Published July 2010 • Revised July 2014


Adolescents with learning disabilities (L.D.) experience difficulties with self-esteem, quality of life, and social adjustment. Many of these areas – and a life-long interest in fitness and healthy living – can be developed through athletic participation. Since youth affected by L.D. partake in less recreational activities than their peers, it is incumbent upon instructors to foster a positive environment for everyone’s physical and mental health (McMahon & Gross, 1987, p. 42).

Sound teaching in the classroom equates to sound coaching on the court. Flexibility is paramount, whether it is utilizing differentiated instruction to suit the strengths of each student-athlete or making allowances for skills that are difficult to master. Instructors must understand that each individual is unique (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, pp. 104-105). Waleed Belcher coaches many exceptional students at Eastern Commerce C.I., emphasizing patience and the ability to use alternative methods to get his message across (Belcher, 2010).

Enhancing Self-Image

Students who have been diagnosed with L.D. (or those who are undiagnosed but struggling) experience low self-esteem. It is common that exceptional students become accustomed to low achievement and feel powerless, showing minimal effort as a result (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 100). Self-efficacy can be coping strategy where people avoid activities that they do not believe they can perform well (Smith, 2002, p. 10).

On a basic level, students at-risk of dropping out can be motivated to stay in school and attend class regularly when enjoyable P.H.E. or extra-curricular activities serve as a carrot. On a more personal level, frequent positive feedback can raise self-confidence over time (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 104). Caring compliments from a person in authority transform sport into a medium where youth believe they can achieve high standards (Brathwaite, 2010).

Famous athletes who have overcome L.D. report that their hardest struggle was their battle with their self-esteem (Angle, 2007). Magic Johnson, who faced extensive trouble learning to read as a youth, tells the story of a security guard who said that he would never amount to anything. The Hall of Famer took great satisfaction when he returned to tell the man that he had been drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers (Strauss, 2009).

Classroom and Team Routines

Teachers simplify their classroom environment and eliminate distractions (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 105). Coaches must do the same in their gyms. To ensure that all players are engaged, coaches should make frequent eye contact and keep the instructions brief so there is not too long a wait before the activity resumes.

Teaching Games for Understanding (T.G.F.U.) can help students with short attention spans. T.G.F.U. has become popular in physical education because it fosters skill development by situating skill development within a dynamic game. If well-designed, students will improve without thinking; they are having fun and practicing without realizing it (Hopper & Kruisselbrink, 2002). T.G.F.U. also ensures that exceptional students develop their gross motor skills coincidentally so they can keep pace with their peers as they grow up. Some players may have poor balance and co-ordination and need remedial drills (Marshall, n.d.). Various drills can teach these skills without becoming boring or pedantic; if a coach introduces the activity properly, all students will enjoy themselves (Pasquali, 2010).

Skill Development

Elite athletes must make use of deliberate and purposeful practice. Students with L.D. have difficulty organizing what they see in class and teachers can help them put the information in the correct order (Hutchison, 2004, p. 144). If coaches do not help athletes organize what they are practicing, they will never reach a high level. The current Canada Basketball model suggests that players learn the skill, move on to game speed and intensity, followed by competitive situations with some element of decision-making (Pasquali, 2010).

To instruct skill, coaches should use a consistent and systematic approach. Routines are as important in P.H.E. class as any other component of the timetable. They ensure safety, help students warm up, and establish boundaries for appropriate behaviour. Sometimes, student-athletes with L.D. may not know how to practice; close supervision is required to guide their improvement. Since the memory of team members with L.D. may be affected, directions should be clear and concise, using consistent terminology (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 105).

Mental Training

To help adolescents with L.D. develop their metacognition skills, instructors can ask questions or give cues to guide the student towards the right skill or strategy (Hutchison, 2004, p. 144). A post-game technique that is simple but effective is to ask each student to name something they did well and something they could do better in the future.

Social difficulties for those with L.D. include poor relationships with peers, repeated inappropriate behaviour, and loneliness (Bennett, Dworet, & Weber, 2008, p. 99). Participation on a team integrates students into the school community and builds a new network of friends. Coaches help student-athletes with L.D. by serving as role models of positive behaviour and providing counselling. Athletes see positive and happy relationships and carry this social adjustment into other areas of their life (Henley, Schweizer, de Gara, & Vetter, 2007, p. 54).

Students with L.D. and low academic achievement have higher levels of hyperactivity and impulsivity than their peers (Merrell, 1990, p. 293). Some of the most memorable self-control lessons taught by sports include managing emotions and understanding frustrations. When a coach shows a student-athlete how to handle a highly charged situation, it is as powerful and memorable as any formal intervention. The mental training strategies to reduce mental and physical anxiety in basketball, such as breathing exercises, reframing, and positivism, also work when preparing for stressful situations at school (Bender & Wall, 1994, p. 328).

Learning Disability Examples in the N.B.A.

Dyslexia: Magic Johnson suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability. During his school years, basketball and family helped his self-confidence immensely so when he felt embarrassed in school, he refused to give up. He hated how classmates would look at him so he took additional reading classes in the summer in order to get more repetitions and catch up (Strauss, 2009).

Johnson possessed an amazing ability to see the floor and make plays but in the N.B.A., he always did better in systems which promoted improvisation. He preferred the free-flowing schemes of Bones McKinney and Pat Riley than the structured sets implemented by Paul Westhead in 1981, a frustrated year when Johnson publically called for his coach to be fired because he was not having fun playing basketball. One coaching tactic that Riley adopted when he became the Los Angeles Lakers coach was to keep it simple: he told Johnson not to worry about throwing the perfect pass but to focus on throwing “good” passes (Johnson, 1992, p. 141).

Visual/Spatial Processing: Brandon Knight is was a straight-A student in high school and at the University of Kentucky but some feel that his Verbal/Linguistic processing skills are strong but his Visual/Spatial Processing abilities could be improved (Bryant, 2012). Since Knight may have trouble reading and reacting on the court, he holds a low career assist percentage (Knight assists on 23.0% of his teammates baskets when he is on the court) and high turnover rate, especially due to bad passes (he turns the ball over on 15.6% of his possession) relative to other point guards (Basketball Reference, 2014).

At Kentucky, John Calipari and other coaches were regularly reminded Knight to pass and share the ball with teammates (Calipari, 2014). Instructions should be clear and concise. Rather than weighing down a young point-guard with advanced statistics that may harm their self-efficacy or increase anxiety, breaking down game situations on video afterwards can help explain what is happening. During these sessions and instructions, coaches should also frequently check with understanding.

Language Processing: As a youth, Chris Kaman was diagnosed as suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder (now categorized A.D.H.D.) and prescribed with medication. However, he felt that the medication sapped his energy and interfered with training and playing so he would skip his afternoon medication during basketball season. Arriving at college, Kaman coped better with shorter classes and ceased taking the medication as his grades increased and he wanted to gain weight to play inside. Later a doctor informed Kaman that his inability to focus was due to other reasons, perhaps a Language Processing disability (Dutton, 2006).

In timeouts, coach Mike Dunleavy realized that Kaman occasionally had trouble focusing in timeouts to lengthy verbal instructions so he began showing him what needed to be done. Dunleavy also devoted more time to demonstrations as part of his regular feedback to Kaman, even performing post moves himself so the rookie could expand his repertoire. Kaman also began several mindfulness exercises to help his self-control and alleviate his frustration.


People with L.D. have the cardiovascular fitness of a sedentary lifestyle which is blamed for their higher mortality rates. Although many of those with L.D. would like to participate, they face barriers such as cost, location, and limited options (Messent, Cooke, & Long, 1999, pp. 410, 417-8). Participating in aerobic exercise will improve the self-confidence of children with L.D. (McMahon & Gross, 1987, p. 276), encouraging a healthy lifestyle.

The City of Toronto tries to make as much programming available for children with L.D., even at additional cost. Ed Brathwaite at the Antibes Community Centre in Toronto often makes accommodations and modifications so that all can participate. Those with severe disabilities are paired with an assistant to help them cope with the activity and meet their needs. For less severe cases, staff remain vigilant to ensure the participant has a good experience (Brathwaite, 2010).

Long time Canadian Senior Men’s National Team coach Jack Donohue always said to “coach people, not players.” This is especially important when working with student-athletes affected by learning disabilities. Caring and understanding, along with trust and respect, builds a foundation. Thoughtful adaptations build the walls that allow players with L.D. to reach for the sky and achieve their potential.

Works Cited

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  • Hutchison, N. L. (2004). Teaching Exception Children and Adolescents. Toronto: Pearson Prentice Hall.
  • Johnson, E. (1992). My Life. New York City: Random House.
  • Marshall, J. (n.d.). How to coach athletes with learning difficulties. Retrieved July 11, 2010, from Peak Performance:
  • McMahon, J. R., & Gross, R. T. (1987). Physical and Psychological Effects of Aerobic Exercise in Boys with Learning Disabilities. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics , 8 (5), 274-7.
  • Merrell, K. W. (1990). Teacher ratings of hyperactivity and self-control in learning-disabled boys. Psychology in the Schools , 27 (4), 289-
  • Messent, P. R., Cooke, C. B., & Long, J. (1999). Primary and secondary barriers to physically healthy lifestyles for adults with learning disabilities. Disability and Rehabilitation , 21 (9), 409-19.
  • Pasquali, R. (2010, April 18). Coaching Motion Offence. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Ontario Basketball.
  • Smith, C. A. (2002). Motivation, attributions, and self-efficacy in children. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance , 73 (3), 10-11.
  • Strauss, V. (2009, September 25). The Power of Magic (Johnson). Retrieved July 12, 2010, from The Answer Sheet:

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