Published February 2012 • Revised July 2014


Youth affected by Central Auditory Processing Disorder (C.A.P.D. or CAPD) are capable of participating in elite sport and succeeding.  They can accomplish the same feats as another athlete but may struggle to follow the directions of instructions or interact awkwardly with peers.  Some may interpret aloof behaviour as a lack of effort or a refusal to listen but this is not the not the case.  Failure to understand the athlete’s difficulties leads to poor self-confidence and a possible withdrawal from the activity.

Three to five percent of school-aged children have C.A.P.D.; their hearing is normal but their brain interprets sounds differently than peers.  The disorder affects males twice as much as females (E.S.I.A., 2006).  It is a Learning Disability because it is a deficit in language processing that is not the result of hearing impairment (Ontario Teachers’ Federation, n.d.).  Students may have trouble making out sounds in a noisy environment, distinguishing between various sounds, maintaining focus and analysing what they’ve heard in order to solve problems (E.S.I.A., 2006).

The Importance of Physical Activity

Youth with exceptionalities who participate in regular physical activity experience a reduction in depression and anxiety, increases in self-esteem and a more positive impression of the student by their peers (Anning, 2010, p. 12).  However, they are two-thirds less likely to participate in extra-curricular sport than their classmates (Bailey, 2005, p. 79).  Many children with development language disorders have gross and fine motor skill difficulties which can be improved with intervention designed to raise body awareness and motor skills (Rintala, Pienimäki, Ahonen, & Kooistra, 1998, p. 732).

Excellent Physical and Health Education (P.H.E.) classes or extra-curricular programs allow students with special needs to acquire learning skills – collaboration, self-management and problem-solving – in a dynamic setting (Tripp, Rizzo, & Webbert, 2007, p. 33).  The kinaesthetic nature of sport can remove many barriers caused by A.P.D. in a regular classroom, such as racing to keep up with every word of a teacher and missing the big idea of the lesson.  It is incumbent upon the leader to reach out to the athlete with special needs and welcome them into the group, enabling them to participate in fitness activities that they would have otherwise avoided.

Building an Inclusive Environment

When someone is affected by A.P.D., they may fail to hear instructions, toil in complicated drills and perform below their ability in games which require dynamic communication.  The class may be divided according to skill level; the inability of exceptional students to perform exactly as told may lead the teacher to perceive them as among the weaker group (Hersman & Hodge, 2010, p. 746).  Worst of all, the player with A.P.D. might be labelled as someone who refuses to cooperate or try hard, two qualities that lead to ostracism in the macho environment of sport.  Functional exclusion occurs when the student is part of the class but does not receive the same opportunity for meaningful instruction and active participation as peers (Tripp, Rizzo, & Webbert, 2007, p. 32).

Educators express concerns about inclusive P.H.E.: the exceptional student will slow down the class, jeopardize safety or disrupt the learning environment (Hersman & Hodge, 2010, p. 742).  Some instructors worry that they do not have the knowledge or the support those with special needs (Morley, Bailey, Tan, & Cooke, 2005, p. 91).  Others feel that taking the time to provide modifications and accommodations in an inclusive environment detracts from the level of attention other athletes deserve (Casebolt & Hodge, 2010, p. 152).

P.H.E. teachers believe that teaching a student with a behavioural exceptionality in an inclusive class is more demanding that teaching those with other mild or moderate exceptionalities.  A.P.D. affected students who become frustrated can be misidentified as behavioural and functionally excluded, receiving different levels of instruction from coaches and interacting less frequently with other participants (Casebolt & Hodge, 2010, pp. 151-152).

When encountering a player who is having difficulties, either in terms of performing the sport successfully or working with others, a change in the coach’s attitude is required.  Successful high school teachers in inclusive environments openly supported the integration of students with special needs and relished the opportunity to provide differentiated instruction.  This spirit of social acceptance could be mirrored by the class and become part of the team or school culture (Hodge, Ammah, Casebolt, Lamaster, & O’Sullivan, 2004, p. 403).

Bringing Teammates Together

Canada’s coach education program emphasizes that coaches should provide all athletes, especially those affected by disabilities or exceptionalities, with a positive first experience in the sport (Coaching Association of Canada, 2011, p. 7).  Youth play sport or participates in physical education class in order to have fun, stay fit and socialize.  Due to fragile self-confidence, youth with exceptionalities are even more sensitive regarding first contact.  The initial experience involves not only the coach but teammates, as students with exceptionalities are often excluded from teamwork situations because of awkward social skills (Anning, 2010, p. 18).

The instructor should discreetly monitor how peers relate to the affected student and immediately address any issues of exclusion or bullying.  For example, players may refuse to pass the ball to someone with A.P.D. during a scrimmage.  The coach must express why sharing the ball with all teammates is an effective tactic and outline the strengths of the affected player while at the same time speaking to the athlete and reinforcing what they must do when they receive the ball in that situation.  Creating situations for that player to succeed – catching the ball on the wing, driving baseline and deciding whether to attempt a lay-up or pass to a teammate in the opposite corner – will change the perceptions of others.

Although the coach may have apprehensions about managing a diverse group, assumptions should not be made about an individual’s ability based on how they interact with others.  For example, someone with A.P.D. who has trouble listening to instructions in a crowded gym may be judged to be a player who cannot participate in more complicated game situations.  This reinforces the athlete’s negative self-perception, reducing their participation in the sport and possibly their involvement in social activities throughout their lives (Brittain, 2004, p. 441).

Empowering Individuals

When a P.H.E. teacher begins instructing a student with an Individual Education Plan or a coach begins working with an athlete with special needs, they should get to get to know the player and construct a profile of their strengths and needs.  Establishing a relationship early is an effective method for the coach to understand their needs and what they want to accomplish in the sport.  Non-verbal communication like eye-contact, body language and proximity can enhance a the connection with a player straining to comprehend instructions (Schreck, 2011, p. 198).

Put Players in a Position to Succeed: If an athlete suffering from A.P.D. commits a mistake during the game, for example missing an open teammate on offense or failing to help defensively, teammates may perceive them as someone who is less able. Coaches should always adapt their strategies to the athlete’s capabilities (Coaching Association of Canada, 2011, p. 6). Establish good habits, such as moving to maintain clear passing lanes and always watching the ball and the man. When the play is structured so that the majority of the action unfolds in front of the ballhandler, it’s easier for young players to execute the game plan well.

When students face adversity in the athletic domain that challenges their specific exceptionality, they become frustrated and appear inattentive (Anning, 2010, p. 18).  In the case of a student with A.P.D., these obstacles could include excessive verbal commands in a noisy environment.  Alternatives include simple key words or signals to remind the athlete to stay focused or debriefing the performance afterwards in a quiet setting.  Objective feedback could be enhanced with visual or kinaesthetic demonstrations so the player understands what the correct movement looks and feels like.  Video (of the athlete’s own performance or a role model) is a realistic option because of today’s low-cost and high-quality technology.

Steps to Success

Teammates Helping Each Other

A peer tutor could work with student-athletes in P.H.E. class and practice to ensure they perform the drill properly and sustain their motivation.  Initially, the tutor will interact more with the exceptional student than others but as the mentoring continues, various group members will join and increase total interactions with team members.  Data on whether motor performance improves is mixed but the relationship is another way to provide constructive feedback and sustain engagement in the activity (Klavina & Block, 2008, p. 154).

Load Drills Purposefully

A student with A.P.D. may have auditory memory problems and seem disorganized or forgetful.  Working and short-term memory is utilized to process the conversation so the capacity to follow a complicated series of directions may be curtailed (E.S.I.A., 2006).    Educators should first teach the fundamentals, ensure that correct habits are formed and load the drill in order to increase the physical and mental intensity.  Escalating the process too quickly or without demonstrations and feedback leads to further frustration for both athlete and coach (J. Atkinson, personal communication, July 25, 2011).  Coaches should load the drill slowly, focusing on communicating clearly and distinctly with each individual and remaining within their unique Zone of Proximal Development, even if the rest of the group is farther along.

Be Clear and Concise

Limit coaching during games so not to overload the athlete (Stabeno, 2004, p. 148).  Youth affected by A.P.D. may have trouble focusing their listening abilities long enough to hear a long instruction or putting multiple verbal commands together (E.S.I.A., 2006).  Coaches could meet their responsibilities for providing detailed constructive feedback during timeouts and halftime by speaking to the team and discreetly pulling the player aside to ensure that they have the same understanding.  Such conversations and other accommodations should remain discreet so as not to call attention to the exceptionality.

Coaching Position: Giving instructions from the side while a drill is in progress may result in the player missing information. Coaches should engage the student with eye contact and give the feedback directly in front of them. When Yao Ming and Steve Francis played for the Houston Rockets, both had significant hearing loss in their left ears (due to a childhood illness and recent migraines respectively). Coaches (and translators) had to give instructions into the right ear. Referees initially thought that Yao was acting aloof when they sidled up to his left side to have a quick word until they were told about the condition by Houston coaches. During this time, the Rockets initiated all of their plays with hand signals (Hughes, 2003).

Non-Judgmental Objective Feedback

Video, even in short clips, is something all coaches should use to illustrate their feedback. A short game or practice clip contains many more details than could be effectively communicated verbally. Continuing with openness and honesty, a player may reduce their frustration by reflecting on what happened during the competition. Writing down the facts – what happened, what went well and what could be improved – will dissipate their anxiety by acknowledging small successes and listing small concrete actions for improvement.

Non-Verbal Communication

Team members can communicate visually during games, showing hand signals, pointing in a particular direction or tugging on a jersey.  This does not call attention to the athlete with A.P.D. but makes the entire team more resilient when they face noisy environments during away games.  “Quiet” scrimmages in part-method (3-on-3) and whole-method (5-on-5) hone these collaboration skills.

Communicate Non-Verbally in Multiple Ways: Promoting non-verbal communication helps all players enjoy basketball and play the game better. Hand signals during plays – such as always providing a target with hands when cutting or showing a fist when screening – can supplement talking. On defense, teammates can push each other into position or direct each other so that they can find their assignments. Teams that have more tactile communication experience enhanced cooperation, less stress and better performance (Kraus, Huang, & Kelter, 2010, p. 748).

Foster Awareness and Anticipation

The player affected by A.P.D. may have trouble localizing sound (E.S.I.A., 2006) so the coach should teach them to scan the court to keep in touch with teammates.  Those teammates must be reminded to communicate clearly and explicitly, getting the affected player’s attention first. Alerting the officials to the student’s condition fosters understanding and prevents negative situations from escalating due to a misinterpretation of the player’s reaction (MacLeod, 2005). Explaining certain game situations and what is likely to happen next allows the athlete to predict what will unfold rather than constantly reacting.

Quality athletic experiences for youth with exceptionalities are based on leaders and how they organize the activities (Anning, 2010, p. 20).  As teachers practice differentiated instruction in a standard classroom, coaches adapt to each athlete’s physical, mental and emotional stage of (Coaching Association of Canada, 2011, p. 16).  Since youth with A.P.D. may suffer from stress caused by multi-tasking in high school and increasing academic demands (Heine & Slone, 2008, p. 407), they may need greater support to expand their learning skills than their peers.


In additional to providing accommodations, inclusive educators create a safe environment and supportive culture that removes stigma, enabling all students to work together and inspiring future participation in physical activity (Right to Play, 2009, p. 189).  Inclusive physical education classes or extra-curricular activities are a process, not an outcome.  Many experienced instructors feel that it is always possible to make further progress in the engagement of students with special needs (Morley, Bailey, Tan, & Cooke, 2005, p. 91).

As teachers and coaches expand their professional practice and become familiar with students with exceptionalities, they become more confident in the outcome of the class and activity (Anning, 2010, p. 49). When both players and coaches perform successful in athletics, confidence rises, skills and abilities are acquired and social relationships formed (Casebolt & Hodge, 2010, p. 152).  A.P.D. can reduce in severity as the brain develops and sport can be the empowering experience that motivates the student-athlete to improve themselves.

Works Cited

  • Anning, C. (2010, June). Physical Activity in Children and Adolescents with Exceptionalities. Retrieved January 25, 2012, from University of Saskatchewan Library Electronic Theses & Dissertations:
  • Bailey, R. (2005). Evaluating the relationship between physical education, sport and social inclusion. Educational Review, 57 (1), 71-90.
  • Brittain, I. (2004). Perceptions of Disability and their Impact upon Involvement in Sport for People with Disabilities at All Levels. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 28 (4), 429-452.
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  • Kraus, M. W., Huang, C., & Kelter, D. (2010). Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance. Emotion , 10 (5), 745–749.
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  • Morley, D., Bailey, R., Tan, J., & Cooke, B. (2005). Inclusive Physical Education. European Physical Education, 11 (1), 84-107.
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  • Schreck, M. K. (2011). You’ve Got to Reach Them to Teach Them. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.
    Stabeno, M. E. (2004). The A.D.H.D. Affected Athlete. Victoria: Trafford.
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