Competence: A Debate

The dynamic relationship between motor competence and physical activity can lead people to either positive spirals of engagement or negative spirals of disengagement with movement throughout the rest of their lives.

Every week on Twitter I see people engaged in a debate about the importance of ‘competence’ as a key factor in of ensuring lifelong movement. The debate generally involves two competing positions; competence is not a key factor or that a very narrow view of competence is a key factor. I don’t think this is the right debate to have, especially for Secondary School PE Teachers. To think movement competence is not important or to privilege a ‘molecular‘ view of movement competence is both equally foolish in my opinion.

Is competence a key factor?

The literature is pretty clear on this. David Stodden and colleagues contend that ‘the development of motor skill competence is a primary underlying mechanism that promotes engagement in physical activity‘. Their model suggests that physical activity at a young age helps children improve motor competence. This increase in motor competence improves a person’s confidence, which then leads to seeking out more physical activity. Creating a positive spiral of engagement between physical activity and motor competence. More active pre-school children have better motor competence at school starting age: an observational cohort study. This suggests that (Quality) PA should drive motor control in early years, otherwise how would motor control develop? It certainly is clear that competence and physical activity is positively correlated.

This correlation becomes even more important during adolescence. McGrane shows that without a good level of competence at this age, teenagers will tend to withdraw from physical activity. I’ve often thought that the environment we create at secondary school has a big impact on teenagers. I still do, but perhaps some of the seeds are planted with poor motor competence from an early age as the Gateshead Millenium Study demonstrates. Therefore motor competence levels in early childhood can influence levels of physical activity both in adolescence and adulthood. However, it isn’t just physical activity that competence can have a positive effect on, but also but also fitness, healthy weight status and cognitive and academic outcomes. Lisa Barnett and colleagues in Fundamental Movement Skills: An important focus give a great overview of many of the contentions that are raised with regards to FMS not being an important factor.

Shane Pill has also written a very good overview of the literature of FMS and competence with regards to PE. So to deny the role that competence has on the promotion of lifelong physical activity in relation to the research seems shortsighted. I agree with Collins and his colleagues that one of the best things we can do as PE teachers is to be deliberate in preparing children for a lifetime of movement and physical activity.

So let’s focus on FMS?

With a wealth of research on the positive correlation that competence has on physical activity, we should just on fundamental movements? This tends to be the other position in the debate. In English Secondary Schools, this takes on the practice of learning a range of decontextualised sports techniques until perfection is achieved. Mastery of techniques through a multi-activity curriculum is what we seem to think will lead to a lifetime of movement. I’m not sure how helpful this is. Competence alone (especially one that sees it through the lens of a list of decontextualised sports techniques to achieve) can never be the sole constituent of a healthy and active lifestyle. If so the research would find causality, not correlation. Causality can be very complex, especially when human behaviour is involved, but we are naturally drawn to it. It is very difficult to isolate a single cause such as ‘sports techniques’ which will end up ensuring lifelong physical activity, yet that is what we seem to focus on within our secondary school PE curriculum. Collins et al suggest we need Essential Movement Skills rather than FMS. Not just the actual competence to perform physical skills but also the psychological and behavioural skills to engage in physical activity. Lisa Barnett provides an excellent narrative review of an ecological framework of correlates on physical activity, such as biological and demographic factors; behavioural attributes and skills; cognitive, emotional and psychological factors and; cultural and social factors; and physical environmental factors. If only creating children who move to become adults to move was as easy as teaching some basic sports techniques.

What should we be debating?

Secondary School PE Teachers need to get beyond the debate of these two positions. Competence is an important factor in ensuring lifelong movement, but it has to be more than just the capability of performing certain sports techniques perfectly (or even worse focused on what our body looks like). Competence allows us to do many things. It liberates us. Providing us with the confidence and freedom to go to new places, meet new people, try new activities and solve new problems together. Movement Competence has to be an educational aim of Core-PE. Most lifelong physical activity involves some level of competence, but we can’t have a narrow view of what this looks like though. It has to be holistic. We give too much attention to the individual competence of sports technique mastery and not enough on the mastery of personal and social behaviours. Nor fully appreciate developing the understanding of personal and cultural meaning when in a range of movement environments. Is movement competence a technical ladder to climb for children to climb by themselves or a climbing frame to explore with others? That is the debate I feel we should be having more often and then how to apply the answers we find to our curriculum.

PS: I’m well aware that I have conflated a lot of terms here; competence, movement competence, physical competence, fundamental movement skills, essential movement skills to name a few. I think this might be part of the problem. Anyone with more knowledge and understanding of this area please feel free to educate me and other readers in the comments section. Your advice on this topic would be most appreciated. 

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