Physical Literacy

Jan 22, 14 Physical Literacy

It seems obvious to me but today children don’t play like they did in previous generations.

The development of fundamental movement skills and fundamental sports skills that permit a child to move confidently and with control in a wide range of physical activity – The Canadian Sport Centre(Higgs, Balyi, Way, Cardinal. Norris and Bluechardt 2008)

In October 2013 I had an interesting conversation while working with with RCD Espanyol academy coach Enrique Mattheo. He had recently noticed that their youngest academy groups needed more coordination and balance training compared to when he began at the academy. His explanation was simple. Due to technology, environmental and safety restrictions children are no longer out doing what children used to do ie free play, climbing trees. Before, children would start at the academy already possessing a certain amount of physical literacy. This is not the case anymore.

Movement is a fundamental part to being human. It is essential for good health. Ability to move was at one time a daily part of any child’s life. A child with good physical literacy will have the competence and ability to use a variety of fundamental movement skills and confidence to apply these skills in different situations. In modern society it seems that this is unlikely to occur naturally. There was time when most children progressed into adult life with sufficient levels of physical literacy. Freeplay and self organised learning environments such as street football took care of this. Organised sport seems to be the only time we can guarantee our children the chance to learn, practice and develop their movement skills. Seemingly this is proving to not be enough.

The ability to carry out fundamental movement skills has many benefits. The obvious one is physical, such as fitness and motorskills. Cognitive skills in the area of understanding and problem solving along with social, emotional and motivational development also benefit. If children begin playing football with the ability to execute fundamental movement skills, it will be easier for the coach to contextualise these skills and help the child apply them to the sport. This in turn will give the child confidence to be creative when applying a skill. By being creative we mean that the child will invent new solutions to problems, thus working with the physical (motorskills) and the cognitive (decision making) all within a social context.

‘A child with good physical literacy will have the competence and ability to use a variety of fundamental movement skills and confidence to apply these skills in different situations.’

Who is responsible for developing physical literacy?

We are social learners, we learn from what our environment offers us. Many think that learning happens only in adult constructed environments (school, organised sport) and what is worse, our children are starting to believe it. Physical education and organised sport play a vital part in the process but they should not be seen as the only opportunities to learn and practice. Parents and adults should encourage a more spontaneous attitude to sport and free play.

Can it be argued that we are overprotecting our children?

Many a sporting childhood is driven by adult supervision with adult competition rules. This can mean that the only time a child plays a sport is when it is organised. One solution to this problem and to encourage development of fundamental movement skills is that children should be encouraged to engage in a variety of sports. Many parents feel more secure with early specialisation but why place the burden of athletic development on one sport at such a young age? Taking in to account the problems Enrique experiences at the RCD Espanyol academy, can we say that this is becoming a standard situation that we all must deal with? Therefore in anticipation of future problems perhaps a fitting and relevant model for today’s children could be “Early exposure with delayed specialisation”. Early selection of talent runs the risk of making the player pool smaller. What if we delay high volumes of training at an early age and encourage a more spontaneous attitude to sport, indeed a variety of sports and delay specialisation. Could it be that the longer you delay your selection of talent the more efficient your system?

Two Studies

A study at Essex University led by child fitness expert Dr Gavin Sandercock was very revealing. A study group of 215 10 year olds in 2008 were compares with 309 children of the same age in 1998. It was found that in the 2008 group

  1. Arm strength fell by 26%
  2. Number of sit ups performed fell by 27.1%
  3. One in 10 children could not hold their weight when hanging from bars compared to one in 20 in 1998.

What was interesting with this study is that both test groups had the same body mass index (BMI). So giving their declining strength, the 2008 group were likely to have more fat and less muscle than the 1998 group.

A study from GIH Stockholm found that the average 16 year old had lost 10% of the Vo2 Max compared with 10 years ago which indicates lack of movement and sport participation.

Post by Swedish Educated UEFA A Coach & Sports Director at Mark O’Sullivan. You can follow Mark @markstkhlm


I always like to hear your opinions. Please comment below or email me If, you don’t have anything to add then please forward this on to a friend. Thanks for reading. I’m also on twitter @Coachdiary

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Facebook comments: