Author’s Note: The first half of this blog could read as only relevant to girls in sport. Despite my entry point into the topic, I assure you this content applies to all of us. I hope that everyone gives it a read.
BIG NEWS, READERS: It is July, 2023. And that can only mean ONE thing. And no, I’m not talking about the release of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, or Guinea Pig Appreciation Day, or the 67th birthday of national treasure Tom Hanks (though all of those are blog-worthy in their own right). Obviously, I am talking about the kickoff of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup (cheers, screams, tears of joy)! That’s right, the time has finally come for the US Women to go for the threepeat. Like many of you, I was pumped to tune in to the USWNT’s first game of the tournament. I happened to be visiting my parents in Washington, and it went without saying that we would be spending Friday night watching the game. For the previous several weeks I’d listened to podcasts, scoured the roster, and watched nearly every video on US Soccer’s YouTube page (do you know Savannah DeMelo’s coffee order? Because I do.). My point: Sitting shoulder to shoulder with my mom on the couch, I was ready for this game.Before I go any further…I have a confession to make. I wasn’t going to mention it, but it feels too relevant to omit. It may be divisive. It will likely come as a shock. I humbly suggest you sit down. Ok, deep breath, here it goes…
I am not exactly – nor have I ever been – what you would call a soccer person.
I know, I KNOW, hold on! Give me a moment to defend myself. I grew up in a very sport-centric household. But: My parents were not soccer people. My two older siblings were not soccer people. Though athletically gifted in other ways, I was never a runner (a fact that remains true to this day). After a handful of years in soccer, I decided volleyball, with its emphasis on quick lateral movement, was more my scene. To be clear, I love our club and the work I am lucky to do within it. During my time at CRYSC, I’ve also grown a greater understanding of the game and a much deeper appreciation for the incredibly talented and hard-working people who play and coach it. Still, though, I would be lying if I said soccer was my go-to sport.
“But Katie, why would you put this contentious factoid in writing for all of your members and staff to see?!” Fair question. Because, as I sat on the edge of the couch next to my mom, I was hit with a wave of puzzlement. There we were, two non-soccer people who cleared their Friday night schedules to watch a soccer match, chatting animatedly about the roster I had examined time and again over the past few weeks (Hot Take: Even injured, Becky Sauerbrunn should’ve gotten a spot. I said what I said!).
…how did this happen??? Why was I so invested? It’s easy to point toward my love of competition, my immersion in the world of soccer, even my commitment to the athletes that I work with; while all of those are valid, I knew they weren’t the root. Then I started thinking. Growing up, how often was I able to watch a group of women playing sports at the highest level on my TV? Answer: Very rarely. I posed the same question to my mom and was (unsurprisingly) met with the same answer. Aside from the Olympics, the only women’s sports she saw on TV were largely individual and not exactly mainstream.
My mom was a talented multi-sport athlete, went on to have one of the best high school coaching careers in the Pacific Northwest, and is, to this day, the ultimate competitor (you should see her on a pickleball court). And yet, growing up, she had very few women to watch. “Well, what women athletes did you look up to? Who were your female role models in sport?” She mentioned tennis great Chris Evert, and Olympians like Nadia Comaneci and Dorothy Hamill, but qualified that she wouldn’t label them as role models. More so, they were the most prominent women competitors at the time. Despite the increase in the visibility of women’s sports across our generations, my answer was similar. Growing up, I was an Olympic fanatic; my walls were adorned with the likes of Misty May and Kerri Walsh, Lindsey Vonn, and Shawn Johnson. Still, I wouldn’t call any of these women role models. After all, how much of a role model can someone really be when you only see them once every four years?
That’s when it clicked. Why am I so invested in the USWNT? Because even now, with my non-soccer athletic career in the rearview, I am hungry for women role models in sports. Because watching these women from all over the world come together and compete at an incredibly high level in front of over 70 thousand fans (not to mention the important work they do off of the field) is beyond inspiring. So it got me thinking. What, exactly, is the impact of role models in athletics? What help can they offer us along our own journeys? Let’s find out.
The Power of Role Models
It is widely accepted that role models – within and beyond sport – are crucial in a young person’s identity exploration and development. Research shows that children as young as seven are basing their career aspirations on people they know or see in the media. Research also suggests that demographic factors like gender, race, and socioeconomic status play a significant role in such considerations: If a person looks like us, or shares a similar background, we are more likely to be able to identify with them and imagine ourselves where they are. While it is by no means impossible, it can be difficult to pursue a path, or even identify what paths are available to you, when you don’t see people like you on that path. A key reality to note, here, is that some of us do not yet have the privilege of seeing ourselves in certain spaces. While this points to the widespread work that still needs to be done, it should not deter us. Though it is easier to connect with an individual who shares our demographics or background, it is still very possible – and powerful – to seek out a role model with whom our experiences or identities do not entirely align. I mention this to ensure that each person reading this knows that all of us have the opportunity to find and reap the benefits of positive role models.
So: What do we know about the impact of role modeling in sports? Crafted from the available research and my professional experiences, let’s check out the…
Top 5 Benefits of Role Models in Sport
- Promote Belonging: At its foundation, observing a person who we connect with, who we see ourselves in, in a specific space tells us that we, too, belong in that space. The importance of this cannot be overstated; belonging is a fundamental human need and is essential to nearly every dimension of our well-being. If we do not feel that we belong in a space, not only will we be reluctant to enter it, but we will not operate to our fullest potential within it. Seeing our role models thrive in their domain mitigates those threats, and makes us far more willing and able to show up as our full selves in that space.
- Create Self-Belief: The research clearly demonstrates that seeing yourself in a space boosts personal feelings of self-esteem (general confidence and satisfaction in one’s worth and abilities) and self-efficacy (belief in one’s capacity to carry out a specific task or achieve a goal). When we see a role model being who they are, working hard, and having success, we often feel more confident in our own ability to chase and achieve our dreams. Given the centrality of confidence in sports, it is no surprise that this ripple effect can have a huge impact on young athletes.
- Foster Motivation and Commitment: Soccer aside, the vision, fire, and character of the USWNT inspire me. Plain and simple. They empower me to take action and make me strive for more. When we see a person we connect with working hard at something we are also passionate about, it can be an incredibly powerful motivator. Though such extrinsic motivators are not wholly sufficient, they are still massively impactful; seeing our role models improve and succeed can serve as a compelling reminder that our ongoing blood, sweat, and tears are worthwhile.
- Enhance GoaI Setting and Pursuit: Greater self-belief and motivation both facilitate more effective goal setting and pursuit. On top of that, having a role model can directly impact goal-oriented behavior. Because most human behavior is learned by observing others, seeing or reading about a role model engaging in some behavior – encouraging teammates, putting in extra time outside of practice, training mental skills, abiding by rehab protocols – young athletes, themselves, are more likely to naturally enact that behavior.
- Cultivate Resilience: Each and every one of the building blocks above contribute to resilience. The pursuit of excellence in any arena is rife with setbacks and difficulty, and our ultimate ability to not only stay the course but thrive, is contingent on our resilience. Seeing our role models work through adversity – not making a roster, getting injured, experiencing personal hardship – teaches us how to overcome the challenges we encounter on our own journey. Such true modeling can be hugely impactful for athletes navigating the oft-unforgiving space of sport.
All of That to Say…
Having a role model is not about trying to be someone else, or emulate someone else’s path. If anything, that approach will be actively unhelpful in the long term. Rather, having a role model we connect with can provide us with the inspiration, belief, and resilience needed to become more of ourselves; to figure out what we want, persist along our own path, and ultimately achieve whatever goals we have set our sights on.
Athletes: If you’re looking to get the most out of yourself, take advantage of the greater access you have to top-level athletes and intentionally seek out a sport-specific role model who you personally connect with.
Adults: Support your athletes in finding role models in whatever domain they’re trying to succeed. It could be the piece that makes all the difference.
Everyone: If you can’t find a role model in a space of which you want to be a part – if you haven’t yet seen yourself there – take that as an open invitation. Go make yourself the role model you need.
A final thought: You know how earlier I said I didn’t have any role models in sports? I was wrong. I may not have had professional volleyball players on my TV every week to idolize, but I had something better. I had one of the very best beside me every day; coincidentally, she was also the one sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with me on the couch watching that USWNT game. So remember, too, that a person need not be under the lights or on the big screen to inspire you.
Thanks, Mom, and Go Team USA!