Top woman in sport

(Edmonton) University of Alberta professor Vicki Harber, named this month as one of Canada’s 20 most influential women in sport and physical activity, believes teaching girls fundamental physicals skills such as jumping and running is critical to training women who are resilient and engaged citizens.

There’s a gradual awakening around the world that countries must invest in the healthy development of girls so they’ll grow into empowered, resilient women and, consequently, into fully engaged citizens. And that speaks to the health—and wealth—of a nation.

To University of Alberta professor Vicki Harber, named this week as one of Canada’s 20 most influential women in sport and physical activity, the key to developing that resilience is ‘physical literacy.’ That means being adept at fundamental movement skills like jumping, running, throwing and sliding in a variety of indoor and outdoor environments.

“Physical activity is good for everybody, but what makes it extraordinarily good for girls and women is that it’s empowering,” says Harber, an exercise physiology professor in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation. She was honoured this week by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity.

Harber notes that women in many countries remain vulnerable and relatively powerless—politically, economically and socially. “So when we think of the power of physical literacy, it’s that it develops resilience.”

As part of her McCalla Professorship in 2011, Harber partnered with the TransAlta Tri Leisure Centre in Spruce Grove to create a pilot program in physical literacy for girls eight to 10 years old. “Parents are still asking about it and whether it’ll be run again this year,” she says. It was called WINGS—an acronym representing physical activity environments of water, ice, nature, grass and snow—and was based on the Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) guidelines. Harber is on the leadership team for CS4L.

Harber says giving girls under 12 the chance to learn fundamental physical skills and be active is a valuable investment that is “paid forward.” Evidence shows resilient girls are also less likely to engage in risky behaviours such as smoking, taking drugs or becoming pregnant as teenagers, she adds.

“Giving this gift of physical literacy to young women…can bolster them to navigate life in their best way possible and make contributions that, without physical literacy, would be less potent,” she says.

“In Canada, we’re incredibly fortunate. But even within Edmonton, we have many pockets in the city where opportunities to be active, to play are less than what they could or should be. Physical literacy is an imperative investment.”
One of the toughest messages to get across about physical literacy, says Harber, is that it benefits both non-athletes and elite athletes.

“This is particularly important, because we get captivated by the Tiger Woods illusion: that, by age two, you’ve got to be doing your primary sport and nothing different. The illusion of early sport specialization is a difficult hurdle to overcome to get parents, coaches and sport organizations thinking differently,” she says.


• Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women and Sport and Physical Activity

• Canadian Sport for Life

• Read Harber’s publications on female athletes development

• Learn about Canada’s Long-Term Athlete Development Program