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ADHD, Girls, and Sports

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

In years past, adults limited the types of sports girls played.

In many cases, adults – both male and female – discouraged girls from participating in sports at all.

They’d say things such as:

“It’s not ladylike.”

“Sports are for boys.”

“Girls should learn…”

We won’t even finish that last sentence, because simply typing these reasons makes us shudder. In the year 2021, we know that sports are for all people, boys and girls. There’s nothing unladylike about playing sports. And as far as what girls should learn, we know the best way to finish that sentence is “…anything that interests them.”

And that definitely includes sports.

A recent study tells us that in addition to all the commonly known benefits of sports, which include, among other things, a healthy body, improved self-esteem, a sense of belonging, improved physical coordination, increased cognitive ability, improved sleep, enhanced immunity, and decreased levels of stress, there’s another reason girls – especially young girls – should participate in sports: it helps reduce symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Study Results: Girls Benefit More

Youth sports are good for children for all the reasons we state above. For years, parents, teachers, and coaches have shared the same common-sense idea about sports and kids with ADHD.

Sports must be more than just beneficial.

They’re probably therapeutic.

Despite decades of consonance between teachers, parents, and mental health professionals on this assumption, research that examines the relationship between sports participation and the symptoms of ADHD offers no conclusive data on the therapeutic benefits of sports. Studies that indicate sports help the symptoms of ADHD are available and fairly easy to find, like this one: “Sports Therapy for Attention, Cognition, and Sociality.” However, upon closer inspection – meaning when you read the studies and drill down into the details – these studies often have small sample sizes and do not differentiate between the effect of sports on girls as compared to boys.

That’s not to say sports aren’t helpful for kids with ADHD. You don’t have to look far or search wide to find a parent or teen who swears sports have everything to do with effective symptom management. What we mean to say is that to date, an overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence supports the idea, but scientific evidence remains scant.

The study we mention above changes that. In the paper “Childhood Exercise as Medicine: Extracurricular Sport Diminishes Subsequent ADHD Symptoms” researchers clear three hurdles that prevented previous studies from making definitive fact claims about the effect of sports on ADHD symptoms: sample size, gender analysis, and study duration. First, the sample size is formidable: researchers included data from over 1500 girls and boys. Second, researchers broke down the results by gender. Third, the study examined data on children over a six-year period. Researchers began when participants were six years old, and finished when participants were twelve.

Girls and ADHD Symptoms: The Effect of Sports Participation

Before we share the results, we need to say a little bit more about the study itself. The goal was relatively simple. Researchers sought to determine the effect of participation in sports in elementary school on the symptoms of ADHD in middle school. To that end, they asked parents detailed questions about their children and their involvement in sports at ages six, seven, eight, and ten. Then, two years later, they interviewed the teachers of those same children about ADHD symptoms they observed over six months in their sixth-grade classrooms.

The results might surprise you.

Here’s what they observed:

  • Girls who participated in organized sports consistently between ages 6 and 10 displayed significantly fewer ADHD symptoms at age 12, as compared to girls who reported low or inconsistent participation in organized sports between ages 6 and 10.
  • Boys who participated in organized sports consistently between ages 6 and 10 displayed no significant difference in ADHD symptoms, as compared to boys who reported low or inconsistent participation in organized sports between ages 6 and 10.
  • Generic metrics designed to assess levels of attention and behavior – meaning measures not specifically designed to diagnose ADHD – showed that middle school girls who participated in organized sports during elementary school gained significantly more benefit from sports participation than middle school boys who participated in organized sports during elementary school.

We’re curious: were those results a surprise?

For our part, we admit they were. But they were a happy surprise, because we’ve known all along sports are great for all kids, girls included.

Girls Belong: The Data Prove It

In an interview with the online magazine Science Daily, study author Linda Pagani offers the following insight:

“We know that sporting activities have other numerous benefits for the mental health of all children. However, for reducing ADHD symptoms, middle childhood sports in elementary school seem more noteworthy for girls.”

This is an important development in ADHD research. It’s one of the first studies to quantify the effect of sports on ADHD symptoms. That information alone is enough to merit its own article. It’s also an important development in the slow and consistent trend toward parity in sports participation. We now know that for girls, sports are not only a positive activity for all the traditionally accepted reasons, but they’re also an effective therapeutic tool to help reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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