Physical literacy: The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development

What does it mean to say that a person is physically literate?

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 if they are physically literate. 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. There are many reasons young athletes dropout of sport but this one 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 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 lifestyle 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, have the same departure point, instead of treating them 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.