How to improve physical literacy
We know physical literacy is a lifelong process, but the seeds are sown during childhood, and that’s where the major focus should be. To improve physical literacy, there are three core elements to focus on: affective, cognitive, and physical.
Affective describes one’s confidence, motivation, and self-esteem. A lack of confidence, motivation, and self-esteem in individuals results in a lower enticement to participate in physical activity. It is imperative children are encouraged to take part in sport and physical activity. Having high self-esteem will help a child engage positively with the activity, but having low esteem causes a child to avoid activity for fear of embarrassment or disappointment.
Environments need to encourage children to try new skills and not to be afraid to make mistakes. We all learn from mistakes, and coaches should be there to guide children through mistakes and not embarrass them for making them.
Some training techniques used in programs can detract from the child’s desire to be active later in life. For example, using exercise as a form of punishment not only increases injury risk but leads to decreased motivation and potentially leading to drop out of the sport or activity. It also creates a negative association with the exercises being used in the punishment. How many people do you know have never tried a certain exercise or activity again because their childhood experience of it was so bad? But the exercise or activity wasn’t the enemy – it was the person who prescribed it inexcusably.
I have experienced a sports coach who used to constantly use exercise as a form of punishment, and it is certainly one of my biggest dislikes. Not only was it horrible to witness a complete misuse of the basic training principles, but seeing children develop hatred for exercises and sport was gut-wrenching to see. Making children do a certain number of sprints, squats, burpees etc., because they made a mistake, is certainly not fun and doesn’t seem endearing to stick with it.
Promoting physical activity must be done effectively and sporting organisations must create a child-centered framework to meet the desired goals and limit any poor practice that detracts from it.
Cognitive ability plays a strong role in becoming physically literate. Knowledge and understanding are cognitive properties that are essential for children to develop on their physical literacy journey. Each sport has its own unique set of rules, traditions, and values – it is important coaches take time to help children acquire knowledge and understanding of these.
Knowledge and understanding of basic health and physical activity principles must be instilled into every child too. Children need to be taught from an early age the importance of good health and exercise choices and how it leads to a healthy life. Becoming physically literate in childhood is essential for lifelong participation in sport and exercise.
Children spend a lot of their time in school and typically will only experience physical activity in structured physical education classes. The main role of a school is to improve academic and cognitive performance and often this results in physical activity in school not getting enough importance. I know from my experience in my last two years of secondary school here in Ireland, we had no timetabled physical education classes. For teachers, parents, or education leaders, it is important to understand that schools need to do more for physical literacy. Research from Demetriou et al. (2018) showed that when schools increase physical activity and physical education classes, it has no adverse effect on cognitive performance and academic results. In fact, some researchers believe that increased physical activity in school can lead to improved academic performance.
The physical component to physical literacy is, without doubt, the most important, and I know many people wonder what physical activity is best for children to help them become physically literate. Firstly, it is important to discuss Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS). FMS are basic patterns of movement and are regarded as the building blocks to more complex sport-specific movements. FMS can be categorized into three groups. Firstly, locomotor skills are movements that transport the body in any direction from one point to another – this includes walking, running, hopping, skipping, jumping (both vertically and horizontally), dodging, and side stepping. Secondly, stability skills involve balancing the body in stillness and motion and include balancing and landing. Lastly, manipulative skills involve controlling objects with various parts of the body such as catching, throwing, kicking, striking with the hand, and striking with an implement.
There are several different tests that can assess FMS but generally, the Test of Gross Motor Development (TGMD) is used to assess the FMS. The TGMD assesses six locomotor and six manipulative skills and gives a score for each FMS.
It is generally accepted that children have the potential to master FMS at the ages of five to seven. Children failing to achieve FMS mastery around this age are already falling behind on their physical literacy journey. To achieve FMS mastery, children need to learn and practice FMS, as they are not acquired naturally. Worldwide, FMS mastery among children is very low and worse than previous generations. Excellent research on FMS has taken place by Bolger et al. (2018) in Ireland. In their analysis of 203 children between six and 10 years of age, no child displayed mastery of all of 12 FMS assessed. This is very alarming and reinforces the need for coaches, parents and teachers to change what we are doing because together we are all at fault for creating this problem.
Other interesting findings from FMS analysis include boys typically displaying more proficiency than girls in overall FMS performance. However, some research has shown girls to perform better in locomotor skills, which can be explained by their participation in more locomotor activities such as dancing and gymnastics. Conversely, boys tend to outperform girls in manipulative skills, which is no surprise as boys engage more in object control sports such as ball sports. This supports the evidence that learning the FMS is directly impacted by the activity the child does, and it does not come naturally. Therefore, everyone from coaches to parents to teachers need to ensure FMS development is achieved in children, especially during three to seven years of age, by providing a variety of different sports and activities for children to participate in.