Your Child and Physical Literacy

Promoting Literacy of the Mind and Body

Teenage athlete with different kinds of sports balls isolated on white background

We usually associate literacy with reading books.  But what happens when we include a definition of physical literacy to include the way the body and brain interpret and react to the world and people around us?

The idea that there is only one kind of intelligence has been challenged, I would argue successfully, by many researchers. I've read that there are 9 different intelligences, 8 different intelligences... Emotional intelligence, visual spatial, verbal-linguistic, interpersonal, intrapersonal... Howard E. Gardner, an American Psychologist at Harvard writes a lot about this in his many published papers on the subject. If you want to read more, check out the resources section below. 

As I read child development materials like the stuff Howard Gardner wrote, I realize that so many of these intelligences are likely to improve as a result of youth sports. Think about this: What would happen if we place kids who are in the rapid intelligence development age range - from 3 years old to 8 years old - in a safe, three dimensional physical environment, populated by other kids, structured so as to provide clear objectives, and stimulated by others trying to achieve the same objective. What if we ask kids to interact with a physical object and one another, control the object with their bodies, work together to solve puzzles and problems, and wrap the whole thing in fun? The result? Physical literacy. 

Sounds like the perfect training ground for kids. Read the list of 8 intelligences written about by Professor Gardner. 

  • Music-rythmic: does the game of soccer not require sensitivity to sounds and rythms? How about timing that run from the (sound of the) kick of a soccer ball such that your body breaks the offside plane after the kick, but just as the ball crosses into space in the opponent's territory?
  • Visual-spatial: what soccer player can perform well without spatial judgment and being able to visualize two or three plays ahead in the mind's eye? Soccer is a thinking person's game & very strategic. 
  • Logical-mathematical: What soccer player doesn't need to understand the underlying principles in a causal system? How can they play if they don't understand angles, what will happen if they fake left, pass right, and intercept the through ball? 
  • Bodily-kinesthetic: What soccer player doesn't need to learn how to control one's body motions and their capacity to handle objects like a soccer ball skillfully? How about having a sense of timing, a clear sense of the goal of a physical action, or the ability to train responses? 
  • Interpersonal: How can a team gel unless players get in tune with team mates moods, temperaments, motivations, and abilities to cooperate and work as a group? 
  • Intrapersonal: What soccer player doesn't spend time in self reflection and assessment? 
  • Naturalistic: How about playing in all kinds of weather? What soccer player doesn't need to understand the relationship between wind and movement, heat or cold and body performance, nutrition and hydration and energy? 

Granted, I skipped existential intelligence and verbal-linguistic intelligence, but the seven other intelligences above are clearly enhanced by playing the game. 

Expanding Physical Literacy

I know this is a program that focuses a lot on soccer, but soccer isn't the only sport out there that kids can enjoy. As a kid myself, I played little league baseball, wrestled, played lacrosse, soccer, hockey, ice skated, rode bikes, snow skied, ran track, did parallel bars on the gymnastics team, and throughout high school, swam on a swim team and even earned swimming scholarships to several colleges. Later in the Navy, I swam with SEAL Team #4. I was not a SEAL, but I was invited to swim with them from Vieques Island to Puerto Rico in 1997. I did martial arts and SCUBA dived in and after college, learned how to play a little guitar, and flew airplanes, and backpacked/hiked into adulthood. 

As a multi-sport kid, my physical literacy grew as I picked up different skills with each new sport. I learned how to manipulate my body and the world around me in various ways. I gained an understanding of my relationship to  water, to a baseball (I wasn't very good), a soccer ball, parallel bars, and a host of different sports teams, athletes, coaches, and cultures. 

When we talk  about physical literacy in the context of physical intelligence, I'm a big fan of using multiple sports as a tool to give kids an opportunity to form new neural pathways with each experience. 

Breaking Down and Rebuilding

I like to visualize complex ideas with simple imagery. I'm sure a neurologist out there will gladly point out that I oversimplify the process, but here is how I have come to understand the growth of skills and intelligence:

We put ourselves in situations and do things to ourselves that temporarily overload and break down circuits in our brains and muscles. When we work out with weights, we literally tear muscle fibers. Those fibers grow back stronger when we sleep and recover. The same is true for the brain. When we study or put ourselves under the stress of learning something new, we temporarily scramble the wiring in our brain. We sleep on it. Our brain repairs itself, and new pathways are formed - leading in most cases to muscle memory, new skills and an increase in physical literacy. 

For me, playing multiple sports wasn't limited to the benefits it gave my muscles, ligaments, and tendons. It's about the ability to think about problems using different structural frameworks, different rules, and different configurations - from solo swimming, to one-on-one wrestling and martial arts, to individual and group problem solving in soccer - each new sport complimented and added value to the others. 

It's Not all About Soccer

As a soccer coach, I firmly believe that the sport of soccer is one of the finest ways to add a wide range of physical literacy skills to any player's life. Manipulating a round object, strategizing, cooperating, thinking several steps ahead, anticipating the angles, working in groups to accomplish goals (literally)... all of these things make soccer awesome! 

However, it doesn't have to be a player's one and only passion. Maybe a kid likes swimming first and uses soccer to cross train group intelligence, foot eye coordination., balance on land, timing, and running. That's a great use of the sport!

Keeping kids interested in physical activity, preventing repetitive injuries, and giving kids the ability to come at problems from a variety of approaches are great reasons to do more than one sport. I've worked with a basketball coach to better understand how to succeed in the game of futsal. Kids with multi-sport backgrounds have triangles, diamonds, the concept of momentum, fake runs, breathing techniques, arm and leg coordination, and strong cores to draw from when solving problems. 

An Individual Decision to Pursue Physical Literacy

There are good arguments for and against multi-sport athletes. Those who like single sport specialization will argue that  single sport mastery is easier when specializing. It's easier to get to the "10,000 hour rule" that suggests that if we do anything for 10,000 hours, we will master it. They will also argue that athletes will achieve "age group success," meaning that specialization will help athletes stand out in a given age group in a given sport. 

Those who a prefer multi-sport approach argue that range and physical literacy is key. Young people burn out less frequently and carry love for sports well into adulthood when their range is improved. They are less prone to injury and end up coming into adulthood with a wider variety of tools in their tool box. 

However you fall on the subject, it's worth giving this some thought to physical literacy and perhaps doing some reading on your own. I've included a range of articles and papers on the subject below. Please feel welcome and encouraged to read up on this and share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments below. 


  • Konnikova, Maria. “How Children Learn To Read.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,
  • Kelly, Melissa. “Spatial Intelligence and Its Importance in Education.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo,
  • Lichtenstein, Amanda Leigh. “Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligence.” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo,
  • “Why Playing Multiple Sports-Not Just One-Is Best for Kids.” Parenting, 14 Mar. 2016,—not-just-one—-best-kids.
  • Duffek, Jaimie. “Specialization or Multisport Participation? Here's What the Data Says.” USA TODAY High School Sports, USA TODAY High School Sports, 8 Feb. 2018,
  • “Why Christian McCaffrey Is a Big Believer in Multi-Sport Athletes.” STACK, STACK, 11 Sept. 2017,
  • “Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Sept. 2018,
  • Johnson, Tyler. “5 Reasons College Coaches Love to Recruit Multi-Sport Athletes.” STACK, STACK, 9 July 2018,
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The Soccer Sidelines

Soccer Dad, Coach, and Club President who is devoted to developing kids and their families. With a diverse background in leadership in other settings, David is focused on empowering parents, players, and coaches to focus on the stuff that really matters in youth sports.