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Physical Literacy Old and New: Training for Young People

Training session with Nathan KellyTraining session with Tom Oliver

London, United Kingdom – Reported by Tom Oliver and Nathan Kelly for Elite Traveler, the private jet lifestyle magazine

It may come as no surprise that a 2010 NHS (National Health Service) report into obesity in England found 26 percent of men and women to be clinically obese, as determined by their Body Mass Index (ratio of weight to height), a figure that has literally doubled since 1993. Alarmingly, this trend is being seen amongst our young people with 30 percent of boys and girls (aged two to 15) being classified as either overweight or obese. The number of young people classified as obese increased from 11 percent in 1995 to a staggering 19 percent in 2004 – highlighting a shocking trend for increasing levels of child obesity, and with it a whole host of associated health and well-being issues and problems.

Such high levels of childhood obesity have been related to several lifestyle factors, including overweight parents and failing to meet recommendations for physical activity levels. The health benefits of physical activity have been well documented and well known for many years. However, with such worrying trends in child health and fitness, more attention needs to be turned to how young people can be encouraged and enthused to adopt physically active lifestyles, as well as appreciate and enjoy all that regular physical activity has to offer. Here, we take a look at some of the factors that can influence not only our own physical literacy and prowess, but also those that determine our attitudes towards exercise when we are young.

Many of us sporty types may consider ourselves quite fortunate when it comes to physical activity. Coordinated enough to turn our hands to most sporting activities, and conditioned enough to make a decent fist of most physical pursuits, many of us gain enjoyment from a large number of physically demanding past times. Furthermore, we find that everyday tasks that require physical exertion above that of watching TV or walking up the stairs come relatively easily too. However, not everyone shares our love for all things physical and we will all know a significant number of adult friends who become filled with dread at the prospect of anything mildly resembling sport, get out of breath thinking about it and run the other way if invited to play a casual game of Frisbee on the beach!

So how can we be so diverse in terms of both our readiness and willingness to engage in physical activity, and why should a perceived lack or abundance of physical literacy create such a high emotional response long into our adult lives? Whilst there are a myriad of biological, psychological and social factors at play, at least part of the answer may be explained by the physical grounding that we receive when we are young, and its subsequent influence upon our perceptions, attitudes and practice of all things physical.

Firstly, there is the influence of the physical and social environment at our disposal when we are young. If you were fortunate enough to have grown up in rural surroundings, then an active and playful youth comes easily and physical skills are gained through exploration and creative play. In the absence of training aids and sporting implements to hone coordination and skills, one has to use one’s imagination in order to get the most from the immediate physical environment. Strength, balance and flexibility are developed through games and activities that involve wrestling or climbing or “heaving” objects of all shapes and size around to build shelters and obstacle courses. Speed, agility, spatial awareness and coordination skills can be honed through a plethora of ad hoc games centered around stealth, invasion and evasion, all of which are limited only by the imagination of the people involved. Endurance, resilience and perseverance come from the multiple attempts to complete a task or challenge, and the fact that outdoor pursuits will last until either exhaustion sets in, daylight disappears or you’re called in for dinner!

The physical confidence gained during these early years cannot be underestimated. By developing the “ABC’s” of physical movement (running, jumping, throwing and catching), children find themselves at a distinct advantage when entering more formal domains of physical activity such as school gym class and out-of-school clubs. New movements or sports-specific skills can be easier to grasp, and the intrinsic enjoyment of movement and physical expression gained through those early years of play can be enough to get young people through even the stodgiest of school gym lessons! In turn, rate of personal success, intrinsic enjoyment and confidence grow and so the positive feedback cycle continues.

This positive physical literacy experience is not just the preserve of the “sporty” children and those looking to excel in physical activity. Developing physical confidence is a basic component of being able to adopt an active and healthy lifestyle, as well as forming an important social outlet/opportunity to meet new friends and engage with existing ones on a shared experience. So whilst one may not be looking for their children to become the next pro athlete, taking the time to ensure that they develop their physical literacy and confidence can pay dividends for them throughout their lives.

For those looking to encourage physical activity for their children there is no shortage of choice. Over the past decade there has literally been an explosion in sessions offering a whole host of general and specific activities for children of all ages, making way to a growth of new business. With such choice available there are several key factors to consider when selecting the best options for a particular young person.

Firstly, safety and experience are critical, and all programs offered for those under 18 must use appropriately qualified and insured coaches who have passed rigorous child protection training and checks. However, the disappointing reality is often that the most qualified and knowledgeable coaches gravitate towards higher paid opportunities and higher levels of performance. The net result is that activity sessions for young people are often delivered by enthusiastic coaches, with less experience and qualifications than their professional counterparts. It is well documented that experienced coaches are able to better observe technical and tactical deficiencies and offer appropriate strategies for their resolution than less experienced coaches. That said, even the best coaches and physical educators have to start somewhere, so it pays to shop around and observe – the best coaches are able to disguise much of the skills, movements and hard work within fun challenges and games to create happy, confident and skilled children.

Secondly, it is important to consider the density of activity within a session, as it’s all in the repetition. The choice of activities, the number of participants, the amount and type of equipment, and the coach to athlete ratio will all influence how many repetitions or attempts a young person has. For example, a young person learning to catch a tennis ball within a one to one session with a parent or trainer may complete as many as 100 attempts/repetitions in five minutes. The same young person practicing the same skill with a peer and just one ball may only have ten attempts in the same timeframe by the time that they have retrieved the ball from miss cued feeds. Furthermore, classes that involve several children require increasing degrees of structure and organization in order to cover the curriculum. This “one size fits all” will not always be in the best interest of the individual child as it removes some of the exploration elements of learning. Working with an experienced coach in a very small group or on an individual basis facilitates a much more child centerd approach where the child dictates the direction of the session, therefore maximizing learning, enjoyment and confidence.

About the authors: Tom Oliver founded his company Tom Oliver Personal Training in 2004 and is today the preferred trainer for Harrods, Edmiston Yachts and Quintessentially Concierge. Though based in London, he and his team of handpicked, expert trainers provide bespoke personal training services worldwide, helping some of the most influential, high-profile figures on the planet meet their fitness goals and needs both safely and effectively. Nathan Kelly is a senior trainer and manager at Tom Oliver Personal Training with over 15 years’ experience training Olympic and professional athletes including Great Britain Hockey, Saracens Rugby Union, England U19 Cricket and numerous professional soccer players and individual athletes.

Contact: Tom Oliver, 44-7767-411577; tom@tomoliver.co.uk; www.tomoliver.co.uk