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10 Tips for Surviving Sports with a Sensory Sensitive Child

My son hated wearing shin guards for soccer. They were "itchy and irritating". 

My son also hated wearing a hard protective athletic cup for baseball.  He threw a fit before evey game and practice about wearing a cup, then he tugged at his crotch throughout the entire game.

My son refused to even try the game of football. Just looking at all that protective gear and personal contact with other kids made him cringe.

My son is a sensory sensitive kid.  

My son is not alone.  There are thousands of kids all over the world who sense input more than others.  I know this because I am a mom and a pediatric occupational therapist. Based upon my personal and professional experience, I have created a list of ten tips to help a sensory sensitive child survive sports.

10 Tips for Surviving Sports with a Sensory Sensitive Child:

  1. Help your child find sports that are slower paced with less unpredictable contact.  Great suggestions are: Tennis, Golf, and Martial Arts
  2. Pick a small team.  Especially for younger kids, many sports offer smaller-sized teams with only a few kids (deppending on the sport) playing on the field at once.
  3. Keep your kid "in-the-know".  Tell your child the day before, "Hey you have a game tomorrow".  Anticipation of the event helps them prepare their sensory system for what is happening.  Some kids need a couple days of pep talks to prepare for the big event.
  4. Dress for success.  Kids who are sensory sensitive prefer to choose their own clothing and prefer tight fitting clothing that won't brush lightly against their skin.  If just sliding the polyester jersey over their head makes your kiddo aggrevated, allow them to wear one of those tight fitting Under Armour shirts beneath their jersey.   Your child might prefer a soft athletic cup over a hard cup.  Try a Comfy Cup™ (shameless plug: a product invented by my own son). 
  5. Pre-game deep pressure massage.  Sensory sensitive kids don't generally like light touch. However, most kids do like deep pressure touch.  Deep pressure touch is a form of tactile sensory input which is provided by firm holding, firm stroking, cuddling, hugging, and squeezing. According to research, deep pressure touch acts as a calming or focusing agent. This works to increase endorphin levels (happy hormones) and decrease heart rate and blood pressure (indicators of anxiety and stress). Deep touch pressure also causes the release of both serotonin and dopamine in the brain. These are "happy" neurotransmitters and produce a feeling of calm within our nervous system. 
  6. Give them a break, or two or more.  Give your coach a heads-up that your child needs frequent breaks (aka. please don't leave little Johnny in the entire first quarter).  Giving your child frequent opportunities to cool-down on the sidelines will help them stay focused and successful while they are in the game.
  7. Help your child feel in control.   When kids are in control, they are less likely to respond with a "fight-or-flight" reaction when faced with an overflowing sensory bucket.  Think about it, it's much more tolerable to pinch yourself versus someone else pinching you. Let your child take control by dressing himself, choosing clothing, tightening own shoelaces.  Ask coach if your child can choose what position to start in during the game.  Let them choose their player number.
  8. No pats on the back. Literally.  Don't pat them on the back.  Coach your coach that it is best to let your child see and anticipate any touch, so how about a high-five instead of a pat on the back.  
  9. Teach your child to recognize their own unique sensory needs.  Help your child see that their sensory bucket is smaller than their peers.  When he is in fight-or-flight mode about the tag tickling his neck, tell him, "That tickly tag made your bucket overflow".  
  10. Teach your child techniques to self-regulate.  Self-regulate is a fancy term for calm down. When a sensory sensitive child is over-stimulated and their bucket is over-flowing, the best tip is to decrease as much sensory stimulation in the environment as possible.  This could look like: closing eyes or putting on sunglasses, sitting on the ground and hugging legs for deep pressure, plugging ears, going out of the game to the bathroom for a few minutes, taking a drink from a straw (straw drinking is also self calming--think about babies who soothe themselves with a pacifier or bottle). 

Sensory sensitivity is not a problem.  It is a difference.  Some people like listening to loud heavy metal music and some prefer soft jazz music.  Some people enjoy lots of sensory stimulation, while others are happy with less stimulation. These differences are not disorders.  Each and every person processes and responds to sensory stimulation in their own unique way. Some people have a very big bucket to fill with sensory stimulation. Their brain is happy and fulfilled when there is lots of information to help them understand what is going on around them.  Other people have a small sensory bucket to fill.  Their brain is only requires a little stimulation to feel alert and alive and aware of what is happening around them.  

Kids who are "sensory sensitive" have a small sensory bucket to fill.  In our busy world, it is easy for their bucket to overflow, which can be very upsetting.  Imagine...Sensory information spilling everywhere and their brain just doesn't know what to do with it, so they fights, freeze or flee. This can look like aggression, distractibility, and avoidance. Many sports can be super overwhelming for sensory sensitive kids.  Think about all of the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and movement experiences that fill your child's sensory bucket during a soccer, baseball, football or basketball game. There are scratchy uniforms, smelly squeaking shoes, tight socks, new hats and helmets, high pitched whistles, surprisingly loud buzzers, unanticipate kicks, unpredictable pushing, unforseen shoving, parents yelling, bright lights, blinding sunlight, and fast movements.  All this is enough to make any sensory sensitive kid want to sit on the sidelines.  We can't change how their brains process this sensory stimulation, so what can we do? We can help our kids find ways to limit the sensory input with environmental adaptations, we can help make the input more predictable by talking about what we think is going to happen next, and we can teach them to understand their unique sensory preferences and how they can best respond and adapt to their world.

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