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Tag Archive: physical education

  1. The Daily Mile: Teachers “Must Try Harder”

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    Why the Daily Mile should not be mandatory for pupils

    childhood obesity solution

    Kids move in many different ways

    Two Primary School head teachers have mentioned the “Daily Mile” to me in the last 6 months. The first said he was going to introduce it in his school. The second asked me about it and had concerns because she didn’t want any of the pupils “dreading coming to school“.

    The Daily Mile is just the latest in a series of initiatives that have been launched in an effort to combat childhood obesity and/or improve physical fitness in young people. It is easy to get swept along with the latest craze, and I would expect children to do the floss, fidget spin, create loom bands and play Fortnite as the prevailing fads of their time.

    However, teachers, governors and sports partnerships should know better. They need to analyse any new initiative and see if it fits in with their underlying philosophy or strategy for physical education, rather than jump on the bandwagon. In short their end of term report should read “must try harder.

    Falling for the false dichotomy

    improving child strength

    Girls love using monkey bars

    The Daily Mile research was conducted between two different schools. One had each pupil do a mile of walking or running each day, the other had their pupils do nothing extra.  Guess what? Something was better than nothing!

    This “quasi-experimental pilot study” has then been heavily marketed and promoted as the magic pill to solve obesity problems. So what we have is a simplistic answer to a complex problem.

    But the options we have are not:

    1. Daily Mile
    2. Nothing

    There are plenty of other ways to get children moving (see below), so why is this being promoted so heavily and is it really a problem?

    I think it is promoted heavily for a few reasons that I can see.

    1. It  has a catchy title. Yes, things get launched like this simply because everyone can grasp the concept easily, even politicians. Just like the “5 a day” for fruit and vegetables which has no supporting evidence but was decided on at the end of a long day, just so the advisers could walk out with something on paper!
    2. It is easily measured and implemented. How much effort does it take for a teacher who has had only 6 hours of physical education training ever to say “Ok kids, 4 laps round the field and then come back in“?
    3. It is Scottish. I don’t know why this should be a thing, but Scottish MPs keep tweeting about it and therefore trying to back it. It doesn’t matter that the research is poorly designed and only one study has been done, the fact that it is Scottish means it is good!

    But our children love doing the Daily Mile

    Because a school or sports partnership have started this initiative, they have to then promote it heavily and show smiling kids to show it works. Some children will love it. Some children will like moving and talking with their friends. Some children will loathe it.

    If the alternative means sitting on a concrete floor for 50 minutes in a compulsory assembly, then of course children would prefer to be outside.

    What we have is an adult- led initiative with one movement pattern being imposed upon children. STOP.

    Children like to run and jump, but in their own fashion (see video).

    There are many more alternatives which will lead to an “Intoxicating physical education environment“. In Willand I have been working with the Parish Council to improve the parks based on what children like doing themselves, rather than doing miniature versions of adult activities.

    If you look at how children play, none of them, repeat none of them, run into a park and say “ok, let’s do 4 laps“. That is an adult mentality.

    Children run, jump, skip, hop, climb, hang, cartwheel, kick balls, throw and catch, hit nettles with sticks and jump in mud. Why not enhance that and give them more opportunities to do so?

    3 alternatives to the Daily Mile

    Daily mile problems

    Children exploring movement

    These require more work and co-ordination between schools and councils, none have a catchy title, but they are designed to improve the overall well-being of children, parents and the local community. They should be done in addition to a well designed physical education programme.

    1. Playground painting and games. Hopscotch, snakes and ladders and other different patterns on the playground itself encourage children to move and play. Using older children to help younger children learn the games also helps social interaction. Rope skipping, bean bag throwing and balance logs are also popular.
    2. “Park and walk”: if the kids walk to school, then their time in school can be spent on education. If the schools had a 400 metre “no car zone” then parents would have to walk 400m and back twice a day (1 mile). Why should the children be forced to do something the adults don’t? Kids would then be able to talk to their parents, rather than look at the back of their head in the car.
    3. Improve your local park. If the local park is better equipped, then the school can take pupils there in school time and the kids will have access after school in holidays and at weekends.

    Willand school and Willand Parish Council are doing two of these three. We are trying to improve the health and well being of the whole community, working together.

    Other communities will be doing similar projects which are equally valid, but have not had the publicity that “The Daily Mile” has. Rarely in life does the simple answer solve complex problems, so beware of something that becomes mandatory.

  2. History of Educational Gymnastics in British schools

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    Educational Gymnastics in Britain

    Educational gymnastics

    Excelsior ADC gymnasts

    A popular conception of gymnastics today is of young girls in sparkly leotards with hair kept up in tightly bound buns.  This is a relatively new concept, with gymnastics originally being an all-male outdoor pursuit.

    Gymnastics has originated from several different sources, but all had the underlying principle of healthy movement. The last 30 -40 years has seen a swing to competitive gymnastics which has influenced coaching courses and also teacher training. This so- called “traditional” gymnastics in clubs results in a massive dropout by children in their early teens.

    With phrases like “disengagement” and “pupil -centred” learning becoming prevalent, teachers may be in the frame of mind to look a little bit deeper into our rich and varied past for ideas that were successful with previous generations.

    This article shall look at the origins of educational gymnastics and also offer solutions for teachers and coaches who wish to improve the overall movement of their pupils and players.

    Gymnastics and the defence of the Nation

    The many wars and conflicts of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant that all European Nations were worried about the health and fitness of their military recruits. The history of gymnastics is intertwined with the concerns of each country about possible invasions by the enemy.

    FAther Jahn

    Father Jahn

    Frederich Ludwig Jahn was probably the first gymnastics coach. He was a teacher in Germany and he trained boys  in the woods outside Berlin to help  prepare them for military service against Napoleon (1). The boys performed all types of stunts using tree limbs and natural features. When they moved inside in the winter, “Father” Jahn built apparatus to help reproduce this work.

    These ideas spread to other areas and competitions between the groups developed. The groups were known as “Turnvereine” and the participants as “Turners”. In the 1820s many Germans emigrated to North America and continued their practice especially in the big cities. This led to the formation of the “American Turnerbund” which had a big influence in introducing physical education to public schools.

    In France in the early 1900s a similar approach was developed by Georges Hebert. Hebert had served with the French Navy and was involved in the relief of Martinique after a volcanic eruption. This disaster shaped his thoughts on the need for physical fitness, courage and altruism.

    His travels led him to observe people on different continents and he reflected:

    Their bodies were splendid, flexible, nimble, skillful, enduring, resistant and yet they had no other tutor in gymnastics but their lives in nature.”  Georges Hebert (2).

    He started to develop his “Natural Method” based on these ideals and the also the work of Frederick Jahn amongst others. He systemised the exercises and practiced them.  Hebert was injured in World War I and was then asked to form a school of physical education for the French Military.

    Origin of Parkour

    Parcours du combattant

    The final goal of physical education is to make strong beings. In the purely physical sense, the Natural Method promotes the qualities of organic resistance, muscularity and speed, towards being able to walk, run, jump, move on all fours, to climb, to keep balance, to throw, lift, defend yourself and to swim.” Georges Hebert  (2).

    Hebert helped develop obstacle courses that allowed recruits to perform a series of various exercises in sequence.  This then became standard practice for nearly every military unit in the world before World War II (Parcours du combattant = Assault Course), more on this later.

    Swedish Gymnastics and Swedish PT

    Swedish gymnastics

    Pehr Ling

    At about the same time Father Jahn was developing his system, Pehr Henrik Ling was creating a series of formalised exercises in Sweden (3). He did this after studying to be a Doctor and was in interested in the health promoting benefits of regular exercise.

    In 1813 Ling was given government backing and founded “The Royal Gymnastics Central Institute” in Stockholm. Amongst other things, Ling is credited with inventing Calisthenics (derived from the Greek words Kalos and Sthenos: Beauty and Strength) and several pieces of equipment including wall bars, beams and the vaulting box.

    Ling’s systematic use of a series of exercises proved popular in the early twentieth century and easy to export.

    (P.G. Wodehouse mentioned them several times in his novels:

    Aunt Dahilia to Bertie Wooster “Well, I won’t keep you, as, no doubt, you want to do your Swedish exercises.” (4).)

    In 1909 the British Board of Education issued a “Syllabus of Physical Training” which was based on the Swedish PT system (5). This involved an enormous amount of exercises and routines which were annotated like this:

    “Exercise 36 (St-Kn.Fl.Bd.) Jump to St.-Asd.-Hl. Ra. Posn. With Am. Bend. U. or swing. m.

    (With heel raising, knees full-bend!) Jumping astride on the toes with arm bending upward (arm swinging midway), by numbers one!- two! And later: Five times- begin! Spring from one position to the other, bending the arms upward or swinging them midway on the upward jump and bringing the hands to hips on the downward jump. The number of jumps may be gradually increased.”

    This syllabus did include apparatus work with the wall bars, beams (heaving) and vaulting boxes as well as rope climbing.

    There was little or no individual development or coaching, it was designed for mass instruction and synchronised movements.  The Board of Education were still using it in the years immediately after World War II.

    Here is an example of how it was used outside of schools too:

    Gymnastics in Britain around the Wars

    After World War 1 a new philosophy of physical education was developed: informal activities and mild recreational activities became the norm. Gymnastics, tumbling, calisthenics and marching tactics were reduced further before World War II in some areas.

    As the threat of war loomed once again the 1930s, the government once again took interest in the health of the young men. This video shows some of the formal work being done in a standard physical education class. Note the precision of movement, agility and also body mass of the children involved.

    In the 1950s and 1960s gymnastics on apparatus enjoyed a resurgence as many ex-servicemen went into teaching and taught activities they had done in the military (6).

    The origins of Parkour

    In 1946 a 7 year old French orphan called Raymond Belle snuck out of his orphanage in French Indo-China (now Vietnam) to train in secret to avoid becoming “a victim” of the very real conflict that surrounded him. He set up a series of exercises and routines in the jungle that he practiced diligently for the next 9 years. He moved to France at the age of 19 and served in the French military (7).

    His son David Belle was inspired by his father’s accomplished physical capabilities, and his philosophy on life. David did gymnastics and athletics growing up but found them “too scholastic” for his taste.

    Rather than do sport to compete, he wanted to seek out challenges for their own sake and find new ways to move:

    And that’s exactly what Parkour is all about: move from one obstacle to the other and make it more difficult on purpose so that in real life, everything seems easier.”

    As David grew up in a city, his obstacles were walls, ledges and roof tops, rather than the jungle or “Parcours du combattant”. It was just the Parcours.

    The aim of the game was to adapt to just about any surrounding, always keeping in mind that should anything happen, what do you do?”

    I see many young teachers looking for Parkour ideas for their pupils and expecting a series of moves. But, the original concept by Raymond and then David Belle is to seek challenges and solutions themselves rather than doing stunts just to look good.

    (When I coach gymnastics, I always include some obstacles or apparatus for them to work on and over. Schools do have this equipment; it just needs to be put out). These 2 children found solutions to the obstacles I laid out:

    Rudolf Laban and female physical educators

    So far, so martial.  A completely different strand of gymnastics evolved from the pioneering work of Rudolf Laban. The Hungarian born Laban was resident in the UK from 1938 until his death in 1958(8)

    His background and speciality was movement through dance. He spent years observing and practicing teaching pupils’ movement. Laban’s work has been summarised in 5 statements:

    1. That all human movement has two purposes, functional and expressive.
    2. That dancing is a symbolic action.
    3. That all movement of a part or parts of the body is composed of discernible factors that are common to men everywhere. These factors are contained in two overall terms: effort and shape.
    4. That there are inherent movement patterns of effort and shape which are indicative of harmonious movement.
    5. A system of notation that makes it possible to record accurately all movement of the human body.

    The emphasis is on helping the participant discover new or more efficient or expressive ways to move. This contrasts with a “Top Down” approach of having an end skill such as a forward roll and trying to get every pupil to do that by the end of term to “demonstrate learning”.

    Physical Education students abhor the fact that they are given too much chapter and verse; taught a recognisable end-product, and not allowed more individual interpretations.” (8).

    Laban’s detailed observations and the systematic annotation were taken up by female educators such as Ruth Morison  (10) and Mauldon & Layson (11) who wrote very accessible books that expanded the ideas and applied them more to the functional side of gymnastics, rather than the expressive side of dance.

    When I first started researching Educational Gymnastics, I couldn’t work out why it was only female pioneers. Then I realised the huge impact World War II had on this generation and the men were away for a 6 years of Laban’s work.  Plus, the schools of Laban movement were dance based and so there were mainly females being exposed to his work and initial talk was of “movement” training rather than “gymnastics”.

    Laban’s movement framework could be summarised as follows:

    Educational gymnastics course

    Movement Framework

    Expansion of these ideas was piecemeal with Lancashire and Yorkshire being the “early adopters”. Several more Educational Authorities soon realised that this framework and a child-centred approach meant that teaching gymnastics was a lot easier for Primary school teachers without a specialist background (12, 13).

    The gymnastic lesson today is centred on the child rather than the exercise. The teacher tries to create a learning situation which will stimulate the child to think.” (13).

    Here is an example of me coaching “Rocking and rolling” (body aspect with shapes and actions).

    Whilst there was still a distinction between boys and girls gymnastics in the 1960s and early 1970s, male educators who became exposed to Laban’s methodology realised its use too (14). The combination of learning how the body moves, then applying that to using apparatus in the gym meant for a potentially rich, inventive and fun environment for the children.

    An inventive child with a certain degree of skill will produce varied work instead of movement clichés or actions habitually strung together.” (11).

    However, whilst the knowledge of specific skills was unnecessary, teachers had to have empathy, sound movement knowledge and great observational skills for this system to work.  So whilst it may be easier to plan structure for Educational Gymnastics than rote learning, it also requires a teacher who can think on their feet.

    There was some resistance amongst male educators who were used to a “command-response” approach utilised by the Swedish PT system and/ or their military service. (Younger readers might be questioning my continued use of gender: it is relevant to the times, some context of how “new-fangled” ideas might have difficult spreading can be gained by watching Brian Glover’s portrayal of a games teacher in Kes (1969)

    Note that this “creating of learning environment” and “child- centred” approach was being written about and conducted with success from the early 1960s onwards. This pre- dates the work on “constraints led coaching” by over 2 decades (15).

    School gymnastics today

    educational gymnastics

    1950s school gymnastics

    It is for better informed people than me to try and explain what has happened to physical education in this country since the early 1970s. Part of the problem is that even if the National strategy is well informed (take this from 1972 for example):

    In his inheritance, in response to his environment, in his biological need for activity and in in his absorption in the potential of his physical frame, a child has within him a powerful drive to indulge his capacity for movement. It is the role of physical education to reveal and extend this capacity, and through it to lead the child towards his full potential.” (16).

    local tactics vary.

    For example in East Sussex, Teachers were given guidance by University lecturer and a Senior BAGA coach which dismisses the Laban based work as “an activity shrouded in a “movement mystique.” (17).

    Their book simplifies “gymnastics” to 7 specific skills and recommends following the BAGA award scheme “since it has clearly defined objectives”. I would suggest that this is the antithesis of “Educational Gymnastics” and is more like “training” which is commonly seen in gymnastics clubs.

    Training is a reductionist goal: its aim is to refine an existing action, whereas learning is an expansive goal; its aim is to increase the number of potential actions.” (18).

    That is just one example, but each county will have its own adviser and system of teacher education.

    One underlying problem now is that teachers coming into Primary Schools receive as little as 4 hours of Physical Education tutoring.  Today’s kids are being taught by teachers who have never been exposed to physical education programmes themselves.

    (On a recent course I tutored , one 23 year old sports science graduate didn’t know that the sports hall benches could be secured safely against wall bars with the levers underneath!)

    Many “P.E. specialists” have studied Sports Science courses at University, rather than Physical Education. They are more comfortable measuring physical fitness than teaching movement.

    Helping the teachers teach and the children explore

    educational gymnastics

    Child led approach

    I started learning about gymnastics in order to help my own children. Coming into it with an open mind, without a competitive gymnastics bias, or a local authority slant, I just focussed on giving the children the best opportunity to learn in a limited amount of time.

    For me, the Educational Gymnastics work tied well into my own coaching philosophy developed through working with accomplished sports people at Regional and International level. I could see the end goal, but reverse engineering from that and doing “micro versions” of “elite” training was nonsensical.

    Instead, building the child’s ability from the ground up in an environment that is both challenging and rewarding is both our club’s aim, and that of the village school where I teach.  Laban’s work looks at developing movement from within whilst Parkour looks at overcoming obstacles from without. Combining the two together has been a learning process for me and our club gymnasts.

    No child has yet to come to me and ask for a certificate, badge or to enter a competition. Their motivation comes from within.

    The coach and teacher “Educational Gymnastics” course I developed has helped introduce teachers to the infinite possibilities that children can explore. By giving them a framework and practical ideas, they gain confidence and observational skills that they can take back to their own unique classrooms.

    There is hope for us all yet, we have a rich tradition in this country, I hope this article as given you some ideas for helping your children learn and explore movement.


    1. A Manual for Tumbling and Apparatus Stunts: Otto E. Ryser (1968, 5th edition).
    2. Le Sport contre l’Éducation physique:  Georges Hebert (1946, 4th edition).
    3. A Biographical Sketch of the Swedish Poet and Gymnasiarch, Peter Henry Ling: Georgii, Augustus (1854).
    4. Right Ho Jeeves:G. Wodehouse (1934).
    5. Reference Book of Gymnastic Training for Boys: Board of Education (1927, reprinted 1947).
    6. Activities on P.E. Apparatus: J. Edmundson & J. Garstan. (1962).
    7. Parkour: David Belle & Sabine Gros La Faige (2009).
    8. The Influences of Rudolf Laban: John Foster (1977).
    9. The Mastery of Movement: Rudolf Laban, Revised by Lisa Ullmann (1971).
    10. A Movement Approach to Educational Gymnastics: Ruth Morison (1969, reprinted 1971).
    11. Teaching Gymnastics: E. Mauldon & J. Layson (1965).
    12. Educational Gymnastics: Inner London Education Authority (1962, reprinted 1971).
    13. Education In Movement (School Gymnastics): W. McD Cameron & Peggy Pleasance (1963, revised 1965).
    14. Gymnastics: Don Buckland (1969, reprinted 1976).
    15. Constraints on the development of co-ordination: Newell, K.M. In Motor Development in Children: aspects of co-ordination and control (1986).
    16. Movement: Physical Education in the Primary Years: Department of Education and Science (1972).
    17. Gymnastics 7-11: A lesson –by-lesson approach: M.E. Carroll & D.R. Garner (1984).
    18. A constraintsled, systems based autodidactic model for soccer or how guided-discovery works: Paul . In 21st Century Guide to Individual Skill Development Brian McCormick (2015).
  3. Why disengaged girls hate school sport


    I have recently been asked to help coach “disengaged” girls in school p.e. I am doing weightlifting at one school, gymnastics at another. Funding is available to help these girls as they are unenthusiastic about “traditional p.e.” My experience coaching them is different from what I was told to expect.

    What is “traditional p.e.”?

    I keep getting told by twenty-something p.e. teachers that the sports model is failing and so we have to find non-traditional ways of “engaging” girls (I use girls, but most of what follows applies to boys too). But, once again, p.e. is getting confused with sport. They are different (or at least should be).

    This quote from 1969:

    disengaged girls

    Hockey team 1921

    Organised games playing in girls’ schools has been much maligned as purposelessly aping the boys’ tradition and either producing hearty hockey players or a tight-skirted, unenthusiastic, unskilled rabble…

    To the age of 13 or 14  the majority of girls are likely to be keen. After this age many girls do not take kindly to hockey, lacrosse or netball; there should then be a wider scope for individual activities such as tennis, athletics, swimming, archery or dancing.

    There are two points here: are the girls opting out because they have found something which matches their talents and desires better? Or, are they deselecting themselves because they lack the basic skills required to perform a team sport such as hand-eye co-ordination, running, skipping and throwing/ catching skills?

    The first is perfectly acceptable and requires schools to offer a selection. The latter is a travesty and shows we are failing our children.

    Sports modules instead of physical development

    Ready for p.e.

    Ready for p.e.

    One of the reasons we are failing our children is the insistence on using sports modules in p.e. classes. When I was growing up, we had p.e. twice a week in shorts and white T-shirts. We had games once a week wearing a reversible rugby shirt. We did physical education in p.e. and games in Games.

    Now, even Primary Schools are dominated by sports modules. “Invasion games” is a module, cricket, athletics, tennis and rugby are modules. These all presume that the children have underlying motor skills and that sport will get them fit.

    The cynical part of me sees schools being given resources by Sporting National Governing Bodies (NGBs) that show complete lesson plans for 6-8 weeks to help teachers run p.e. classes. For the drowning Primary School teacher this is a lifeline that helps them survive for a little bit longer.

    But, the NGBS are chucking resources at schools as part of a big recruitment drive to increase participation and then get more funding from Government: this then allows the administrators to keep their jobs for another year.

    But, what is the point of having “Invasion Games” if the kids are unable to throw or catch, let alone run and jump as well?

    I was playing catch with my 6 year old son before school one morning and 3 other boys asked to join in, 2 of whom were 8. Of the four boys, two could throw with a contralateral overhand action with some degree of accuracy. One of the 8 year olds had an ipsolateral  shot putting action, the other did an underarm loop effort which went vertical and was never near the target.

    Why do “invasion games” with this bunch? Where is the differentiation? To rub salt into my wound of dismay, a teacher came up and said “You are encouraging rule breaking Mr Marshall”! I wonder if that teacher is able to spot different throwing actions, let alone improve them.

    Even Athletics which could be considered as teaching fundamental movements is corrupted by competition. (At every level it seems).

    primary school gym

    Rare sight in schools

    In Devon, the schools competitions take place at the beginning of the Summer term, rather than the end. That means only the kids who participate outside of school are likely to be selected. The keen, hopeful young girl who learns throughout the term, misses out on opportunities that happened 6 weeks earlier. School then stops and resumes in September with rugby…

    The problem is endemic and we have a generation of teachers who have not experienced quality physical education as a pupil. I recently had a Secondary school p.e. teacher on a course who did not know what the tabs underneath the bottom of a bench were: he had never run up a bench onto a frame. I promptly changed that. Now his pupils will get an opportunity to do so.

    But boys like competition

    But, however much they are encouraged, games cannot altogether take the place of physical training. They have not the same corrective effect, many of them are “one-sided”, the same regular systematic and progressive results cannot be obtained from them, and apart from the difficulty of obtaining sufficient space for all to play, the greatest drawback to the use of games alone is that the weaker and less expert performer (i.e. the very man who requires most training ) is often discouraged by his want of proficiency and so ends by becoming a “looker on”. (2).

    disengaged girls p.e.

    Girls like getting fit

    Do you see schools that have a structured physical training programme with the goal of children being able to move properly and be physically fit? The only area where targets have been laid down and schools make effort is with swimming.

    What about fitness? In Devon, the schools are given misguided advice about the intermittent shuttle run (beep) test: they are prohibited from using it. There is no measurement of aerobic fitness, let alone strength let alone co-ordination that is used across Primary Schools.

    If we don’t measure it, we can’t be seen to be failing. Instead we can measure “numbers” and “hours on the timetable”. That way we can show success.

    What a load of claptrap. That is an easy option for pencil pushers to pat themselves on the back. They are failing our children. No wonder the girls become “disengaged”.

    Children are lazy

    fit kids

    Let them play

    Unlike the parent who told me last weekend that “kids are lazy”, I strongly believe that kids relish opportunity, challenge and boundaries. They just need support and guidance.

    I told that parent to come to Willand at 3:30 after school and see just how “lazy” these kids are. The recreational field is covered with scores of children running, skipping, playing, climbing and shouting. In short, being children.

    Is it the child’s fault that they are driven everywhere, and plonked down in front of a screen whilst their Mum updates her facebook status, or while their Dad checks football scores on twitter?

    Is it the child’s fault that they are told to sit down in p.e. lessons so that they can “learn” about fartlek, rather than run around the park?


    Here are a few solutions:

    1. Stop confusing sport with physical education: they are different. Sport is an expression of physical abilities, rather than a tool to develop them. Traditional p.e. was just that.
    2. Have some balls and set some physical targets for your school. Make them public and accountable (all pupils leaving Primary school able to climb a rope, vault a box, run 800m without stopping and throw 20 metres would be a start).
    3. Give teachers skills to observe and encourage quality movement, rather than laminated lesson plans which are about survival.

    “The Teacher…must also know how to stimulate and control the pupils’ efforts so as to obtain the quality of performance that brings out the full value which the exercise has for the pupils at the particular stage of development and training they have reached. Technical skill alone will not enable him to do this: sympathetic understanding and powers of leadership are needed.” (3).

    Here is an example of a group of kids aged 12-14 doing a small circuit round the gym. Whilst it may be called gymnastics now, it is only p.e. from the 1960s.

    Further reading: How to create an outstanding physical education programme


    1. Educating the Intelligent: M. Hutchinson & C. Young. Pelican (1969)
    2. Manual of Physical Training: The War Office. HMSO (1931).
    3. Reference Book of Gymnastic Training for Boys. Board of Education (1947).
  4. Athletic Development Workshop at Christ’s Hospital

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    Athletic Development in action at Christ’s Hospital

    Athletic development workshop

    Lunging and bracing

    Last week I ran 2 workshops for some of the Sports Scholars at Christ’s Hospital School in Horsham, West Sussex. Whilst the title was Athletic Development, the content was all about teaching the pupils about movement.

    Movement is the foundation of physical education (p.e.). So you could just say I taught two p.e. classes.

    The Head of Sport Dave Messenger has previously done a Level 1 Coaching Strength and Conditioning for Sport course with me, as have 8 members of his staff. I shall be back there next month running the course for another 10 coaches.

    squat technique

    Partner work

    Here is the lesson plan for the first half of the Athletic Development Workshop. With the themes.
    Introduction: Why do you train? Sport is an expression of physical ability, it rarely develops it apart from the very beginners and those unfit. Get fit to play sport, rather than play sport to get fit.
    Task1: Skipping, forwards backwards. sideways. With partner count to 4s.
    What sport skills are used? Break down of skills. Try again observing partner foot position (barefoot).

    Christ's Hospital

    Squat practice

    Task 2: Tuck sequence, hold shoulder stand for 3. Rock to stand: with partner.
    How strong are your legs?
    Partner squats
    Exploratory rolls on floor. Squat, roll, stand. explore.

    Task 3: Walking game with chaos. In 3s. Walk around, tag, no tag back. Then skipping, then running 3 steps into space.
    Decision making? Spatial awareness. What happens at the end?

    physical literacy

    Bracing and supporting

    Task 4: Absorbing and receiving force. Walk to brake. Jump up and land quietly. Crawling patterns. Kneel to fall, Partner lean and fall in 3s.
    Partner sequence: cartwheel over, crawl under, hips up and down.

    Thanks to Dave and all his staff and pupils for making me feel welcome and throwing themselves into the workshop with gusto.

    If you would like me to run a similar workshop a your school, please email me to discuss.

  5. How to create an outstanding physical education programme


    “If you screw up your kids, nothing else matters”

    physical education devonGreg Thompson, GAIN 2013.

    Physical education used to be about function: getting fit to help with a full day’s work and then helping with the harvest. Now its about sport.

    A high-quality physical education curriculum inspires all pupils to succeed and excel in competitive sport and other physically demanding activities“. U.K. national p.e. curriculum guidelines.

    I have written previously about the role physical education has in the structure and well being of our society . Sadly this is still missing.

    Last year at GAIN I was privileged to listen to Greg Thompson talk about his work at Farmington Schools. He also taught an example p.e lesson. Both were outstanding. Enthusiasm and passion linked with a detailed knowledge of the correct physical developmental stages for children.

    Here are some of the key points I took.  I am trying to implement these within the courses I run, and also the work I am doing with my children’s schools in Willand.

    “Quality of design leads to user delight”

    physical education

    James coaching youngsters

    Seth Godin. The better the design of the p.e programme, the better the children will enjoy it.

    Greg (a keen sailor) remarked that his boat has got a keel. “Unfortunately, p.e doesn’t. P.e drifts in the direction of the latest prevailing wind. Quality content is being blown off course by marketing.”

    Marketing can include “academic studies” that use school pupils as test subjects (Personal note: often the actual intervention is done by poorly trained undergraduates, rather than qualified teachers).

    Moderately vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is one such wind, where heart rate is the the only measure of work done. The “dance, dance, revolution” is another. “Fun is #1” is often the barometer of success rather than what is being achieved or giving the children physical skills for life (enough meteorological analogies now).

    The one size fits all approach is great for MVPA or sports based p.e. But, the physical education specialist is an endangered species, we are on the precipice of them being replaced by $7 hour “fun leaders“.

    The Moderately Vigorous Physical Activity movement has lead to a generation of college professors and young teaching offspring who have lost contact with quality movement. By pushing fun as  a first priority, children’s “normal” has changed. They expect physical education to be game playing. Hard work is a rarity.  In our high schools, teachers fear making students in their classes perspire will lead to less students signing up for PE electives (= less teaching jobs).” Thompson.

    The erosion of quality content leads to greatly reduced contact time and devalues the work of teachers. No one has said “calculus is hard, let’s not bother” so why do we do it with p.e?

    Questions you might want to ask of your child’s school or of your own teaching:

    • What happens to develop physical competence?
    • What happens to develop skilful movement?
    • What happens to develop perseverance?

    (I am delighted to see Willand school encouraging perseverance).

    Create an intoxicating physical education environment

    The Unicef definition of quality of teaching/education states that a good physical education teacher should be well grounded in:

    • Motor Learning
    • Athletic Development
    • Social & emotional development
    • Inter-personal skills

    If you add “observational skill” then you have someone who can perform “skilled assessment“. Does your child’s p.e teacher have these skills?

    What about following an advanced pattern that is based on observing elite performers? An example being copying throwing patterns of baseball pitchers for primary school kids. This is an “error model” (see Greg’s comment below).

    Instead, we should ask “Is there a known pattern of steps on the way to advanced?” We can then set task constraints to help the child get the right outcomes, remembering that the child has a role in this process.

    physical education

    Physical education requires movement

    For example: throwing. A West Indian cricket fielder may run 2 steps from the boundary and sling the ball to the wicket keeper, planting the left leg and shifting weight forward, rotating the trunk first, then the arm following through.

    The key point is the lag time between trunk rotation and arm movement, so that is what the p.e. teacher should be looking at first, rather than the foot planting. 

    There is no point looking at lag in the arm segments if the pupil stands face on to the target and throws the ball underarm. Instead, the teacher might create a task constraint where the pupil has to straddle a line that is parallel to the wall, then throw forcefully from lines that are progressively farther from the wall.

    They can then progress to standing side on to the target, then to having a slightly wider foot stance.

    “The idea of creating a task that elicits a positive change without having to engage in a lot of verbal instruction comes out of Esther Thelen’s research on dynamic systems.

    The goal of the teacher using this approach is to pick a task that let’s the student “self organise” to the next level. So in the throwing example, a child who is not trunk rotating, begins to trunk rotate when we have them straddle the line and throw hard.

    We don’t talk about trunk rotation with 5-year-olds, we just show them how to put one foot on each side of the line and let them back up to the next colour line when they can hit the wall from that one. The task squirts trunk rotation out.

    This is a “dynamic systems approach to development” (Esther Thelen).

    It applies to running, skipping, sliding and jumping as well. Is your child being taught these skills?

    Kids learn what they see

    motor skills learning p.e.So much for the theory, how does this translate into a living, breathing entity?

    Greg is a great believer in using a playful approach and getting the kids to self organise. However, before this happens they need to have a “mind’s eye picture” of what it is they are supposed to do.

    • Create mindfulness: devil is in the details. Give them a why: “This will make you a faster runner”.
    • Stop the class and show them the good person.“I like to pick someone to be my “Eagle” and spot a skillful/on task performer. This puts the child into the role of observer.
    • Environment must be right if a kid fails the task: do we give them another chance to succeed? Is it ok to make mistakes?
    • Try to have contact with every child in each class : constant reminders.
    • Kids learn what they see: we must walk the talk.

    If the children are taught the individual stages according to their ability, then they all progress. This is hard work though, as anyone dealing with 29 five year olds can testify! Greg has got those skills and practices hard at developing them.

    Compare this to the games based model where children are asked to remember the rules of the game “only allowed to pass backwards, must run forwards“.

    Yet they are still unable to catch the ball without bringing it into chest, or are unable to run without their arms crossing the mid-line of the chest. Carrying a ball whilst running inhibits that development further and they will have a forlorn hope of passing that ball accurately!

    Minor rant

    how to do a forward roll in p.e.Unfortunately we are suffering from cultural amnesia as the latest generation of physical education “specialists” have graduated from a sports science background and have no inkling of what p.e could and should look like.

    They may well have been a “sports leader” or “T&G ambassador” at school; they would have got a nice t-shirt or hoodie and attended lots of talks. Ask them to climb a rope, or teach kids how to run, jump, skip or throw, let alone do a forward roll and they will look at you blankly.

    One 14 year old girl at a “p.e school” in Plymouth does only 1 hour of p.e, a week. In that 1 hour she goes to primary schools and tells those kids that they need to do more exercise! Yet, she is unable to do a single press up or run 400 metres without stopping: what kind of madness is that?

    The good news is that there are many willing teachers who are keen to be shown skills that help them in their class.

    Yesterday I did a multi skills club with Willand school where we looked at throwing and hopping. We based this on the rubrics developed by Greg and his team. The two teachers were excellent at spotting the stages of development and coaching the children.

    It is possible to improve the quality of your physical education programme, it requires good teachers, who have access to the correct information. More importantly, it requires vision and perseverance.

    Further reading

  6. Why PE should be more WE than ME


    “Children need to express themselves as individuals”

    So goes modern thought as we create a generation of self-centred, narcisstic kids who are unable to cope with failure when it happens.

    In the U,K. there is a perceived crisis in our society and politicians are calling it “Strivers versus Skivers“. (I wrote about discipline versus liberty last week). But do politicians know that their misunderstanding of Physical Education could be part of the problem?

    Once again the politicians and their cronies come up with PE curricula that are based on either a competitive sporting basis or a “let’s just get them moving” mantra. (This comes from the same brainiacs who think Sudoku is a tool to help understanding of Maths, instead of it being a logic puzzle.)

    Someone had the bright idea that people move when dancing, so dancing is like PE, lets get PE teachers doing dance. Dance is a form of artistic expression and is best left to those who are good at it according to the dancers themselves (see more here).

    As to girls, lots of schools have thrown their hands up in the air and think that sticking them on Wii. or a Cross trainer watching t.v. is the way forward. Compare that to what used to happen 50 or 100 years ago).

    P.E. classes in the teenage years have become less about doing, and more about “theory of doing”. Children can recite 5 elements of fitness, but can’t touch their toes, let alone do a handstand. Then we send them out to play 15 a side rugby.

    Dance, theory and games form the Pedagogical part of Physical Culture: where is the Martial and Restorative components?

    Restoring the balance

    If you look at the following two diagrams you can see how as a society we have become off balance.current physical education paradigm

    Dr Ed Thomas of the Iowa Health and Physical Readiness Alliance explains it in more detail in Chapter 6 of his book Rama

    Physical education can be divided into three basic content areas:

    1. Restorative–Techniques, obvious or subtle, that bring the body toward its optimal state of harmony and compensate for the stress of daily life.

    2. Martial–Techniques, obvious or subtle, that teach appropriate offensive and defensive responses to external aggression.

    3. Pedagogical–Sports, games, theoretical bodies of knowledge, and dance.

    The function of physical education can also be divided into three areas:

    1. Personal--The focus of this aspect is on individual health, comfort, and physical gratification. Here the self is felt to exist at the borders of the skin and the limits of personal desire. It can easily be reduced to self-indulgence but can also serve to stimulate healthy life habits.

    2. Interpersonal–At this level, one’s attention turns to the needs of others. At lower levels it may be confined to family, neighbourhood, gender, race, and so forth. Higher development brings awareness that it is the duty of all able citizens to be physically and mentally prepared to defend the highest ideals of their nation and to contribute productively to its future.

    Further growth will lead to the realization that national borders are superficial boundaries within an interdependent family of living organisms who share the earth.

    3. Transpersonal–Cultures vary greatly in the development and understanding of obvious and subtle physical techniques that contribute to the spiritual quest. Transcendence brings the uninterrupted, moment-to-moment realisation that all things are divinely One.

    ideal physical education paradigm

    Wow! There is a bit more to P.E. than supervising a game of rounders where half the class are sat down waiting to bat.

    Local M.P. Neil Parish equally clueless

    neil parish I asked my local M.P. to explain the following:

    “My daughter goes to a state Primary school. Her physical education lessons are often moved aside or shortened due to “timetable pressures”.

    He responded:

    “I am pleased that the Government has shown its commitment to retaining and encouraging sport in schools. The London Olympics has provided the opportunity to make a lasting legacy for sport in this country and a big part of that means encouraging more young people taking part in competitive sports.

    The Government has been clear that it wants Physical Education, swimming and competitive sport to be a compulsory part of the curriculum at each of the four key stages. Following the review of the National Curriculum, the new Programme of Study, when it comes out, will be shorter, simpler and far less prescriptive to allow for the maximum level of innovation in schools.

    The Education Secretary, Michael Gove MP, has also confirmed that £65 million of new funding will be made available for schools to enable them to provide more opportunities for competitive sport. This funding will cover the 2012/13 school year.

    no ball gamesIt is also very important that young people have access to playing fields, so I welcome the planning framework which has introduced stronger protection for playing fields.

    Playing fields cannot be built on unless they are replaced, or Sport England agrees they are surplus to requirements.

    The framework also includes a new designation that lets local people earmark locally important green spaces for protection, including playing fields.”

    As you can see, not only does he not answer my concerns,  the emphasis is on competitive sport. You can see many notices like the one in this picture placed in his constituency.

    I also like the point about “maximum level of innovation” in schools: as if teachers didn’t have enough to worry about.

    There is nothing about quality of physical education in itself.

    Become part of the solution

    Instead of pointing the finger at “skivers” or insisting on “more competitive sport” the politicians (how many went to Independent schools with a huge emphasis on games?), teachers and parents can work together on restoring the balance.

    Physical culture and health is directly linked to the state of the nation. A flabby body will lead to a flabby mind. 

    • Our duty as parents and teachers is to set an example and provide opportunities for our children to develop. That is different from “letting little Johnny be himself”.
    • Provide restorative exercise programmes on a daily basis. Mindfulness training, relaxation, stretching are all useful. Switch off screens.
    • Get P.E. teachers educated on more than “refereeing”. That includes physical tasks such as rope climbing, gymnastics, jump ropes.
    • Look to include some martial arts and self defence class at some point: that is not pyramid selling belt collecting, but learning how to move your own body and react to and restrain others. Wrestling, judo, tai chi could all be done at a young age.

    We can make a difference together.

    (Apologies for the bad rhyme in the headline, paraphrasing Muhammed Ali.) 

  7. Making athletes robust

    1 Comment


    athlete robustness (r-bst, rbst)


    1. Full of health and strength; vigorous.
    2. Powerfully built; sturdy.
    3. Requiring or suited to physical strength or endurance: robust labour.
    4. Rough or crude; boisterous: a robust tale.
    5. Marked by richness and fullness; full-bodied: a robust wine.

    [Latin rbustus, from rbur, rbus, oak, strength; see reudh- in Indo-European roots.]

    ro·bustly adv.
    ro·bustness n.

    Robust is a word I use a lot in working with young athletes– giving an idea of a goal to work towards in the short term before we develop them further. Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t know what it means!
    Naseem Taleb in his book antifragile discounts robust and resilient because they just maintain the status quo. Instead “antifragile” means you actually develop and improve as a result of stress.
    robust athletes
    England Hockey talk about “robustness training” but then send their players on endless jogs around the pitch, then having them endure 6 hours of low level “busy work” on camps.
    I work on an integrated approach, developing young players progressively, starting with a movement asessment, then intofundamental work, and finally into the full training programme.
  8. The Physical Education Revolution Starts Here


    Physical Activity, Physical Education, Sport

    pre school physical education

    Strength and balance

    These are the three strands that Willand School is looking to develop under its p.e curriculum next year. This is a fantastic start in recognising the different areas: putting things in place to help them is then easier.

    The UK government is fixated on “competitive sport” due to the “Olympic Legacy“. In the mean time we have a burgeoning health crisis with obesity, diabetes and heart diesease on the increase.

    Coming from Eton and a selection of other public schools, the government really shows a lack of understanding about what physical education should entail. The reality of the pressures that primary school teachers are under getting 6 year olds through the phonics exam means that that physical activity is squeezed out.

    School acquired deformities

    I have a vested interest in what goes on at this primary school and the Willand pre school: because my kids go there. I have repeatedly told the teachers that the classroom set up is inhibiting my Daughter’s physical capabilities.

    Michael Gove has no idea who my Daughter is, she is just a blip on a spreadsheet that the school is judged on. To me she is the most important thing in the world (and her brother) so I can not sit by and watch her getting affected by politicans’ ignorance.

    That is why I am offering my time and expertise to make a difference. “Think Globally, Act Locally” is the mantra I adopt.

    On Monday I did a workshop with the pre school staff on ways and means of developing the youngster physical movement.

    Expressive vocabulary is key:

    whirl        shrink                    gather          glide            leap

     bound              spin                    crawl           slither

    scatter                     dash              soar             drag                    pause                                      crouch                     burst            whip            plunge 

    zigzag                     tremble                   skim              scurry         hop             rock                 skip             wander                toss

    twirl                  press                     push                    tiptoe                  creep                    collapse           expand                 clap             rise

    fall                          shrivel                      close            open            encircle         flutter               hover                   arch           sway 

    wander                     settle                    crumble                  twist              turn                          shatter                      run              tap             freeze

    are some words we played with.

    I am hoping to help the Primary school develop their staff training and resources to make the teachers’ lives easier

    The end goal is to get the kids healthier, happier, more active and physically literate.

    There has to be more to life than government set exams!

  9. Physical Literacy/ Athletic Development: Vern Gambetta


    “Paper is 1 dimensional; humans live and breathe in 3 dimensions”.

    Vern Gambetta delivered the first lecture of GAIN V on the importance of Physical Literacy and how it underpins everything else we do.

    (I know I have reviewed this backwards,but it also acts as a summary of everything I learnt this year).

    Gambetta’s lecture emphasised the fact that the Human body is a self organising system that is capable of amazing things: our training should reflect that, not inhibit it.

    sports scientistIn the rush to use Sports Science, the most important element is the Human element. Hence the quote above.

    The workout starts with the Warm Up and this should include “Linking, synching and connecting movements”… or you could sit on a foam roller.

    The training must include Force Reduction and Proprioception, as well as Force Production.

    Putting Physical Literacy into practice.

    Gambetta expanded the Physical Literacy analogy by putting this sequence together:

    • Physical Literacy (your ABCs)
    • Physical Competence (A sentence)
    • Specific Sport Skill / Technique (A paragraph)
    • Sports Performance (A Novel)

    No one tries to write a novel before learning how to read, but are Coaches and Parents trying to get their kids and athletes to do things without the correct tools?

    Sports reflect society”. Kids have less opportunity for informal play and experimentation. PE classes are sports classes, rather than physical education.

    We need “Mandatory DAILY physical education, taught by trained EDUCATORS.”

    athletic developmentAnother problem is the lack of sleep that teenagers are getting. Constantly wired into their screen devices, or staying up late to catch up on studies, means they don’t get enough REM sleep for development.

    Kids are not miniature adults

    Too much training + too formal= not enough play

    physical literacyKids must be able to play. This leads to better all around development: Cognitively; physically and socially. (That doesn’t mean adult organised play based on mini versions of team sports).

    Kids grow upwards first, then outwards. So trying to change that sequence through loading and lifting is damaging.

    (Dave Ellis also made that point when showing different frames and sizes of NBA players).

    These areas are crucial for development and must be included in the overall training plan:

    • Rhythmic awareness (timing, use music).
    • Directional awareness (all directions, up down, left and right, forward/ backward).
    • Visual awareness (tracking, balls, people, objects, use balloons early on).
    • Spatial awareness (where you are in relation to other players. Lining up in formations helps this).
    • Tactile awareness (the ground, other people. Judo, wrestling help here).
    • Auditory awareness (footfalls, problem of loud music in the gym).
    • Body awareness (hand in relation to foot, hand to hand, hand to head, head to foot etc).
    • Temporal awareness (jumps, change of direction, catching).

    Locomotion is key to Athletic Development

    physical literacyNone of these qualities operate in isolation. Instead, they sequence and operate together. The gait cycle is fundamental in this.

    (I did talk to Vern about training blind athletes who have not had the opportunity to develop this gait cycle: it inhibits everything they are trying to learn and do later on).

    Movement is a series of dynamic postures. Working on static posture such as pilates is fine, but we must look to progress and sequence these postures.

    (Posture was mentioned in one form or another in every lecture).

    Vern then discusses Assymetry vs Symmetry in posture, saying that the body is assymetrical and we shouldn’t get too hung up on this.

    (I disagreed to some extent, working with developmental athletes we are continually trying to balance front/ back and left/ right. Especially with sports like cricket who do too much assymetrical work and the kids are getting injured).

    “Skill ’em not Drill ’em”

    Another common theme in GAIN, was the emphasis on creating skills through challenging environments and scenarios. This compares to endless drill practice, where the kids get good at drills, but with zero transfer to the sport (ladders anyone?).

    Vern also used the example of tyre flipping as part of Strongman training that encourages the use of slow movements. Much slower than the demands of the sport. (Subsequent discussions have agreed on a time and place for this type of training, but not to exclusion of other things).

    One of Vern’s mantras is to “Keep competence development one step ahead of skill development”. That means the athlete’s phsycial skills are developed before their technical skills.

    (I have seen kids being taught triple jump who can not stand on one leg, can not do a body weight squat with control and can not stick a 2 foot landing).

    In young kids, running actions are quite good. Giving the kids games and races that encourage them to run around are better than doing run drills. Changing surfaces, taking off shoes (sometimes), running up and down inclines all help.

    Lessons Learnt

    strength and conditioning coachFor those of you (if there are any) who have read this series of blogs, you may think have gone into too much detail. I haven’t: I have just scratched the surface.

    Here are some of the other thoughts gained from informal conversations at meal times.

    • Everything is everything (Tracy Fober quote) do not work in isolation.
    • Interdisciplinary conversations and meetings are essential.
    • Sharing ideas gets away from silo mentalities.
    • There is a continuum from child development to professional athlete. Nearly every coach or lecturer mentioned posture for example. What affects the PE teacher is also relevant to the physiotherapist, track coach, strength coach and football coach.
    • Coaching is essential, drilling is mindless.
    • Testing or random number gathering? Data and information is important, but it must be relevant and not get in the way of training.
    • Don’t move up a run distance until you can at least run a decent time over a shorter one. Do you run marathons or endure them? (Randy Ballard!)

    Thanks again to roomie Andy Stone for sharing his wrestling and PE ideas and being a good training partner.

    Thanks to Vern Gambetta and all the lecturers for their insights and sharing. They are all very approachable and they are all there to learn too.

    Thanks to all the attendees who also shared and imparted their wisdom and experiences. The whole environment was one of learning and sharing by consumate professionals.

    Most importantly I have had time to take an Operational Pause over the summer and reflect on my current practices and training programmes. By trying things out and applying them I am able to consider how they fit in.

    Further reading:

    What is Physical Literacy?