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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Participation in sport is a human activity with all its baggage

Human systems are made up of people and people make decisions for complex reasons; moreover, they learn, they interact and they live in complex environments which themselves are constantly changing (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)

Humans are not systems that behave like machines. They are dynamic, not static and not predictable in their behaviour. Humans (in this case as individual athletes and sports teams) are complex adaptive systems

“Complex from the perspective they are comprised of multiple systems that interact in non-linear and unpredictable ways. Adaptive, from the perspective that they are capable of spontaneously modifying behaviour in order to accommodate unexpected change or sudden perturbation” (John Kiely; Periodization, Planning, Prediction: And why the future ain’t what it used to be!)

Cultural beliefs and assumptions

“It’s as if, if we do not separate them out we are not able to see them “. This line from innovative coach Juanma Lillo (once mentor to Pep Guardiola) explains his thoughts on clubs, coaching and society. Traditionally, through a reductionist approach we have been spoon fed the illusion of predictability and control.

Let’s take the example of trying to perform a technique exactly the same way through repetitive drills. By narrowing and standardising everything we have been placing a focus on decontextualized technique training. Here, the learning process is emphasised by the amount of time spent rehearsing a specific technique and usually involves the use of explicit teaching methods with verbal instructions. This does not simulate the performance environment and may narrow the focus of attention for the learner. We challenge this pedagogy and promote the influence of context. Daniel Memmert’s takes this approach to task in his excellent book “Teaching Tactical Creativity”. Coaches should avoid obsessing over correction of technique at a young age as this is likely to induce a more internal focus.

“We know from studies that technical training is not as effective as combined technical-perception training. It is important that children experience in which situations or constraints they have to evaluate which technique they use. Only then they will be able to apply those techniques in real complex game forms or the real match” Daniel Memmert, (Footblogball interview; July 2015)

Reflecting on a previous blog, Maths Elfvendal and I challenged the traditional approach to goalkeeper coaching. The role of the goalkeeper is broken up in to its structural components and it is proposed that the goalkeeper needs to work in isolation. We suggest the need for a better understanding of the goalkeeper’s functional role in the modern game. This will help coaches in designing a more integrated goalkeeper training, therefore meeting the needs and the demands of the role of a modern goalkeeper. We need to design training sessions that allow for a variation of solutions to emerge as opposed to the same solution being repeated time and time again.

“It is not about maintaining a specific set of wiring connections it is about trying to maintain the capacity to perform a specific function – Learning organises the perception- action system with respect to what happened” (

From my experience as a coach educator I see that many blame the failure of the performance of a technique on the fact that the young learners whom they assume will react in the same way did not behave like they should. The reductionist approach seems to be focussed on teachers and coaches as they attempt to organise, control and manage the complexity of working with young children in sport.  However, it does not work as well for the learner as learning is highly individualised.

In the excellent book Nonlinear Pedagogy in Skill Acquisition the individualised differences in learning are discussed. Some constraints that can have a profound influence on the young learner are suggested.

  1. Physiology 2. Morphology 3. Aptitudes 4. Needs 5. Personality 6. Attitudes

These constraints change over time due to developmental differences. These variables have an impact on each individuals training (and learning) response.

“… the potential to shift the dominant paradigm from that of the still-dominant mechanical world view towards a view of the world as interconnected: where variation cannot be ignored, where new eras and behaviours can emerge, where change is not predictable and understandable in simple single-dimension relationships”. (Jean Boulton, Complexity and the Social Sciences; June 2010)

A flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information. One that puts a focus on the learner and the learning process.

CLA BLOGThe Constraints Led Approach

A Constraints – Led approach, I find is a useful framework to help us integrate vast amounts of complex and emerging information to give us an understanding of skill learning during practice and play. Constraints whilst not always negative or limiting are boundaries that channel the learner to explore and search for functional movement solutions. Constraints are factors that can influence learning and performance at any moment in time

Individual Constraints:

Physical aspects: Height, weight, limb length, genetic make- up, strength, speed,

Functional aspects: Motivation, emotions, fatigue, anxiety

It is important that the coach can identify rate limiters (lack of strength, flexibility).

Environmental constraints:

Physical environment: Light, wind, surface, temperature

Socio-cultural: Family, support networks, peers, societal expectations, values and cultural norms.

Task Constraints:

Rules, equipment, playing area, number of players involved, teammates. Opponents, information sources

Coaches have more control over the manipulation of task constraints than individual and environmental constraints. Representative Learning Design (discussed in a previous blog) and manipulation of task constraints are cornerstones of nonlinear pedagogy.

The constraints that need to be satisfied by each learner will change according to the needs of different individuals at different stages of development. Constraints decay and emerge over time meaning that their importance can vary.

“We need a flexible framework where our training and planning is designed around emerging information, whilst being underpinned by sound developmental principles” (Mark O’ Sullivan & Al Smith; 2016)

 References and inspiration

Nonlinear pedagogy in skill acquisition (Jia Yi ChowKeith DavidsChris ButtonIan Renshaw; Routledge December 9, 2015)

Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: Evidence-led or tradition-driven? (John Kiely; International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 2012, 7, 242 – 250

Periodization, planning, prediction: And why the future ain’t what it used to be! (John Kiely)

Richard Shuttleworth: Decision Making in Team Sport (Sports Coach Vol 30, No 2, Pages 25-27; 2015)

Teaching tactical creativity in sport research and practice (Daniel Memmert; Routledge April 2015)

The Brain in Spain (Sid Lowe, Blizzard issue 1, 55-64, 2011)

The Newtonian Paradigm (Jean Boulton, May 2001)

Complexity and the Social Sciences (Jean Boulton; June 2010)

Daniel Memmert: Interview Footblogball ( July 2015 (

Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists

Endless twitter conversations!



Per Göran Fahlström – One cannot shape and form children’s sports around small numbers and say that this is what the sport is all about

Our ability to look at sport involvement as a system of integrated personal and social variables that interact with and shape development can go a long way to explaining participation and performance of our young learners/players. What are you looking at (performance criteria-maturity, awareness, strength speed, skill, decision making, passion, desire, communication)- Who are you looking at (what do you know about these young people, their background, socio-economic, socio-cultural situation?) – Where is this taking place (context, environment) – Why are you here (why are you coaching children)? These are all relevant questions that we coaches should ask ourselves as we engage with the young learner.


Per Göran Fahlström is a lecturer and researcher at the Institute for Sports Science at Linneuniversitetet Sweden. His areas of interest are coaching, leadership, creating learning environments and talent development.  He has published many articles on these topics. His research work with various National Governing Bodies is proving to be very influential with regard to the philosophy, construction and organisation of the future of Youth sports in Sweden.

Footblogball: I see learning as an ongoing process of adaption. This of course requires great patience and support. Many early environments support only those that can adapt at that point of time in their development thus disqualifying those who at that moment in time are struggling to adapt. Surely there is a risk that those who have better potential to succeed in the long run could well be lost to us forever. Despite evidence to the contrary why are we earlier than ever pushing children in to the “zero sum game” that is early talent identification?

PG Fahlström: One can say that there is an international “talent arms race” in operation. Countries, federations and clubs feel the need to demonstrate their excellence through good sporting results. This may mean that after a championship or tournament a Governing Body may think that “others” are performing better- “we have to win more medals, why can’t we beat Norway in skiing?” etc. That is one explanation. The second is that many adults think that today there is too much “curling” in childrens sport and that you have to start early to succeed. The third point is a belief that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to achieve succeed. There is no actual evidence supporting a 10,000 hours model, but it is frequently referred to. This implies that we must begin accumulating those hours from an early age. In this way, it is believed that early specialization provides greater opportunities for elite success. These three factors together mean that when researchers/scientists enter the debate and argue that children should not specialise early, we are met with comments such as “there is too much curling” and “you have to make demands”. They say that children want and need to learn things. But I think they are confusing the desire to learn with the desire to invest and to compete at elite level. Children want to learn – but not all children want to compete. They might want to be as good as possible, but not necessarily compete to see if they can be better than others. I would like to point out that there is no evidence supporting the notion that you will be a better performer as an adult by winning competitions when you are a child.

Footblogball: Early talent identification is but a snapshot without a focus, a picture viewed through a subjective adult lens that more than often does not take into account the complexity and non-linearity of human development.  Should National Governing Bodies ensure that a greater importance of promoting an understanding of these complexities is introduced as early as possible in the coach education curriculum/pathway?

PG Fahlström: Yes. All children that play soccer are not, and should not be considered aspiring soccer stars. They are kids who play football – and perhaps also tennis, hockey, etc. Some of them will want to continue to play football and a very small number of them will eventually become elite players. It’s a very small proportion of active children who will become competitive athletes or even professional athletes. One cannot shape and form children’s sports around this small number and say that this is what the sport is all about. Therefore, engagement is more important than early selection and elite investment. If you have a good organisation then some will want to continue and try to become elite athletes anyway. It is less efficient to select early and to only place resources on those who are “best” in the early years.

Footblogball: But there here seems to be a need to standardise everything (talent id and training environment) where every step in the development pathway is prescribed.

PG Fahlström: All talent and selection systems are inclusive and exclusive. If you say that training should be a certain way, perform at a certain level, perform certain things, etc. it will fit / favour certain participants and exclude others. It will include those who fit in to the model and exclude those that develop at a different rate than the model “provides for”. This can be said of all talent systems. They will select those that fit into the model. These models are not flexible (see survival of the fittest or survival of talent) so they cannot meet the needs of different individuals with different development trajectories. Those who develop at a different pace, those who have other characteristics (such as a short high jumper, a long and “gangly” footballer) are liable to be removed because they do not fit into the standardised template. Some of them “survive” but the vast majority will be left outside the system because they are not considered talented or interesting enough to develop. Instead of developing models for the development of (unique) individuals we miss those who have great development potential and only see those that fit into the model. Research shows that the road to success is very different. Therefore, a good talent system needs to be flexible and support the various pathways to the elite level. This creates quite different demands on coaches and organisations. Coaches, managers, clubs and organisations need to be much better at meeting the needs of various individuals who want to get involved in sport. This is will of course also change over time. The type of sport that we experienced and loved as children does not necessarily fit in with children’s sport today. It does not mean that today’s children are lazy. The world is a lot different now than it was in our youth. Children these days live much different lives with different expectations. Sport must adapt to this.

As many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment possible

 Footblogball: It can be argued that traditionally we have been having a one way conversation with our young learners. Many traditional coaching environments that involve young children are based on measurement, control and ranking yet characteristics of positive learning environments are safe to fail, variability, autonomy, fun and problem solving. Skateboard parks are a perfect example of this. In my opinion we as coaches, researchers and learners have much to learn from this. The environment offers information as to “WHAT” the possibilities for action are but the concept of “HOW”, the young learners/players themselves fill with life. Could understanding this concept help us create a more child centred learning space within our coaching environment?

PG Fahlström: I believe that learning and the learning process should be built around the child’s own motivation. It may sound naïve but I think that everything we like doing is essentially built on desire, that we think it is fun regardless of whether it is playing the guitar, listening to music, going for a walk or playing a sport. This desire/motivation should be built on way more than meeting a standard requirement of doing things correctly. Training should build on this desire to test, experiment, mimic and develop. I often refer to this “skateboard-metaphor” where young skateboarders develop advanced skills without a coach or an adult steering the practice and without the government funding that many of our sporting organisations benefit from. They observe, mimic, test, experiment and learn from each other. This is all driven by high motivation and focus. Nobody needs to take a roll-call or lead the practice session. This is the type of desire that you can build on and develop in sport. This should be the basis for the design of children’s sport and even actually adult sports.

Footblogball: As a district coach educator here in Stockholm I always ask the participants to use the time we are together as a forum for discussion and debate, to challenge each other, to challenge themselves and to challenge me. Our aims should be that over time through critical thinking and analysis that we will be able to develop future discussions from a position of informed opinion and therefore influence our clubs and Governing Bodies in relation to how the future of youth athlete development should be formed. With this in mind I would like to quote world renowned Swedish Master chef Magnus Nilsson. “Anyone can learn to duplicate a technique, but that’s not creative expression. What’s interesting is true development. It’s not something that happens over, like, a couple of weeks or a year. To create true understanding of produce and technique, it’s a long process. Most chefs don’t even think about that as the chef’s job, and that’s not very constructive. It’s actually very lazy. “It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. Like what is is there and why? And if it doesn’t make sense, how can it be transformed to become greater.”  Comment?

PG Fahlström: It is difficult this with “experience”. On the one hand, one should learn from their experiences. We can and should learn from our own and others’ mistakes. But there are also risks with experience. You think have learned how things are but really you have not tested other options. There is a saying that says, “people think that they have 25 years of experience but really it has been 1 year of experience repeated 25 times.” This we see a lot in sports, you do what you have always done. This of course gives one sense of security in knowing how to do things. There are coaches who have their coaching and leadership model, they have their coaching folder and use this in all the clubs they work with. When they have gone through their “coaching folder” in one club they change to another club.

There is a paradox, the more pressure and competition that coaches feel the more cautious and conservative they become. There is a saying that “invention is the mother of necessity” but often it is the opposite. Instead of allowing in new thoughts and trying something different they do what all the others do. Then they feel that they cannot be wrong. The Swedish words for security and inertia (trygghet och tröghet) sound very alike and what is reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change. This is often reinforced by players who become coaches and coaches who become managers. So it is often people with the same experiences that control operations in our football clubs. If you have not played yourself or won anything as a coach then you don’t get a piece of the action. These coaches, often without any formal education use knowledge based on how it was when they played, what they thought was good rather than developing an understanding that in a training environment it is not the coach who “learns-out” different elements but it is the players that “learn-in”. The coach’s task is to create a learning environment that suits the different individuals who are training. They cannot just repeat what they remember from when they themselves were young. They should create an environment where children want to and can learn – we are again back to that desire to learn. A good learning environment “learns- in” and teaches the kids much more than the coach can teach (learn-out).  Creating a training environment where participants learn from each other. That is the trainer’s pedagogical role.

It’s very important to not just accept things the way they are, but actually go and investigate. What feels reassuring is often too slow and difficult to change.

On the Footblogball stereo






Some words with Richard Bailey, Ph.D. Physical Activity, Sports and Human development


Richard Bailey, Ph.D, is a former university professor who now focuses on writing and public speaking. His work and interests meet on the intersection of physical activity, sports and human development. He received a doctorate of philosophy of education from University of Sunderland and has been a professor at a number of leading Universities in the UK. . He is co-editor of The Routledge Physical Education Reader, co-author of The SAGE Handbook of Philosophy of Education, and the author of Philosophy of Education: An Introduction and Physical Education for Learning: A Guide for Secondary Schools, among other books. He has conducted research on topics including gifted education, talent development, effective teaching and coaching, and the development of expertise.

“My interests include science, philosophy, education, martial arts and the insidious bullshit that threatens them”.

Catch him on twitter @DrDickB

Visit his blog

Footblogball: Is there a conflict between how children learn and how modern youth sports elite programs (early selection, specialise and train hard) are carried out that is causing an imbalance?

Richard Bailey: Yes, I think there is a significant conflict between how children learn and how elite programmes operate.  Until very recently, talent development programmes were designed without any reference or consideration to healthy development, and treated children like mini adults.  Let’s be honest, though, most elite sports programmes are not designed to meet children’s needs; they are designed entirely for adult ambitions.

Footblogball: Physical Education (as well as the arts) seems to have taken a back seat to other what are considered more important subjects in the school curriculum. With the concern for the rise in diabetes and the general health of children are we now reaping what we sow?

Richard Bailey: I don’t think this is necessarily true. Physical education and school sport was a major element of the last UK government’s education programme, and still carries a significant amount of central government funding.  It is true that physical education and the arts Have traditionally been marginalised within the school curriculum. And that is partly due to their inability to demonstrate value. But I think this is changing in many places.In answer to your specific question, I would like to see your evidence that there is a relationship between diabetes/general health and curriculum physical education. I do not think that relationship has been demonstrated.

Footblogball: Do you think that there is relationship between physical activity during the school day and educational performance? How does exercise effect brain activity in children? (I know VERY general question)

Richard Bailey: Yes. Exercise seems to stimulate the development of the neural networks that underlie thinking.  Activity also seems to stimulate the parts of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, and more complex thoughts.

Footblogball: In your Psychology today blog “Leaning to move, moving to learn” there is a reference to questioning the standard ways in which schools organise and prioritise their various responsibilities. In reference to Youth sport organisations can we ask the same question?

Dr Richard Bailey: Yes.   I think they suffer from basically the same problems: inflexibility; lack of evidence; adult-centred.

Footblogball: My own personal coaching philosophy is “It is not how I coach but more about understanding how they learn”. Do you think that our coaching education programmes should place a greater emphasis helping coaches understand how humans learn? Surely if we develop an understanding for how our players learn then coaching becomes easier, your sessions become less coach-centric more player centred and it will easier for players to take control of the learning process?

Richard Bailey: Yes.  Although we do not know a huge amount about how people learn, and lots more research is needed in practical settings.  I also think planners of coach education programmes need to take their role more seriously, and design training that is much more challenging, and leads the participants to walk away better coaches.

Footblogball: Apparently 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses can be recognised by 14 years of age. This is not something that I have heard been discussed much within the context of athlete development and talent ID models.  Are we doing enough to identify this early on? Are we adults contributing to it with the demands and pressures that we put on kids?

Richard Bailey: I do not know what it means to say that 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses are recognised by 14 years of age. I very much doubt that is true, and I suspect it really means that the origins of many mental illnesses can be traced back to early adolescence.

But in answer to the question, I think sports doing almost nothing to identify and support mental health issues. Nor do schools.  And I have no doubt that intensive early training programmes can be harmful for both physical and mental health.  We are still very much in the dark ages as far as mental health is concerned, and it is not taken nearly seriously enough.

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.