those with whom I work. Although a variety of individuals benefit from neuropsychological assessment, those with learning disabilities and primary attentional disorders (e.g., ADD/ADHD) potentially receive some of the greatest assistance. A thorough neuropsychological exam for these individuals involves administering measures that attempt to quantify their ability in several thinking areas. These areas include intelligence and academic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, testing also assesses the building blocks of these cognitive abilities, such as attention and memory, speed and accuracy of processing, and higher-level skills such as abstract reasoning and mental organization.

Why evaluate so extensively? All these skills have real-world application and implications. Although at first glance many see testing as a way of determining the presence of a disability, it is just as important, if not more so, that tests yield information about a person’s strengths. By assessing a broad range of faculties, a broad profile of proficiencies as well as possible deficiencies is assured. In this way, recommendations can be made for using strengths to compensate for weaknesses. By identifying what a student can do well, strategies can then be suggested for ensuring that students apply their personal strengths to their own benefit. Additionally, classroom accommodations for disabled students that “level the playing field” can be appropriately tailored to optimize personal efficiency and overcome relative limitations.

Let’s consider the cognitive issues frequently faced by the learning disabled. For the learning disabled, there are significant weaknesses in at least one broad academic arena in relation to aptitude. Individuals with attentional disorders frequently have problems with sustained attention and concentration, as well as problems with organization, planning, self-restraint, and self-evaluation. In general, disabled students must work harder in coursework that demands these skills and need tailored accommodations to help them demonstrate their true ability. Furthermore, despite the important and needed efforts to reduce stigma and potential for limitations on people with disabilities, there remains a self-esteem “cost” to children, adolescents, and adults coping with learning and attentional disabilities. Problems with self-esteem as well as the aforementioned areas of cognitive weakness can lead to relationship distress and communication problems, adding to the complexity of coping with disabilities.

As is clear to all with direct and indirect knowledge of what it is like to manage such disabilities, creativity and “thinking outside the box” is essential for improving the emotional and cognitive impacts. Therefore, in keeping with the theme of observing the strengths and positives, the issue of student athletes with learning and attentional disorders should take an optimistic perspective. As a neuropsychologist in a University setting, I often work with individuals who have learning difficulties in the classroom, but who excel in a particular sport. The lesson that we may intuitively know, but forget to apply, is that a weakness in one area does not imply a generalized weakness. Though some at the college level have criticized that participation in athletics detracts from scholastic performance, such involvement has much to offer, particular for students with learning and attentional disabilities.

How might athletics be of use? Think about the possible cognitive, emotional, and social weaknesses mentioned above. Finding a skill that one has in abundance can do wonders for self-esteem and one’s sense of mastery. At all academic levels, this is an important perception that should be cultivated. While there is always room for improving, having something to call your specialty can improve confidence and enhance determination for success in other performance areas. It sets a positive tone that naturally carries over for other endeavors. In addition to the emotional boost, sports participation also provides opportunities for cognitive and psychological “interventions.”

First, athletic involvement is by nature “hands on.” Therefore, mastery of skills is derived primarily by “doing,” or physically modeling and repeating. Sports can therefore access learning strengths held by those that have difficulty with traditional classroom learning. In some settings, use of “hands on” strategies is critical in terms of accumulating knowledge. If forced to choose, would you like your surgeon to be the one with straight A’s in the classroom or straight A’s in technique and practical experience?

Second, athletics ideally occur within a structured setting, with organized, visible, and frequently tangible goals. Athletics are rule-governed, with clear consequences for violating regulations and clear rewards for following them. Organization and structure, particularly for individuals with ADD/ADHD, are essential aspects of any remediation. Medications, such as Ritalin, help students enter a “ready state” to learn. However, techniques that help students order and regulate their environment must be incorporated into any interventions. “Executive skills” do not always occur naturally or spontaneously, they must be learned and practiced. Organized athletics can provide the context for developing these skills. Third, and related, athletics participation not only provides a structure for that period of time, but also imposes a structure on the entire day. Although physically draining, it demands organization of time and an awareness of time that has positive implications for orchestrating academic work.

Lastly, participation in sports is just that… involvement with and frequently dependence upon others. It can thus teach students, particularly those with verbally based learning difficulties, about communication, cooperation, self-evaluation, and self-regulation in social situations. While the classroom may at times be a place of isolation, avoidance, embarrassment, and low sense of worth, the field or gym may serve as the environment in which a learning disabled individual shines. In fact, increased socializing may be the most important role that athletics play, a place to perceive oneself as an integral “part of the team” not as a disability.

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