Dr. Janet Sasson Edgette


Don’t All Boys Like to Play Sports?

It’s hard for some people to imagine that sports and physical games don’t appeal to every boy. But as soon as we take into account boys’ unique temperaments, personalities, and physiques, all that variance among them makes sense.

Some boys don’t dislike sports so much as simply prefer other activities, such as unstructured fantasy play outdoors. This setting gets kids away from the sports-heavy agenda of schools and neighborhood yards, rewarding imagination, language skills and ingenuity over physical strength and agility and flipping, if only for a few hours, the conventional social ordering of boys on its head. Other boys like the physical nature of traditional boy play but aren’t cut out for the discipline or regimentation of team sports. Some boys just don’t like competing at all or like it only in nonphysical, nonsporting arenas, such as chess or music. Or, maybe they love competing and are really good at their game, but have chosen sports and activities more commonly selected by girls, such as horseback riding or dance or gymnastics.

But doing well and taking pleasure in playing sports or other types of physical games depends in part upon having a body that runs and catches and climbs reasonably well. However, certain neurologically-based conditions in children compromise these abilities. The two I focus on here are learning disabilities and sensory processing disorders.

Learning disabilities are neuropsychological disorders affecting a person’s ability to acquire, organize, retain, understand or use verbal or nonverbal information. They are due to impairments in one or more of the psychological processes underlying perception, cognition, memory, or learning—such as the ability to process the speed at which an object is moving, or make inferences. Sensory processing disorders affect the way our nervous system receives and responds to information that comes to us through our senses, causing individuals to under-respond to sensory stimuli or over-respond.

Learning disabilities

There are two broad categories of learning disabilities—language-based disabilities and non-language-based (sometimes referred to as nonverbal learning disabilities). The language-based disabilities are specific disabilities affecting reading, spelling, writing, or math computation. Usually, they do not affect a person’s physical abilities, and in fact, there have been many successful and even elite athletes with documented learning disabilities: basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson, Olympic decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner, Olympic diving gold medalist Greg Louganis, and boxing icon and Olympic gold medalist Muhammad Ali, to name a few.

Non-language-based disabilities, however, often do affect a person’s physical abilities. They influence executive functions, meaning the ability to plan, assign priorities, regulate emotions, solve problems, control impulses, and set goals. Children and adults with this type of disability also have trouble picking up on nonverbal information—facial expressions, body language, and the like. They may laugh at something that wasn’t supposed to be funny, or not laugh when everyone else does.

Learning disabilities frequently go undetected in a child’s early years, coming to the attention of teachers or parents only when they try to master the more complex types of learning and motor skills that come with grades four and five. By that time, such boys (and girls) have already spent years frustrated by their inability to run or throw as well as their peers, not understanding that it had nothing to do with how hard they tried but rather with the particular way in which their brain communicates with their body.

How might a non-language-based learning disability affect a boy’s physical abilities?

    • Motor (movement) and visual motor (eye-body coordination) deficits can make it hard for a child to learn to ride a bike, catch or hold onto balls, or run fast. This is the kid who is always being tagged “it” or getting tangled in the jump rope. Steering (scooters, bumper cars) can be difficult, as can aiming (basketball, archery, darts). Whereas the problems in fine and gross motor coordination are the result of problems in the motor system itself, visual-motor deficits are caused by problems in how the information taken in by the eyes is processed and communicated to the muscles.
    • Visual processing deficits can make it hard for kids to hit a baseball with a bat, or a tennis ball with a racket. Ping pong, where players have to quickly discern figure-ground relationships, is often a challenge, as is grabbing the flag off of players in flag football. Visual processing refers to the ability to make sense of information taken in through the eyes. It has nothing to do with one’s sight or sharpness of vision. Difficulties with visual processing affect how visual information is interpreted or processed.
    • Spatial deficits can result in problems in sports requiring an awareness of one’s body position in space—things like diving, wrestling or gymnastics. Since kids with this type of disability can have trouble tracking moving objects, throwing objects to someone who is moving is a challenge as well. This is also the kid who gets spatially confused and runs the wrong way on the field. Visual-spatial performance refers to using sight to discriminate differences or determine the relative location of one object to another. Children with visual-spatial deficits may have difficulty making visual images in order to “see something in the mind’s eye” or “get the picture.” They may also have difficulty differentiating left from right, or remembering visual images.


Sensory processing disorders

The difficulties that people with sensory disorders have receiving and responding to sensory information can affect any of following three sensory systems: tactile (touch), proprioceptive (body awareness), or vestibular (motion and balance).

Some kids have problems modulating sensory information. Children who are over-responsive to touch or sound may find clothing, physical contact, bright lights, loud noises, or textures in certain foods to be intolerable. Other children are under-responsive, showing little or no reaction to stimulation even in such cases as pain or extreme temperatures.

Some kids have problems discriminating from among different sensory information. This makes it hard for them to correctly register (recognize) the information they are getting from their body’s senses. These kids sometimes trouble knowing which way is up when they’re upside down, or how much pressure to apply when picking up an object or shooting a basket. This can also make it hard for them to distinguish between a safe touch and a threatening touch. For example, a brother who excitedly grabs his sister’s arm in order to share some news might be surprised (and offended) to find that his sister thinks he just shoved her.

Some kids have problems moving based on sensory information. This interferes with their ability to conceive, organize, and carry out a sequence of new or unpracticed motor actions.

How might sensory processing disorders affect a boy’s physical abilities?

  • Children who over-respond to tactile dysfunction may avoid contact sports and activities, especially where they are likely to get very sweaty or dirty or muddy. They also may not want to engage in activities that are held in gymnasiums where sounds can get very loud for long periods of time. Under-responsive kids may argue about being tagged, saying they never felt anyone touch them.
  • Children with proprioceptive dysfunction may have particular difficulty with activities requiring good body awareness and stability of posture; these are the kids who slouch in their chairs and have a lower muscle tone than their peers. Kids who under-respond often are prone to tripping or bumping into things. Kids who over-respond will have trouble knowing how much muscular force to exert in a particular situation, resulting in complaints about playing “too rough.”
  • Children with vestibular dysfunction may exhibit exaggerated fears of falling, and want to avoid sports involving heights (gymnastics, horseback riding, diving). They may also not feel comfortable sitting in bleachers as a spectator. These over-responsive kids may go to great lengths to avoid any playground equipment that involves swinging, sliding, or spinning. On the other hand, there are under-responsive kids whose brains just crave stronger sensations of swinging or spinning; they are the kids who will ride roller coasters over and over or sit on swings for hours.


What You Can Do to Help Boys Whose Disability or Disorder Affects His Physical Skills

  • Intervene early

Although learning disabilities and sensory processing disorders are both lifelong conditions, interventions such as special education, speech and language therapy, occupational and reading therapies, psycho-educational therapy, and medication help children reduce the impact of skill deficits and manage some of the symptoms. Some children are diagnosed with several overlapping disabilities, while others are found to have only one isolated cognitive or motor skill problem for which they are able to compensate over time and with little impact on their lives.

One of the most important things you can do for a child who is showing signs of a learning disability is to act on it by consulting with the child’s pediatrician, teachers, guidance counselor, and/or school psychologist. In cases of motor or sensory-motor dysfunction, where the window of opportunity for remediation is early and brief, acting early is critical. Pass on the temptation to “wait and see,” and don’t be dissuaded by your child’s demonstration of excellent skills in other areas. Without ever knowing it, many gifted children learn to compensate so well for their learning disabilities that the problems remain masked for years.

  • Help your child compensate for deficits in one area with aptitudes in other areas by directing him toward physical activities, games, and sports that play to his natural strengths.

For example, does he have problems with fine motor coordination but not balance? Consider sailing, kayaking, long boarding, or dirt biking. Does he have great eye-hand coordination but he’s not fan of the outdoors? What about fencing, woodcarving, mixed martial arts, laser tag, or Ping-Pong?  Don’t forget other “outside of the box” activities such as skeet shooting, go-karts, and billiards.

  • Help boys understand why their bodies won’t always do what they tell them to do.

Here is an example of how a parent might talk with a son who is frustrated or disappointed in his inability to “command” his body at will:

“I notice that when you try to play on the jungle gym/shoot baskets/tie your Rollerblades/ride your friend’s scooter/play Dance Dance Revolution that it takes you a little longer to get it than some of your buddies. I’ve seen you get frustrated and I can totally understand why you would feel that way. There are a lot of different reasons why some kids are better at sports and moving their bodies around than others, and I want talk with you about it so that you are aware of the types of things your body has to work extra hard to do, as well as the things it’s able to do well.”

“Everyone does some things well and nobody does everything well. Some of the reasons why certain sports or activities are easier or harder for kids have to do with the fact that our bodies are unbelievably complex. For instance, just walking involves all these different systems—your visual system and motor (muscles) system, plus your sense of balance and touch, and where your leg is in space and where it is in relation to the ground. Coordinating all that is the job of the brain, and the slightest little glitch in how messages get sent from one part of the body to another part can make a difference in how well somebody knows when to hit a Ping-Pong ball back and just how hard to hit it.”

“Everybody has some parts of their body that work better than others, and most of the time we don’t know which parts those are because it’s hard to tell what’s happening on the inside—all we know is that we do some things well and other things not so well. Your mom and I notice that certain things like climbing, or running up steps, are hard for you, and it may be connected to some of the difficulties you’ve been having in school in some of your subjects. We’re going to talk with your teachers and check that out. But the cool thing is that it doesn’t seem to stop you from doing the things you like doing, and we think that’s great. We like that you do things even though they’re hard for you, or that other kids do them better. And while you keep doing that, we’ll find out about ideas or strategies for making some of those things a little easier for you.”

  • Debunk the myth that “all” boys play sports.

Helping young children to make sense of confounding experiences as they’re happening to them can be a gift. So many parents believe that, at five and six and seven years of age, their kids are too young to understand what they would be trying to say to them. But if a child is able to detect differences between how he is treated or regarded and how other kids his age are treated, then doesn’t he deserve our help in dealing with it?

Here’s an example of how a father could talk sensitively with his preteenage son whose disinterest in sports might be making the boy worry about disappointing his dad:

Hey dude, you and I both can see that until they’re older, most boys connect with each other through sports. Sometimes I think about what it must be like for you to hang around other boys, because I know you’re not into sports and stuff, and I think it’s very hard in our society to be a boy and not like sports. I want you to know you’re not alone—that there are many other boys just like you, and that I’ll help you to find them. But most important, I don’t ever want you to worry about disappointing me by not being a kid who’s into playing football or wrestling or other things like that. Just because you see me enjoying those things doesn’t mean that I expect you to. I’ll be happiest seeing you doing what you love doing, whatever that turns out to be.

It’s okay to talk with your kids about these things. They’re thinking or wondering about them, as are you. You might as well have a conversation together about it. Parents worry about hurting their children’s feelings, or making them feel self-conscious about their level of athletic skill, but if handled sensitively—that is, not with criticism but with gentle curiosity—it addresses the pink elephant in the room and sets families up to have easy conversations about difficult topics over the course of their lifetimes.

— Janet Sasson Edgette


For a more detailed review of this topic, please refer to Chapter 2 in The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood