Who Is Your Inspiration?

07/22/2008 - 10:15

By Richard Ferguson, PhD/Running Journal/June 2008

Maybe you’ve been running for a couple or years of maybe you’ve been running for 20. No matter how long you’ve been a “runner,” think back to when you first got involved in the sport. Was there one particular individual that you really admired and served as a type of role model to get you started running? Is there anyone today that you look up to and you 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 of us, role models have played, and continue to play, a very important part in our running careers.

The whole idea of the role model is based upon Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Bandura felt humans learn by participatory modeling, imitation, and vicarious experience. We all learn by observing, integrating, and then copying the proper and desirable behaviors of others. Our role models can be people we actually know, or they can be individuals we know only through the media. We model the behaviors of the people we admire, either through acting out real behaviors or through mental imagery, which is a form of what Bandura termed vicarious experience.

Role models can be found in many aspects of life, however there are some specific groups of role models that can have tremendous influences on our behavior. First, and foremost, is the family unit. Family members, especially parents, may stimulate initial interest in sports and specific sports activities. I would venture to guess that many of you have children who run also. You probably are their most important role model!

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 attend as spectators will also have an effect on what sports they choose to participate in later in life. Children who attend track meets and road races, even to spectate, will be more inclined to select running as their sport of choice, especially if parents and siblings are participants.

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 up to the marathon, the one runner who inspired me the most was Alberto Salazar. Even though he was about my age, I admired his gritty mental toughness and dogged determination. I’m sure each of you has your own special running hero who has and continues to motivate and inspire.

Often we can relate to our running heroes because they 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. We may choose our role models by the way they deal with these ups and downs of running. Through our role models we live a little bit as they do and share in their experiences. We emulate and strive to be like our role models because we see in them the grand possibilities in us.

Our peers can also be very powerful role models. Sometimes our friends and acquaintances can exert enough influence to actually override our own individual preferences and tastes. In young people, peer pressure may indeed be the major factor in beginning new behaviors, both good and bad. 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 this very phenomenon. In the 70s, running was “the thing” to do for everyone! Today running marathons has become “the thing.”

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 that the media bombards us with each and every day. “Dirty laundry” makes a good story in both print and electronic media. I can think of no other activity in which the positive values of American Society are so deeply engrained as they are in running. Hard work, dedication, discipline, and dealing with success and failure are all very important values for life, and each of these are certainly learned through running. In reality everyone who runs serves as a role model 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 improving fitness in the general public.

Embrace your identity as a running role model because it is indeed an important one. You never know how many people admire you and how many people you inspire through your running. Society needs positive role models and I can think of no more positive role models than runners. You just never know when you’re someone’s inspiration!

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