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Physical activity, perceived competence and enjoyment during secondary school physical education

Stuart Fairclough 1
School of Physical Education, Liverpool John Moores University, e-mail:

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 
11-13 September 2003

This paper was published in The European Journal of Physical Education, Volume 8, Edition 1, pp.5-18, 2003


This study aimed to assess the levels of physical activity, perceived competence and enjoyment of English secondary school children. Seventy three students (mean age 13.1 years) from 5 schools took part. Physical activity was assessed during Physical Education (PE) lessons using heart rate telemetry. Perceived competence and enjoyment were measured by a post lesson questionnaire. Perceived competence and enjoyment were moderately correlated among boys (p < 0.001) and girls (p < 0.05). Girls' PE enjoyment was negatively associated with levels of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA, p < 0.05). Team games engaged students in most MVPA (p < 0.0001). Boys enjoyed team games more than girls, who in turn most enjoyed individual activities (p < 0.0001). Students classified in the low MVPA group reported higher levels of enjoyment than their high MVPA peers (p < 0.05). Continued research into the relationship between psychological outcomes and physical activity within PE is necessary to determine teaching approaches that most effectively promote physical activity participation.


Physical education (PE) is a vital arena for promoting children's physical activity participation. It has potential to encourage health benefits in children by helping them meet current physical activity recommendations . Moreover, positive PE experiences may be important in encouraging lifelong physical activity habits, which can impact on future public health . However, in order to positively influence physical activity behaviours in PE it is important to address what motivates children and adolescents to continue and sustain their levels of activity .

Children's perceptions of their competence and enjoyment in PE are linked strongly with their attitudes towards the subject . Moreover, perceived competence and enjoyment in habitual activities are cited as being essential influences on young people's physical activity participation . Perceived competence refers to one's beliefs about his or her ability in an achievement domain. These beliefs are formed by information gathered from the environment and significant others. Such information could take the form of peer comparisons or teacher feedback. According to cognitive evaluation theory , events that satisfy a person's need to feel competent enhance their intrinsic motivation within the activity in question, if achieved with some self-determined choice . Competence motivation and achievement motivation theories have also conceptualised perceived competence to mediate intrinsic motivation . Harter's (1981) theory of competence motivation proposes that the quality of an experience is the critical determinant for the development of perceived competence. Furthermore, the significance of perceptions of competence are dependent on the importance attached to particular achievement domains (i.e., athletic, scholastic, physical appearance, social acceptance, behavioural conduct) (Harter, 1985).

In sport and physical activity contexts, gender differences in perceived competence have been observed consistently, with boys possessing more positive perceptions of their physical competence than girls . However, among physically active girls and boys differences in perceived competence are negligible (Lintunen, 1999). Thus, it is possible that the frequency or volume of participation in physical activity may be an important determinant of young people's perceived physical competence. Furthermore, physically active children typically demonstrate more favourable perceptions of competence than their sedentary counterparts (Biddle and Armstrong, 1992). As girls tend to be less physically active than boys, this may reflect their lower perceived physical competence. In the PE setting girls' perceived competence has been observed to decline with age, while for boys it remained stable (van Wersch, Trew and Turner, 1990). Boys' criteria for judging physical competence revolve around competitive outcomes and ease of learning new skills, while girls assess their competence via internal and social sources . Thus, it is likely that the content, group dynamics and delivery of PE lessons combine to influence girls' and boys' self-perceptions of physical competence. Perceived competence in PE has correlated with quantity and intensity of physical activity participation outside of school . Moreover, structured or intensive physical activity has been more strongly associated with competence levels than unorganised or recreational activity . Young people who have strong feelings of competence are most likely to enjoy, and sustain interest in continuing their involvement in physical activity .

Enjoyable PE experiences are believed to be essential for children and adolescents' current and future participation in physical activity . Enjoyment of physical activity has sometimes been treated synonymously with intrinsic motivation, when in fact it is a broader concept with multiple determinants . Specifically, enjoyment and interest in an activity are consequences of intrinsic motivation, which may increase or sustain future participation . proposed that people experience motivation (and enjoyment) when the challenge of the task they are involved in is comparable to their perceived ability level. If a task is too easy people become bored, and they may drop out if it is too difficult, because their levels of motivation and enjoyment will be less than optimal. Furthermore, enhanced motivation is more likely during self-directed tasks . This parallels with cognitive evaluation theory, in that intrinsic motivation is dependent on self-determined behaviour .

reported that children's enjoyment in PE was primarily influenced by curriculum content, with boys' and girls' enjoyment best heightened by team games and individual activities, respectively. They also noted that children did not enjoy 'being pushed hard' by teachers, although no indication of the intensity of exertion was given to qualify this . reported that boys enjoyed PE more than girls. They also observed greater levels of habitual physical activity among students who most enjoyed PE. In addition, the significant correlation observed between enjoyment in PE and perceived competence supports the premise that when perceived competence is experienced in the context of self-determination, it predicts intrinsic motivation, which in turn can mediate feelings of enjoyment . Because these positive feelings derived from PE are likely to be the best determinant of intention to be physically active , physical educators should provide enjoyable PE experiences that are underpinned by tasks and activities that challenge students at the appropriate level. However, little is known about the relationship between perceived competence, enjoyment and physical activity within PE lessons, as they have seldom been investigated together.

Therefore, the purpose of this study was to assess the association between high school students' levels of perceived competence, enjoyment and health-enhancing physical activity within PE lessons. A secondary aim was to compare these variables between boys and girls who were involved in team games and individual activities. On the basis of previous research conducted into this area, it was hypothesised that, (a) perceived competence and enjoyment would be significantly related, (b) children who enjoy PE would be more likely to engage in higher levels of physical activity during lessons, (c) girls would enjoy individual activities more than team games, and vice-versa for boys, and (d) levels of physical activity would be greater during team games lessons.


Subjects and settings

Ninety students (45 boys, 45 girls) from five state high schools in the Merseyside region of England volunteered to participate in this study. Stage sampling was used in each school to randomly select one boys' and one girls' PE class, in each of year groups 7 (11-12 yr), 8 (12-13 yr) and 9 (13-14 yr). PE teachers informed students within these classes about the study, and six boys and six girls were chosen by selecting every third name on the class register. Three of the six students were chosen as 'reserves' to replace those who may not have wished to take part, or who were refused parental permission to do so. Students who expressed a desire to participate received written informed consent, which was to be completed by themselves and their parents or guardians and returned to schools prior to the study commencing. At the end of the data collection period complete data sets were available from 73 students. The 21% attrition rate occurred because of consistent student absence and telemeter malfunction during collection of physical activity data. Thirty five students took part in individual activities during PE lessons (15 boys, 20 girls), and 38 participated in team games (25 boys, 13 girls). The schools taught the statutory programmes of study detailed in the English National Curriculum for PE [NCPE] . The students attended PE classes in mixed ability, single sex groups and were taught by specialist physical educators of the same sex as themselves.

Instruments and procedures

The investigation received ethics committee approval from the Liverpool John Moores Research Degrees Ethics Committee. It formed part of an on-going project evaluating children's physical activity in PE in relation to fitness parameters. The study involved the monitoring of physical activity during PE using heart rate telemetry (Vantage XL; Polar Electro Oy, Kempele, Finland). Post-lesson psychological questionnaires were completed to assess students' enjoyment and perceived competence related to the particular lesson they had just participated in. Eighty two lessons were monitored covering a variety of team and individual games and movement activities (i.e., gymnastic activities, dance). In order to allow statistically meaningful comparisons between different types of activities, students were classified as participants in either team games (e.g., football, netball, volleyball, etc.) or individual activities (e.g., badminton, gymnastics, dance, etc.). Because data were collected during the autumn and winter terms, no traditional 'summer' activities (e.g., cricket, rounders, athletics) were included in the data collection. The researchers were present during the monitored lessons to ensure that no difficulties arose with regard to the fitting of the telemeters. During this time some informal observations of the lessons took place. These revealed that most teachers employed teacher-centred styles of delivery, rather than pupil-centred approaches.

Assessment of physical activity

Subjects were fitted with the telemeters while changing into their PE uniforms. Heart rate was recorded once every five seconds for the duration of the lessons. Telemeters were set to record when the teachers officially began the lessons, and stopped at the end of lessons. Total lesson 'activity' time was the equivalent of the total recorded time on the receiver. The telemeters were removed from each child and returned to the laboratory, where they were interfaced with a PC and data were downloaded for analyses (Polar Precision Performance 2.0; Polar Electro Oy, Kempele, Finland).

Resting and maximum heart rate values were attained during the course of the data collection period. Although resting heart rates tend to exceed basal values recorded during sleep , the logistical difficulties of obtaining sleeping heart rates were such that an alternative best-fit method was devised. Resting heart rates were obtained from the students on non-PE days while they remained in a supine position for a period of 10 minutes. The lowest mean value obtained over one minute represented resting heart rate. It is acknowledged that these resting values may have been elevated above basal heart rates. Students achieved maximum heart rates following completion of the Balke treadmill test to assess cardiorespiratory fitness . Students ran on the treadmill until fatigue caused them to terminate the test of their own volition. The highest heart rate attained during the test was recorded as maximum heart rate. Using the resting and maximum heart rate values, heart rate reserve (HRR) at the 50% threshold was calculated for each student . This threshold represents moderate physical activity . Percentage of lesson time spent in health enhancing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) was calculated for each student by summing his or her HRR threshold values ³ 50%.

Assessment of psychological measures

Immediately after the PE lessons students were taken to a quiet room where they completed an 8-item questionnaire to assess enjoyment and perceived competence. The items were taken from the enjoyment/interest and perceived competence subscales of the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory . These consisted of statements relating to the activity the students had participated in (e.g., 'I enjoyed this activity very much' (enjoyment); 'I think I am pretty good at this activity' (perceived competence)). The students were required to respond to each statement on a 5-point Likert scale. They were told that the questionnaire was designed to measure 'how they felt' about the PE lesson they had just taken part in. Confidentiality of responses to all but the research team was guaranteed. Following completion, the questionnaires were scored and mean values for enjoyment and perceived competence were generated for subsequent analysis. Intrinsic motivation in PE is not a global concept, but varies according to the particular activity . On the basis that enjoyment can be a consequence of intrinsic motivation, it was hypothesised that enjoyment might similarly be dependent on a specific activity . Because a range of PE activities were monitored during the data collection period, the decision to repeat the questionnaire after each lesson was made in an attempt to gain an accurate indication of enjoyment and perceived competence reflecting the total PE experience.

Design and analysis

So as to cause minimal disruption to the PE classes, schools were visited once per week. On each occasion data were obtained from a maximum of three boys or girls from a pre-selected class. The PE teachers were instructed to teach their lessons as they would normally. They were asked not to place any special emphasis on activities that would increase heart rates more than usual (e.g., fitness work or circuit training), unless this was what the lesson would normally have focused upon. An aim was to monitor equal numbers of boys and girls in either team game or individual activity lessons. However, timetable constraints and student absence meant that true equity was not possible and so the number of boys and girls monitored in the different activities was unequal.

Means and standard deviations were calculated for the dependent variables of MVPA, enjoyment and perceived competence. Mean splits were used to classify students into high and low MVPA groups. Pearson product moment correlation coefficients established the strength of the relationships between variables. Differences between groups were highlighted through computation of analyses of variance and covariance. Independent variables were set as activity type (i.e., team games and individual activities), sex (i.e., boys and girls) and MVPA groups (i.e., high and low). All analyses were performed using SPSS v.10.1 (SPSS Inc, Chicago, IL). Statistical significance was set at p < 0.05.


Principle components analysis was performed on the questionnaire items to determine their internal validity. Following direct oblimin rotation, the 4 variables for enjoyment supported a single factor solution with all variables loading above 0.50. Moreover, adequate internal reliability was demonstrated with an alpha coefficient of 0.79. Similarly, perceived competence variables were subjected to direct oblimin rotation. They also supported a single factor solution, loading above 0.50, and had a satisfactory alpha coefficient of 0.75. Enjoyment variables 1 and 3 loaded on both factors.

Table 1: Descriptive characteristics of students


(n = 73)

(n = 40)

(n = 33)

(n = 35)

(n = 38)












Age (y)











MVPA (%)

































Descriptive characteristics are presented in table 1. Generally, boys were more active and perceived themselves as more competent during PE than girls, but both sexes reported enjoying lessons to a similar degree. Higher levels of physical activity, enjoyment and perceived competence were observed among students participating in team games. Table 2 presents the descriptive data of students classified into high and low MVPA groups.

Table 2: Descriptive data of students in high and low MVPA groups



























* p < 0.05

Pearson product moment correlations were calculated to determine the relationships between MVPA, enjoyment and perceived competence. When data for team games and individual activities were combined, results indicated moderate to low associations between enjoyment and perceived competence among boys (r = 0.53, p < 0.001) and girls (r = 0.35, p < 0.05). Moreover, similar relationships were noted when team games (r = 0.57, p < 0.0001) and individual activities (r = 0.33, p = 0.06) were analysed separately. Enjoyment and MVPA were negatively correlated amongst girls (r = -0.4, p < 0.05). All correlations between perceived competence and MVPA produced non-significant coefficients.

Because enjoyment correlated with MVPA it was intended to assess differences in physical activity using ANCOVA, with enjoyment as a covariate. However, preliminary analyses revealed that the assumption of homogeneity of regression slopes was not met, making the outcome of any further ANCOVA analysis untenable. Therefore, a 2 x 2 ANOVA was computed with activity type and sex as the between subjects factors. The analysis revealed a significant main effect for activity type, with team games engaging pupils in more MVPA than individual activities (F[1, 69] = 20.26, p < 0.0001). Differences in enjoyment were analysed by a 2 x 2 ANCOVA, with MVPA and perceived competence as covariates. This revealed a significant interaction between activity type and sex (F[1, 67] = 13.57, p < 0.0001). Specifically, boys enjoyed team games more than girls, who enjoyed individual activities more than boys (figure 1). No significant differences in perceived competence were found between sex or activity variables. However, the trend was for boys and team games students to score highest on this measure.

Figure 1: Boys' and girls' enjoyment during team games and individual activities

** p < 0.0001

When students were grouped into high and low MVPA groups, an activity type x MVPA group ANOVA revealed that enjoyment was similar between activities, but greatest among students in the low MVPA group (F[1, 69] = 4.42, p < 0.05). No significant differences in perceived competence were observed between activity type or MVPA group.


This study assessed levels of perceived competence, enjoyment and physical activity during high school PE lessons. Analyses revealed that boys engaged in 12.4% more MVPA than girls. Similar gender differences have previously been reported in British students, whose physical activity was also assessed using heart rate telemetry . Such differences have been attributed to various contextual factors specific to the PE setting, such as curriculum content, teaching approach and environment . The 22.9% difference in MVPA between students involved in team games and individual activities was in agreement with the study hypotheses. The nature of many team games can involve large amounts of full body translocation, which places an enhanced physiological load on the working muscles. In contrast, individual activities do not present students with as many opportunities for sustained weight-bearing movement, and as a result physical activity levels have been observed to be less than optimal . By engaging students in MVPA for around 50% of PE lesson time, team games can meaningfully contribute to children's recommended daily quota of one hour's accumulated physical activity . The obvious weakness is that this contribution can only be made on days when students attend PE lessons, which in the UK is seldom more than twice per week.

The significant correlation coefficients observed between perceived competence and enjoyment supported the study hypotheses. Moreover, they appeared to confirm the premise of cognitive evaluation theory, (i.e., that in the context of self-determination, perceived competence mediates intrinsic motivation). This in turn can produce feelings of enjoyment and interest. Because enjoyment is vital for encouraging physical activity participation , these correlations highlight the importance of enhancing students' perceived competence in PE. Informal lesson observations revealed that in general, learner-centred teaching styles were less common than teacher-centred ones. Learner-centred approaches, which place the student at the heart of the learning process, may better promote student perceptions of competence by providing them with more opportunities to take part in individualised tasks that are matched to their abilities. Specific aspects of teaching can be addressed in order to promote perceived competence through, (a) promotion of a mastery learning climate by setting individually differentiated tasks, allowing students to work at an appropriate level of challenge, and, (b) positive feedback that is specific to students' task performances, which provides accurate information of their competency within a particular activity . Perceived competence was similar during team games and individual activities, suggesting that the students in this study had similar perceptions of their physical competence, regardless of activity type. However, these similarities may have resulted from activities being grouped into team and individual activities. It is more likely that greater differences in perceived competence would be reported when it is measured in relation to a more specific range of PE activities (e.g., swimming, basketball, dance, outdoor and adventurous activities).

It was found that girls most enjoyed individual activities, while enjoyment was greatest for boys during team games. These data were in agreement with the investigation hypotheses, and were supported by investigation into perceptions of enjoyment in PE among 254 year 8 and 9 students. Using questionnaires designed to establish students' preferences in PE, they revealed that 29% of boys and 23% of girls most enjoyed games and individual activities, respectively. Moreover, the data correspond with boys' and girls' reported activity preferences in PE and out of school . Clearly, if continued participation in physical activity is a goal of PE, the different needs and preferences of boys and girls should be recognised when curricula are designed. Although current NCPE requirements allow some flexibility between areas of activity, the actual application of breadth and balance becomes constricted when individual schools contend with limited facilities, availability and expertise of staff, and timetable allocation .

In contrast to the hypotheses, the most unexpected finding to emerge was that the high MVPA group enjoyed PE significantly less than the low MVPA group. Although the effects of physical activity in PE on enjoyment have rarely been reported, in their study of 922 year 6 children Carroll and Loumidis (2001) noted how students who were most active out of school had the highest levels of PE enjoyment. However, the present findings focused on enjoyment and physical activity within PE, and appeared to concur with observation that students did not enjoy PE when they were 'pushed hard' (although perceptions of effort intensity in their study were based on the subjective opinions of the students involved). Furthermore, the data are supported by , who suggested that the physical demands of a PE activity are a common reason for students disliking it. Were this theory true it would suggest that promoting high levels of MVPA during PE can be counter-productive to encouraging positive attitudes towards physical activity. However, levels of enjoyment were highest during team games, which engaged pupils in MVPA for significantly more time than individual activities. This paradox is difficult to explain, but it is possible that students may have been less conscious of their higher exercise intensity during team games, as they were simultaneously experiencing greater levels of enjoyment. This is a speculative explanation based on inferential data, which warrants future investigation. However, these findings do suggest that physical activity participation and promotion in PE should complement enjoyable and challenging educational experiences, rather than be at their expense.

Negative correlations were also observed between girls' enjoyment and MVPA, which suggests that girls enjoyed PE less as the duration and intensity of MVPA increased. This is consistent with girls' enjoyment preference for individual activities, which engaged students in MVPA for 22.9% less time than team games. This relationship between enjoyment and physical activity is supported by previous research involving high school girls. described how girls' perceptions of the 'physical' nature of PE were a significant reason for them not enjoying lessons. Moreover, more than one third of the sample in her study cited 'getting out of breath' as an explanation of why they were put off PE. While the reasons for the negative correlation remain unclear, comparison with the boys' data may provide some clues as to their origins. Boys' enjoyment and MVPA were uncorrelated (r = 0.006), but their enjoyment levels were the same as the girls'. Moreover, boys were engaged in MVPA for 12.4% more time than girls, which suggests that other factors apart from physical activity level influenced boys' enjoyment in PE. believes that boys are socialised into not complaining about such things as physical exertion, for fear of jeopardising their masculinity. In contrast, girls, through their 'emphasised femininity', are expected to react negatively to perceived physical hardships . Although physical activity is what makes PE unique from other school subjects, some girls may not see it as such an integral part of their PE experience. The fact that the girls enjoyed PE as much as the boys could infer that they engaged in a minimum level of physical activity necessary to participate effectively. However, it is possible that when a critical threshold of MVPA was exceeded, simultaneous reductions in enjoyment occurred. This finding should be viewed with caution, particularly as the strength of the correlation was only moderate to low, and the level of significance was less than optimal (p = 0.021). Although equivocal relationships between PE physical activity and enjoyment have been observed in this study, it should be noted that many variables other than physical activity, such as self-esteem, perceived autonomy and outcome experiences are related to students' affective states (Goudas et al., 1994).

This research was constrained by a number of limitations that should be considered when interpreting the findings. Firstly, the relatively small sample size precludes meaningful generalisations being extended to other populations. Secondly, the use of mean splits to distinguish between high and low active students was not as precise a method as possible for differentiating between groups. Categorising students according to ranges of MVPA per lesson (i.e., 0-10%, 11-20%, etc.) may have more accurately distinguished differences in MVPA levels. Thirdly, PE activities were grouped into team games and individual activities to augment sample sizes, allowing meaningful statistical analyses. It is acknowledged that this two category approach may have provided a limited picture of the students' PE experiences. However, sample sizes were too small for data to be analysed according to each PE activity (i.e. football, gymnastics, badminton, etc). The fourth limitation relates to the use of heart rate telemetry to assess physical activity. When using this method, results can differ depending on an individual's emotional state and fitness level . Furthermore, telemeters measure only one dimension of physical activity, providing no information on the nature of activity performed. Future research of this nature should consider using observational analysis to complement objective measures of physical activity. Lastly, the relationship between perceived competence, enjoyment and physical activity in PE may have been explored in more depth by using qualitative research methods to establish the reasons why pupils felt the way they did about their lessons. Future work using mixed-method approaches may provide a better overview of students' feelings and thoughts about PE.

This investigation assessed the relationships between physical activity, perceived competence and enjoyment in high school PE. It can be concluded that boys engaged in more MVPA than girls, and that team games demonstrated greater potential than individual activities to contribute to daily physical activity recommendations (Biddle et al., 1998). High school students' enjoyment in PE was consistently related to their level of perceived competence. This emphasises the importance of appropriately differentiated lessons to provide students with optimally challenging tasks. The expected positive relationship between enjoyment in PE and MVPA was not observed among all groups, but the exact reasons for this are not clear. Although there are suggestions in the literature that girls do not enjoy the physical aspect of PE, a robust explanation of the negative correlation between girls' MVPA and enjoyment is difficult to provide. Physical activity promotion through PE may have important public health benefits. However, this can only occur if physical educators plan and deliver lessons that promote individual competence and success, which may contribute to feelings of fun and enjoyment. The conflicting findings from this study illustrate the necessity for continued research into the relationships between psychological outcomes and physical activity within the PE context.


Please address all correspondence to: Stuart Fairclough, School of Physical Education, Sport and Dance, Liverpool John Moores University, Barkhill Road, Liverpool, L17 6BD, UK. Tel: (0151) 231 5384; Fax: (0151) 231 5357; e-mail:


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  1. Research into Exercise, Activity and Children's Health (REACH) Group, and School of Physical Education, Sport & Dance, Liverpool John Moores University, England

This document was added to the Education-line database on 27 October 2003