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Profiling sport role models to enhance initiatives for adolescent girls in physical education and sport

Study that investigates the role of sport role models for adolescent girls.

Vescio, J.; Wilde, K. & Crosswhite, J. J.  School of Leisure, Sport and Tourism, University of Technology, Sydney; Abbotsleigh High School, Sydney and Womensport and Recreation, NSW.  (2005).  

Study that explores the role of sports role models to provide motivation for adolescent females to make active lifestyle choices in Australia.  The research is framed within social learning and gender theory.  The research aimed to identify the characteristics of a sports role model for female adolescents. 

Method:  Focus groups were conducted with adolescent females (13-17 years old).  These groups were consisted of girls who had a diverse range of sporting and ethnic backgrounds.  Focus groups discussed issues such as identifying roles models and their characteristics and the girls’ physical activity levels.   A questionnaire was also distributed to 357 females (aged 12-17years old), this focused on topics such as details of people who they identified as role models and their own participation in physical activity.

Findings:  Only a small number of girls chose a sports person as their role model (8.4%), instead nominating a celebrity or a member of their family.  This may be due to the irrelevance of the sports role model to their lives, or due to the great difference between their performance and that of an elite athlete, meaning that the adolescent cannot identify with them.  Another suggested reason for this finding could be gendered heroism, due to the lack of media coverage of female athletes.  This may mean that adolescent females are unaware of female elite athletes. 

12% of females decided not to have a role model, and instead suggested that they wished to be themselves.  Attributes of the role models indicated that they were overwhelmingly female and Australian, supporting the idea of model-observer similarity; therefore role models that are more similar to the individual are more influential. There was a 56.6% in similarity sporting backgrounds for the adolescent and the role model, e.g. if the girls sport was swimming she was likely to pick a swimmer as a role model.

The ideal sport role model was described as having typically masculine characteristics (e.g. powerful, competitive, etc.) along with displaying traditionally feminine qualities (e.g. kindness, modesty).  Therefore both males and females were identified as role models for adolescent females as long as they displayed both masculine and feminine qualities.  Key attributes of the sport role model are being under 40 years old, similar sporting background to the adolescent and having both masculine and feminine qualities.

Suggestions:  It is suggested that sports role models should be involved in encouraging adolescent females to take part in physical activity, these role models should be female and under 40 years old.  Role models should come from varied sporting backgrounds in order to increase the possibility of identification. 

Being exposed to peer role models could be beneficial for some girls, as their performance may be more achievable than elite athletes.  Athletes who display both masculine and feminine qualities should be recruited to assist, in order to increase impact of any intervention.  Mothers as role models were mentioned regularly and this respect should be optimized.  The use of alternative role models, rather than the typical elite male athletes, may encourage adolescent females to participate in physical activity.  

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European Physical Education Review, 2005, 11 (2), 153-170.

Further Contact Details

Johanna Vescio, University of Technology, Sydney. Email: Johanna.vescio@uts.edu.au

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