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Aggression in Sports: Theories and Examples

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Examining the Effects of Aggression in Sport Psychology

Aggression in a sporting environment falls within the area of social psychology. Whether it's seen on the field as a defensive tackle lines up to protect his quarterback in American football, or when fans clash off the field such as the Black Wednesday clash between Liverpool supporters and those of Juventus at the Heysel Stadium, Brussels in 1985, the field is a great place to look for examples of the theories of social psychology.

Aggression is seen throughout sports. Sometimes in a crowd's reaction to on-field activity, and sometimes simply as part of a sport. However, many of the sporting behaviours we often believe to be aggression are actually not classified as such and are miss-classified by commentators and forecasters.

Boxing is a prime example of a sport where a degree of aggression can lead to success

Boxing is a prime example of a sport where a degree of aggression can lead to success

Gill's (1986) Criteria for Aggression


  • Is a behaviour
  • Involves causing harm or injury
  • Is directed towards a human being or living organism
  • Involves intent

How Can We Define Aggression?

Berkowitz (1993) summarised that we need two factors present to classify a behaviour as showing aggression.

  1. The behaviour must be directed at another human being with the goal of causing some form of physical harm.
  2. The behaviour must show a reasonable expectation that the attempt to inflict harm will be successful.

Although other sports psychologists have slightly different classifications such as the criteria noted by Gill.

What Isn't an Aggressive Behaviour? Sporting Examples

Based on the definition of aggression in sport psychology above, we can assume that the following examples are not deemed as aggression:

  • A frustrated tennis player taking their anger out on their racket by smashing it down on the floor after a bad shot.
  • A form of destructive violence shown to an object such as a door, teacup or drinks dispenser.
  • A challenge which leads to unintentional injury such as a soccer player going into a 50/50 challenge.
  • Behaviour where aggression is deemed to be directed towards a victim, however there is no chance of physically injuring the opponent such as verbal abuse or situations where bars or team-mates provide a barrier.

Over time, aggression has been categorised as two distinct forms based on the type and end product of the behaviour: hostile aggression and instrumental aggression.

Hostile Aggression in Sport Psychology

For an individual to be showing hostile aggression, their primary aim is to cause injury to the other human being. Their intent is on causing pain and suffering.

Hostile aggressors find reinforcement for their behaviour in the pain, suffering and injuries caused.

A good example of hostile aggression is a bowler throwing a bouncer to deliberately shake up the concentration of a batsman. Some cricketers have deliberately done this in the past with the intent towards injury.

A very high profile example of hostile aggression was the reaction of French footballer Zinedine Zidane during the 2006 World Cup final after being aggravated by Italy defender Marco Materazzi as shown below.

An Insight Into Instrumental Aggression

Sometimes aggressive behaviour in sports is rewarded with success. For athletes driven by instrumental aggression, their goal is the realisation of an external goal, whether this is fame, money or victory in performance.

Boxing and events such as the UFC place a reward on aggression in terms of victory in the ring or financial success.

Is Aggression in Sport Desirable?

Is it acceptable to encourage aggression in a developing athlete? There are arguments that state that neither instrumental nor hostile aggression should be acceptable within sports. In the case of sports like boxing and MMA events like the UFC, it should be emphasised that many fighters will go into the ring with the purpose of doing what it takes to beat their opponent within the laws and customs of the sport.

As both instrumental and hostile aggression involve an intent to do harm to another athlete and human being, in reality, it should therefore be discouraged at all levels of competition.

In many cases when a coach is asking an athlete to show aggression, they are in fact seeking an assertive behaviour.

Assertiveness in Sport

All coaches, parents and athletes should be aiming to assert their presence within their sport. This should not involve a rationale for causing physical harm to an opponent. Assertiveness is the ability of the athlete to make their presence shown whether it is through a physical or verbal approach.

Assertiveness is the 110% of effort that the coach asks for. It's making the challenges that a defender wouldn't usually be expected to make, which fall inside the respective laws of the game. Assertiveness does not involve attempts to harm others in pursuit of a goal and therefore requires a degree of self-control from an athlete.

Rugby is an example of a sport where assertiveness is a key behaviour.

Rugby is an example of a sport where assertiveness is a key behaviour.

What Causes Aggression?

What causes some athletes to completely lose control? Those moments of madness and frustration that lead to aggressive behaviour. Are aggressive individuals a story of nature or nurture?

Over the years, four key theories of aggression have been put forward:

  1. Instinct Theory
  2. Frustration Aggression Theory
  3. Social Learning Theory (Bandura)
  4. Revised Frustration Aggression Theory

Instinct Theory and Catharsis in Sport

Instinct theory refers to early beliefs that an athlete's inevitability to be aggressive builds up over time before being expressed. It's the analogy of tightening a spring until it forcibly unwinds.

The instinct can either be expressed with a show of aggression such as attacking another living being or through displacement as catharsis. Catharsis is where feelings of aggression are released through socially acceptable means such as sporting activities.

Whilst many sports participants might consider that sport provides a socially acceptable means for them to vent their frustrations in the form of catharsis, it is widely acknowledged within the psychology fraternity that no innate biologically aggressive behaviour has been identified. Therefore, very little support has been given to the notion of catharsis from the scientific community in assessing that sport offers a socially acceptable means of dispersing our natural aggressive feelings.

Frustration-Aggression Theory

The frustration-aggression theory refers to aggression being as a direct result of goal blockage or failure to achieve a specific goal.

Psychologists initially observed that most aggressive acts occur when people exhibit feelings of frustration. However, the frustration-aggression theory carries little weight due to its insistence that frustration causes aggression. It does not factor into account that many individuals develop coping strategies to deal with their feelings of frustration.

Adaptation of the frustration-aggression theory shows that aggressive behaviour may not be obvious and through sport, the feelings can be channelled through socially acceptable outlets in the form of catharsis.

Bandura's Social Learning Theory

Bandura (1977) believed that behaviours are learnt as a result of environmental factors in the form of observational learning. As humans, we consider the relationship between our actions and subsequent consequences through a procedure of information processing.

Therefore observational learning can only occur when cognitive processes are exhibited.

Bandura's Dolls Experiment

In 1973, Bandura noted that children who watched adult models partake in violent acts of aggression in the form of beating up bobo dolls were more likely to commit subsequent violent acts themselves when compared to those children who did not witness such behaviour. This relationship helped to shape Bandura's Social Learning Theory. These actions were further reinforced in cases where the children were made to copy the violent acts of the adults.

Berkowitz's Reformulated Frustration Aggression Theory

As the original frustration-aggression theory failed to account for justified and unjustified frustration and environmental cues to aggression, it needed some adjustment to become a justifiable hypothesis.

Berkowitz's (1993) reformulation of the theory pays consideration to the observation that frustration does not assuredly lead to aggressive behaviour and proposed that frustration creates a readiness for aggression. To lead to aggression certain stimuli are required for the behaviour to occur.

In the animal world, an example would be the bullfighter using a red flag to enrage a bull. In the sporting world, it could be the sledging from the wicketkeeper to build up the batsman's level of frustration in cricket in the hope that he takes a wild, angry swing at the ball and misses as the ball smashes into the stumps—Howzat!

Berkowitz summarised that a large number of factors and events can influence the strength of impulse to commit acts of aggression.

Examples of these instigating factors include

  • Events having aggressive meaning to the athlete
  • Objects having an aggression meaning to the athlete
  • Lowered restraint towards aggression as a result of instances
  • Negative effect
  • An aggressive disposition
  • High levels of arousal
  • Association with previous gratifications from aggression (Such as positive coach response towards previous aggressive behaviours)

Some psychologists have argued that we need to understand what aggressive acts mean to the individual. Some psychologists consider that aggression can be a calculated act and therefore not born from the frustrations of many theorists. These theories may help to provide an explanation for the wide variety of motivational influences that can lead towards aggressive behaviours.

Reformulated Frustration Aggression Theory and Coaching

For the coach it becomes a vital part of their strategy when managing an athlete to assess for situations which could be stimuli towards aggressive behaviour. For a developing athlete, a coach may assess a situation and remove them from a game to give the opportunity to learn from the situation and any cues manifested.

Revised Frustration Aggression Theory

Revised Frustration Aggression Theory


Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Berkowitz, L., (1993) Aggression, It's causes, consequences, and control. Philadephia, Temple University Press.

Gill, D.L., (1986) Psychological dynamics of sport, Champaign IL, Human Kinetics


mikeydcarroll67 on June 05, 2015:

Teaching individuals how to harness that anger into something constructive would be a nice start. I know that running was always a good outlet for me.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 05, 2015:

Liam, congrats on HOTD! This was a thought-provoking hub about aggressive behavior in sports. Very insightful, too. Voted up!

Venkatachari M from Hyderabad, India on June 05, 2015:

Very interesting discussion on aggression theories with good examples. You have presented it in a very excellent manner.

Voted up.

Liam Hallam (author) from Nottingham UK on April 12, 2014:

Thanks tirelesstraveler. I'm not sure lacrosse stated out as such a violent sport however maybe over time it's culture and competitiveness of athletes has led to some aggressive behaviour shown although I'd be confident that most athletes don't showcase aggressive behaviour based on

"The behaviour must show a reasonable expectation that the attempt to inflict harm will be successful."

I certainly believe that many of us struggle with the actual definition of aggressive behaviour in relation to competitiveness and showing intent.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting


Judy Specht from California on April 09, 2014:

There has always been aggression in sports. Some sports were designed to be played to death like, La Cross. Teaching children to regulate aggression then allowing them to be aggressive in sports is a good way to reinforce self control. Unfortunately many don't have self control and aggression gets out of control.

Very nice article.