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St Helen and St Katharine, Faringdon Road, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, OX14 1BE

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Athletic Development Insight

Head of Athletic Development & Health, Mr Wall, reflects on why girls' schools need to focus on physical competence early to instill lifelong positive attitudes to physical activity.


Why is there an athletic development and health focus at St Helen and St Katharine?

From a large focus to small, from supporting the needs of the human beings with physical activity, sleep, nutrition, lifestyle, to individuals with their personal aims in sport performance or general health, athletic development encompasses multiple aspects which are intricately interlinked to support each individual’s development. This first blog will focus on the needs of a school environment and specifically the growth and maturation of the teenage students within it.

What are the needs of the school?

At St Helen and St Katharine we have over 700 students from Year 5 to Upper Sixth (9–18 years old) all on their own developmental journey physically, mentally and socially. Young girls have their own specific considerations at various timepoints within their growth and maturation. Generally, the onset of puberty is between the ages of 10 and 14, with peak growth rates at around 12 years old, however the timing and amplitude of growth is a highly individualised. Puberty can be a challenging time for teenagers, marked by the prominent physical changes which in turn influence girls’ self-perceptions. It is the changes in self-perceptions, for example perceptions of competence in sports or physical activity that are associated with the distinct decrease in physical activity around the time of puberty for girls.

Therefore, the role of athletic development in our school setting is to provide students with the opportunity to develop their skills and nurture their actual physical competence during these challenging times. Athletic development can be an alternate avenue for girls to continue to progress and build confidence while experiencing the developmental changes of maturation. The research is indicative of such an ethos – young people who maintained participation in athletic activities showed more indicators of positive development into young adulthood (eg continued physical activity, better general health and fewer depressive symptoms). The importance of understanding, supporting and encouraging positive attitudes to the topics of health and wellbeing, physical activity, PE and sport through these time periods is critical.

Injury risk is another consequence of the developmental changes that are experienced during puberty that requires careful consideration. Longer limbs and increasing body mass as a result of growth make it harder for teenage girls to navigate their ever-changing environments. Rapid growth rates make it much harder to coordinate heavier and longer limbs either in their everyday environment or in a high skill environment such as sport. This period of time, generally referred to as ‘adolescent awkwardness’, is highly challenging and unsurprisingly injury risk spikes dramatically around this time. An injury at this sensitive time could be damming for continued participation in physical activity. Research has shown that in change of direction and landing movements that are very typical in sports such as netball and football, women are 4–6 times more likely to suffer from an ACL injury than males. The reasons are multifactorial around differences in physiology and anthropometrics but when adding adolescent awkwardness into the mix, special attention needs to be paid to these time periods of growth and maturation.

Taking a holistic approach to the development of young people is where athletic development and health comes into the school environment: acting as a facilitator to create frameworks for progression in developing physical competence and engagement for all students at various stages of their lives. The primary aim is understanding their development and supporting them through school to cultivate lifelong positive attitudes to health, wellbeing and physical activity.

In Part 2 of Athletic Development Insight we will look at how we are developing things at St Helen and St Katharine.


In the first Athletic Development blog we looked at the why behind what we do here at St Helen and St Katharine. The needs, the challenges, and the importance of developing physical competence early to instill lifelong positive attitudes to physical activity. This blog will look at how we are implementing strategies to achieve this and potential future directions.

Physical literacy

Although the term literacy simply refers to the ability to read and write, an expanded view of this term includes components of knowledge, understanding, and thinking. The same goes for physical literacy, it is about moving proficiently in a variety of physical activities with confidence, competence and enthusiasm. This requires knowledge, understanding and thinking, not just the act of doing. Therefore developing physical literacy or competence is at the core of everything we do at St Helen's. This is mainly based around our Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) which we will come onto later in the blog.


Having students from age 9–18 means that we have to be aware of the impacts of puberty and maturation as discussed in the previous blog. Another consideration of this period of time is neuroplasticity and its potential impact on motor skill development. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's capacity to adapt and reorganise as we experience and learn different tasks. Every time a skill is performed our brain refines and reinforces that motor pathway, regardless of whether it was performed correctly or incorrectly. Our brain and spinal cord contain grey matter (GM) which is responsible for the motor control and sensory perception in our body. Studies indicate that there is an increase GM density during childhood, followed by a loss of GM density after puberty. Essentially this means that the more and better-quality movement (physical literacy development) achieved before puberty the higher the enhanced potential.

Fundamental Movement Skills

As such, rather than have one separate 'class' of athletic development, developing physical literacy is a core principle throughout. By developing athletic development themes throughout our curricular and sporting programme, it reinforces the importance of developing the underpinning skills to compliment sporting skills. As an example, the warm-up is a fantastic opportunity to develop physical skills before the main activity, much like a musician would warm-up with some scales or chords; reinforcing and developing some underpinning movements to the main sport is key. For example, in netball there is a huge emphasis on single-leg strength and stability, acceleration and deceleration, and landing skills to perform well in the sport. The warm-up should focus on developing the movement skills and physical qualities that underpin these aspects at the appropriate level for the group.

The main component of our physical literacy development is our Fundamental Movement Skills. These are the global movements and locomotion skills of: Squat – Hinge – Lunge – Push – Pull – Brace – Rotate – Jump – Land – Rebound – Accelerate – Decelerate – Change of Direction. More locomotive and manipulative skills like rolling, crawling, throwing and catching could be included too but this is the simplified version.

These FMS are in all our PE lessons at all age groups as either a core focus or in the physical underpinning section. Our Year 7, 8 and 9 FMS units of work have replaced the HRE (Health Related Education) modules to instill the development of physical literacy as early as possible and continue through the main stages of puberty.