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PE & Sport: The Next ‘New Normal’

Lewis Keens
May 3 · 14 min read

How post-quarantine PE and Extra-Curricular Sport might look, and why it’s not as bad as you think.

As we consider The Future of PE after Covid-19 and delve deeper into the crisis, we know PE will not return to ‘normal’ for some time, and distance learning or physical distancing (or both) may be in operation when we return to school.

Physical Education New Zealand has already issued guidelines in preparation for returning to school. Denmark and China are back at school. What can we learn from their experiences?

In a piece in the TES, Dan Worth uses the US Navy Seal phrase ‘Adapt and Overcome’ and this could well be a motto for Physical Education across the world as we plan for a return either before or after the summer break.

Back to school in Denmark —

What Will Physical Education Lessons Look Like?

Think about the scenario above and relate this to PE: No sharing of equipment (physical touching with hands/head/bare feet) and 2m physical distancing between students.

What part of your current curriculum currently fits those parameters? Probably very little. PE, as we know, it is about to undergo a considerable shift.

New Opportunities

Much of our distance learning has been physical activity-based, with the view that we will return to ‘normal’ reasonably soon. With the ‘new normal’ looking more likely to continue, we must learn quickly. ‘“Go for the gap”’ to drive change is a phrase from Legacy by James Kerr. Now is the time to practice what we preach, to show the character and growth mindset that we expect from our students to provide a long term plan for meaningful physical education lessons.

What if physical distancing is still in place for most of the calendar year?

This BBC article, amongst others, seems to point us in that direction. We have a real opportunity for PE to ‘rebrand’ and focus on the health and well-being of our communities. PE is more than just ‘Games’. It is a chance to go back to basics and focus on helping our students to improve their movement vocabulary. The realities of physical distancing and not being able to share equipment means we are more inclined to move towards individualised learning activities in safe spaces.

Fundamental Movement Skills Are Essential.

In ‘Making it Stick’, by McDaniel & Brown is the phrase “you only know what you know”. Knowledge in a PE context is often practical based in the form of fundamental movement skills. If a child does not know how to skip, hop, jump, they don’t have the fundamentals needed to be physically literate. They, therefore, won’t develop the confidence, competence and motivation to participate in physical activity in the future. These are often the adults we see that have had a negative PE experience and are hostile towards physical activity for life.

The terms Physical Education and Physical Literacy are often misused, interchanged and misunderstood. The Association for Physical Education in the UK defines PE as:

the planned, progressive learning that takes place in school curriculum timetabled time and which is delivered to all pupils. This involves both ‘learning to move’ (i.e. becoming more physically competent) and ‘moving to learn’ (e.g. learning through movement, a range of skills and understandings beyond physical activity, such as cooperating with others). The context for the learning is physical activity, with children experiencing a broad range of activities, including sport and dance”.

Physical Literacy as defined by the International Physical Literacy Association:

“Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge, and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life.”

We have tried to use lego as an analogy to identify the different definitions and better understand the concepts.

To become a ‘master builder,’ you need to have practised and attempted a range of building skills to be competent, confident and have the knowledge to build creatively without instructions:

Physical Literacy: Lego Duplo may be a starting point. First, Learn the basics; collect and sort the blocks. Then try to create combinations, and Link together blocks with what you have before trying to Transfer those combinations into a final creation — all the while building confidence and competence, motivating movement onto smaller lego pieces.

Physical Activity: Having enough confidence with a set that suits your ability: Whether Duplo, City, Technic, to Learn and Link combinations allowing independent building or collaboration with others in a non-competitive environment

Physical Education: This is more about how you build, where you build and values of engagement such as creativity, resilience and thinking skills. It also develops the knowledge of how to create effectively in different contexts.

Sport: The Transfer and application of what you have learnt. This could be in a competition like Lego Masters with the possibility of being judged on your outcomes. It may include more specialist diversification, e.g. Lego themes like Architecture, Mindstorms, Creator, each having specific instructions with some opportunity for creativity.

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Physical Literacy Through Lego — By Lewis Keens and Alan Dunstan

The current crisis presents us with a unique opportunity for physical educators across the world to introduce a child-centred approach. Physical Literacy levels are a crucial indicator of participation in physical activity in later life and benefit the health and well being of our future generations.

With this in mind: How many of your students in your school can do the following fundamental movement skills?

  • Run with good technique
  • Run, stop and turn quickly
  • Run, jump and land on 2 feet
  • Perform locomotor skills like crossovers. skipping, hopping and galloping effectively and with quality
  • Throw a ball overarm against a wall and see it rebound over their head
  • Strike a ball with a stick/bat off a tee
  • Perform a one-handed catch
  • Dribble a basketball and football under control
  • Kick a ball over distance
  • Balance along a line in both directions under control
  • Drop to the ground safely and get back up quickly

Skills adapted from PLAYfun (CS4L)

Even if all your students can perform these skills, revisiting them enhances performance and retrieval, thus making their connections between the brain and muscles more robust and autonomous (McDaniel & Brown).

Asking students to be creative by combining skills to make them harder, e.g. skipping while catching a ball combines locomotor skills and coordination. This Learn-Link-Transfer process can incorporate skills such as applying, analysing, evaluating and creating, helping students to access further up the taxonomy of skills created by Benjamin Bloom.

What Will Physical Distancing Look Like in Your PE space?

Your space will likely need sectioning into areas which would allow your class to develop their fundamental skills without the possibility of infringing into another student’s ‘bubble’. This may involve:

  • Coned boxes
  • Straight lines
  • Stations
  • Track
  • Lane in swimming pool (if swimming is allowed) — dry side and pool activities at the same time
  • Very small-sided/adapted games
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Individual Practice —

Some of the evidence from countries that are going back to school show that classes may need reducing in size, and staff timetables made a little more flexible to cover split groups and a rota system of PE/classroom activities.

Where a Primary and Senior school share resources and staffing, it may take some creative timetabling to solve usage of facilities. Where temperature/weather doesn’t permit outside activities, alternative indoor spaces should be utilised. Classrooms may need to be adapted, corridors and open areas used. No shared equipment means that students may need to have a PE ‘kit bag’ with a suggested list of the following items that are individually named and washed/disinfected every day:

  • Yoga mat
  • Tennis balls x 3
  • Beanbags or rolled-up socks x 3
  • Marker cones or spots x 6
  • Football (age-appropriate size)
  • Basketball (age-appropriate size)
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Sanitizer
  • Face mask
  • Water bottle
  • Gloves

Planning for this with your department is going to be crucial. Making use of your school’s preferred planning tool, a fundamental movement skills unit may need to be designed from scratch. Having wholehearted ‘buy-in’ from all team members and a willingness to enter into this unknown will help too.

There are some excellent examples of programmes already in use that emphasise fundamental movement skills. These can adapt according to your school situation; Real PE from Create Development in the UK, PLAYfun in Canada and the work of Dominique Chiquet: Motor skill learning academy, in Switzerland.

As we have seen in recent weeks, resources for individual lessons and activities will start to be developed and shared online. The worldwide PE Learning Communities will go into overdrive, and you mustn’t become lost in cyberspace. ‘Start With Why’, a great book by Simon Sinek, explains it is vital to create a stepped approach. Start with ‘Why’ before moving to ‘What’ and ‘How’.

Apply this to filter the vast amount of resources online into what you need to help keep focus. Here is an example, using the ‘Why, What and How’ model of a possible action plan:

  • Why?

Your purpose: What is your cause? What do you believe?

  • To plan and initiate an inclusive, student-centred, fundamental skills-based curriculum under the guidelines set by the school/country in the aftermath of Covid-19.
  • What?

Your process: Specific actions taken to realise your why:

  • To research fundamental movement skills programmes across the world and find appropriate activities that support the development of physical literacy.
  • To collaborate with your PE department to decide how to deliver this programme to students best.
  • To collaborate and plan fundamental movement skills-based units.
  • How?

What do you do? The result of why. The Proof

  • Fundamental movement skills units in place promoting Physical Literacy (Learn — Link — Transfer Model).
  • All staff teaching in safe spaces and implementing the guidelines.
  • Students are accessing PE lessons and enjoying learning movement skills.

In The Infinite Game, Sinek suggests in times of crisis;

“Instead of looking for ways to react to what has already happened, they (leaders) look for ways to do something new”.

Physical activity is not enough; let’s make sure we are creative and hitting the ‘E’ in PE.

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Space To Grow —

What about Sport?

The top football league in France, Ligue 1 recently became the latest, high profile league in world sport to call a halt to its season. Despite ten games remaining, PSG were, this week, crowned as ‘Champions’. The Olympic Games has been cancelled (or at least postponed) for the first time in 80 years. The last cancellation was back in 1940 with coincidentally, Japan being the intended hosts on that occasion too. The whistle has also blown on Euro 2020. Wimbledon is out, the Marathon circuit has hit the wall, and even F1 has had the brakes put on.

Where sport is still going ahead, athletes are anxious. In Brazil, protests are becoming more common as teams play despite significant health risks. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, recently referred to the outbreak as ‘a little flu’.

(Almost) wherever you look, difficult but sensible decisions safeguard athletes and supporters and ensure an individual’s health is the priority.

Are We Ready Yet?

Within the worldwide PE community, we have seen some outstanding examples of creativity shared through organisations and websites such as FOBISIA, PADSIS and PEASY, amongst others. As mentioned previously, on social media platforms teachers have made extraordinary efforts to develop strong education-based communities, with colleagues around the world taking the time to learn together, supporting and developing ideas from one another.

This newly acquired remote learning toolkit may need to transfer to Extra-Curricular (EC) Sport programmes.

Depending on local government guidelines, physical distancing rules and the length of time children are allowed in school each day our regular programmes may look very different.

Physical Education New Zealand’s current guidelines suggest we should prepare for a period without school sport:

“There is to be no organised contact or non-contact sport (including team practices or trainings)”

Despite having no fixtures or competitions, is your school committed to delivering high-quality EC Sport with individualised content both in real-life and possibly online too?

Look For Opportunities, Not Problems

In this fantastic Ted Talk Kelly McGonigal introduces the idea of ‘making stress your friend’ as a way of improving our ability to respond to stress and use it as an opportunity for growth.

Whatever the situation may be at the start of the new academic year, an absence of school sport gives us an extraordinary chance to get creative and make positive changes to our EC Sport programmes.

We have known for years, as highlighted in books such as Changing The Game by John O’Sullivan, that children want to be able to play without the pressures of results. We know the positive effect a multi-sports approach can have on a child’s development with the transferring of skills being the catalyst to swift improvement and increased self-efficacy.

In every school, some children excel and thrive in a competitive environment, but many EC Sport programmes rarely focus on developing lower ability children. Many lower ability kids attack every PE lesson with gusto and enthusiasm, their effort level high and often progress is good. Many of those same children don’t attend EC Sport programmes, especially those in senior school between the ages of 11–18.

This paper from the Australian Sports Commission explores why this is the case and how schools can increase participation in senior school.

Despite the fact there may be an inclusive approach to EC Sport in your school — and if there isn’t, make the change now — many lower ability children lack self-confidence in sport due to their perceived ability in comparison with peers. Although these students enjoy being active and learning too, joining a competitive sport programme is a step too far for them. Small-sided games make them feel intimidated, and even the word ‘competition’ makes them freeze in terror.

Now consider EC Sports programmes are both open and appropriately pitched for all abilities. As there is no selection-based competition on the horizon, sessions can focus on improving an individual’s sport-specific technique, knowledge and fitness.

Now this group of children might respond quite differently.

We have the chance to address psychological and sociological issues children have around sport and potentially remove underlying barriers to improve access, placing the child right at the heart of what we do and why we do it.

PE and Sport Working Together

Improving scores and results in school sport needn’t be the sole focus on an effective EC Sport programme. With consideration and collaboration, physical literacy can and should be woven throughout both curriculum lessons and EC Sport programmes. Referring back to physical literacy approaches such as PLAYfun; with some time and diligence, all sports can be adapted to help Learn, Link and Transfer fundamentals skills into context.

How many of these are a fundamental part of the competitive sports delivered at your school?

  • Running
  • Locomotor/ Movement Skills
  • Object Control — Upper and Lower Body
  • Balance, Stability and Body Control

Are students given a chance to develop these in EC Sport programmes?

Allowing children the chance to interleave and transfer concepts from PE to Sport in this manner will not only improve cognitive development, but it will also enable them to appreciate how PE and Sport complement one another in a broader context.

Creative Coaching

‘Companies do their most impactful and creative work in a crisis because the disciplinary boundaries fly out of the window.’

An observation by Bill Gore in Range, by David Epstein.

We have all seen enthusiastic coaches on the sidelines, some channel enthusiasm in the right way, others, unfortunately, don’t. Coaches often feel pressure to get results, and this undoubtedly will come across in the way they interact with children and other coaches too.

Like teachers and students, many coaches rely on structure; they often shape their practice and methods by coaching towards an outcome or result. Whether that be an international tournament eight weeks away or weekly, readying teams for local fixtures, a safe ‘default mode’ is often the popular choice to ensure preparation is the focus and a performance winds up being there or thereabouts.

Competitive sport is likely to be limited due to travel restrictions and physical distancing guidelines. Term one is, therefore, a unique period for many schools, an ‘off-season’ of sorts and an opportunity to turn the focus away from competition, thus removing the structure coaches are used to and potentially making them feel very vulnerable.

In this powerful Ted Talk, Brené Brown reminds us:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”

Embracing and addressing this vulnerability will be an essential step in giving coaches the confidence to develop and try new things. Some may question their purpose without games and competition. Many coaches will be fearful of what the future brings, and almost all will be learning and testing ways to engage students session by session.

With time to reflect and share, there will be some fantastic ideas in teams and professional learning communities across the world. Having weeks of remote learning behind us, we are more aware than ever of the time, effort and creativity that goes into high-quality teaching and learning, and how important it is to stick together and support colleagues.

Schools traditionally hold induction periods for coaches and coaching teams before the start of each academic year. Why not make use of this time and share the excellent practice and lessons learned so far? This will help develop coaches and staff in preparation for delivering skill, knowledge, and fitness-based EC Sport sessions, both on-site and remotely.

Coaches approaching the start of the new year with quality direction, opportunities to collaborate and the chance for professional development will feel supported and more confident in their approach to a new routine. This confidence will help them be creative in whatever context ends up being the next new normal, individualised real-life sessions or via online video platforms

A focus on learning, linking and transferring skills is a chance for a coach to develop rather than panic.

Who knows, it might even open a coach’s eyes to the importance of developing lower ability students new to the sport and could go a long way to providing a calm, child-centred focus, away from the bright lights and pressure of competition.

Will This Change School Sport Forever?

By improving transfer links between PE and EC Sport, developing and supporting staff and coaches, improving inclusive provision, sharing good practice and removing pressure from children and coaches, we can implement positive change and enhance EC Sport programmes.

Simon Sinek, in his book, The Infinite Game, reminds us all to be open-minded and take the opportunities we have to transform for the better.

“Finite minded players do not like surprises and fear any kind of disruption. Things they cannot predict or control could upset their plans. The infinite minded player, in contrast, expects surprises, even revels in them, and is prepared to be transformed by them”.

Arguably no other aspect of school life gives children more opportunities to learn about themselves and their capabilities than in competitive sport.

Competitive sport and the values it develops will always have a place in school. Times like this just allow reflection and opportunities for positive change, to make child-centred decisions to impact positively on the future. All of the adaptations suggested, and the many other ideas that come along the way will help to refocus EC Sport and reconsider what school programmes offer and why.

One thing that hasn’t changed is our responsibility as PE Teachers, sports coaches and leaders:

To be role models and demonstrate the values what we want to see from our students.

Those values still apply even if competitive school sport is paused.

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BSM Sport Values

In the words of Simon Sinek (again) from his book The Infinite Game:

“Resilient companies may come out the other end of upheaval entirely different than they were when they went in (and are grateful for the transformation)”

How could your team apply this to your set of circumstances?

Continue to share good practice, talk, engage and debate with fellow professionals. In the long term, we will all come out of this stronger and better equipped to help our students in an ever-changing world.

We can do it.

Good luck!

This article is a collaborative effort by Lewis Keens and Alan Dunstan.

Director of Sport and Activities Lewis Keens and Curriculum Leader Alan Dunstan have worked together for seven years at the British School Manila, the Philippines.

Visit for more. Listen. Learn. Share

Follow us on Twitter: Lewis Keens @lewisjkeens and Alan Dunstan @ARJDunstan

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