Measure Progress, Don’t Just Assess
What gets measured gets managed
How we measure kids’ progress in youth fitness/talent development needs to be re-evaluated. Have you ever considered whether the current assessment system in sports or physical education actually measures what it says it measures, that is, is it valid? Several of the tests currently in place do not have validity, and we have eliminated some tests where children were unsuccessful, rather than teach/coach/reinforce the skill and strength needed to be successful. Other tests are being (wrongly) used to identify future talent, which can lead to burnout of early maturers and lack of continued participation for late bloomers. We are caught in a downward spiral of measuring health-fitness components at the expense of movement skills and skill-fitness, leading to incomplete fitness that is not youth focused.
I need to emphasize that mastery of movement skills doesn’t magically appear for most kids, even with plenty of free play. These skills need to be taught by teachers and coaches, especially during childhood, for pre-adolescents to have the opportunity to learn, rehearse, and practice fundamental movement skills. Building upon fundamental movement skills, kids need to develop physical literacy in a variety of physical skills. Margaret Whitehead is the leading advocate for physical literacy and her encompassing definition of physical literacy is quite useful when establishing our framework for measuring progress: “As appropriate to each individual’s endowment, physical literacy can be described as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to maintain physical activity throughout the life course.” Colleagues Rhodri Lloyd and Jon Oliver in the UK have put together an excellent model of positive youth development (2012), that includes training not only fundamental movement skills but also emphasizes training ALL determinants of physical fitness throughout childhood and adolescence, including muscle strength, muscle endurance, agility, power, and speed.
It is more appropriate, therefore, within the context of physical literacy to chart progress toward developing physical literacy rather than assessing where a student may land in any given grade or measure at any given age. Think about that for a second… if our goal is to create lifelong physical activity enthusiasts, our measurements should look at progress toward that goal!
Our Current System
In our current system we measure only a handful of physical traits year after year, namely heart fitness, muscle fitness (muscle strength and endurance inappropriately lumped together), flexibility and body composition. We seldom, if ever, measure ALL components of physical competence and fitness nor do we chart the progress made for each child throughout his/her development. It is important to remember here that youth development is not always linear, so growth spurts, for example, can influence assessment, which is another justification for measuring progress throughout the youth development process. One measure that Istvan Balyi, the man behind Canada’s Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) model (2004) recommends throughout childhood and adolescence is to chart height and weight every year so that the age at which peak height velocity occurs can be determined.
But something as simple as tracking height and weight year-to-year turns out to be not so simple. Kids may change schools, teams, towns, etc. so the responsibility will need to be shared by schools, after-school programs, and parents, and a determination needs to be made as the best approach for each youngster. If we adopt a physical literacy approach with ongoing measurements of progress being made, the mindset will shift so that key measures will be tracked during the school years. Let’s take a look at what we might want to track and why.
Sample Measurements to Help Track Progress
Whitehead (2007) lays out an informative way to look at movement capacities. Across the developmental continuum we can first teach simple movement like balance, coordination, and flexibility. Incorporating multiple ways to improve the simple movements leads us to integrating movements such as with agility- that combines flexibility, balance, and coordination (see also Tudor Bompa’s Periodization book (2000) for great information on the interdependence of biomotor abilities). Complex movement involves further combinations of capacities such as hand-eye coordination needing orientation in space, agility, and dexterity. It is important to remember here that while movement capacities are generally developed from simple through complex, there is no built in hierarchy.
Also important to examine are general movement patterns, such as striking. As we see too often, children are not being set for success in demonstrating movement patterns in game situations, for example, because the teacher or coach skips the teaching/coaching progressions to enhance skills in simple movement and general patterns and focuses on contest outcomes. The result is a poor result—children don’t get the requisite motor skills and feeling of motor skill competence and self-efficacy to enjoy participating in lifelong physical activity. So, if the general pattern of striking is not taught and practiced, applying this skill in a refined pattern such as batting in a baseball/softball game will be even less successful.
Attitudes and Behaviors
In addition to physical capacities, attention needs to be paid to developing positive attitudes and behaviors. Teaching children and youth the positive benefits of participating in sports/physical activity helps them become intrinsically motivated to perform and continue to be physically active for their entire lives. One criticism of many LTAD models is that not enough emphasis is placed on the psychological and social aspects of youth development. According to Whitehead (p. 78), by the time youngsters leave school it is possible to predict 70-80% of their degree of engagement in sport and exercise from their score on a physical self-perception profile. Clearly, more attention to this type of measurement is needed in order for us to help all kids.
A shared vision to Fill the Talent Pool
This is an excellent opportunity to have multiple stakeholders in the positive development of our youth collaborate on filling the talent pool. A continuum of progress needs to be implemented in sports and fitness programs before, during, and after school. Each stakeholder is responsible to work collaboratively with other stakeholders to ensure that all kids get the opportunities to be physically active, get the quality instruction they need to be physically competent, and become physically literate so that their self-perception continues to intrinsically motivate them to be physically active for a lifetime. One excellent example of this community engagement is for all sport and fitness programs to meet and agree on clearly defined seasons which will limit over-scheduling and conflicts that sometimes arise limiting the ability to participate in a wide variety of sports and physical activities. Another suggestion is to have a progress measurement tool that follows the kids from sport to sport and year to year to guide teachers, coaches and parents in providing instruction and choices that will lead to mastery, as Margaret Whitehead says, “as appropriate to each individual’s endowment.”