Podium finishes start with data!

    The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development

    Physical literacy

    Physical literacy is the foundation upon which a long, healthy, and active life is based.

    You may have heard the term physical literacy lately, we use it a lot around here at Sportkid HQ and it's already being used by physical educators and sport gurus around the world. It's one of those terms that seem familiar and obvious when you first hear it. But if you really think about it its definition is elusive. So, what is it, really? What does the term mean and what does it mean to say that a person is physically literate?

    There are several definitions of physical literacy, some more academic than others, but the one we can use in terms of physical fitness and athlete development is this one from James Mandigo from Brock University in Canada:

    "To be physically literate includes the ability to move with poise and confidence across a wide range of activities."

    When children learn fundamental movement skills, have multiple opportunities to participate in sports, and are encouraged to be active by parents, teachers, and other adults they are building physical literacy. This forms the foundation of lifelong physical fitness and the starting point for successful sport participation.

    Having a physically literate older population is an important factor in raising the quality of life and reducing healthcare costs in a country.

    Children begin learning fundamental movement skills at very young ages with the prime learning period coming between the ages of 7 and 11. During this period, children learn fundamental movements quickly and almost effortlessly, which is why they should have the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of activities. After this period, starting around 12 years of age, fundamental skills become more difficult to master.

    Children who have not mastered fundamental movements by the age of 12 are at a disadvantage as they get older. They will not have the skills necessary to participate successfully in youth sports and as they age they are less likely to engage in any kind of physical activity. Moreover, if they do participate in youth sport programs they are more likely to dropout prematurely because their lack of skills reduces their chance of success and enjoyment.

    The importance of learning fundamental movement skills at the proper time is much like learning languages. It's much easier to learn these skills while young. Learning them later on is possible but difficult.

    Physical literacy provides the launching pad for activity throughout life. Those interested in sports can join teams with a solid foundation of what we typically refer to as athleticism. Youngsters not interested in sports will still be able to participate in any number of fitness or recreational activities. So, no matter what path one chooses, a physically literate youngster will have the skills and information they need to live an active life.

    Effect on overall athlete development

    All national governing bodies (NGBs) are interested in attracting and developing the best athletes they can. Obviously there is emphasis on teaching and training youngsters once they join a sport but there is little attention paid to what a child learns before this. Whether realized or not NGBs have a stake in increasing levels of physical literacy in their potential athlete pool, which, in turn, raises the overall level of athleticism of youngsters coming into the sport.

    Without basic skills children are unable to participate effectively and lose interest, and as time passes they become less and less able to ever engage in them. Physically illiterate children who do join youth programs are more prone to dropout because they can't enjoy the sport as much as others who have the foundational skills. Though not the only reason young athletes dropout of sport it is one that is largely preventable.

    Athleticism -- the quality that allows elite athletes to impress us with their skill, speed, agility, and grace -- is usually seen as part of the sport or game; developed within the context of the sport experience, at practice or competition for example, rather than being developed somewhere else. Athleticism, however, gets its start much earlier in life and long before organized sports are a practical endeavor. Athleticism begins when children are allowed to play and explore movement and when they learn lots of different activities.

    Athleticism is something athletes bring to the table when they join a sport. Because organized sport programs don't actually 'teach' athleticism the belief is that some youngsters are just better athletes than others i.e. athleticism just happens. But it doesn't. In youth sport a child's ability is relative to those he plays with and is determined largely by natural though temporary attributes like height, weight, speed, and strength. It is determined by the opportunities the child has had to participate in physical activity, PE class, after-school programs, and other recreational activities even though none of them may be directly related to sport training.

    So where is a child to learn fundamental skills? One opportunity occurs when children are young and spend most of their time with caregivers such as parents or grandparents. As children get older they learn these skills in physical education class, which makes the current trend of reducing or eliminating physical education time in school especially harmful. Other sites include recreational programs and organized youth sport.

    Youngsters who develop fundamental movement skills and become physically literate are better athletes no matter the sport. We say some youngsters are 'natural' athletes. Are some children just naturally better at physical activity than others? Maybe. But a better, and easier, explanation is that children who seem to be natural athletes are simply more physically literate than those who aren't.

    If ever there were a sport management problem that has not been solved yet it is how to enhance the pool of potential athletes available for training and ultimately inclusion on national teams. NGBs that focus on this problem will be able to raise the level of athleticism in their athlete pools. The main question to be answered is how physical literacy training or enhancement could be incorporated into already existing programs.

    Training in fundamental skills has never been part of NGB operations; physical literacy has primarily been developed elsewhere but addressing this area of athlete development directly can have huge benefits for an NGB in the long run.

    NGBs that actually tackle this idea will face at least two fundamental problems. The first is the actual logistics of providing activities that are outside the NGB's comfort zone of expertise and, for some sports, a lack of necessary staffing, equipment, facilities, or knowledge.

    The second is that of parental expectation. When parents register their children for youth sport programs they expect a short-term, sport-specific training and competitive experience. It will be a hard sell to convince parents that 8-year old swimmers or soccer players, for example, should be doing gymnastic-like practices once or twice per week simply because they don't see these additional activities as being related to the sport they signed up for.

    Neither of these problems is insurmountable but solving them will require some "moonshot thinking" as Google likes to say. NGBs are used to developing high performance plans for their elite athletes. Adding efforts to concentrate on the opposite end of the athlete equation will be challenging but can create long-term rewards.

    High cost of physical illiteracy

    There is a cost to individuals who lack skills in reading or numeracy; being physically illiterate also carries a cost. This affects not only the individual but society at-large. Children who never learn fundamental movement skills tend to shy away from physical activities and remain largely inactive throughout life. They don't have the skills needed to successfully participate in youth sport activities and thus miss out on an important part of socialization. Worst of all, their sedentary lifestyle sets a poor example for their own children, thus perpetuating the cycle of inactivity, obesity, and disease.

    The effect of this inactivity on personal lives and healthcare costs is well known. Adults who live inactive lives are more prone to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and chronic ailments of all kinds. According to Reuters, obesity alone is adding $190 billion to healthcare costs in the United States each year. This burden will only grow as caring for the physically inactive takes over a larger and larger portion of the economy.

    If we think about physical literacy in the same way that we understand literacy in the traditional sense of reading, writing, speaking, and working with numbers, then it's easy to appreciate the importance of fundamental movement skills not only to a healthy lifestyle but to stronger efforts in sport at all levels. With this concept we can see that both healthy living and high performance sport, and everything else in between, has the same departure point, instead of treating them, as we still do now, as if they all exist in their own vacuum.

    The duty of educators, sport coaches, and administrators is to promote the concept of physical literacy in order to begin changing the experience of youngsters whether they become athletes or not. Physical literacy is the foundation of both a healthy lifestyle and the base on which a country's sport efforts can be built.

    Bill Price (price@sportkid.asia) is the owner and Chief Data Scientist at Sportkid Metrics.


    Don't miss any content
    Subscribe Now!

    The nine pillars of sport development - 02 May 2021

    Using training age to gauge athlete experience - 18 April 2021

    What would you do differently if there were no such thing as talent? - 04 April 2021

    Athlete development measurements and the lingo that goes with them - 21 March 2021

    Retention and Training Age - 07 March 2021

    Fear of missing out is hurting youth sports - 23 October 2018

    Deliberate practice vs. late specialization - 24 September 2018

    Is talent identification even possible? - 17 September 2018

    Who won the Asian Games? - 10 September 2018

    Re-thinking the mission of Malaysia's sport associations - 03 September 2018

    Using maturity offsets to determine age at peak height velocity - 27 August 2018

    The youth sport talent illusion - 13 August 2018

    The tip of the iceberg - 30 July 2018

    7 things youth sport coaches should know - 25 June 2018

    Who is responsible for athlete performance - 18 June 2018

    Creating a culture of achievement in sport - 05 June 2018

    Sport development in the headlines (sort of) - 28 May 2018

    Who won the Commonwealth Games? - 23 April 2018

    Kaizen: Improving sport administration will improve performance - 02 April 2018

    What can Malaysia learn from Norway about sport development? - 05 March 2018

    Dealing with more than one email address and other communication ideas - 26 February 2018

    What can you do to work more efficiently? - 19 February 2018

    LTAD: Training to compete - 22 January 2018

    Sport clubs are the lifeblood of national sport development - 15 January 2018

    Take a chance! - 18 December 2017

    How we calculate age in youth sports can have benefits and consequences - 11 December 2017

    Can bio-banding help reduce the relative age effect in sport? - 04 December 2017

    Understanding the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation play in the athlete development process - 20 November 2017

    Great expectations: Expect more, get more! - 14 November 2017

    Why process is more important than outcome in a learning environment - 25 September 2017

    Sport associations are embracing physical literacy training - 18 September 2017

    Creating a true sport development system in Malaysia - 11 September 2017

    Who won the SEA Games? - 04 September 2017

    KL2017: Reporting individual sport results deserved better planning - 29 August 2017

    Can we please forget about ways to identify talent and just work on getting more athletes? - 07 August 2017

    Using the team selection process to boost motivation and increase athlete participation - 24 July 2017

    LTAD: The Train to Train stage - 10 July 2017

    LTAD: The Learn-to-Train stage - 26 June 2017

    Athletic training for youngsters - 12 June 2017

    Visualization and imagery in sports - 05 June 2017

    Young, single-sport athletes suffer more injuries and do not reach their full potential - 29 May 2017

    Transformational vs. transactional coaching - 23 May 2017

    Will they come back tomorrow? - 08 May 2017

    Advice to parents of young athletes - 01 May 2017

    Is VIP leadership of sport associations a good idea? - 22 March 2017

    What happens after an athlete's initial introduction to sport? - 27 February 2017

    "Where do athletes come from?" - 16 January 2017

    Understanding sport talent pathways - 09 January 2017

    Make 2017 the year of the growth mindset - 02 January 2017

    Teaching physical literacy skills in youth sport practices - 12 December 2016

    Developing sport from the ground up - 06 December 2016

    Pay for what you want - 21 November 2016

    The 10,000 hour rule: "Not for the faint of heart nor for the impatient" - 14 November 2016

    Parent involvement in their child's sport participation sometimes backfires - 07 November 2016

    How to do the measurements for determining peak height velocity (PHV) - 24 October 2016

    A foreign coach is not always the answer - 17 October 2016

    Tips on creating an effective coaching environment - 10 October 2016

    Peak height velocity and aerobic development - 26 September 2016

    Early sport specialization is still not a good idea - 19 September 2016

    What kind of data do we need to develop sports? - 13 September 2016

    The attrition and transformation models of sport development - 05 September 2016

    Solve for <x> - 29 August 2016

    Artificial elimination of athletes from training and competition hinders sport development in Malaysia - 15 August 2016

    Time is the most important factor in talent development - 01 August 2016

    What if opportunity never knocks? - 13 June 2016

    The long-term athlete development framework offers youngsters a chance at sport success and an active and healthy life - 06 June 2016

    Early sport specialization is not a good development strategy - 30 May 2016

    What does a declining population mean for sport? - 2 February 2016

    Coaching 'flow' - 11 November 2015

    The coach's role in creating a deliberate practice environment - 02 November 2015

    When should athletes specialize in a single sport? - 11 September 2015

    The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development - 1 September 2015

    Revisiting the 10,000 hour rule - 10 August 2015

    The power of 'not yet' - 20 July 2015

    Let's stop trying to identify sport talent and start developing it - 22 June 2015