The purpose of the present study was to investigate the association between perceived athletic competence and enjoyment of PE. Drawing on cognitive theories of motivation [24, 26], we hypothesized that perceived athletic competence would be positively associated with PE class enjoyment. Generally, the results of this study supported this hypothesis, but the relationship between perceived competence and PE enjoyment was qualified by a 3-way interaction with gender and time. Consistent with previous cross-sectional research [6, 15, 18–20, 26], we found that girls reported lower levels of PE enjoyment than boys. Importantly, however, our results indicate that these differences increased over time. Although previous research has found significant associations between PAC and enjoyment of PE , this was the first study to test the association using longitudinal data.
The current findings support previous calls for the targeting of perceived competence in intervention work aimed at increasing PE enjoyment among school-aged children [6, 20]. Although the hypothesized PAC and PE enjoyment relationship was supported in this study, it is important to acknowledge that the relationship was complicated by an interaction with gender and time. Specifically, the interaction showed that children of both genders who had higher levels of perceived competence reported higher and increasing levels of PE enjoyment. However, differences emerged among children with lower levels of perceived competence, where boys reported low but stable levels of PE enjoyment over time, while girls began with lower levels of PE enjoyment that continued to decline further over time. These findings offer evidence that gender differences in PE enjoyment are effectively non-existent among children with high levels of perceived competence, and suggest greater efforts should be made to understand why some children have lower perceptions of athletic competence. Improving children's views of their physical abilities may be an important goal, particularly among girls with low perceived competence. The interaction between gender, competence and enjoyment should be a key consideration in planning the content and delivery of PE.
These findings support perceived competence as a focus for interventions designed to increase enjoyment of PE. It is important, however, to understand that competence is just one of many determinants of enjoyment of and participation in physical activity. Cognitive theories of intrinsic motivation, for example, emphasize not only competence, but also perceptions of choice or autonomy [24, 27]--constructs that were not measured in this study. A PE program that not only targets positive perceptions of competence, but that also provides a variety of different activities--allowing participants to choose those most of interest to them--is likely to produce greater levels of intrinsic motivation and enjoyment [9, 28].
Recent work has also emphasized the importance of understanding sport ability beliefs , which underlie feelings of competence because they reflect children's perceptions of the modifiability of their performance . If children perceive their physical abilities to be fixed and not amenable to improvement though practice, it is unlikely that perceptions of enjoyment will be increased in PE settings, where the emphasis is often on raw skill acquisition. One way to improve engagement and perceived competence would be to expose children to a wider spectrum of activities. This would create more opportunities for individuals to discover activities for which they have a particular aptitude or that they find appealing, interesting, and challenging. In fact, this is consistent with the stated policy of PE in the jurisdiction in which this study was conducted. The Ontario Ministry of Education, the governmental body responsible for education curriculums for the schools included in this study, outlines that a major learning goal to be helping students achieve a greater understanding of achieving lifelong health through the promotion of physical and health literacy. Physical literacy, defined as the ability to move, with confidence, across a wide array of physical activities that benefit the whole person (mind and body), being particularly relevant . A caveat, however, was that schools (and teachers) in our study were ultimately responsible for designing and implementing PE classes; which could have varied considerably across school districts depending on available resources (e.g., some schools had state of the art gymnasiums, while other schools did not even have on-site facilities). The idea is to expose children to a greater range of activities, enabling all children to find confidence in different movements suited to individual athletic abilities. Therefore, it was not particularly surprising that higher levels of organized physical activity, as measured by the PQ, were associated with greater reported enjoyment of PE. Overall, focusing on developing competence may not be enough, and understanding and changing negative core beliefs with regard to abilities may also need to be part of the strategy. For example, focusing on individual goal setting, striving for self-set or negotiated standards of performance, and providing greater autonomy and choices in physical activity may be necessary.
Although not a focus of the present study, many of the control variables included in the models were also significantly related to perceived enjoyment of PE. In particular, higher BMI scores were associated with lower level of enjoyment throughout this time period. BMI is of particular interest, as other work has shown that conditions that influence motoric competence are also associated with lower perceived enjoyment of PE [32, 33]. Unpacking the temporal associations between these factors and PE enjoyment remains to be done.
The present study has a number of limitations. Although our analysis took correlation within and variation among schools into account with the use of random effects, we were unable to also consider class or school-level factors associated with the delivery of PE (e.g., teacher competence) or the perceived climate in PE class (e.g., supportive, competitive, etc.). While our focus was on individual-level factors, the inclusion of contextual effects would provide a more complete picture; this remains an area for future research. In particular, intervention studies that manipulate teaching environment could shed light on the importance of context in perceived enjoyment.