Teaching physical literacy skills in youth sport practices

Sport development is a topic that occupies a lot of "think" time at our office. Sport development isn't really a complicated process but it suffers from a general lack of understanding. Sport is one of those things that everyone thinks they know so when new ideas or new ways to think about or do something come up they are frequently overshadowed by past practices or the "This is the way we've always done it" mentality.

Change is hard.

But one change that shouldn't be hard is incorporating physical literacy skills into youth sport practices. While humans can build physical literacy at any stage in their lives the best time to develop these basic skills is between 7 and 12 years of age. Being physically literate equips youngsters with the skills they will need to participate in almost any sport and, later, to lead healthy and long lives.

The problem with the current trend toward early sport specialization is that it focuses on sport specific skills from a very early age. And no matter what sport a child engages in the skills are limited when it comes to learning a full range of fundamental movements. Football, for example, includes very few fundamental movements for the upper body and swimming features movements designed specifically for moving through the water. Athletes participating in either sport will not develop a full range of movement skills. The only exception to this is gymnastics where practically every movement the human body is capable of is part of the sport's skill list, both fundamental and sport specific.

Developing physical literacy especially in youngsters, is easy but it can only happen if it's deliberately planned as part of the sport training program. The skills can be easily incorporated into youth sport practices. All it takes is an understanding by the coach that learning all basic movement skills is important. It will make athletes more robust and give them a deeper skill set upon which to draw in whatever sports they participate it.

Sometimes it can be hard to explain why a football team may be warming up by chasing Frisbees around the pitch working on catching and throwing skills, or why swimmers are learning a bit of gymnastics before getting into the pool. But if enough coaches take responsibility for helping athletes become physically literate then this kind of activity will eventually be accepted as part of youth sport.

Young athletes who are brought up in a learning or sport training environment where physical literacy is an accepted part of the process will grow up to be better athletes. They will have better foundational skills which will result in richer, more athletic performances as the child ages.

I was asked in an interview after the most recent Commonwealth Games what was wrong with Malaysian athletes. There isn't anything wrong with them. The current crop of elite athletes in Malaysia are doing the best they can. They have the support staff, coaches, and funds they need to prepare for their sports. Their performances in international competitions are as good as they are because of this support. Malaysia is doing exactly what it should be doing for their high performance athletes.

However, if Malaysia wants to see better performances, higher placing performances, indeed gold medal winning performances, then it needs to shift its attention to the very bottom level of sport preparation. That's where gains can be made. These gains start with making sure that all youngsters become physically literate. Yes, it will take a number of years before these changes show any result but over the long term Malaysian athletes will perform better and Malaysians in general will be leading healthier and more active lives.