Why Sporting Role Models Are Important For Boys

Sport Role Models

In Steve Biddulph’s bestselling book Raising Boys he proposes that because sport is the main place where men and boys interact, it is often where boys can work through in a practical way their values for life. Hugo Shephard explains why sporting role models are particularly crucial to a young boy’s development.

If you’re not into cricket, it may have passed you by that Australia and New Zealand recently hosted the World Cup. In short, the plucky and courageous New Zealand Black Caps team set the tournament alight with a fearless style that reflected a unified team with a clear purpose.

Unfortunately for New Zealand, the final was a bridge too far and Australia won their fifth cricket World Cup.

However, after the tournament an open letter from a father to the New Zealand cricket team epitomised the influence that their performance had on people the world over. In it he wrote:

“You played in such a way that I could point to you and, as a father struggling to bridge many gaps for my sons, say to them: ‘Look, whatever you do in life, live like that’.”    

Because even more impactful than New Zealand’s fearless style, was the fantastic manner in which these sports stars conducted themselves.

They played the tournament with great spirit and smiles on their faces and, as a result, they won fans the world over.

It’s not just a grateful father’s letter that supports the argument that sporting role models have a significant influence on children. A study by Fitzclarence & Hickney back in 1998 suggested the same.

Of course, it isn’t a groundbreaking insight for the vast majority of parents with young boys.

Any boy with a passing interest in sport will know the names Wayne Rooney, Jonny Wilkinson, Harry Kane, Andy Murray or Rory McIlroy. Many will be in awe of them: not only their achievements within their sport, but their behaviour and conduct in their personal lives, which is out there in the public domain, like it or not.

Sportspeople are important role models for young boys, and the reason is really straightforward.

If sport is where a child’s passion lies, as is the case for so many young boys, so experts in the field are held in high regard. Kids tend to admire and emulate people who are good at things that they love.

Evidence from Pleiss & Feldhusen (2010) backs this up. Their study shows that children can benefit from relationships with adults who share their area of interest. This is perhaps why David Cameron doesn’t feature very high as a popular children’s role model…

A study by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport called Taking Part 2012/13 Annual Child Report (Aug 2013) revealed some interesting stats on the most popular sports amongst young boys in the UK, based on how many had participated in the previous 4 weeks:

  • 5-10 yr old boys: Football (57%), swimming (44%) and cycling (25%)
  • 11-15 yr old boys: Football (77%), basketball (39%) and swimming (25%)

Sports psychologist and author, Jim Taylor Ph.D., believes that team sports such as football are found to encourage respect for others, cohesiveness, foster the ability to lead, and help in dealing with disappointment and building self-esteem.

Role Models

Young boys will absorb elements of these traits by playing and being part of a team but they will also emulate sports stars’ behaviour – on and off the pitch, be it positive or negative.

Visible character traits such as humility, respect and kindness are therefore as important as sporting prowess – arguably more important.

Max Evans, a Scottish International rugby union and Castres RFC player believes the impact sport had on him as a young boy was fundamental to who he is today:

“Sport gave me a desire to achieve, to get better at something. It taught me that the harder I worked at a skill, the more improvements I made. I had various role models: my Dad, my older cousins and later famous sportsmen. I wanted to be as good as them if not better at certain sports! They encouraged me to stick at it.

 The same principle applies outside of sport and the bubble of celebrity – be that with teachers or child carers that have the opportunity to influence children during their formative years.

Steve Biddulph writes that from a tender age, when they can barely hold a bat or ball, little boys begin to learn how to…

  • be a good loser (and not cry or punch someone or run away if you lose)
  • be a good winner (be modest and not get too ‘up yourself’ and so avoid ill feeling)
  • be part of a team (to play cooperatively, recognise your limitations, and support others’ efforts)

Which compounds my belief that in everyday life when parents are supporting the development of young boys, two of the most valuable qualities they can focus on are talent & character.

The former is required to engage children and the latter to positively influence them. Without both of these qualities, headstrong, energetic young boys simply won’t stop and take notice.

Hugo Shephard founded Role Models a service that encourages extra-curricular interests amongst children by allowing them to spend time with people who are slightly further along a similar path. Role Models offers childcare with character development at its core.