Sports coaching: how to coach athletes with learning difficulties

Sports coaching: how to coach athletes with learning difficulties

Learning difficulties aren’t just confined to the classroom; there are many talented young athletes who also suffer too.

At a glance

James Marshall explains how coaches can identify learning problems and adapt coaching styles accordingly to help these athletes shine.

In the UK alone, there are approximately 1.5 million people who have learning difficulties, so as a coach, it is likely that you will come across athletes with learning difficulties of some form or other (see box 1). These learning difficulties may take the shape of mild dyslexia or may be more severe such as autism(1). In order to be successful and to maximise the talent available, coaches need to understand how best to communicate with these athletes and also how to structure their sessions so that all participants can improve. This article will look at common coaching practices, evaluate some aspects of learning difficulties and then look at how to alter coaching practice accordingly.

Learning Difficulties

Normal learning in athletes

There is a natural developmental process for all children; some progress rapidly, some slower and some miss bits out. For example I have often seen athletes in their late teens who can run, but can’t break down the run into parts – as though they have missed out some stage of their movement pattern development. They may have adapted their running style to an extent, but they can’t truly run well.

Early specialisation of skills is a problem with all athletes because while they may adapt very specifically to the demands of their sport, they have often not worked hard enough on their gross motor skills(2). As a junior athlete they may well dominate, but they may come unstuck at senior level when they meet opponents who have trained with a broader base and can adapt more readily to unpredictable or changing game situations.

An example of this is in football or netball, where a young player is forced to play at one position due to the ‘needs’ of the team (or coach) becoming over- specialised in that position (eg on the left wing or goal defence). If that player then moves to another team and has to play another position they may come unstuck because they have not developed the game sense or the skills to play at other positions.

Motor development

Motor development patterns develop as follows:
Non-voluntary (reflexive movements) lead to voluntary movements;
Children learn to control their head first then shoulders, arms and downwards to their toes;
Muscular control starts in the centre of the body and moves outwards;
Gross movement patterns such as bending, standing, walking are developed before speech and hand-eye coordination/dexterity.

If we look at these developmental phases, they can form a template for how to structure your sessions, or at least the warm up or introduction to new skills sections. For example a warm up session before a skills session for a team sport like rugby might include the following drills performed over a 10-metre distance:
Rolling: sideways, forwards and backwards;

Crawling: leopard (on belly), infant (hands and knees), bear (hands and feet);
Coordination: left and right emphasis – skipping, high skips, walk and hold opposite knee to opposite elbow, walk and touch opposite foot to opposite hand.

Game specific ball handling, contact or evasion drills can then follow this warm up.

You can see that this warm up follows the normal progression of movement for infants and reinforces these movements. It gets the person warm and it includes gross motor patterns that utilise coordination before the more precise movements come into play. Moreover, all athletes will benefit from this, not just the ones with learning difficulties, so you do not have a stigma of two separate warm ups.

Motor control does not follow a linear progression. During growth spurts, children tend to experience a loss of motor control, including balance and hand-eye coordination. What may have previously been easy, such as jumping, skipping or dribbling a football, may temporarily be more difficult. This can affect the child’s confidence, but should not be mistaken for learning difficulties.

Possibly the biggest mistake a coach can make is to copy a senior team’s warm up and inflict it upon children. Not only does this not take into account the physical development of the children, but it also ignores the emotional, psychological and skill differences between young and senior athletes. Similarly, using a single coaching style does not allow all the children to be involved, so they either don’t understand and get demotivated, or they do understand but may be struggling to keep up and then get demotivated. Coaches must be aware that an athlete has learning difficulties and adjust their style accordingly (see box 2).

Indicators of learning difficulties

Schmidt’s theory and learning schema

In 1975 Schmidt proposed that skill acquisition requires four elements to be present so that the subject can successfully retain that skill(3):

  1. The initial conditions of the movements – what is required of me?
  2. The characteristics of the generalised motor programme – what skill do I have to perform?
  3. Knowledge of results – did I do it correctly?
  4. Sensory consequences of the movement – how did it feel?

For example if you’re a hockey midfielder and have received a pass, you then have to make a decision as to what to do (pass, dribble, evade, shoot etc). If you decide to pass to another team-mate, you then have to decide how to achieve that (reverse stick, normal stick, hard, soft etc). When you have made the pass, you can see whether it got to the target or not and how the contact with the ball (or not) felt.

Schmidt’s theory states that you would process this information and use it the next time that you’re in a similar playing situation. Some key coaching points that emerge from Schmidt’s theory are as follows:

Before a skill is performed, an athlete should know what is expected of them so that they can see or feel whether they have performed the task successfully;

In order for skills to be retained, an athlete must be simultaneously performing a skill and making decisions;
In order for the learning process to be successful, both coach and athlete need to be heavily involved in the learning process; communication is therefore important.

Improving communication

Mencap (a leading UK charity for people with learning disabilities) has produced guidelines for written communication that are useful (see box 3). However, it is also important to think about physical and verbal communication when coaching(4). As far as sporting ability is concerned, the sensory perception and integration into movement is often limited and causes problems in athletes with learning disabilities. Sensory perception is composed of several different systems including; the vestibular system (system governing sense of balance and spatial orientation), auditory discrimination, visual discrimination and tactile sense(5).


If the vestibular system is impaired, there can be a poor sense of balance and also feelings of motion sickness, which can then further disorientate the athlete and lead to disruption of skill acquisition. The vestibular system is also associated with directions and organisational skills, so these athletes will need support in those areas too.
Auditory discrimination is important not only in listening and understanding, but also in learning how to read and spell. An athlete who has poor auditory discrimination may have trouble following instructions in a large group, or in a loud gym or when there are many other distractions. This may manifest itself as fidgeting or other behaviours that show a lack of attention.

Visual discrimination is the ability of the eyes to work together in convergence on a single point – useful during reading where the object is still but also the eyes are moving when tracking moving objects. Impaired visual discrimination can manifest itself in blurred words when reading or balls ‘lost’ when in flight. More worryingly, it also means not being able to judge traffic flow when walking across the street. It can also mean inefficient movement patterns because the eyes are very important in assisting balance.

Tactile sense is important for determining sense of direction because the touch receptors in the body feed back information about objects that you are trying to move around, or that you are trying to move. If the receptors are over-sensitive, too much feedback may result with the athlete withdrawing from contact. If the touch receptors aren’t sensitive enough then the athlete may not be able to control their direction as well and it may also make simple tasks like getting into and out of sports kit difficult, which may explain why that child is always the last out of the changing rooms.

Finally, be aware that proprioceptive sense allows someone to know where they are in space and also to know the state of contraction of their muscles. The information is processed from nerve endings in joints, muscles and tendons and also from sensory hair cells within the ear – again helping with balance. With an impaired proprioceptive sense, an athlete may appear clumsy as they walk into things, or may move more to try and gain more information. Likewise, trying to hit an object with another object like a racquet and ball may be difficult.

Incorporating drills into practice

If a coach gains a better understanding of their players needs, it may be that players previously seen as fidgety, clumsy or lacking concentration may actually be trying very hard. Here, then, are some ideas for games that may help the athletes improve their sensory perception. They can be used as part of a warm up, or at the end of a drill to add fun for the other players, as well as a real development tool for those with learning difficulties (6).

They can be given as individual warm ups but if using the whole team, try to perform the drills slowly at first.
Use different balls. Instead of a volleyball, use a sponge ball or a balloon. These stay in the air longer, allowing more time for someone to catch it. Instead of a rugby ball use a soccer ball, tennis ball or basketball, which are easier to track visually.

Have specific points on the field, in the gym or on the court that players start and finish from. Having a routine and set place is comforting for those who are having trouble adjusting to their surroundings. This can be made into a game like musical chairs where everyone has to return to his or her starting positions. I cheat every time so that the kids who need it are already near where they need to be – the last thing they need is to lose at this!

Running drills on different surfaces. If you are doing running, skipping, or hopping drills, try alternating surfaces to improve balance and control – eg gym floor with mats every 1m. The athlete then has a change of surface at every stride, or every other stride.

Give hand-to-hand passing relay drills – overhead, side to side, underneath ball passing – with the players running to the end of the line once they have physically passed the ball to the person behind them. Good for tactile and spatial awareness. To make it more challenging, have them stand on one leg.

Give any warm up drill that requires one side of the body to work in conjunction with the other – eg touching left hip, knee and then toe with right fingers.

Have players of different abilities mixed up and stand back to back with linked arms. Get them to work to try and tag other pairs who then join in until everyone has been tagged. Start off at walking pace.
Perform clockwise ball tag; players stand in a circle and pass a ball clockwise. The coach introduces more balls until a player ends up with two balls in their possession.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company


1. Horvat, M. Physical Education and Sport for Exceptional Students. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Publishers.(1990)
2. Gervis, M and Brierley, J. Effective Coaching for Children Crowood Press, Marlborough, Wiltshire. (1999)
3. Psychological Review,82, p225-260 (1975)
4. Making Myself Clear – Mencap’s guidelines for accessible writing. (2002) retrieved from:
5. Farrell, M. The Effective Teacher’s Guide to Dyslexia and Other Specific Learning Difficulties. Routledge: Abingdon (2006)
6. Poinet, B. Movement Activities for Children with Learning Difficulties Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London and Philadelphia (1993)


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