Running and Role Models

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Running and Role Models

Written by Richard Ferguson, PhD on 20 December 2011.


Think back to the time when you first began running. Was there one particular individual who you really admired that served as a type of role model to get you started running? Is there anyone today that you look up to in your running and who you really feel is a positive influence on your running? I’m sure most of you can think of such role models you’ve had in the past and today. For most runners role models have played a very important part in their running careers.

The whole idea of the role model is based upon Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura felt humans learn by modeling, imitation, and vicarious experience. We all learn by observing, integrating, and then copying the proper and desirable behaviors of others. These models can be people we actually know, or they can be individuals we know only through the media.

Role models can be found all around us, however there are some specific groups of role models that can have tremendous influences on our behavior. First, and foremost, is the family. Interest in sport and specific sport activities may be stimulated by family members, especially parents. I would venture to guess that many of you have children who run also. You probably are their role model and had a very strong influence on their getting into the sport of running.

Later born children will tend to model their older siblings. Older brothers and sisters who run will increase the likelihood of later-born siblings getting involved in running. What sporting events children are taken to will also have an effect on what sports the child will choose to participate in latter in life. Children who are taken to track meets and road races, even to spectate, will be more inclined to select running as their sport of choice.

Running heroes can be a tremendously important form of role model. All of us admire certain runners. It may be someone in your hometown or even a runner from another country. When I was just beginning to run my role model was the former world record holder for the mile, John Walker of New Zealand. Even today I am partial to wearing a black racing outfit, probably because that’s the color that the New Zealand runners wore. When I moved to the marathon the one runner who inspired me the most was Alberto Salazar. Even though he was my age, I admired his gritty mental toughness and dogged determination. Today my biggest running role model is not a single person, but older runners that are still out everyday enjoying the sport. A couple years ago when I ran the World Masters Track and Field Championships I was stunned at how many people were actually competing in the 90-plus age group! Just the other day a friend asked me if I was going to still be running when I was 80. Without thought I replied, “I sure hope so.”

We can often relate to our running heroes because they often share the same trials and tribulations in the sport that we do. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympian or an around the block fitness buff, there are going to be injuries to deal with, setbacks, disappointments, triumphs, and moments where you experience extreme jubilation to extreme frustration. We may choose our role models by the way they deal with these ups and downs of the sport of running. Through our role models we live a little bit as they do and share in their experiences. We emulate and strive, as the basketball analogy goes, “to be like Mike.”

Our peers can also be very, very powerful role models. Sometimes our friends and acquaintances can exert enough influence to actually override our own individual preferences and tastes. Many people actually get their start in running because they finally “give in” to a friend who has been trying to persuade them for months to give running a try. Another way in which peers can influence exercise behavior is through the popularity phenomena. When something becomes very popular in the general public many people will get involved just to fit in. Often times a reason people give for doing any activity is because “everyone is doing it.” The running boom of the 1970s was fueled by that very phenomenon. In the 70s running was THE thing to do for everyone! Who knows, maybe the runners of today can fuel another running boom with a little more positive peer pressure!

We should all try to use our role models in a very positive manner. Certainly, in today’s society there are many negative role models who the media bombards us with each and every day. I can think of no other activity in which the positive values of American Society are as deeply engrained as they are in running. Hard work, dedication, discipline and dealing with success and failure are all very important values in all aspects of life, and each of these is certainly learned and reinforced through running. In reality, all who run are role models for those who don’t. The average fitness level of Americans certainly needs to be improved and by being runners, each of you has a positive influence on this occurring. Be sure to following the steps of your role model, but keep in mind that each of you is indeed a role model for someone else! Take the responsibility seriously!

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