From Fundamental to Functional: Investigating the Concept of Physical Literacy

If we are to embrace the concept of Physical Literacy, then it should be viewed not as an end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual

PL PIC 2020-01-03 at 17.51.26

” There is a lack of any empirical evidence related to PL. And this is undermined by the fact that nobody can agree what it means. So, all of the claims should be treated as conjectural. In practice, the claims made about PL and health are based entirely on claims made about fundamental movement skills and health”. (Richard Bailey)

We can view health and wellbeing as a dynamic constant changing state that is multidimensional in nature. While research has largely supported the idea of physical activity as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially, we lack the direct empirical evidence connecting the concept of physical literacy with health outcomes. Therefore, the only way that physical literacy can influence health outcomes is via its impact on physical activity, where rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts invite different opportunities or affordances for action. So, if the concept of physical literacy is to be woven into health education, sport and recreation, in both policy and practice, then it needs to be positioned in order to take in to account various multi-level biological psychological, social, cultural, historical and environmental influences. If we are to embrace the notion of Physical Literacy, it should not be viewed as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual



Physical Literacy is not a new term, it has been referenced as early as the 1900’s and again in the 1950’s (Corbin, 2016, p.15). The term has gained increased attention within physical education, sport and public health literature, evolving to mean different things to different people in different contexts (Young, O’Connor & Alfrey, 2019). Broadly speaking ‘literacy’ means becoming educated (Richards, 2016, p.1). Lounsbery and McKenzie (2015) identified the similarity of the terms “physically literate” and “physically educated” and, from a definitional perspective, found little difference. Hardman (2011) suggested that a physically educated person is a physically literate person. Often referred to in metaphor form, likening movement fluency with language literacy (Jurbala, 2015), the term physical literacy has lacked a clear theoretical foundation, enabling various interpretations and definitions of the term. Young, O’Connor and Alfrey (2019) have suggested that over time, it is likely that physical literacyhas progressively evolved into something it originally was not. This adaption of numerous definitions and interpretations across different countries, disciplines and organisation (Shearer et al., 2018), has arguably led to a lack of consensus as to how to employ it in practice (Hyndman & Pill, 2018; Jurbala, 2015).

Despite lacking direct empirical evidence connecting it to health outcomes (Cairney et al., 2019), many involved in youth sports programming, policy making and physical education are rallying around physical literacy and promoting it globally (Young, O’Connor & Alfrey, 2019; Jurbala, 2015).

Physical education in the United Kingdom provided the platform for the emergence of the original conceptualisation of physical literacy (Whitehead, 2001). Margaret Whitehead first discussed the term in a 1993 paper (Whitehead 1993, August). More recently she has defined physical literacy as ‘the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and engage in physical activity for life’ (IPLA, 2017). As a concept it has gained traction in recent years in both academic and nonacademic domains (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017) and has been adopted into sport systems in North America (Roetert & Jefferies, 2014). It has been highlighted as an important component of physical activity and sports programs, often underpinned by the assumption that sport represents an ideal means for positive development among youth. While research has largely supported sport as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially, leading to success within sport and other domains in life (Allan., Turnnidge, & Côté, 2017), it should also be understood that participation in sport does not necessarily guarantee positive outcomes (Fraser- Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2005).

Publications on physical literacy are often produced by government funded organisations and departments (Lynch, 2019, p.78), and in general are underpinned by the strong correlation in the research evidence between health and physical activity (Lynch, 2013). Interestingly, children in countries that promote physical literacy (USA) are according to Curran (2014) “among the unhealthiest in the world” (UNICEF, 2007), which suggests how the concept of physical literacy is implemented may be a form of reactive panic rather than proactive, strategic forward planning (Lynch, 2019, p.50).So, while the concept of physical literacy is beginning to become part and parcel of many national physical education programs, what is not so clear is how practitioners might be advised to deliver its well-meaning aims (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018).

Despite lacking empirical evidence how it can be employed to stimulate participation or be a functional basis for activity programs, interest in physical literacy among sport and physical activity practitioners and policy makers continues to rapidly grow (Jurbala, 2015). In the Netherlands physical literacy has been promoted as a stepping stone to elite performance (Way et al., 2014, p. 23), while in Canada as “the cornerstone of both participation and excellence in physical activity and sport” (Way et al., 2014, p. 23). In the UK physical literacy has been described as an aim that every child needs to achieve (Sport England, Strategy, 2016), framing physical literacy as a set of capabilities or achievements. This can be seen in the stage- based models of motor development that underpin many government sports policy programs. These policies are seemingly grounded in the hypothesis of a causal chain of increased motor skill, where early mastery of fundamental movement skills (FMS) are viewed as a prerequisite for increased activity, development of complex sport skills or improved physical fitness. However, Holfelder and Schott (2014) argued that while high levels of FMS relate to higher levels of physical activity among children, they are of low predictive value for level of activity in adults. They further suggested that there is a need to consider the multifactorial complexity of development of movement skills such as, perceived competence, socio-economic status and others (Holfelder & Schott, 2014, p. 389).


Physical Literacy: What’s in a Name

In a commentary on physical activity and health (2016), Thomas L. McKenzie and Monica A. F. Lounsberyreferred to a lack of consensus with regard to what constitutes physical literacy. If international physical activity/fitness experts are uncertain what physical literacy is, how can we expect policy makers, school teachers, coaches and the public to clearly define it? McKenzie and Lounsbery (2016, p. 1) asked the question “What’s in a name? Is physical literacy simply a rose by any other name?”.They argue that, as many cannot discriminate among terms such as physical activity, physical fitness, and physical education, adding yet another term (physical literacy) may only add to the confusion


Physical Literacy: What’s in a Metaphor

This metaphor of likening movement literacy with language literacy (Jurbala, 2015), is in itself problematic. It has promoted in the media the notion that children should be taught physical literacy in the same way that they learn to read and write (see here). Designed to appeal to educators and policy makers (Jurbala, 2015), the metaphor arguably captures the dumbing down of the concept of physical literacy, something which Almond (2013) has criticised. Like click bait to capture public attention, the metaphor also positions physical literacy as a testable and measurable phenomenon which seemingly influences how it is being carried out in practice. This highlights a tendency to over-simplify, by promoting the view of body-as-object (Lloyd, 2012) using generic assessments of physical literacy (Tremblay & Lloyd, 2010), that reflect the traditional standardised testing of reading and writing. Lundvall and Tidén (2013) identified similar conflicts with physical literacy in practice in the Swedish PE curriculum, noting the need for approaches to move away from the traditional normative assessment where students are catagorised, towards the development of embodied knowledge, where learners learn to reflect on their development and potential.


Different Perspectives on Physical Literacy

Definitions of physical literacy have seemingly resulted in an oversimplification of the concept (Whitehead, 2010), bringing about an unsatisfactory reductionist application of physical literacy in practical settings (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018). For example, physical education content being based primarily on the development of fundamental movement skills and little else. In the light of this, Almond (2013) called for a broader discussion to clarify what is implied by associating fundamental movement skills with physical education. However, some value has been placed on Whitehead ‘s own definition (Edwards et al. 2017),which has been refined over the years from its original definition in 2001.

As appropriate to each individual’s endowment, physical literacy can be described as a disposition to capitalize on the human embodied capability, wherein the individual has the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for maintaining purposeful physical pursuits/activities throughout the life course. (Whitehead, 2013, p. 29)


According to Allan and colleagues (2017), physical literacy can be viewed from two different perspectives: (i) The holistic approach (Whitehead, 2001), and (ii) the performance- orientatedapproach, where physical literacy principles are implemented within the programming of curriculums for national sports organisations (Higgs, 2010). Whitehead’s holistic approach (2001) to physical literacy conceptualises all human conditions as an integrated whole, focusing on the embodied dimension of human existence through enriching experience (Whitehead, 2007).This promoted the notion of embodiment, emphasising the inextricable relationship between mind and body, thus rejecting the Cartesian view of mind and body as separate entities. In contrast the delivery of physical literacy within North American sport programming focused almost exclusively on the body and performance (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018). Whitehead took the stance that human potential can be achieved through rich interactions between the individual and the environmentand sport represents just one context in which embodied capacities are both challenged and celebrated (Whitehead, 2001, 2007).  So, physical literacy should be seen as a journey (Green et al. 2018) extending beyond sport and physical education, throughout an individual’s lifespan (Whitehead and Murdoch, 2006)

The performance-oriented approach that has seemingly been favoured by governing bodies, is concerned with the mastery of movement skills as building blocks for more complex skills throughreductionism and thedecontextualisation of movements from the environment (e.g., Lloyd, 2011).It has been suggested that this approach aligns closely with the concept of deliberate practice(Allan, TurnnidgeandCôté, 2017).As suggested by Roberts, Newcombe and Davids (2018), these reductionist approaches, with an over-reliance on fundamental movement skills have been a barrier to the development of a complex dynamic and embodied understanding of the individual physical literacy journey. Whitehead’s (2007) holistic approach argued for a move away from these types of curriculaand strategies, promoting diverse interactions with the environment delimited by individual constraints, cultural norms and opportunities to interact with the environment (Whitehead, 2013).


Health and physical activity

This strong correlation between health and physical activity in the research is influential in how policy makers construct their programs in response to various health problems. For instance, Quennerstedt, Burrows and Maivorsdotter (2010) suggested that Health Education is guided by obesity discourses, which is now recognised as a world-wide problem (Cale & Harris, 2019). Anarina Murillo and David B. Allison (2016)when contributing to a discussion on obesity asked the question: “Are there any successful policies and programs to fight overweight and obesity? (2016)”. They argued that public policies dealing with this matter despite the best of intentions, might have limited success if these programs do not take in to account the social norms, values and culture of the targeted community. This, as highlighted by Rogers and Collins (2012), signifies a need to determine which programs have proven successful and for whom. So, despite many efforts at the local, national, and international levels, there is little evidence that existing programs are both effective and sustainable.

Lynch and Soukup (2016) have previously highlighted a problem regarding physical education practice and policies. They argued that many discourses have been underpinned by the idea of the “body as an object”, an ideology that has been referred to as ‘healthism’. This has led to the perception of health problems as individual problems that can be unproblematically dealt with through individual effort and discipline (Crawford, 1980), while failing to recognise the social and environmental influences. It has previously been argued that healthism can form a belief that caused guilt for those who do not fit the “exercise = fitness = health idea (Kirk & Colquhoun, 1989).


Health andPhysical Literacy

In 2012, Vandorpe et al. (2012) claimed that there is no direct empirical test of the effect of physical literacy on health. However, in recent years there seems to be increasing interest in physical literacy in the field of public health [Dudley, Cairney, Kriellaars,  Mitchell, 2017].  Cairney and colleagues (2019) presented a model of physical literacy as a determinant of health, with the aim ofstimulatingincreased discussion and further empirical research.They identified a need to open up to a broader perspective regarding the links between education and health at a population level. The example question they posed; “what community-based infrastructure is needed to support diverse and meaningful movement-based experiences for children?”- echoes the need for a more holistic and culturally sensitive approach to the implementation of physical literacy in government funded programs.

Acknowledging that health behaviour is closely related to social and cultural factors” (Ruskin, Fitzgibbon, & Harper, 2008), recognises the interactions between many dimensions (physical, social, emotional and mental) and that health is dynamic, a constantly changing state (QSCC, 1999). Therefore, when promoting wellbeing it has been proposed that we need to view it as multidimensional in nature (OECD, 2017). This implies that curriculums (and strategies) regarding youth development, need to be connected to the child’s world and everyday interests (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer, 2015), “where children are learning through their interactions, as well as adopting and working through the rules and values of their own cultural group” (Arthur et al., 2015, pp. 99–100).


We can view health and wellbeing as a dynamic constant changing state that is multidimensional in nature. While research has largely supported the idea of physical activity as a means for young people to develop physically and psychosocially (Lynch, 2013), we lack the direct empirical evidence connecting physical literacy with health outcomes (Cairney et al., 2019). Therefore, the only way that physical literacy can influence health outcomes is via its impact on physical activity, where rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts invite different opportunities or affordances for action. Physical literacy as suggested by Jurbala (2015), should be viewed as an avenue to reject traditional approaches to skill development, where it has often been viewed as a brief window of opportunity instead of as a journey throughout a lifespan that extends beyond organised sports and physical education.Therefore, we should view ‘skill learning’ as a dynamic and developmental phenomenon, where, as argued by Clarke (1995, p.173), “we understand that we cannot limit our focus to one period in the life span, or to tasks that are not rich in context and complexity and real in their adaptive significance. Motor skill behaviour changes over a life span and it is that window that ultimately provides the view”.

If the concept of physical literacy is to be woven into health education, sport and recreation, in both policy and practice, then it needs to take in to account that learner’s individual differences, movement preferences and nonlinear rates of development are as much a function of social milieu in which they have developed as their physiology, anatomy or psychology (Uehara, 2014). This calls for a shift in perspectives, from ‘fundamental’ to ‘functional’. From the pursuit of the reductionist application of physical literacy (Roberts, Newcombe & Davids, 2018), to one which facilitates the emergence of greater functional relationships between the learner/individual and the environment (Renshaw & Chow, 2018).


Main points

  • There is a lack the direct empirical evidence connecting physical literacy with health outcomes
  • Despite this, interest in physical literacy among sport and physical activity practitioners and policy makers continues to rapidly grow.
  • What is not so clear is how practitioners might be advised to deliver its well-meaning aim
  • The metaphor of likening physical literacy with language literacy is problematic. This has positioned physical literacy as a testable and measurable phenomenon which influences how it is being carried out in practice.
  • This has led to an oversimplification of the concept bringing about an unsatisfactory reductionist application of physical literacy in practical settings with an over reliance stage- based models
  • This has been a barrier to the development of a complex dynamic and embodied understanding of the individual physical literacy journey.
  •  Despite lacking direct empirical evidence, many involved in youth sports programming, policy making and physical education are rallying around physical literacy and promoting it globally.
  • For physical literacy to influence health outcomes it needs to impact on physical activity,
  • Sports governing bodies, policy makers, sports clubs, coaches and coach education need to promote and facilitate rich interactions between the individual and the environment across varied movement contexts that invite different opportunities or affordances for action.
  • Physical Literacy should not be viewed as end point, but presented as a journey influenced by a unique set of interacting constraints imposed upon an individual


Quiz question: Who had a huge hit with a cover of this song?


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Development Model or the Emperor’s New Clothes?

                                    Development Model or the Emperor’s New Clothes?

A special thank you to

Jean Côté Director at Queens University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in Kingston Ontario, Canada, Daniel Ekvall Sports Psychologist at the Swedish Football association, Dr Martin Toms senior lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Birmingham. 


These last few months I have been doing some research into various development models being used or proposed by many clubs and organisations regional, national at home and abroad. It got me considering that thought Mark Upton and I left each other with when we met in July 2014- The adult and child in sport, do they have the same motive?

The one thing that many of these models have in common is that they use the Long Term Athletic Development model (LTAD) as a guideline or a structure. The value of a model is determined by the quality of the evidence being represented and the inevitable interpretations of that evidence by model builders. According to Dr Martin Toms the concept of LTAD has never been published in a text that requires it to be reviewed by other experts before publication (like any other reliable study).

“Principally, the model is only one-dimensional, there is a lack of empirical evidence upon which the model is based, and interpretations of the model are restricted because the data on which it is based rely on questionable assumptions and erroneous methodologies” (Forde et al)



Many clubs and organisations using this LTAD structure lay claim to a more holistic approach to player development. In many cases when you dig a bit deeper they are just putting stuff in order in a way that apparently makes sense. Yet there is little or no change. It is not unusual to see these models presented in a simplified diluted “ages and stages” format.  

FUNdamental(6-9) –LEARN (10-12)-TRAIN(13-15)- PERFORM(16+).

The big picture is far more complex. It is here that we can see a split in the motive between the adult and child in sport. There is a risk that we will resort to “averages” (a typical child for this age and stage) if we obey the structure and ignore the many nuances that life and nature challenge us with. Clubs and organisations can wave the flag for “As many as possible as long as possible” and yet at the same time include content that proposes  an early selection process where there is a danger of excluding those children that do not obey or temporarily fit in with the principles of the structure.

The ages and stages used in the model do not exist in that way (and there is no evidence that they do). People develop differently and grow at different rates.”- Dr Martin Toms.

Jean Côté is Director at Queens University School of Kinesiology and Health Studies in Kingston Ontario, Canada. He says that “The LTAD is not a bad idea, there is lots of stuff that is good and looks nice but when you look at it and where it comes from it is very fragile”.  His main issue with how the LTAD model is being used is that it is just putting another structure on a structure that is not working. In fact the whole thing is so fragile and open to interpretation that it is far too easy to revert back to what we have always done, back to the more traditional linear model.

In my opinion there are many problems with using a traditional linear model in a dynamic sport such as soccer.

  1. The assumption that all players (learners) should take the same learning path. The assumption is that if it is taught then learning will follow.
  2. As many traditional linear systems are skill acquisition based, we are possibly removing control from the learner. This is true especially in the early years when children may prefer to explore the game so that it becomes more personal and meaningful to them.
  3. Underestimates the motivational possibilities a child gets from determining his/her own learning path. (Development of intrinsic motivation)
  4. Many continue to use an early selection process that that is non-inclusive. This factory ethos like all mass production lines has interchangeable parts. In this case the interchangeable parts are children.
  5. Early performance in linear models is often influenced by physiological differences.

So if a club using this model as a structure but also has an early selection process for its elite or development teams for 8, 9 or 10 year olds then it is essentially contradicting itself. Children in the “FUNdamental(6-9) –LEARN (10-12)” stages are being processed, evaluated and selected by performance, a criteria that the model is claiming to build up to as a  long term aim- PERFORM(16+). It simply reverts back to being a non- inclusive linear model.

When a club or a governing body propose a new model they are essentially proposing change. A model that uses the LTAD structure is so fragile that it can easily be adapted to what people want to hear, especially during the presentation or “sell in” stage. It is the content that is crucial. The quality and relevance of the content and how it is implemented will define the degree of change.

The Swedish Football Association is revamping their player development plan.  One of the aims is to place the child, play and development in the centre. It is based on a children’s rights perspective meaning that the child’s best interests is always put first and that the starting point is that all children have equal value. The plan is to take into account the child’s maturity level and adapt the sport to the child’s physiological, psychological and social needs. The sport should be a playful experience based on the child’s individual needs and take in to account variations in the rate of development to create the best conditions for long-term performance development.

This is a philosophy shared by English FA National Development manager Nick Levett. “We need to encourage the development of play, where the child can explore, be creative, learn about risk and go through the process themselves. We can’t shortcut this”.

In its new Player Development document the Swedish Football Association recognises that the main reason why children play is because it is fun and that through play children learn to deal with different situations and to develop both self-esteem and physical skills. Play is a child’s world in which they train their imagination and their physical capabilities and limitations. Research supports the importance of play for developing an understanding of the game and decision making skills that play a major role in developing intrinsic motivation. This means that a child “playing” will find it easier to absorb what is being done in training. The association also sounds a warning for overly intense activities with high expectations that place a lot of pressure on children. This is something very common in elite orientated activities where early specialisation is a fact. Some children develop while many are eliminated. Experience and research show that the likelihood of bringing out skilled players in this type of activity is small. Something that they feel is an activity not in alignment with the child’s needs. There are better ways to go.


 The Developmental Model of Sport Participation


The Developmental Model of Sport Participation (DMSP) developed by Jean Côté is an athlete development model based upon theoretical and empirical data that has been comprehensively researched and refined over the last 15 years.  On reading the Swedish Football Associations view on the child in sport in their player development plan I feel that the DMSP could be a more suitable model and structure. It is a model that is applicable to a sport where children do not have to excel early. Football (soccer) is one of those sports as performance at elite level is influenced by physical factors that in general do not appear until late in the teenage years and cannot be predicted with 100% accuracy. The DMSP describes pathways, processes and outcomes associated with sport development throughout childhood and adolescence.  The outcomes are known as the “3 P’s” performance participation and personal development. Often the focus is placed on one of the outcomes at the expense of the others. Clubs or associations that are built around a more traditional linear model generally practice early selection and specialisation with a focus on deliberate practice and early performance. It is acknowledged that elite level performance may possibly be achieved this way however “it provides a sporting structure that is more costly in terms of mass participation and long term personal development through sport”- (Côté J, Vierimaa M. The developmental model of sport participation: 15 years after its first conceptualization.  Sci sports (2014).

The developmental environment of sport is ever changing. Our coaching methods, our curriculum and learning objectives need to not only be adapted forthe development of the individual over time but in some way must respond to the ever accelerating changes in our world, social structures and immediate environment. In my opinion the DMSP responds to this by promoting in the early years a lot of deliberate play, child centred coaching, early sport diversification (sampling of many sports). These appear to be essential characteristics in the environment of the child in preparation for later in adolescence when the emphasis is on “deliberate practice activities with specialisation for elite level athletes”.

When I asked Daniel Ekvall a sports psychologist who works with the association why they use something as prescriptive as the LTAD model he gave me a very interesting reply. “What I have heard is that most criticism is directed towards the content of the Canadians’ LTAD model more than towards the structure itself. In short, we can say that we have kept the boxes and general order but filled the content with deliberate play, guided discovery, self-determination theory and so on. We do not use LTAD model as a player development model but more as a structure”. Despite the fragility of the structure I am very impressed with the ambition that SvFF has in implementing such relevant content.

So what do I mean by relevant content? Well if we are proposing a more holistic model “As many as possible as long as possible” then we need to take in to account the overall experience and how the sport is perceived by the child. The content should be designed in accordance with what I refer to as “Coaching in Context”, in the context of the game and in the context of the needs of the child. To see it as a bio-psycho-social process, designing practice that reflects the demands of the game and encouraging players to take control over their own development respects that learning is non-linear, development is non-linear and that talent is non-linear.

For the basic coaching content the game itself is the starting point. Training sessions should be presented in an easy to digest format. Defining themes should be game centred concepts, problem solving and questions, always involving the young player in the learning process. All essential components of the game are accessible which enables every learner to choose his own path and pace of learning but still maintain the players focus on the main topic. The coach may have a goal with a training session but doesn’t necessarily determine what is to be learned. The process to that goal may reveal other challenges, other problems other techniques other solutions. The whole game experience in context leading to knowledge. 

                              Experience                                        Knowledge

knowledge Experience

Content is essential and if relevant it will it will help us evolve and progress instead of reverting back to what we have always done. We may have a model that we are trying to “sell in” but if it has no relevant content then it is a model with no context and of no worth, essentially a vacuum.

Youth participation in sport is simply a human activity with all its baggage. If we can reflect this not only in our development models but also in our club and national association educational programs then we will have come a long way. The content that Daniel Ekvall from the Swedish Football Association refers to above is a positive step forward as is their desire for clubs to recognise the importance of play in a child’s development. I am very interested in hearing how the association will work with introducing and implementing concepts such as deliberate play, guided discovery and Self-determination theory in to their coach education programmes.

Whatever the structure or proposed model without relevant content that model is just a bunch of well-chosen words that sound good. As Jean Côté said to me in a recent conversation “Today within youth sports programs we have many people who talk the talk but they don’t apply it”. For to wave the flag with the slogan “As many as possible as long as possible” like many clubs do, then their model and its contents need to promote a more inclusive sporting structure, one where performance, participation and personal development are seen to co-exist.