Game On!

Playing Sports with Cochlear Implants and Hearing Aids

By Megan Hopkins, Jennifer Kyzer, Kristin Matta and Lorrie Dunkelberger

To play or not to play?  This is a question that parents of children with hearing loss may ask themselves when weighing the risks and rewards of playing sports. 

There are many physical benefits to playing sports, including improved cardiovascular fitness and coordination, stronger bones and muscles, and better sleep.  Children who play sports at an early age are more likely to remain active as teens and adults.  Physical movement affects the brain’s physiology and is associated with improved attention.  Most important for our children, however, are the psychological and social benefits of playing sports.

Through sports, children can learn the value of teamwork.  Sports further encourage positive relationships with adults and peers.  Youth learn important life skills such as leadership, goal-setting, determination, discipline and emotional control.  Sports help teach children to safely navigate between right and wrong.  

Zach Kyzer pitches for the ECB Black Knights in summer 2014.

The social benefits for youth who participate in sports include higher grades, positive expectations for the future and stronger peer relationships.  Children typically have greater confidence and self-esteem.  The school years can be difficult for all children, and can be especially challenging for students who are deaf and hard of hearing.  Playing sports can help reduce anxiety and give them an optimistic outlook on life.  When they feel confident, children are less likely to conform to social pressures and determine for themselves who they want to become. 

Madalyn Hopkins, 14, says that playing golf at the varsity level as a freshman has validated her effort and commitment over the years.  “Being deaf and having cochlear implants has not kept me from accomplishing any of my goals.  If anything, I think it makes me work harder to prove to myself and to others that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”

Zach Kyzer, 16, says that “[p]laying sports since I was 3 years old has helped me gain confidence over the years to believe in myself and that I can be a leader in my baseball and basketball teams. All of the sports that I have played over the last 13 years, whether it was football, swimming, baseball, soccer or basketball, have given me the opportunity to meet and make new friends, feel more confident, and know that I can do anything I set my mind and heart to do.”

Victoria Dunkelberger, 12, has been playing sports since she was 3 years old.  She believes sports have helped her because “I have always been around other kids so there have not been as many questions about my hearing loss.  Over the years, my parents have helped me learn how to explain it.  I am now in sixth grade and play on the travel basketball and softball teams.  I feel like I am a leader because I can show other people that people who are deaf can do it.  It makes me feel good that I can do it as the only girl who is deaf to ever play on either team.”

In order to harness the huge potential of playing sports in fostering positive self-image and robust self-esteem in children with hearing loss, playing sports needs to be a positive experience for youth who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Communication with coaches and teammates is vital.  Depending on the age of the child, this can be done by either the parent or player him/herself.  Encourage coaches to have patience with your child.  Help them understand that they need to have your child’s attention before giving directions, and they should speak slowly and clearly, and confirm understanding. Coaches need a strategy or mechanism for getting the child’s attention during play such as using a loud voice or waving a flag.  Above all, coaches should be reminded to treat all players the same and that they should not single out or treat a child with hearing loss any differently. 

After explaining to coaches some ways to help instruct a child with hearing loss, parents and/or players should help make the teammates aware of the hearing loss.  Children are curious by nature, and once they understand the devices and what they can do to help, they are typically very willing to step up.  As with the coaches, other players may need to be reminded that children who are deaf and hard of hearing have difficulty hearing in the distance and localizing sound.  Different environments present even more issues, such as gym acoustics for example.  Allow teammates to ask questions and decide what should be shared with team parents.  The team should discuss any necessary accommodations and strategies that they have developed over time. 

As parents of children who have played many sports, we have come up with a few tips and tricks of our own.  These strategies and modifications are not endorsed by any cochlear implant or other hearing device manufacturer.  They have been developed as creative ways to solve some unusual challenges.


If the player is caught in a rain shower during a game, turn his/her baseball cap sideways so the bill of the hat shields the device.  Wear a Sweatband™ or Ear Gear cover in hot or humid climates over the external unit to cut down on sweat damage.  Press n’ Seal plastic wrap, which can be found in the grocery store, can be wrapped around the hearing device for a waterproof seal and is easy  to put on and remove. A regular sweatband worn around the head will also help with sweat and help keep the processor from falling off.

Madalyn Hopkins at age 8 after she received her first set of golf clubs.

For kids who use cochlear implants with an active wear option, use it to keep the processor off the ear and away from the sweat.  Attach the unit to a collar or baseball cap. Players can use double-sided toupee or wig tape that sticks to the processor and skin behind the ear, ensuring that it stays in place. 

Keep a clean towel handy to help dry the head and hair between innings.  Be sure to have a back-up unit available at the games.


FM systems can help the player receive instructions and coaching at the driving range or during practice rounds.  Wind and rain can compromise a player’s ability to hear on the course.  Be prepared with hats and rain jackets with hoods.  Placing a cochlear implant in a sealable plastic sandwich bag will allow the player to wear the device for golf and other sports in rainy conditions with a cap for retention. Keep an OtterBox in the golf bag for times when the processor needs to be removed.


Communication between coaches, players and officials is critical.  Consider both verbal and non-verbal communication options.  FM systems may be an option, but be sure to consult local soccer club bylaws and rules. 

Inform the officials before a game that the player is wearing a hearing device.  Have a plan in place if the hearing device should happen to be knocked off during play (i.e., the player immediately takes a knee). 

Skeleton ear molds are effective ways to keep cochlear implants in place. Player substitutions can require a physical tag between incoming and outgoing players.  Ski caps can help in windy conditions, and headgear can help prevent injuries as well.


When the child is learning plays or getting instructions on the field, have him keep his helmet off in order to clearly hear the coach.  The player can wear an armband that contains all the plays by number.  The coach can then signal the plays from the sideline or players can signal numbers in the huddle. 

Coaches and staff can wave a flag from the sideline to get the child’s attention.  Use a designated on-field “buddy” to assist in any changes, timeouts, play stoppage, etc.  Some players actually wear the processor or hearing device under the helmet.  Keep the unit in place by wearing a sweatband or skull cap.


Make sure to have a properly fitting ski helmet.  This not only can reduce head injuries, but can protect the hearing device and provide added warmth.  Helmets with mesh earflaps help to secure the hearing device and may make hearing through the helmet easier.  For other snow sports such as cross country skiing, look for ski hats that tie under the chin.


Players can wear a sweatband around their head to cut down on sweat entering the processor and to hold the coil/processor in place.  A Sweatband™ or Ear Gear sleeve can be used also for moisture. 

Ear molds can be attached to processors to keep them secure during fast-moving plays.  Have the coach number the plays and use a whiteboard on the sidelines when possible.  Written copies of plays can be provided before practices. 

Teammates are a great resource to facilitate communication.  When a referee blows the whistle, everyone stops motion on the court to signal play has stopped.  The referee can also hold up a flag to signal that play has stopped.


It’s all about the helmet with this sport.  Make sure helmets fit properly.  Newer helmets have retention systems with a dial in the back to adjust the fit.  Most are made of expanded polystyrene foam or EPS for short.  EPS foam is single-use only and doesn’t recover from being crushed. 

Lower-priced helmets are typically one-size-fits-all; to size them, adjust the internal strap to get the helmet snug.  Higher-priced helmets are available in a variety of sizes.  Make sure to wear the helmet properly—low, level and snug. Try on several helmets to ensure a good fit while wearing the cochlear implant.


Use an FM system or video the instructor so the child can watch again at home.  Get a copy of the music.  Ask the teacher to count loudly and consistently in class.  Turn the music volume up slightly louder than normal.  Clip glasses holders to the dancer’s hair to hold hearing aids or implant processors.  One student placed an FM transmitter on her tap shoes to more clearly distinguish the sounds which are critical to dance.

While children who are deaf and hard of hearing can face certain challenges in their lives, there is no reason that they cannot participate in sports.  Using a few simple tricks can help level the playing field and ensure they benefit from this healthy outlet.  Participating in sports will go a long way in helping to instill confidence, strengthen peer and family relationships, and provide an overall sense of well-being and positive view of life.  To the question of “To play or not to play?” our children answer with a unanimous “Game on!”

Source: Volta Voices, November/December 2014