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Athlete Development
| Mar 17, 2021

The Continuum of Physical Literacy

By Emily Coates

Physical literacy begins as early as infancy, but it is not a finite process. Achieving physical literacy occurs on a continuum, as the skills that are considered "age appropriate" continue to get more complex as kids grow older and the level of competition in sports progresses.

Physical literacy skills are related to age but are not dependent on age. Some kids will develop certain movement skills earlier than the norm, others will develop skills later. 

Early physical literacy focuses on the building blocks of movement, then progresses to exploring more complex activities and how bodies move through space. As more complex skills are developed, we work on becoming competent at them, and progressing to a proficient level. Continuing to work on skills outside of competitive play is important for developing and maintaining this proficiency. 
Puberty arrives at different times for males and females, and within the genders there is a wide age range for "normal" timing. Puberty brings growth spurts and changes to body composition, causing a potential for regression in body awareness, coordination, balance, and overall physical literacy of kids in these age ranges. 

Decreased confidence may occur if kids are feeling less in control of their bodies as they move and play because their bodies are moving or reacting differently than what they are accustomed to. 

Four important keys to working with athletes during this time are:

1. Though a child may have started playing lacrosse at an early age and developed the proper skills, as body shape and awareness change, there is continued need to revisit the basics to ensure those skills are maintained at a level appropriate for the level of competition and to avoid injury. 

2. This is true for sport specific skills, as well as basic movement skills and coordination. Kids that remain active are less likely to have this regression, but many injuries occur around these growth spurts. As limb length and the center of gravity change, coordination and body awareness may decrease.
3. Ensuring that athletes maintain or regain body awareness and physical literacy bolsters confidence in their movements, further reducing the risk of injury.
4. Incorporating basic skills and movements into practices for all ages of athletes can be a method to address weaker areas for athletes without singling them out. 
Truly physically literate individuals are consistently honing movement skills in different environments, levels of competition, and with creativity. The variability of playing multiple sports helps to build a wider range of movements, skills and strengths for a more well-rounded player, regardless of whether they are an elementary or high school student. 

Coaches allowing time for "free play" and creative drills during practices is important, as it allows a learner-centered approach, enabling players to focus on their individual needs relating to progressively complex movement patterns and skills. This empowers young athletes to focus and explore their skills, including weaker areas, to create a more well-rounded athlete. 
This also maintains the level of fun and choice that is crucial to keeping kids engaged and participating in sports and physical activities for the duration of their lives. 

Emily Coates is a pediatric physical literacy specialist with MedStar Sports Medicine.