Back by popular demand, our friends at The Inspired Treehouse are sharing some more awesome information with you today! We asked Lauren and Claire, pediatric occupational therapists and founders of The Inspired Treehouse to shed some light on why some kids may struggle with contact sports.

Why Do Some Kids Struggle with Contact Sports?

Current medical terminology in the United States uses the term collision sport to refer to sports like rugby, roller derby, American football, ice hockey and lacrosse, the term contact sport to refer to sports such as soccer and basketball, and the term limited-contact sport to sports like squash and baseball.  Of course, kids can encounter physical contact through everyday play activities such as games of tag, sliding down slides, running around a playground, roughhousing, etc.

When a child experiences contact with other children through these types of play, their sensory systems are most definitely affected.

The Tactile System

The tactile system is our largest sensory system and provides us with information about how things feel – rough, smooth, prickly, soft, light touch, or deep pressure.  Our ability to interpret this information helps us feel comfortable in our own bodies.  Sometimes this system can be over or under responsive to physical touch.  Obviously, this is a key system in a contact sport situation.  Receptors for this system are located on the surface of the skin.

Any time contact is made with the skin, the tactile system is alerted.  Some people have hyper-responsive (overly responsive) tactile systems, where light touch is interpreted by the nervous system as a threat. Children (or adults) who are hyper-responsive to touch may appear very aggressive, or they may tend to withdraw from situations that would involve touch.

Signs of being hypersensitive to tactile input include:

  • Avoiding crowds or being anxious in crowded situations
  • Refusing to wear certain clothing or fabrics, including socks
  • Avoiding standing in line
  • Disliking touch or reacting strongly to touch in a negative way
  • Avoiding certain food textures and/or temperatures (may be a picky eater)
  • Not enjoying showers or avoiding soap or shampoo

As you can see, the tactile system could be a major factor in a child’s willingness to play a contact sports.

The Proprioceptive System

Proprioception refers to the way joints and muscles send messages to the brain to help coordinate movement and allow us to grade the force and direction of our movements.  Issues with this system make it difficult to determine what amount of pressure feels right.  The proprioceptive system helps us coordinate the movement of our arms and legs efficiently to play and move without even having to look.

Difficulties with the proprioceptive system could present like this:  

  • The child who plays aggressively with others on the playground
  • The child that kicks a ball as hard as she can even if her target is only inches away
  • The child that falls out of her chair several times a day
  • The child whose writing and coloring is barely visible on paper
  • The child that bumps into walls and other children when moving in the hallway

Children who exhibit any of these characteristics may need more proprioceptive input in their daily routine.  Proprioceptive activities provide opportunities for heavy work (pushing, pulling, moving against resistance), waking up your muscles and therefore, your mind.

The Vestibular System

In addition, the vestibular system is the sensory system that allows us to maintain our balance and to experience gravitational security: confidence that we can maintain a position without falling.  The vestibular system allows us to move smoothly and efficiently. It also works right alongside all of our other sensory systems, helping us use our eyes effectively and process sounds in our environment. Overall, vestibular processing helps us feel confident moving and interacting with our surroundings.

If a child is struggling with her vestibular system, she may not feel stable enough to be around others for fear that contact may make her fall and get hurt.

The Visual System

And finally, the visual system impacts a child’s ability to participate successfully in contact sports.  First, a child needs to have adequate visual acuity (or the ability to see clearly) in order to take in his surroundings.

Visual perception also plays into how a child responds to the visual stimuli in his environment – determining how close another child is to him, perceiving and predicting when contact might occur, discriminating between members of his team and members of the opposing team, and finding the ball on the field when there is a lot of visual activity around him.

The visual system also plays a big role in our ability to maintain our balance and a sense of our bodies in space.

Hand Eye Coordination and Reaction Time

Kids also need to be able to process the visual stimuli that they’re taking in and respond to it with a motor action.  This is a combined effort by the visual, proprioceptive, and vestibular systems.  The complex integration of all of these systems results in motor planning that helps your child dodge a potential contact or catch the ball and run in the other direction.  If your child is struggling with any one of those systems, it can make contact sports seem pretty scary.

And after all of this talk about the sensory systems and how they may play a big part in your child’s dislike for contact sports, there is yet another possibility for why football or hockey just isn’t his thing.

It’s possible that your child just doesn’t like contact sports. And that’s okay!  Period!  It’s okay!  There are many other sports that offer the same benefits of physical activity, being part of a team, and gaining confidence without the potential of contact.  How about swimming, gymnastics, track or cross country, diving, golf, rowing, or biking?

Do your best to ensure that your children have every opportunity to pursue their passion.  Help them through the sensory issues that may be holding them back if you feel that they are there.  Or, encourage them to change direction and try another sport and let them know that you will be there to cheer them on no matter what they decide to do!

Lauren and Claire of The Inspired Treehouse are pediatric occupational therapists who share education, tips, and fun activities everyone can use to create happy, healthy kids! 

Take home their Core Strengthening Handbook for Kids here!

See the activities below to supercharge your child’s sensory system for contact sports!

“Wall Pushes” for Proprioception

Having kids practice creating the right amount of pressure with the right muscles/joints helps them create an internal “map” of their body!


“Head Rockers” for the Vestibulo-ocular reflex

Contact sports often involve quite a bit of head movement.  The eyes ability to stay focused independent of head movement is important for being balanced and confident on the field or court.


“The Airplane Game” for Vision and Spatial Awareness

Being able to determine where other objects are, as well as where they’re going helps kids feel confident in avoiding unnecessary collisions with objects or people. 


“Partner Number Relay” for Tactile Awareness

Pressure receptors in the skin help kids process touch. When these don’t work well, it can make contact activities scary and unpleasant!

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