Physical Literacy, Phenomenology and Empathy

Physical literacy puts the individual at the heart of the enterprise. This blog will look at the roots of this commitment and the implications of a person-centred relationship with an individual. Particular reference will be made to the importance of empathy.

Physical Literacy

The definition of physical literacy describes this human capability as a disposition whereby ‘the individual has the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engaging in physical activities for life’. Within this definition there is a clear focus on the individual.

In presenting and discussing physical literacy the following features are highlighted

  • physical literacy is not a predefined end state common to all, rather it is an aspiration that respects that each person is characterised by unique personal endowments
  • the definition is often prefaced with … ‘as appropriate to each individual’
  • the realisation of physical literacy throughout life is described as a personal journey
  • any judgement of progress or of the charting of a journey should be relevant only to the individual. Judgements are criterion referenced and record personal developments/changes with reference to previous records

Throughout the discussions of physical literacy it is the individual who is foremost in the debate.


The roots of this commitment to the individual as unique go back to phenomenology. This philosophical position builds from the view expressed by many existentialists who describe the way that each individual accrues characteristics that are the result of instances of interaction with the world. On account of the fact that individuals will each experience a unique range of situations it follows that no individual will be identical with another. Phenomenologists develop this notion by proposing that previous experiences not only result in founding particular aptitudes but also colour how we see/interpret/understand the world. In other words human perception is peculiar to the individual. Each person ‘reads’ the situation from the framework of earlier experiences. In the context of monism this perception is not just of the apparent ‘hard facts’ of how the world is – such as that tables have legs – but embraces feelings about the world – such as fear, suspicion, excitement and caution.

There is a clear message here for practitioners in that each individual will approach a session with a particular expectation and attitude. Some of these will be the result of previous experiences in physical activity settings while others will be the outcome of a wide range of lived experiences beyond physical activity.

Empathy as key to developing a relationship with an individual.

The focus on the individual is a central determinant in recommending how physical activity sessions can be planned and enacted to foster physical literacy. Practitioners could well reflect as they plan that they are promoting individual learning, not teaching a pre-planned session or an activity, such as swimming.

One mode of working, one set of tasks, one way of grouping participants or one mode of feedback may well not reach many of the participants. The outcome is that many will not learn. Many will not develop motivation and confidence and many will not develop a positive attitude to lifelong physical activity.

Working to foster physical literacy in all, will need a real knowledge and understanding of each participant. Practitioners will need to try to ‘see the world’ from the view of the participant, to walk in their shoes. This process of sensitive interaction is often referred to as empathy or caring (Dohsten). Petty (2014) refers to empathy as involving taking time, listening, appreciating and accepting.  This process needs to be followed up by reflection, on the part of the practitioner, who needs to respond appropriately regarding tasks, feedback and recognition of progress in subsequent encounters /sessions. In many cases this will involve employing modes of differentiation (see Getty 2014). Differentiation may include not only modifying gaols and tasks but also use of appropriately tailored feedback and record keeping, as well as taking opportunities to engage with the participant in non-threatening situations to build up a fuller picture of hopes and fears.

Empathy comprised of individual consideration, insightful awareness, respectful and caring dialogue and well planned responses, are at the core of fostering physical literacy.

Take home message ‘The individual is at the heart of promoting physical literacy. Empathy is an essential element in effecting this focus’.

The extent of this challenge for the practitioner is not to be underestimated, likewise the value of promoting a positive attitude towards physical activity/physical literacy in participants is of considerable significance.


Almond, L. with Whitehead, M.E. (2012) Translating Physical Literacy into Practice for all teachers. Physical Education Matters Autumn 2012

Capel, S. and Whitehead, M.E. (Ed) (2013) Debates in Physical Education. London Routledge. Chapters 1,2,3,4.

Capel, S. and Whitehead, M. (Ed) (2015 fourth edition) Learning to Teach Physical Education in the Secondary School: A Companion for the Student Physical Education Teacher. London.  Routledge. Chapters 2, 8 and 11 (Under sensitivity pp 74,135,147,165)

Dohsten, J., Barker-Richti, N.  Lingren, E. (2018) Caring as sustainable coaching in elite athletes:- benefits and challenges. Sports Coaching Review 2018 published on line. Accessed 10:08:2019

Petty, G. (2014) Teaching Today: A Practical Guide, 5th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press Chapter 48

Whitehead, M. E. (Ed)  (2010) Physical Literacy throughout the Lifecourse. London Routledge

Whitehead, M.E. with Almond, L. (2013) Creating Learning Experiences to foster Physical Literacy. Physical Education Matters Spring 2013

Whitehead, M. E. (Ed)  (2019) Physical Literacy across the World. London Routledge