Larry Maurer/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Larry Maurer/Wikimedia Commons

What is a role model and what effects do role models have?

The term role model is defined as “a person whose behavior, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially younger people” (Random House Dictionary). Accordingly, a brain surgeon or airline pilot can be a role model for similarly motivated boys and girls. Role models may have a considerable impact on a person’s values, education, and chosen training objectives. For example, they have been shown to have significant effects on female students’ self-confidence in pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields.

What about sport stars as role models?

There’s a history of speculation and argument about athletes taking on the status of role models. In 1993, Nike ran a ground-breaking TV commercial from early April through the end of the NBA playoffs. The ad featured Charles Barkley proclaiming “I am not a role model.” At the time, he was a superstar hoopster for the Phoenix Suns, and his comment generated quite a stir, as he staunchly defended his position.

Galley 2 Images/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Galley 2 Images/Wikimedia Commons

What was so controversial about what “Sir Charles” said?

He emphasized that athletes’ ability to make baskets or catch touchdown passes has nothing to do with being a role model. That is, having sporting ability doesn’t automatically qualify a person to be a role model. Rather, Barkley believed that’s a job for parents. I agree and would include teachers and coaches who spend a huge amount of time with kids and influence their upbringing and future success.

Like it or not, our society has a strong dependence on athletes as role models for children and adolescents.

Athletes are role models whether or not they choose to take on the responsibility, and whether they are good or bad role models. But athlete “hero worship” wasn’t always as prevalent as it is today. There was a time when others served as America’s role models (civic leaders, clergy, legal and medical experts, etc.). It might be argued that the shift reflects decay in our nation’s moral standards.

On the other hand, some exceptional athletes have important messages for their fans. For example, former heavyweight boxing champ Lennox Lewis made a significant contribution to youngsters’ understanding of appropriate masculine behavior, when he made a public service announcement that “Real men don’t hit women.” The point is clear: Athletes have an incredible opportunity to use their celebrity power to positively influence the next generation.

What are the qualities that make an athlete a good role model?

  • Enthusiastic about being a role model. The athlete welcomes the platform for promoting positive societal change—a willing crusader for good.
  • Altruistic mission. The athlete uses the position to share messages of inspiration and hope—a selfless drive to benefit others.
  • Makes a commitment to behaving in ways that reflect high moral values. The athlete acts in ways that support personal integrity.
  • Presents himself or herself in a realistic and responsible manner. “I’m not a role model because I’m a superstar jock, but because I’m a great person.” The athlete also helps fans realize that he or she isn’t perfect. After all, role models are only people with weaknesses and flaws. They’re not immaculate idols.
  • Freely devotes time and energy to community activities. The athlete makes appearances at neighborhood events, serves on local boards, works with charity organizations, etc.
  • Champions a mastery goal orientation. The athlete focuses on personal effort and accomplishments instead of making comparisons with others. In a sense, mastery oriented people compare themselves with themselves. They can feel success and satisfaction when they have learned something new, seen skill improvement in themselves, or given maximum effort. Legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden captured the essence of a mastery orientation in his famous definition of success: “Success is peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do the best of which you are capable.” (For more information, see my Psychology Today blog titled “How to Be a Winner”.)
  • Possesses a keen sense of empathy. The athlete has the capacity to share or recognize emotions experienced by others. Empathy involves putting yourself in other people’s shoes and seeing how much you can truly understand them. It includes caring for others and having a desire to help them. Empathy motivates pro-social behavior designed to aid in solving communal challenges. As emphasized by Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “When you show empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
  • Displays a healthy balance between striving for excellence and having fun in the process. The athlete promotes the virtues of working hard to achieve goals and the importance of enjoying the journey.

A word of caution is warranted.

Youngsters who believe their sport heroes are the most fantastic people in the world and can do no wrong are vulnerable to disappointment. Why? Because examples of fallen stars are many, such as Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong who admitted to the use of performance enhancing drugs. When a revered athlete goes astray, it can create disillusionment and even trauma. So, here’s the bottom line: Kids shouldn’t be allowed to become too attached to athletes as role models.

Do you want to learn more about parenting and coaching young athletes?

  • The Mastery Approach to Parenting in Sports and Mastery Approach to Coaching are research-based videos that emphasize skill development, achieving personal and team success, giving maximum effort, and having fun.
  • To access the videos, go to the Youth Enrichment in Sports website.

About the Authors

Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith, Ph.D., is a University of Washington clinical sport psychologist who specializes in developing and evaluating interventions designed to improve the functioning of athletes.

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