In my profession of health, sport and physical education, you hear the term “role model” bandied around often. Sports stars, physical education teachers and coaches – along with Olympic athletes – all attract equal amounts of praise and criticism regarding their status as role models to young Australians.
However, research around role models provides a sobering counterpoint to the rhetoric surrounding the superstar approach.
As educational psychologists Judy MacCallum and Susan Beltman have argued, a role model can be defined simply as “an individual who is perceived as exemplary, or worthy of imitation”. But the meanings and enactment of the term are often assumed and devoid of clarity.
Others, such as Penelope Lockwood and Ziva Kunda, have pointed out the potential influence of a role model depends on their success being perceived as relevant to those observing them.
According to this research, a high level of similarity between one person and another across various domains results in a greater likelihood that they will draw a meaningful comparison.
However, it’s not just relevance that matters, but also whether of not the individual perceives that those relevant attributes are actually attainable. If a role model is so clearly beyond their capabilities, their influence could indeed be demotivating.
As Lockwood and Kunda say, “models of attainable success can be inspiring and self-enhancing, whereas models of unattainable success can be threatening and deflating”.
In the latter situation, a role model’s success may highlight personal failures and shortcomings, and make lesser achievements appear paltry, resulting in feelings of inferiority.
From this perspective we can see the dangers that accompany an overemphasis on promoting extremely fit, “sporty” and obsessively health-conscious sports stars or PE teachers as exemplars of healthy, active living for children and young people.
In the first instance, young people need to consider the sporty or healthy lifestyle as relevant to their own life aspirations. And, should relevance be established, access to socioeconomic resources, opportunities and capacities that ensure the realisation of such attributes must be considered attainable.
While this research suggests that we err on the side of caution when idolising role models, a recent conversation with one mother offered new faith for an idea overburdened by hype, slogans and pampered sports stars.
In that hotbed of social commentary, the local hairdressing salon, I heard of seven-year-old Rocco’s keen admiration of Brenden Hall, one of Australia’s world champion Paralympic swimmers. Brenden trains at the same pool as Rocco, and has become a superstar in the eyes of this aspiring young sportsman.
Upon winning a school award, Rocco asked his mum if he could get a photo with Brenden to celebrate his achievement. In fact, the photo was to be a consolation prize.
Rocco had been devastated to learn that Brenden’s Paralympic battles would take place in a faraway country, denying him the opportunity to cheer his hero along in person.
Shaking with excitement, the photo opportunity dutifully secured by mum, Brenden took the time to explain the ways in which Rocco could share his Rio 2016 journey.
Of course, Brenden didn’t disappoint his fan, winning gold in his first race.
As Rocco’s mum further confided, “when Rocco tells me he doesn’t feel like sports training, doing his homework or getting out of bed, I ask him how easy it would be for Brenden, who has lost his leg, to make excuses and not go swimming training every morning. For Rocco, this little reminder usually does the trick.”
Humble it may be, but this exchange between mother and son reminds us all of the small but significant ways in which our Paralympians have become real role models.
As with our Indigenous athletes and female AFL players, Paralympians provide us with tangible evidence of a determination to overcome adversity, disability and marginalisation.
Unlike some of their better paid and higher profile mainstream peers, our athletes with a disability provide young Aussies, their teachers and parents, with concrete examples of how – sometimes against all odds – we can strive to achieve lofty aspirations.
Although more funding, international television coverage and London success have no doubt improved Paralympian’s resources, matters of attainability are put into perspective when we compare our life opportunities with those who face the daily challenges of disability, within and beyond the sporting arena.