Staying active – what makes the difference?

For My Welsh Sport_The Conversation, a range of experts share their thoughts on the future of sport in Wales.

Today sees Dr Margaret Whitehead discuss the role of physical literacy in ensuring everyone flourishes.  

What does physical literacy actually mean? Widely used in the sport sector, it goes beyond skill development. Its goal is for everyone to take responsibility for being active and that also means finding the motivation and confidence to take part in physical activities.

Skills are mainly developed as a result of well-chosen physical challenges. Motivation and confidence, on the other hand, depend on how a teacher, coach or instructor relates to an individual as a person. To successfully unlock motivation and confidence, individuals need to feel valued and be helped on their personal journey of improvement. 

In short, physical literacy can be described as: the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engaging in physical activities for life. 

So why do we need to develop physical literacy? It’s simple. Those in the activity promotion professions can change the lives of EVERY SINGLE participant for the better. In fostering physical literacy, we have huge potential to contribute to human flourishing. We know it has wide ranging benefits for all, the young and the old, the able bodied and those with a disability. Involvement in physical activity can improve physical, mental and social health. In more detail it can:
  • develop movement skill, which can be rewarding and enjoyable. 
  • open up a wide range of activity options which can improve physical health
  • promote self-confidence and self-esteem and, as a result, enhance mental health
  • bring people together, which is recognised as improving the quality of life
  • offer opportunities to have time outdoors
  • contribute to the quality of life
But it’s not something that’s easy to develop solo. Individuals need support from others, not only in the actual teaching and coaching situation but from a wide range of people such as family members, work colleagues, friends and employers. Regular participation, persistence, determination and mastery, at all levels, need to be celebrated.

These values can be more readily realised when opportunities for activity are wide ranging, accessible and affordable. It makes a difference when people taking part are welcomed and known by name. It also helps to have consistency in those leading activity settings, so that support can be tailored to individual needs. 

So how can we turn the theory into reality? Key players who can lead change are teachers, coaches, leisure centre instructors, those in the medical and para-medical professions, staff caring for the older adult population, and decision makers at local and national level. Remember, the goal is for each individual to take responsibility for being active.

The activity setting needs to be appropriate and welcoming. It needs to be well managed with maximum activity and no unnecessary queuing. Everyone is clear about the purpose of the task at hand and is engaged in working at their own level.

In addition to the relevant choice of material, there are a few other important factors:
  • Guidance is focused on the individual participant rather than the activity
  • Differentiation is used wherever possible
  • Participants are known by name 
  • Encouragement, understanding and empathy are shown to all participants 
  • Participants are not made to feel inadequate or failures. They do not experience embarrassment or humiliation
  • Success is judged in respect of previous performance and not compared to that of others
  • Participants experience the pleasure and enjoyment of success
  • All participants leave the sessions feeling ‘I can do this’, ‘I want to come back for more’.
The burning questions for the sector:

  • How can we ensure that all teaching/coaching produces participants hungry for more activity opportunities?
  • How can we support teachers and coaches to adopt a focus that is more learner centred?
  • How can we help individuals maintain a commitment to being active?

Dr Margaret Whitehead

Now it's time to let us have your thoughts. Use the Comments section below to share your views.

Sport Wales has launched 'My Welsh Sport _ The Conversation', an opportunity for everyone in Wales to give their view on Wales's sporting future.

For more information and to give your views visit

You can read the Welsh version of this thought piece here.


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