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Tag Archive: physical literacy

  1. What is physical literacy?

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    What is physical literacy?

    Bracing, posture and balance

    What is Physical Literacy?

    Physical Literacy is a term gaining currency to help promote the need for children to be given the opportunities to move. Physical education has been squeezed out of the school curriculum, competitive sports have taken over and many children are disheartened and therefore disengaged.

    Partly through lack of sufficient activity some children are awkwardly overgrown while others are fat and flabby so that eventually desire for movement is lost and they join the ranks of the physically illiterate.

    Ruth Morison (1969) 1.

    A physically literate individual “moves with poise, economy and confidence in a wide variety of physically challenging situations(2).

    Physically challenging” situations could include sporting activity such as tennis, family games such as Twister, or being able to play tag in the playground or copying dance moves from Ciara!

    By being physically literate, the child, and then the adult, will have a much better chance of finding something they can do and like and take part in.”If you teach them to move well, you don’t have to tell them to move often.” Rita Parish (3).

    Literacy and numeracy are cornerstones of education in the UK and around the world. Children are educated, tested and retested continuously. There are league tables that compare class to class and school to school. There is a relentless pursuit to “improve standards”.

    Unfortunately, the same amount of effort is lacking when it comes to physical literacy.

    physical literacy

    Exploring movement

    Moving is Learning

    Nearly 50 years ago Morison wrote “the increasing supply of ready made entertainment and mechanical means of transport compel many children to quell their natural urge to move, and their inactivity makes them dull and passive.

    This was before ipads, smartphones and when most families were lucky to have one car.

    Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (4).

    If children watch tv before school, are driven to school, sit in an assembly for 45 minutes, kept inside at break time, miss p.e. because the hall is in use for nativity play, driven home, watch tv, go to bed how do they learn to move?

    • A worrying statistic is that in 1985 the average child played outside for 30 hours per week, in 2005 this was down to 5 hours per week (5).
    • That means the average 15 year old in 2018 will have 12,250 less hours of accumulated free play time compared to their 1985 counterpart.

    For the “sporty” kids today, this means they are in danger of overspecialisation and overuse injuries. For the “non-sporty” kids this means they are lacking in basic movement skills and feel inhibited and lack confidence to try.

    Children teach themselves physical literacy

    Given the opportunity, children want to move and explore. In an over mechanised society, the last thing children need is to be put on a machine to exercise. The dull repetitive nature of treadmills, adductor leg machines and cross trainers replace the joy of movement and discovery with mind numbingly boring labour.

    There is more to physical literacy than improving simple physiological functions: sitting on an exercise bike will improve your heart and lung function, but it will do nothing for balance, co -ordination or skill (pretty hard to pull a wheelie on one too).

    The richer the interactions, the more individuals develop their human potential“. Margaret Whitehead (2001). (2).

    Without these rich interactions, our children will never reach their full potential. Driving your child to a swimming lesson and watch someone else give them instructions for 20 minutes out of 30 minutes is far from being rich or interacting.

    physical literacy

    Peppa pig gets it

    Instead these might surprise you as examples:

    • Jumping in muddy puddles (kids have to be outside and in the wet, and on uneven ground).
    • Splashing in the bath.
    • Going down a slide (and climbing up the ladder to get there).
    • Hanging upside down holding onto parent’s hands.
    • Wrestling with siblings.
    • Crawling around the house (not left in a cot or in a car seat during “play dates”.
    • Walking to school (or skipping, hopping, running, tripping, scootering, cycling, skateboarding).
    • Playing in the pool with family (emphasis on playing, children need to be comfortable in strange environment before even beginning to listen to an instruction).
    • Hopscotch, skipping, jacks, bean bag throws, frisbee, paper aeroplanes, stone skimming and jumping over puddles are all “rich interactions” which should be numerous before even going to an athletics club.
    what is physical literacy?

    Climbing is learning

    Apart from going to the swimming pool, all the above are free and therefore should be familiar to all children. However, they require time which is precious and they may seem trivial to adults (who are often looking for the next big thing to post on Facebook).


    The major point being that this unstructured, messy, disorganised PLAY, allows children to make mistakes and adapt to the environment around them. This then gives them a large database of experiences that they can draw upon when needed in the future.

    Watching my children’s’ 73 year old Gran learn Bollywood style dancing last week for the first time on a workshop was a delight. Her physical literacy gained as a child in the 1950s enabled her to participate and thrive in a new environment. 

    Will your kids be able to do the same in 60 years time?

    Want to learn more?

    We are running a one day workshop on Educational Gymnastics that will give you a framework and practical ideas to help you help children learn to move better.

    Read “Physical Literacy and Athletic Development” review of seminar by Vern Gambetta.


    1.  A Movement Approach to Educational Gymnastics: Ruth Morison (1969).
    2. Margaret Whitehead (2001) The Concept of Physical Literacy, European Journal of Physical Education, 6:2, 127-138.
    3. Personal communication with Rita Parish, Willand Tennis Club 2013.
    4. Experiential Learning: David Kolb (1984).
    5. Personal communication Honore Hoedt Scottish Athletics Conference 2016.


  2. Structural Integrity


    How do I start training?

    how to start fitness trainingIn the rush to get results fast and take shortcuts, or to “get to the interesting stuff” young athletes get broken. Improving the structural integrity of the athlete is essential before moving onto other areas of fitness.

    Watching Alien Covenant this week prompted me to update this blog as they used the phrase also.

    I used to say that Structural Integrity is composed of  4 key components:

    • Posture: Static and dynamic, countering gravity.
    • Balance: Static and dynamic, upper/ lower body, single limbs.
    • Stability: Joints are strong and can support body weight when moving and static.
    • Mobility: How you control limbs over a range of movement.

    Structural integrity

    But, when presenting at the DAASM symposium in April, I was challenged on the use of “stability” By Dr. Homayun Gharavi MD, PhD, PhD. He suggested that the word “control” is better than stability. Stability has been overused and is vague, the body is designed to move, unlike a table, and so control is more accurate.

    This means the new schematic would be this: structural integrity


    The Foundation of Athletic Development

    Most of the athletes I initially encounter have glaring deficiencies in their structure or posture that limits their ability to progress.  Loading athletes like this either through volume, intensity or weight, will lead to breakdowns. Saying someone needs to get fitter and then giving them a running programme, without seeing them run, is poor coaching.

    Instead, after their initial musculo skeletal and movement screening, we start to work on their structural integrity. This is the foundation of Athletic Development and then allows the athlete to work on their athletic ability involving spatial awareness, rhythm, movement abilities and timing. This then allows greater ease of skill acquisition. In this video you see an example of work with young gymnnasts.

    Only then do we start on our training programmes. The first month of the Sports Training System is designed to enhance structural integrity.

    star trek structural integrity

    Enterprise hull needs structural integrity

    N.B. I thought this was an original term on my part, but then realised that it was inherited from watching too much Star Trek!

    The hull has been breached and is losing its Structural Integrity Cap’n” and so on!

  3. 3 pillars of athletic development: Kelvin Giles


    “Great coaches find a way or make one”

    athletic development exeterKelvin Giles presenting his “Quest for physical literacy” at the Excelsior Athletic Development Centre on Monday.

    The theme was putting precision, variety and progression into the coaching and teaching of young people at every opportunity.

    Kelvin gave a great one day workshop which had coaches, parents, teachers, physiotherapists and also 4 junior international athletes attending.

    The 3 pillars of athletic development

    Kelvin outlined his take on this:

    1. Cardiorespiratory (metabolic) efficiency: the running, swimming, cycling that gets the heart and lungs working.
    2. Nutritional quality: what the athletes put into their mouths and bodies.
    3. Mechanical (movement) efficiency: the focus of the day.

    half turtlesWhen looking at mechanical efficiency, the load must be determined by the quality of the technique.

    That load is either: speed, distance, volume, direction, complexity or the surface upon which it is performed.

    When all of this is perfect, only then can you progress.  “Function before sports specific skill, force, speed or endurance.

    This is criterion based progression:  the athlete must earn the physical right to progress. The adaptation must be permanent and consistent.

    (Compare that with the norm which is “no weights until you are 16, now we start with power cleans”, or “you can’t do a body weight squat? Never mind, get in the smith machine and we can add some weight because you are too skinny” James’ rant over).

    single leg squat progressionKelvin gave examples of this, and we started with a lot of squat variations, followed by physical competency assessments.

    I have done this 4 times previously with Kelvin, but always learn something new. Today it was that spending 4 hours in a car leads to tight hamstrings!

    The state of the nation

    Kelvin spent a good portion of the day outlining the data and research behind our lack of physical ability.

    As a coach of young people, or even senior clubs and teams, it is easy to concentrate on “performance outcomes” either in the gym or in the win/ loss column. However, it is important to remember where these athletes are coming from.

    athletic development exeterIt is alright having “medal targets” for Rio and Tokyo Olympics, but the simple fact is that we have a young generation of unfit, overweight kids who struggle to move properly. Kelvin laid this out very well.

    It is everyones’ responsibility to help solve this problem. The answer isn’t with p.e “specialists” being put into primary schools and chucking a ball at 30 kids and saying “play a game“.

    The answer isn’t with hordes of sports science students being able to recite force/ time relationships or measuring Vo2 max on a treadmill but unable to coach a press up or a squat properly. Let alone sequence those movements into a meaningful, engaging coaching session.

    The answer lies with better coaching and teaching:”If you don’t chase precision, you are supporting mediocrity”. 

    “Kids aren’t afraid of hard work, the’re afraid of boredom”. Wayne Goldsmith

    “My butt is killing me”

    sway drillThe last hour of the day was all practical with Kelvin taking the group through some lunge progressions, sway drill variations and single leg squat variants.

    Are we teaching/ coaching them to discover, or to be robotic?” Kelvin put all his theory and experience into practice.

    This was a great example of how good coaching and using time and space can create overload, rather than justing adding weight. “The minute you put a bar on someone’s shoulders you slow them down“.

    lunge sequenceWith minimal coaching cues, Kelvin set tasks that their bodies had to solve: linear, lateral, rotational, squatting, bracing, hinging. So much variation and fun, with just the body.

    As Steve Myrland says “Complex equipment tends to yield simplistic results, simple equipment tends to yield complex results

    Summary and the way ahead

    excelsior athletic development centreExeter school provided the venue and it was great to see their teaching and coaching staff making the most of this opportunity.

    They have recently opened their Athletic Development Gym and have implemented some great programming ideas.

    Thanks to everyone who took part, and especially to Kelvin for once again delivering a great workshop (following on from his session at Willand School, I have been helping them further implement the ideas).

    Contact me if you would like a similar course run near you