The social learning theory has been the theoretical foundation for the majority of studies on sport socialization. To date, this perspective has been the most popular and most productive framework in both theory and empirical findings. In an effort to explain why people behave as they do, social learning theory emphasizes the prominent roles played by vicarious, symbolic, and self-regulatory processes in psychological functioning.
Human thought, affect, and behavior can be markedly influenced by observation, as well as by direct experience. Observational learning and modeling are vital for the social transmission process in which the language, lifestyles, and institutional practices of a culture are taught to new members. According to social learning theory, modeling influences produce learning principally through their informative function.
During exposure, observers acquire mainly symbolic representations of the modeled activities. The capacity to use symbols provides humans with a powerful means of interacting with their environment. Through verbal and imagined symbols people process and preserve experiences and representational forms that serve as guides for appropriate performance and future behavior.
In addition to the real models, such as parents and peers, the abundant and diverse symbolic modeling provided in television and other audio-visual displays is also an influential source of social learning. Social learning theory also emphasizes the prominent role of self-regulatory processes. People are not simple reactors to external influences. Individuals process and interpret the environment, and can exercise some influence over their own behavior.
Self-influence, therefore, partly determines which actions one performs. To be sure, the self-regulatory functions are created and occasionally supported by external influences. According to this theory, most behavior, including the learning of specific social roles, is acquired by observing the behavior of significant others, or role models, and regulated by reinforcement contingencies. One’s cultural background alone is “insufficient to explain the varied socialization outcomes that typically exist even in relatively homogeneous sub-cultures.
These differences occur because organizational prescriptions for conduct must be implemented by parents and other societal agents. For instance, “parents who, for whatever reason, do not subscribe to organizational sanction codes of behavior, and who themselves display deviant characteristics, generally produce children who are also deviant”. In most cases, the environment and personal determinants are only potential influences on behavior until actualized by appropriate actions.
Thus, behavior partly determines which of the many potential influences will come into play and what forms they will take; environmental influences, in turn, partly determine what types of behavior are developed and activated.