Published May 2016


When gifted students enter the sporting arena, they face many obstacles. There is intense pressure to obtain high marks and they (or their families) may perceive sport is a mere diversion compared to the job of school and university preparation. They may suffer from doubt and a want of confidence. Grades have been easy for them so far and they are unaccustomed to competing in a domain where success does not come easy.

Minor impediments abound. The gifted students may find themselves treated differently by coaches and teammates who feel that they should be hitting the books instead of taking the court. Perhaps they are frustrated by the chaotic scenes that sometimes manifest themselves in sport. They may have had negative experiences with their peers in another part of school and do not wish to interact with them further.

Despite the potential drawbacks, gifted students should not be discouraged from participation as there are substantial benefits. There certainly is no truth to the stereotype of the academically gifted student who is athletically helpless. In fact, gifted students participate in sport at a rate about ten percent higher than their non-gifted peers. Seventy-two percent of gifted students are physically active, the leader among a myriad of extra-curricular interests. After soccer, basketball is the second most popular sport, enjoyed by a quarter of gifted student-athletes (Wininger & Rinn, 2011, p. 84).

Benefits of Athletic Participation for Gifted Students

Although only a small number (less than two percent) of gifted students actually drop out and leave high school without a diploma, issues such as underachievement and a lack of engagement remain prevalent (Matthews, 2008). Sport can address these problems and develop the entire person. Throughout adolescence, a conscientious coach can serve as a valuable mentor.

Psychosocial factors such as social skills, growth mindsets and goal setting enable gifted students to achieve throughout their lives (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2012, p. 184). Team sports provide unique opportunities to develop these soft skills. Also, active youth tend to be healthier throughout their lives.

Personal Health

A challenging academic environment is comparable to a stressful job; there is an increased risk of poor personal health (McKenna & Dunstan-Lewis, 2004, p. 180). Lifelong physical activity should be encouraged because improves cardiovascular health, increases bone density and maintains a healthy weight. It is never too early to develop positive habits and extra-curricular sport can be part of any student’s daily routine, even those who are academically inclined.

Academic Performance

Training for a team sport such as basketball will boost both the anaerobic threshold and the aerobic base of students, which promotes brain development. Higher fit children (top quartile of VO2max) show decreased grey matter thickness in multiple parts of the brain and increased performance in mathematics (Chaddock-Heyman, et al., 2015, p. 7). This is thought to be because excellent problem solving involves working memory and keeping relevant information in mind while thinking critically.

Think on the Court: Coaches can incorporate thinking into their practices. For example, challenging working memory during a ballhandling drill by calling out a simple math problem (“2+5”). After the Phase A drills, coaches should begin including guided defense (a basic read such as driving baseline or middle) in their practices and conclude with dynamic decision-making that simulates a game situation (a more complex choice such as spotting second level of the defense and moving the ball accordingly).

Balance and Enjoyment

To maximize the benefits of extra-curricular athletics, players should consider both school and sport to be areas of “study” and possess strong motivation in both fields (McKenna & Dunstan-Lewis, 2004, p. 191). But time is short and it is imperative to make choices. Waiting until a crisis erupts is not helpful (such as when a C.Y.B.L. weekend overlaps Culminating Activities) but being open and establishing priorities at the outset of the year can make a difference. Coaches can guide student-athletes as they balance dual interests and achieve a result that matches their commitment.

Keep Perspective: Throughout his life, Harvard graduate and N.B.A. point guard Jeremy Lin has had to remind himself that he is not his performance, whether it is his marks in the classroom or his points on the scoreboard. Others may expect a great deal from him but he now recognizes that success and failure are never permanent and he is more than his accomplishments (Wang, 2015).

Social Skills

Gifted student-athletes have better peer relations than non-sport participants (Rinn & Wininger, 2007, p. 45). Teamwork is an essential component of making sport fun and raising participation in physical activity. Building team chemistry, providing encouragement to the group and instructing the squad to play together are among the most “fun” aspects of sport for teenagers (Visek, Achrati, Manning, McDonnell, Harris, & DiPietro, 2015, p. 19).

Coaches should organizer team building activities throughout the season. Challenges that make use of a variety of abilities will not only integrate gifted student-athletes into the team but make the experience more enjoyable for everyone.

“Grit” and Goal Orientation

For gifted students the capacities to cope with challenges, handle criticism, take risks and commit to a long-term task separate those who move on to the next level from those who do not advance (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2012, p. 186). Rare is the elite athlete who did not face a setback or a bump in the road. Coaches must convey to players that a poor performance during the game is like an in-class quiz and not the final mark for the course.

Among young adults, physical activity promotes development of the frontal cortex and cognitive control, which is integral to goal setting and planning (Chaddock-Heyman, et al., 2013). The task orientation and autonomy gained from sporting endeavours leads to improved performance in the classroom (Wininger & Rinn, 2011, p. 85). Taking time for aerobic exercise which improves energy level and focus can be a part of a productive study routine. Coaches should continue to train, even if only for sixty or ninety minutes, throughout the end of the semester.

Increased levels of aerobic fitness enhance neuroplasticity and overall scholastic performance. Sport participation can also help adolescents control themselves and respond to adversity (Chaddock-Heyman, et al., 2015, p. 8). Playing team sports boosts emotional stability (Rinn & Wininger, 2007, p. 45). When a student-athlete acquires these tools competing in sports, they carry that tool box into the classroom and use it to maximize their performance in that domain.


Adolescents who exercise regularly have higher self-esteem than those who have sedentary lifestyles – across all domains, not just sport (Rinn & Wininger, 2007, p. 37). Gifted and non-gifted students feel higher levels of scholastic and athletic competence, physical appearance and overall self-worth if they participate in team sports.

Self-concept scores begin to drop during the early to middle adolescent years at the same time as sport participation rates also decrease. Encouraging physical activity can boost self-esteem. Gifted male student-athletes tend to have superior self-confidence than their female counterparts (Rinn & Wininger, 2007, p. 40). When coaching gifted young women on a varsity or junior varsity team, high school coaches should emphasize encouragement and fun in their philosophy.

Strategies for Coaching Gifted Students

Gifted students share many attributes with successful athletes, including work ethic, discipline and creativity. When coaches reach out and make these students-athletes part of their team, they can help the young person as well as the remainder of the squad. On the other hand, negative experiences in early adolescence lead to attrition and disaffection towards physical activity for years afterwards (Visek, Achrati, Manning, McDonnell, Harris, & DiPietro, 2015, p. 2).

Motivation to succeed in school may not equate to motivation to succeed in sport. Unlocking the intrinsic motivation that a young person possesses in one field so that it is evident across all domains is easier said than done. Coaches can create a dynamic environment in practice, build a conscientious team culture and adapt their coaching to the diverse players on the roster. To engage gifted students, sport must be challenging physically and mentally.


Basketball players average almost six thousand hours of dedicated practice with an emphasis on decision-making before selection to a national team (Baker, Côté, & Abernathy, 2003, p. 18). Debriefing choices after games and competitive drills can consolidate decision-making skills. A meticulous player who values the mental side of the game may also benefit from keeping a journal to reflect on recent performances.

Culminating practice with small-sided games and deliberate play is vital for developing elite athletes (Baker & Young, 2014, p. 146). When games involve 2-on-2, 3-on-3 or 4-on-4, athletes are rarely off-task and can build their aerobic base and anaerobic threshold. Also, they can perform several high intensity repetitions and make several decisions. Load towards making decisions while fatigued or under physical duress from the opponent. To fully benefit from this deliberate play, athletes must buy in and become involved in their own development.

Trust Players: When coaches have put players in a position to succeed, they need to trust them to play. Rajon Rondo possesses brilliant spatial visualization and sees the court extremely well. When he sees a better opportunity on the floor, he wants the freedom to take advantage of it. What has been perceived as conflict has often been a desire for a two-way dialogue and his expertise to be respected (Holmes, 2015).

Related practice – for example other team sports – aids acquisition of decision-making skills (Baker, Côté, & Abernathy, 2003, p. 22). In a practice with gifted student athletes, low organized games such as dribble tag or keep away can energize the group, create a break from the stress of the school day and improve making decisions with the ball.

Read the Play: Jeremy Lin’s success in the screen and roll stems from his ability to keep his dribble alive and make the defense react. Coach Steve Clifford paired him with Kemba Walker in the backcourt with the intention of pressuring opponents with two aggressive guards. Lin is able to get to the rim, draw fouls and find teammates for high percentage shots. From his debut in New York and throughout his time in Houston, Los Angeles and Charlotte, Lin has put in extra work every day in practice and significantly reduced his turnovers (Keh, 2016).

Internal Attribution

Champion athletes differ from others in how they internally attribute the reasons for success and failure. Whereas most athletes focus on an external cause, such as the official or the opponent, elite competitors select a factor that they can control and try to improve it, such as their technique or decision-making (Collins, MacNamara, & McCarthy, 2016, p. 6). Gifted students often possess an analytical mind that benefits them at school so coaches should encourage them to look inwards and find something within their locus of control to adjust.

It may be frustrating to observe teammates who behave inappropriately but leaders first take the plank from their own eye before daring to removing the speck from their own. Areas where a gifted student may take initiative and model the way include communication, execution of team strategies or being a respectful team member. Achieving these smaller tasks put the student on the path to reach larger more significant goals.

Although players need to address the issues that lead to failure, they should retain a positive outlook. Coaches want players to be honest with themselves because they know they can succeed if they make changes. Encourage everyone so they know that belong on the team and can see tangible improvement in if they persevere (Tough, 2016). The aim is address skills and abilities that are within the athlete’s control and will grow with effort, like ballhandling, shooting or court vision.

Team Building

When gifted students compare themselves to the rest of their academic classes, they have a high self-concept because they are outstanding compared to a typical peer in that setting. When they compete in extra-curricular athletics, this self-confidence may not exist or they may have a negative self-image if they perceive themselves to be weaker than the rest of the group. Bringing the team together and developing a positive association with the group can mitigate this relative self-assessment (Chanal, Marsh, Sarrazin, & Bois, 2005, p. 65).

Talk: Players may be shy or introverted but it should not prevent them from talking on the court. Talking has nothing to do with talent. Any player can state their position on the court and they can bolster their vocabulary to include offensive and defense terms. Even on the bench, a player could call out the cutters or the screen to remain engaged and help the team. Before free throws, a player can huddle their teammates together to discuss the next play.

Gifted students know what to say but they must feel comfortable speaking out. When Christian Laettner and Grant Hill played at Duke, Laettner, a senior, told the freshman Hill to stop shooting and drive the ball to the rim. The tone may have been abrupt but the message was one teammate taking initiative to tell another how to help the squad win (Bilas, 2014, p. 14).


Overcoming sporting challenges forges elite athletes so coaches should include mastery-level drills in their season plan. Gifted students relish a challenge but it cannot be so intense that they feel tempted to quit when the task is overwhelming (Olsweski-Kublius & Lee, 2004, p. 108). A shooting drill that mimics a favourite player or a timed series of ballhandling moves and shots that serves as random practice. These mastery-oriented drills permit players to track their progress over the year but at first, initial expectations may need to be modified to maintain engagement.

Begin with the end in mind and explain how the challenge will translate to improvement on the court. For gifted student, coaches could emphasize some of the little things that they could focus upon in order to make a big difference in their performances. Charting screen and roll decisions with a reasonable target (make good reads three quarters of the time) may suit these athletes.

Create a Drill: As a high school player, C.J. McCollum and his brother created elaborate dribbling drills to simulate game situations. Now, the drills are part of his pregame routine with the Portland Trail Blazers (Richman, 2015). Take advantage of the creativity of gifted student-athletes by asking them to design a drill to work on a part of the game that interests them.


Experts do not have to train more (volume of training) but they need to perform the little things more (quality of training). Additional activities, such as video study are valuable for developing expert athletes (Baker & Young, 2014, p. 142). Gifted students may be willing to partake in video analysis to strengthen their skills. When he was injured during his junior year at Lehigh University, McCollum reviewed every screen and roll action in detail.

That attention to detail empowered McCollum to win the N.B.A.’s Most Improved Player Award in 2016. He scored almost six more points per game on screen and roll actions than the previous year. Furthermore, he created an additional five points passing out of the same situations (Synergy Sports, 2016). The coaching staff provided him with those opportunities due to his improved ballhandling in close quarters and adept decision-making under pressure.

Study Role Models: McCollum also studied other players with similar games to his own. One player that he studied was Tony Parker and his jumper off the dribble (Young, 2017). To motivate a gifted student, the coach could design a personalized workout based on a role model in order to address goals shared by both.


Coaches must be frank and honest (Collins, MacNamara, & McCarthy, 2016, p. 3). However, coaches should not criticize what a player already knows as this only undermines their image in the locker room. If a gifted student does not respect the knowledge of their coach, they will not respond well. Rondo often battled with coaches when he did not feel they were sufficiently knowledgeable about the game (Holmes, 2015).

On the other hand, gifted students must also grasp that sport is not all seashells and balloons. They have decided to participate in sport because they sought a challenge and a coach may not praise everything that they do. Accept the feedback and take it in.

Gifted students are continually learning and self-actualization is a great source of motivation. Coaches must share this belief and always learn more about sport, coaching and teaching. After a competition, coaches should focus on objective and specific feedback and instruct the athlete on concrete points they can execute better in the future.

Rest and Recovery

Expert athletes need to combine effort to practice purposefully with the need to rest and recover properly (Baker & Young, 2014, p. 141). Although gifted students tend to sleep less and have higher sleep efficiency, athletes must get enough rest. Sleep the night before of a competition can be disrupted by anxiety and gifted athletes feel greater cognitive anxiety about their athletic endeavours. When athletes do not get enough sleep before a competition, their mood tenses further and they feel greater fatigue (Lastrella, Lovell, & Sargent, 2014). Coaches should remind players to avoid blue light from computer screen shortly before bedtime and practice some mindfulness meditation in order to sleep restfully.

Sport is a valuable pursuit for gifted students because success will not come easy. They will have to persevere and take care of the details to reach success. Making the season a miniature kinesiology course can give the students information about strength conditioning, mental training, nutrition and recovery imparts more information that contributes to peak performance.

Growth Mindset

Gifted students succeed because they balance extrinsic motivation from teachers or parents and intrinsic motivation from within. They tend to be motivated by both marks and learning (Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius, & Worrell, 2012, p. 178). To transfer this mindset to athletics, players must think of their physical and technical abilities as something that can be developed; the process from training and practice is as important as the outcome on the scoreboard.

In order to cultivate an incremental mindset, gifted students should be encouraged by parents and coaches. Mentors must not only underscore that skills are not fixed but something can be acquired with purposeful effort but also handle failure as an opportunity to get better. When parents believe that failure on a test or a game is a debilitating event, they significantly influence how their children perceive setbacks (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2016, p. 7).

Sport offers a gifted student a safe place to fail. There is amazing pressure to succeed in school but less so in sport. If a drill or a game does not go well, it is not the end of the world (Hershelman, 2016). Interventions to demonstrate adolescents how failure can be beneficial and develop grit, a critical attribute for success at the post-secondary and professional levels (Haimovitz & Dweck, 2016, p. 9). Parents must echo and reinforce the coach’s message (rather than criticize the result on the scoreboard) for the players to fully adopt a growth mindset.

There are countless possibilities to address defeat with gifted student-athletes in a constructive manner and coaches are only limited by their creativity. YouTube clips that players review before discussing decision-making as a team. Setting goals as a team so that everyone believes in the team’s direction. Exit interviews to discuss what went well during the year and what could have gone better.

Simply playing a sport will not make a teenager resilient but coaches can create an environment that stimulates non-cognitive skills such as handling adversity and physical toughness. A coach cannot make a student-athlete gritty but they can encourage them to demonstrate gritty behaviours. Part of the value of a basketball season is that there are countless chances for a player to form habits – talking on defense, getting back in transition, taking charges, chasing rebounds – that comprise persevering behaviour on the court.

Anyone can decide to talk on defense, sprint in transition or be work as hard as possible when they are on they court. Coaches should reinforce the importance of executing these actions and the success flows from them (Tough, 2016).  In basketball, a player literally hits the floor after taking a charge and is picked up by teammates. In life, students hit the floor and must be aware that they will be helped up and can continue forward.


When David Robinson played for the San Antonio Spurs, he filled many roles. At first, he was the franchise player and perennial all-star in the early 1990s. Then he helped mentor Tim Duncan and introduce him into the league as the decade concluded. Before retirement in 2003, he was a defensive presence and locker room leader for a championship team that featured Duncan, Manu Ginóbili and Tony Parker. Robinson understood what the team needed from him and took pride in providing it (Adande, 2012).

As his career progressed, Robinson did not feel less important to the Spurs. He knew that Duncan had become a better player but he also appreciate how his contributions still mattered. Every player who joins a team should have a well-defined role to suit their strengths. When coaching a gifted student-athlete take the time to design a role and communicate your expectations. Like Robinson, they will be able to understand their role, own it and eventually expand it.

List of Resources

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