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Model Your Athletic Inspiration for Motivation

By Cheryl D. Hart

modelingWhen you read about the top-ranked triathletes and duathletes, do you aspire to be as fast and strong?  Do you imagine yourself flying through the miles as smoothly and effortlessly as these super-stars?

If so, you are tapping into one of the primary sources of self-efficacy (the belief that you are capable of producing a successful performance). We gain confidence through vicarious experience or “modeling.”

The best example of vicarious experience is Roger Banister. Imagine that for thousands of years, it’s been said to be humanly impossible to accomplish something. And yet, despite this conclusion by the best scientific minds in the world, you still believe you can. That is precisely what Roger Banister determined when he set out to break the four-minute mile.    

Amazingly, in 1954, he accomplished the “impossible.” But what’s really interesting is that by the end of the following year, at least thirty other runners followed suit, because Banister had broken the barrier for them. Through modeling after him, they gained confidence.

Too often we hold ourselves back with self-imposed psychological limits. Athletes who inspire us continue to raise the standards of excellence for us. If we learn to model after them, we will raise our own personal expectations, as well as the belief that we are capable of successfully tapping into our full potential.  This unshakable self-belief is the most consistent distinguishing factor separating highly successful athletes from less successful athletes.  As Henry Ford said, “If you think you can, or think you can’t — you’re right.”

So, how do we copy these super-stars?  According to Dr. Albert Bandura, there are four stages of modeling:  attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation.

To replicate those we admire, we must first carefully study his or her actions, taking in each movement and response in vivid detail.  Next, we must retain what we observed and imagine in our mind’s eye doing it ourselves. Then we are faced with the difficult process of making our own body replicate what we witnessed.  We must think and act just as they would. The final, and most important stage is motivation — an insatiable, internalized motive to succeed.  The “why” keeps us disciplined, determined and willing to give consistent effort.  Our vision of success fuels the fire of passion and commitment, especially when we attach meaning to the image.

In selecting role models, consider what attributes you most admire. Is it strength, speed, endurance or mental discipline?  Or, perhaps you’ll be surprised to discover that your inspiration comes from athletes who aren’t champions in the sense that they crossed the finish first.  It might be a wheelchair competitor or amputee with an indomitable spirit, or someone who demonstrates resiliency, smiling through even the worst of circumstances.  Maybe it’s the racer who always puts others first by pumping up tires before events, sharing GU, extra goggles or offering encouraging words throughout the race.  

Scott Tinley, one of my sport heroes, once told me that rather than collect heroes, we should become one.  I’ve often recalled his words and agree that it’s never too late to become who you were meant to be.  My hope is that you thoughtfully determine who that is, and develop the qualities in your own life to become a hero to those around you.

Cheryl Hart, M.S., owner of 2nd Wind Motivation and Hart to Heart Talk Show, helps individuals, teams, and businesses establish and achieve goals. She is a Sport Psychology consultant, motivational speaker and instructor of Sport Psychology at the University of Louisville. She holds a Master’s Degree in Sports Psychology from the University of Tennessee. Cheryl has run 45 marathons and is an All-American triathlete and duathlete, competing internationally on Team USA with podium finishes. To contact Cheryl call (502) 693-7443, email or visit