Coaching the LD Student

Far from the glare of the Final Four, John Wood shares lessons he has learned from his team of learning disabled basketball players.

March 31, 2011

A growing number of professors understand that students with learning differences need accommodations in the classroom, but more athletic coaches need to recognize that similar support is in order on the playing field.

I coach basketball at an institution that serves only students with ADHD or other learning disabilities, so many college coaches might dismiss my call as not applying to them. But consider that one in 10 college students has some form of learning disability. Many of my players go on to mainstream colleges, where they go to classes and play sports.

Whenever I called the team into a huddle, one of my players would circle outside the group, rubbing a basketball. At first I tried to get him into the huddle, but he was disruptive. When I let him wander, I realized he was paying attention. This was his learning style.

On the other hand, I had a point guard who was a hyper-focused athlete. He would focus so much on conditioning and dribbling that when he entered the game, he was unable to run the offense or pass the ball consistently.

This case occurred seven or eight years ago when I was still learning about my players. Since then I have found players that follow similar patterns. They give themselves precise training goals -- 50 jump shots and 50 layups every day in practice, for example. So I identify other areas that the player needs to work on and emphasize those.

I’ll bet there are many in the college and university coaching ranks who mislabel athletes with learning disabilities as troublemakers, when in fact they simply learn plays and teamwork in different ways. So before they give up on a potential All-American, I have some ideas for how they can maximize such players’ abilities on the field or court:

  • If a coach knows an athlete has a learning disability, he should have the athlete restate the drill or technique being taught to ensure understanding. Re-verbalizing has helped me countless times clarify a player’s position and actions on a given play.
  • Coaches draw plays on a board all the time, but athletes who learn differently often need more. Try using colors to differentiate players on the court. Hang visuals on the wall and give players handouts that they can study. Take a player physically through a play, holding his arm and guiding him around the court. Or model the movements he should follow yourself, then have him walk through the play himself until he gets it right.
  • Academic demands often cut into time with our teams, which is justified. Set goals for team practices and games, and find time on the bus or right after practice to discuss how both your team and you met those expectations.
  • As a coach, try to be calm, focused and supportive in helping each athlete reach his or her full potential. Funnel your emotions appropriately, not negatively, and model the behavior you want to see in your athletes.
  • “Spiral back,” or connect what you’re learning in today’s practice with what you learned at the last practice. This helps athletes with LDs build a foundation for success.
  • Finally, understanding how an individual learns from those who teach him is the best way to figure out the best way to coach him. If a player truly stumps you, meet with a faculty member or adviser to obtain coaching insights.


John Wood is coach of the Landmark College men’s basketball team.



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