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But can someone like me do it? The importance of appropriate role modelling for safety behaviours in sports injury prevention
  1. Peta White,
  2. Alex Donaldson,
  3. Caroline F Finch
  1. Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Federation University Australia, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Peta White, Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), SMB Campus, Federation University Australia, P.O. Box 668, Ballarat, VIC 3353, Australia; pe.white{at}

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Preventing sports injuries requires behaviour change. Observational learning, or role modelling, is one way to develop self-efficacy, a key behavioural determinant. This premise underpins the social cognitive theory (SCT),1 and is the reason why role models have such a strong influence on behaviour. Most human behaviour is learned by observing others.2 Therefore, understanding role modelling and how to use it effectively could be important for sports injury prevention.

Self-efficacy refers to an individual's confidence in their ability to enact a particular behaviour. According to the SCT, people need sufficient self-efficacy before they adopt a particular behaviour. Individuals with high self-efficacy are more likely to engage in a given behaviour.3 In our study of what influences community-level Australian football (AF) and rugby league coaches’ and sports trainers’ intention to use concussion guidelines,4 self-efficacy was a significant predictor of intention.

Social modelling is one source of self-efficacy.5 Observing others can improve self-efficacy by altering perceptions of competency. Four processes govern observational learning: (1) attention: seeing and understanding the behaviour; (2) retention: recalling the behaviour; (3) production: physical and cognitive ability to replicate the behaviour; and (4) motivation: inclination to perform the behaviour.2 We focus on the fourth—motivation.

Modelling has its greatest impact on self-efficacy and subsequent behaviour through the motivational process.1 However, not all role models are created equal. Our experience in implementing concussion guidelines and lower limb injury prevention exercise programmes in community-AF suggests that role models need to be selected carefully. Role models, when used incorrectly, can potentially be demotivating.

Is the role model like me?

A role model is more likely to influence an individual if he or she is similar to the individual. This is particularly true for minority groups in stereotyped situations. For example, when gender is important for role model effectiveness,6 such as in sports traditionally dominated by males, female participants may be most influenced by female role models.

However, in non-stereotype situations, simply being the same gender may be insufficient for an individual to identify with the role model. In such situations, the role model needs to be similar to the individual on other personal attributes. For example, while developing a lower limb injury prevention programme for community-football players (FootyFirst,, we discovered that players and coaches preferred for non-elite role models to be used in the programme resources (posters, videos etc).

Has the role model achieved what I want to achieve?

The individual's goal focus must be considered when selecting appropriate role models. Depending on whether the goal is attaining success (promotion focused) or avoiding failure (prevention focused), an appropriate role model will be either positive or negative. Positive role models are those who have successfully achieved something, whereas negative role models are those who have successfully avoided something.7

In our concussion guidelines study,8 community-AF players identified their desire to contribute to the team and win the match (performance goal focus) as a barrier to reporting concussion symptoms. Therefore, a positive role model who attributed their high-performance to being 100% fit would be most effective in encouraging these players to report concussion symptoms. For coaches who believe that adhering to the guidelines is the right thing to do,4 an effective role model would be someone who highlighted the moral implications of not following the guidelines and the likely regret that would inevitably follow (prevention goal focus).

Is the role model successful in the same level of sport as me?

Care must be taken when selecting role models who are superior to the individual. It is erroneous to assume that an extremely successful elite-level coach or a superstar athlete will necessarily motivate all community-level coaches or athletes. Far superior role models will have little impact, or even a self-deflating effect if individuals cannot identify with the role model or perceive their achievement levels as unattainable.9

Self-efficacy is a significant predictor of coach intention to use concussion guidelines.4 We found that coaches believed themselves to be inexperienced and unfamiliar with using the guidelines.

Coaches indicated that they would be motivated to adopt a lower limb injury prevention programme if it was endorsed by both high-performance and ‘coaches like me’ (ie, with similar knowledge, skill and contextual constraints) who had successfully implemented the programme with meaningful outcomes.


Choosing the right role model to use in sports injury prevention training, promotional materials and resources is critical. We have learnt through our work with community-level AF coaches and players in the context of using the concussion management guidelines and the FootyFirst programme that community-level athletes will benefit most from non-elite role models who can advocate for the performance benefits of injury prevention interventions. While for coaches, a mix of both high-performance and non-elite role models, and those who can appeal to coaches’ moral obligation to keep players safe are likely to work best.


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  • Twitter Follow Caroline Finch at @CarolineFinch

  • Funding While there was no specific funding for this editorial, the results that are drawn on are from work funded by a Victorian Sports Injury Prevention Research Grant from the Department of Planning and Community Development, Victoria, Australia. CFF was supported by a National Health and Medical Research Council Principal Research Fellowship (ID: 565900).

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.