I’m sitting on the couch in the middle of the day, a weekday, I should be working – I’m not. The Tour de France is on the TV. We have Irish and local interest this year, in a major way. Sam Bennet is fighting for stage wins and the Green Jersey. He’s been knocking on the door for the whole first week, hell he’s been knocking on the door for the last number of years having won stages in the other two major tours and a host of other races. There’s 5KM to go, he is up there, he has teammates and it is a bit chaotic. I’m sure the Carrick elbow has emerged once or twice already today. He hits the wind with 200 to go, or maybe less with the headwind there’s no stopping him. (Cover Photo Credit: Photograph: Christophe Ena/Reuters).
But let’s bring it back 7 years or so to when I started racing, the Suir Valley 3 day in my first year as a junior. I was dropped in the neutral section on the first day and lasted maybe a handful of kilometres on the second day where I pulled out of the race at the end. Heartbroken, obviously. But Sam and his An Post teammates were racing this same race. I remember seeing them ride no handed in the bunch putting on jackets with no fear when I had my death grip in full lock, I remember them attacking on the road to Carrick when I was getting spat out the back and I remember Sam winning a sprint on the final stage up the Nire. It left a lasting impression. What also left an impression was when, just a few weeks later, Sam went to the Tour of Britain and took a stage win and multiple top placings. This guy that I was racing against and later training with during the winter was now mixing it with the likes of Mark Cavendish and Gerald Ciolek who had just won Milan San Remo that year. The excitement of seeing a local guy on the world stage was immeasurable, the fact he rode with us during the winter was unthinkable – both made all the local young guns including myself believe we too could do it.
That belief was all caused by a nice guy racing his bike who wasn’t afraid or above giving back to his local club and community. Sam worked up my hunger to be involved in cycling, the club nurtured it and I reaped the rewards. While I didn’t make it to the Tour de France I now have a career in sport and many of my friends from the club and racing in those junior ranks have gone on to some pretty impressive things.
What I’m getting at here is the importance of Role Models in Sport, especially for younger people or minorities in sport.
Role Models, why are they important?
We previously touched on role models in a previous blog in relation to creating successful environments for clubs and teams to prosper. In this piece we drew heavily on the work of Henriksen1 whom conducted multiple case studies2,3,4 into talent development and successful sporting environments.
Henriksen’s work highlighted that Role Models in Sport are a central tenant of a successful environment. Having “someone to aspire to” is something that all coaches and athletes mentioned in the multitude of environments that were looked at. In his work looking into the Wang Kayak Team interviews with the club coach suggested that the daily exchange of knowledge and ideas as osmosis. The process of learning without knowing your learning. Athletes in the Wang Kayak Group touched on the beauty of their sport being that riding in the wave of an expert (or behind a role model’s Kayak) meant 30% energy savings – a number similar to cycling, the beauty of our sport means we can ride (or suffer) on the wheel of an expert!
We can see here that the role models in these environments are real and tangible – they are proximal to the training group. While having heroes in sport is great nothing beats a local hero who you see going down to the shops as much as out on their bike.
Situated learning theory5 highlights the idea that learners will inevitably be defined by the environment in which the learning takes place. When we dive into the work by Barab & Plucker6 entitled “Smart People or Smart Contexts? Cognition, Ability, and Talent Development in an Age of Situated Approaches to Knowing and Learning” we see a proposition that neither ability nor talent are possessed by the individual. They propose that these aspects of the prospective learner are developed and defined by the environments that they are fostered in. The authors quote this belief:
“A clearer understanding of human cognition would be achieved if studies were based on the concept that cognition is distributed among individuals, that knowledge is socially constructed through collaborative efforts to achieve shared objectives in cultural surroundings, and that information is processed between individuals and the tools and artifacts provided by culture7”.
All in all, this highlights a simple fact; role models should be used in any environment where the goal is to develop talent.
How do we best use Role Models?
While the coach and the broader support structure around athletes is key, we now know that Role Models can give that extra something special! In all 3 case studies conducted by Henriksen2,3,4 Role Models were informal coaches and even main knowledge providers for the developing athlete. The younger athletes trained with the elite athletes on a regular basis, and in an informal learning community the prospects would learn not only technical and tactical aspects of training but the “trade” as a whole, including how to manage study activities, finances and personal life. All the pieces of the pie that make up an elite sportsperson…
When we utilize the theory underpinning this, in layman’s terms, we can argue that the environment plays a massive role in the development of talented athletes. Having Role Models situated in these environments makes the end goal and the process all the more tangible and enjoyable for prospective learners.
Practical elements such as getting training groups together where all abilities are present, information evenings, club talks, having more experienced riders advise youths at races and many other aspects are all very easily incorporated into the club environment and make major differences.
Above: Sam gets a guard of honour from Carrick Wheelers after signing with Netapp-Endura (Joe Cashin).
Role Models in sport capture the heart of the nation, the news coverage and interviews are looked back on fondly. What isn’t highlighted enough is the role that proximal role models play in an environment, those small micro transactions of time where a rider passes on an invaluable piece of advice or a friendly hello. For teams and clubs who have experienced riders whom youths look up to, capitalize on this and for clubs lucky enough to have a professional rider intertwined in their history, make the most of it!
1 Henriksen, K. (2010). The ecology of talent development in sport: A multiple case study of successful athletic talent development environments in Scandinavia (Doctoral dissertation, Syddansk Universitet. Det Sundhedsvidenskabelige Fakultet).
2 Henriksen, K., Stambulova, N., & Roessler, K. K. (2011). Riding the wave of an expert: A successful talent development environment in kayaking. The sport psychologist, 25(3), 341-362.
3 Henriksen, K., Stambulova, N., & Roessler, K. K. (2010). Holistic approach to athletic talent development environments: A successful sailing milieu. Psychology of sport and exercise, 11(3), 212-222.
4 Henriksen, K., Stambulova, N., & Roessler, K. K. (2010). Successful talent development in track and field: considering the role of environment. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, 122-132.
5 Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.
6 Barab, S. A., & Plucker, J. A. (2002). Smart people or smart contexts? Cognition, ability, and talent development in an age of situated approaches to knowing and learning. Educational psychologist, 37(3), 165-182.
7 Salomon, G. (1993). No distribution without individuals’ cognition: A dynamic interactional view. Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations, 111-138.