Is Moderate Competency Enough?

The purpose of this blog is to explore comments made by Scott Kretchmar around moderate competency within physical education (PE) and challenge the pursuit of excellence within a PE context.

The Comment

Whilst listening to an episode of the Physical Activity Researcher Podcast with Scott Kretchmar, a Sport Kinesiologist from America, I came across a term I had never heard someone from the World of physical education say before. In fact, never has a comment caused me to reflect so much. This one single statement stopped me in my tracks and caused me to question the purpose of PE, my own delivery and even my ambition within and for PE. I had to replay the comment a few times to ensure I understood it correctly, but I had. Here was a PE expert telling the world we should be aiming for ‘moderate competency’.

Ever since hearing the comment, I became an admirer of Scott Kretchmar and immediately sought out to find out more about his work. His long-term advocacy of meaningful PE resonated deeply with my own values and the calling for every child to find their own playground was simply brilliant. The PE that I had experienced in school, my own teacher training and years of PE teaching had all been to develop sport-specific skills that prepare students for the full context, adult version of a sport/activity. Or in short, to create mini athletes. I had been taught to strive for sporting excellence. But Kretchmar was actively arguing against this approach in PE.

Moderate Competency or Excellence?

This idea of moderate competency raised many questions, but one in particular repeated in my mind: Is aiming for moderate competency enough?

I was concerned that if teachers in my team were only aiming for moderate competency, it might lower standards and expectations when developing our young movers. With everything I had been taught and had experienced about PE, by aiming for moderate competency, we could be missing an opportunity to seek excellence. Once we get our students to a certain level of competence, our job was done and then we would stop trying to develop them further. My thinking was that this could lead to the most able students not being stretched or succeeding at a higher level.

Kretchmar raised his concerns about the concept of ‘excellence’ as he recalled how most academics in the PE world fail to define the term excellence in a sporting context and those that did linked it directly to the elite athletes. His protest against, in his words, the excellence movement was enlightening. I had been part of this movement without fully realising the impact it was having on my leadership or more worryingly, my students. I was aiming for excellence from an elite athlete standpoint. I was assessing against performance criteria only, delivering a performance obsessed curriculum, without stopping to consider the realistic expectations of what I, a PE teacher, can realistically achieve.

The current Key Stage 1 & 2 and 3 & 4 National Curriculum for PE in England identifies its first aim as: ‘develop competence to excel in a broad range of physical activities.’ The word that stands out in that sentence is to ‘excel’. What does that mean? For many, it has been interpreted to align with elite sport and a drive to create elite level athletes. A drive for perfection, aligning curriculum and delivery in a bid that some might excel. If we were to remove that word from the aim, might our focus in PE be more to inspire and unlock potential across a broad range of physical activities? Perhaps it might enable a more realistic and healthy focus for children to achieve their personal best, whatever that may look like for each individual.  

In truth, and what resonated with me most in this podcast was the remark that most of us will never achieve anything in sport. However, this was not to say that we couldn’t find meaning in our own involvement in sport, but our engagement is often unremarkable. My own sporting engagement had been just that, unremarkable. I had never even made the local newspaper. I played football until my late twenties and have been playing tennis for the last few years. I had never won a trophy or played to a particularly high standard. But I loved playing in these sports. I enjoyed the challenge, the comradery, the feeling of a positive contribution and opportunity to maintain fitness. Kretchmar reassuringly reminded me that ‘movement experiences can be meaningful, even if we stumble around a little bit and we don’t get everything right’.

Kretchmar’s comments prompted me to consider whether perhaps, through considering these sports as nothing more than a hobby and not striving for excellence, I had found meaning.

In his article ‘Sport as a (mere) hobby: in defense of ‘the gentle pursuit of modest competence’ (2019) Kretchmar was arguing that there is more to sport than just those at the elite level, there is a version that is ‘quiet, personal, local, and thus too, far less brassy and visible than its perfectionist counterpart. Its players set no records, receive no headlines, and rarely worry about winning any championships. They vary in age from youngsters still learning their game to senior citizens hoping to maintain their skills or slow their rate of decline. Yet, all of them have one thing in common . . .a hard-to-explain love affair with a game, a relationship that brightens their lives in measurable ways,’ (Kretchmar 2019, Page 368).

Kretchmar raised some incredibly powerful points. He challenged me to consider that sport was more than a pursuit for ‘excellence’ and that forcing all students to pursue this could be damaging. Perhaps PE, should care less about this vague term of excellence and more about finding a connection or even personal meaning?

What is our job?

A small number of students will go on to become elite sports people. However, we must consider that part we play in that students sporting success. To give an example, the morning after Emma Radacanu’s superb US Open championship win, a popular UK morning TV show interviewed her old PE teacher. The theme of the interview was to find out what type of student the young tennis star was and for the credit for her success to be passed on to the physical educator. Whilst this is a lovely thought, in truth, the PE teacher can take very little credit for the progress and outcomes of Radacanu. To become an elite athlete a young person would need to commit much of their life to the sport. Morning, afternoon and evening training, high level competition, diet and nutrition support, recovery assistance, etc. Far beyond what PE is able to achieve. A student that goes on to play at a high level has likely been playing and coached for some time before reaching secondary school. This is not to say that a PE teacher can’t play some part in this process, talent identification, etc. but it is fair to say we are unable to create elite athletes through the current PE provision. The best students in our PE classes are playing sport outside of school too.

With this in mind, I argue that aiming for at least moderate competency for all of our students is far more beneficial than aiming for one or two to go on to play at the highest level. I am reminded of the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. The theory stating that 80 percent of the output from a given situation is determined by 20 percent of the input. Essentially, 80% of our time and effort is being spent on only 20% of the children. Often those that need our time and effort the least. It could be argued that PE has been guilty of this for some time. We are fortunate, as other subjects could never get away with it. Imagine, Maths teachers aiming lessons solely to those students with a passion for equations or English departments only giving time to avid readers. They would be held to account and forced to change focus immediately.

I wish to make it clear at this point that our job as physical educators is still to stretch the most able and challenge those that can play or compete to a higher standard than others. Those that could play at a higher level still need us, and we are still an important cog in the machine, but we are one of many contributing factors. However, my point is that our focus on the most able should not come at the expense of those that will not go on and play at a higher level, as we may be the only contributing factor to their present and future engagement with sport and physical activity. Mikael Quennerstedt famously wrote that, the only real sustainable aim for physical education is more physical education,’ (2019). He challenges PE teachers to make constant judgements about the why(s), what(s) and how(s) of PE. We are part of a mass education system, not an elite education system. We are also not the final destination for our students, but instead a very important part of their movement journey.

Nurturing Physical Literacy

I am fortunate to work closely with Dr Liz Durden-Myers, one of the world leading experts in Physical Literacy. In one of our many conversations that started off discussing work related matters and would then digress to the inner workings of PE, she provided a beautiful analogy for physical literacy. She likened physical literacy to ‘a ball rolling over to you in the park, having the motivation to approach the ball, the confidence to attempt to pass it back and the competence to be able to do so. Or if a friend asked you for a game of badminton, being able to pick up a racket and have a go. Or when in a lockdown, having the knowledge and understanding of why getting out for a walk and a jog might be beneficial, having the motivation to get out and the confidence and competence to complete the desired activity. I didn’t realise it at the time, but Dr Durden-Myers was also explaining the idea of moderate competency.

This brings me back to the point that Kretchmar was making with his ‘moderate competency’ remark. If we are able to nurture physical literacy for every student so that they have the competence and confidence to engage in physical activity by whatever means they see fit, they too might find their own personal meaning, which in turn could lead to a physically active life.

Final Thoughts

Upon much reflection and further reading, I believe that my ingrained and stubborn thinking that PE should be pursuing excellence to the detriment of moderate competence for all was misguided and needed challenge. This idea was more resilient to change than I had anticipated, despite my vision for PE being more inclusive than elitist. Therefore, I confess I had misunderstood Kretchmar’s comments to mean that by aiming for moderate competency we would be lower expectations for the most able. When in fact, by aiming for moderate competency we are not lowering our expectations for the few but raising our expectations for the many.  Whilst some of our students might go on to sporting excellence, they will need far more support than we alone can provide. We must consider what we can realistically achieve as physical educators and what we are in the profession for. If we are aiming to create that elite athlete, possibly our services might be better served as one of the many brilliant coaches working with the high ability youth sport athletes. That is not to say that PE teachers shouldn’t challenge and develop our most able. However, what we as educators should be aiming towards is for every child to leave us with the tools and motivation to remain physically active. As my colleague Jon Campbell commented when reading the first draft of this blog, ‘it is the job of PE in a school system, to ensure students develop positive emotional connections to movement, and that it is these connections that affords them to increase physical competency over time though pursuits they deem meaningful’. Therefore, for the majority of our students, moderate competency is actually enough.


Quennerstedt, M. (2019) Physical education and the art of teaching: transformative learning and teaching in physical education and sports pedagogy, Sport, Education and Society, 24:6, 611623, DOI: 10.1080/13573322.2019.1574731

Kretchar. S. (2019) Sport as a (mere) hobby: in defense of ‘the gentle pursuit of a modest competence’. (2019). Routledge

The Physical Activity Researcher Podcast. Scott Kretchmar (Part 1). In Pursuit of Modest Competence (2022). Accessed Online []

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