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Ask the Expert: Why Sports and LD Can Lead to Excellence

The Landmark College associate professor discusses the potential benefits of athletics for students with learning differences.



It’s well-documented that students with learning differences (LD) and executive function disorder are just as smart as their peers, and can reach their potential with the right accommodations. However, a growing body of research shows not only that LD affects athletic performance, but that sports can help students manage their LD. In fact, a synergy of athletic and academic modifications can have an immense impact on a student’s success.

Extracurricular activities give students a chance to apply the learning strategies they’re developing to a setting outside the classroom. My own work as a faculty member at Landmark College and the experiences of my colleague John Wood, a resident dean who’s coached many athletes at Landmark, have shown this difference firsthand: The graduation rate of student-athletes is 62 percent higher than students who aren’t athletes. We stress the importance of extracurricular activities for several reasons:

  • Structure: Belonging to an athletic club or team provides students with a reliable schedule, and students must develop a routine in order to make time for school work and other priorities. It’s well-documented that free time is the bane of students with executive function disorder. Practice schedules leave students with less unstructured time on weeknights and weekends, providing form and routine to their days and weeks.
  • Goal clarity: Team and individual sports provide students with the chance to set, meet and modify goals. Not only does this teach goal setting, those goals can translate to the classroom, as well, since students have to maintain a certain GPA in order to play sports. The urgency of this benchmark is often more meaningful, and thus more motivating, for the student.
  • Exercise: At Landmark, we encourage exercise even for students who aren’t necessarily athletes due to its vast benefits. Neuropsychiatrist John Ratey frequently cites research that says 30 minutes of moderately rigorous physical activity can improve cognitive flexibility and executive functions. There is encouraging evidence, requiring further study, pointing to other types of physical activities that improve executive functions. Furthermore, exercise improves sleep quality and eating habits, both of which are correlated to heightened academic performance.

When parents, educators and coaches learn that a student struggles with executive functioning disorder, their first step is often to discourage extracurricular activities so the student can spend extra time focusing on schoolwork. Not only is this an inadvertent punishment for having an LD that’s gone misunderstood or undiagnosed, but it’s an opportunity lost to help that student’s academic performance through athletics. The perseverance and grit it takes to persist in school with an LD can often power the same kind of determination on the field—another point of synergistic interaction.

High school and college coaches serve as role models and educators. They’re responsible for shaping the lives of students as they grow athletically, socially and academically; therefore, they should understand the basics of the learning process and work to be attuned to how players learn. This includes the ability to recognize the signs of LD and the need for accommodation. For instance, Coach Wood points out that at Landmark College, an athlete with attention or memory challenges may be called on to re-verbalize or repeat the steps of a particular drill or technique. This provides repetition for the team and ensures the student understands what’s being asked.

Many students excel in their sport when they’re younger because they’re just learning the individual skills of the sport: it’s pure play. The experience gets more challenging as they advance, and competition and rules become more intense and sophisticated. Here, they can run up against their LD—maybe there’s a difficulty remembering multiple plays or following a coach’s instructions yelled over a crowd. Some become discouraged and believe they can no longer be an athlete.

While there are many students out there that have given up, there’s a lot of hope. We see it all the time when someone rediscovers the athlete within themselves. It’s a defining moment in their growth as they find new tools to help them shape and manage their own life and learning. If we bring this knowledge to coaches, and provide them with a crash course in education, brain function and neurodiversity, they’ll be better prepared to help students achieve on the court and in the classroom, and consequently change the lives of thousands of students.

After all, there’s an athlete in everyone.

Rebecca Matte is an associate professor of core education at Landmark College, whose student population consists entirely of students with learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD or autism. 

(Goudreau & Knight, 2018, pp. 379-380; Guare, Dawson, & Guare, 2013, p. 267)

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