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Should we learn from watching how others run? Can we benefit from trying to run like those elite marathon runners or by replaying Mo Farrah’s double Olympic gold medal winning performances?

NLPers might prefer to call it modeling, but in conventional sports psychology, there is plenty of research to support the use of what is referred to as observational learning. I thought I’d give a brief idea of how runners can adopt this observational learning and offer up some evidence to support doing so.

Observational learning, or modeling, has been researched and examined and shown to help enhance performance by aiding athletes with skill acquisition, enhanced psychological responses and beneficial behaviour change when engaged in the athletic activity (McCullagh, 1993; McCullagh & Weiss, 2001; Weiss, Ebbeck, & Wiess-Bjornstal, 1993; Williams, Davids, & Williams, 1999).

Within sport, athletes often benefit from watching demonstrations or footage of successful athletes, elite athletes, or technically ideal athletes displaying proficiency and skill with their sport. Other athletes can then watch and adapt, adopt and take on board those skills and behaviours themselves.

As well as adopting physical skills and behaviours though, Bandura (1986) also considers modeling to be an incredibly powerful way to adopt beneficial values, attitudes and thought patterns too. With this blog being about using your mind to enhance your running, it would be foolish of me not to mention the usefulness of modeling to runners.

Bandura’s (1977, 1986, 1997) work on observational learning theory has shown that it is not just enough to pay close and active attention to the behaviours and skills being demonstrated, though it is important to pay close attention. It is also important to remember what was modeled and retain it in the mind in order for it to be used in real-life.

It is also important to know what you look at – for example, world record breaking marathon runner Paula Radcliffe has featured in a great deal of my own obsverational learning. I have modeled her mindset, determination and approach to training by reading a lot of her material and watching lots of her races. I have also modeled the way she behaves when she races, but I have not modeled her unusual running style as it is not ideal for me and my particular build and physical abilities. I am selective with how I use my attention to her when modeling her.

We can not always be 100% sure that we are modeling the exact mindset without asking the individual which is not always possible. So we do our best to intelligently translate what we see in a way that is likely to help us the most.

In addition to paying attention and being able to remember accurately what was being observed, the runner is required to be motivated to emulate what it is that we observe. Without being sufficiently motivated to model the successful athlete, we are unlikely to model them accurately or with enough enthusiasm for the emulation to form part of our own behaviours and actions.

A lot of the work by Bandura (1977, 1997) in this field of observational learning does also stress the importance of self-efficacy beliefs. That is, if we believe we can emulate the skills, behaviours and approaches of those demonstrating, then it is going to be more effective. We have already looked at beliefs on this blog (I’m sure I’ll revisit the topic in the future too) and so making sure you believe in your own ability to emulate facets of that which you are modeling is going to advance it for you. However, if when modeling you are able to be progressive and positive with your cognitions, support and encourage yourself and believe you are able and motivated to emulate effectively, then it is going to advance your modeling.

When you are selecting who to model, it is wise to observe people who are technically as correct as possible. Others with slight flaws can be modeled, but research shows that it is only really useful if you are given tuition and feedback while watching flawed skills for modeling purposes and so I am not going to go into great depth about how to do that (McCullagh & Caird, 1990). If you have a coach or your club organisers have the time and inclination, then you might consider watching slightly flawed examples, otherwise, stick to modeling excellence.

Some research does tend to suggest that novices will not necessarily benefit (and may even respond negatively) to watching elite athletes because of the great differences between the novice and the elite athlete. So when I refer to excellence, it does not just have to be elite runners. You can model club runners, other good runners closer to your performance level and gradually develop upwards from there.

When modeling, of course the runner also needs to have a sense of what he is doing currently so that effective emulation can occur and changes can be affected thoroughly. Runners can ask for feedback from a coach, a guide, a technical expert (shoe sales people, orthotics experts, biomechanic experts, physiotherapists all have varying levels of useful skills to feedback on how you run) or spend some time running on a machine with a mirror or getting some video footage of how you run and get a real accurate sense of your own style and behaviour before you start to emulate another or make slight changes to your running.

I have previously written about mental imagery and will be focusing a great deal on it later on here, but a study by McCullagh and Ram (2000) that reviewed imagery studies over a ten year period showed that many of the studies actually included the use of video footage and live demonstrations which showed that modeling was an important part of making some mental imagery techniques effective. There is no real benefit for me to go into much more detail and depth for the purposes of this book, but I wanted to make the point to help me impress upon you the value of modeling as well as the wide array of mental imagery techniques you are presented with here. My message is simple – incorporate some modeling into your mental imagery and cognitive skills development and you’ll enhance your performance.

Learn what you can by observing others and adapting in a way that is right for you.


Bandura, A. (1977) Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioural change. Psychological review, 84, 191-215.

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Bandura, A. (1997) Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W. H. Freeman.

McCullagh, P., & Caird, J. K. (1990) Correct and learning models and the use of model knowledge of results in the acquisition and retention of a motor skill. Journal of Human Movement Studies, 18, 107-116.

McCullagh, P., & Ram, N. (2000) A comparison of imagery and modeling. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 22, S9.

McCullagh, P., & Weiss, M. R. (2001) Modelling: Considerations for motor skill performance and psychological responses. In R. N. Singer, H. A. Hausenblas, & C. M. Janelle (Eds), Handbook of sport psychology. pp. 205-238.

Weiss, M. R., Ebbeck, V., & Wiese-Bjornstal, D. M. (1993) Developmental and psychological skills related to children’s observational learning of physical skills. Pediatric Exercise Science, 5, 301-317.


Weiss, M. R., McCullagh, P., Smith, A. L., & Berlant, A. R. (1998) Observational learning and the fearful child: Influence of peer models on swimming skill performance and psychological responses. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 69, 380-394.

Williams, A. M., Davids, K., & Williams, J. G. (1999) Visual perception and action in sport. E & FN Spon.