Physical Literacy: Motivation

In my previous post I stated that Physical Literacy as an outcome for Physical Education is a concept that I personally think has great potential to shape our provision. However it still requires a lot of work to clarify, understand and place into practice.

Margaret Whitehead in her book Physical Literacy. Throughout the life course describes physical literacy as ‘a disposition acquired by individuals encompassing the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding that establishes purposeful physical pursuits as an integral element of their lifestyle.

This seems to suggest that one of our fundamental roles as teachers of PE is to foster and nurture our pupils motivation in physical activity so they personally choose to do it for a lifetime beyond school. Our approach within lessons therefore needs to have an impact on the behaviours and habits of the children we teach with regards to physical activity. This is itself hugely difficult considering the huge range of emotional responses that our pupils have to participating within PE, especially as many of the these factors may be out of our control.

One of the most prominent theories of motivation within PE and Sport is that of Self Determination Theory (SDT). It is concerned with supporting the natural or intrinsic tendencies to behave in a healthy manner. SDT was initially developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, but has been refined by academics and researchers over the last three decades.

The theory places motivation on a continuum. At one end of the continuum is amotivation. Simply put this is where a pupil lacks any motivation at all. At the other end of the continuum is intrinsic motivation. This is where a pupil would take part, learn and be active because of the enjoyment and pleasure it brings. Between these two ends of the SDT continuum are types of extrinsic and self directed motivation:

External regulation – this is when motivation is externally controlled by rewards and sanctions.

Introjected regulation – this is when motivation is externally controlled by the need to please peers, parents or teachers

Identified regulation – this is when motivation becomes an autonomous form of extrinsic motivation because the pupil sees value in the outcome

Integrated regulation – this is when motivation becomes an autonomous form of extrinsic motivation because the pupils sees that physical activity and sport is part of their identity and who they are.

Where all of the above are considered extrinsic motivation, both identified and integrated regulation are autonomous, meaning the are of the persons own choice. These types of motivation are good and something we need to try and support and develop in our pupils.

Therefore the SDT continuum can look like this:

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 19.28.41


or taken from Deci and Ryan (2000)

Screen Shot 2015-05-14 at 19.42.23

SDT assumes that there are three psychological needs that motivate human behaviour. They are autonomy, competence and relatedness. Autonomy is the feeling that you can make your own decisions and that you are in control of your behaviour. Competence means you feel the need to be competent and master the thing you are doing. Relatedness is the need to relate to others by sense of place and belonging. As a Teacher of PE we need to create a learning environment within our lessons that supports all three of these motivational needs if possible. Once they are being met we can move our pupils along the the SDT continuum from amotivation to intrinsic motivation. My understanding of the continuum is that a child does not progress one stage at a time. A jump can be made to any stage at any time given the environment we create, however as it is a continuum this can be both ways. An example of that is a student who is highly intrinsically motivated in a sport can be move to amotivation due to a change of coach or teacher and their approach.

What then can we do when a pupil is amotivated in our subject? Based on studies we might use the following autonomy-supportive techniques: (1) provide a meaningful rationale expressing the importance of partaking in that activity (e.g. health benefits), (2) acknowledge the students’ feelings and perspective about the activity, and (3) use language that conveys choice, rather than control (e.g. ‘you may want to’, as opposed to ‘you have to’). However if we meet the needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness we will improve the motivation of our students.

This opens up lots of questions to teacher practice within Physical Education:

  • What are we doing to ensure that we give pupils more autonomy, choices and personal decisions in our subject with out reducing the safety of lessons?
  • Do we ensure we give enough time for practice and mastery within our scheme of work to the skills and techniques required to feel competent?
  • What type/frequency/quality of feedback do we give to pupils to ensure that competency can occur?
  • What sort of climate and environment do we create to ensure our class feels a sense of belonging within PE and Sport?
  • How do we build relationships with our pupils? Relatedness does not just mean with their peer group, but also with their teacher. How often do we reflect on our interpersonal skills and not just the content or delivery of a lesson?
  • How often do we get feedback from pupils about our teaching and the environment we are creating for them? How often do we involve them in the process of creating that environment?
  • Does a multi models based approach allow the 3 basic needs to be met more often than a traditional approach to teaching?
  • If a pupils is observed to be amotivated within our subject, what approaches do we use to tackle them? Do we involve the motivated pupils within the decision making process back by sound theoretical principles?

If Physical Education is to play a more influential role in increasing activity levels within children and achieving the aims of physical literacy then we as PE teachers need to have a better understanding of the motivational issues that our pupils face within our classes. Indeed, given the link with intrinsic motivation to positive affects such as increased concentration and the preference to attempt challenging tasks, the promotion of SDT (via creating a needs-supporting environment) may serve to foster physical activity beyond the school years.

Further Reading

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions by Deci and Ryan

Motivation in physical education classes by Ntoumanis and Standage

A test of self determination in PE by Standage, Duda and Ntoumanis

A test of self-determination theory in school physical education by Ntoumanis, Pensgaard, Martin, and Pipe

Self Determination Org – Website full of articles, links and papers on SDT



6 thoughts on “Physical Literacy: Motivation

  1. I enjoyed your evaluation of physical literacy and motivation. I am currently running a unit of Sport Education. Potentially a way to motivate students with this model and give options to a few of your questions…

    Students collaboratively selected a sport, fair teams, managers, coaches, captains. Students then agree terms for a league, points system, officiating, potential transfer system.

    I first did this in the UK with football, coaches changed every week and had to submit a session plan.

    Here, in Jamaica, the students (mixed, grade 8/ year 9) have chosen basketball but I am not dictating coach changes or session plans, I am using standards and benchmarks to assess. The excitement of the league system motivates them to participate and the accountability of the standards and the team motivate them to be collaborative in the process.

    Standards being assessed include; encouragement & peer feedback, using rules/etiquette to resolve conflict, respect, cooperating/problem solving, developing plan of action, enjoys and participates.

    So far it’s working well and quality of performance is increasing as a by-product of their enthusiasm. I jump in here and there for coaching tips but spend much more time referring to standards or supporting encouraging the students who have specific roles. I am also the last resort for rule clarification/conflict resolution. Furthermore, I track the success of students hitting the standards using the evernote app on my phone/ipad.

    We follow the SHAPE standards and I find this an interesting way to hit them and increase motivation. Students who are not necessarily ‘athletic’ can find themselves a role that suits their skill set and make valuable contributions to the overall unit (coaching, managing, officiating, scoring, creating, administrating, filming, reporting).

    When I first did this (about 4 years ago) I was experimenting, but recently I found a little research on the Sport Education method:

    Wallhead, T, Garn, A, & Vidoni, C 2014, ‘Effect of a Sport Education Program on Motivation for Physical Education and Leisure-Time Physical Activity’, Research Quarterly For Exercise & Sport, 85, 4, pp. 478-487

    Araújo, R, Mesquita, I, & Hastie, P 2014, ‘Review of the Status of Learning in Research on Sport Education: Future Research and Practice’, Journal Of Sports Science & Medicine, 13, 4, pp. 846-858


    1. Hi Brad.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. We provide a multi models based approach in our schools PE curriculum through Sport Education, Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility, TGfU and Co-operative Learning. I think that does help with the motivation with our pupils, either by allowing them to experience the activity fully or giving more autonomy to them then direct instruction. Thanks you for also sharing the research which I will look up and read.


  2. I love this topic and it forms the basis for much of what I do with my physical education program. As you mention in the opening of your blog post, as PE teachers we must foster and nurture our pupils motivation in physical activity so they personally choose to do it for a lifetime beyond school. It is SO critical to do so.

    Although the key to a successful program is to build upon our students’ physical literacy skills, I believe in my heart that we must first address levels of motivation in our learners. We MUST create a learning environment that helps to intrinsically motivate our students and make them want to be active, to find the joy in being active, AND to make it relevant to them and the lives they lead. Dici and Ryan’s work has changed my practice. I contacted them about a year back and Ryan was kind enough to get back to me offering me more insight and connecting me with researchers of the Self-Determination theory in the area of physical education, health, and wellness. I’ve been able to connect with some of them and follow their work.

    In my keynote speech in Munich, I addressed the work of Dici and Ryan, in particular the need to create autonomous learning journeys in our students. But also, the idea that, as educators, we can create our own autonomous learning journeys that help to deepen our own teaching practice. No longer are schools solely responsible for professionally developing us. We’ve got access to a whole world of excellence at our fingertips if we choose to access it. Sustaining our own intrinsic levels of motivation is very important.

    Loved reading this blog post as I highly value what the Self-Determination Theory teaches us about what truly motivates us and how we can create the conditions necessary to motivate ourselves and our students to be better learners. THANKS!!


    1. Thanks Andy.

      I think building and improving pupils intrinsic motivation to be physically active is key to being a successful PE Teacher. The environment we create, the language we use and the support we give is going to be a big part of building that motivation in our pupils. It will be a difficult challenge to get that right, and overcome some of the blocks that children have put in place with regards to being alive. Who can you recommend to read and this is definitely an area I would like to improve my knowledge and understanding on?


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