Aggression is the display of an intentionally harmful physical action, rather than a cognitive or affective state (Tod, Thatcher & Rahman, 2010). It takes two major forms, the first being hostile aggression, which consists of harmful intent without the desire to achieve a competitive benefit. The second type is instrumental aggression, which holds focus on completing a competitive goal through harmful means (Tod, Thatcher & Rahman, 2010).
Assertion is also frequently associated with aggression, but is accepted and often encouraged in sport as it is defined as a legitimate force, without intent to harm and usually involves a heightened level of effort (Silva, 1979; cited in Cox, 2007).
Aggression in different contexts
Burton (2005) suggested that aggression is an essential element of sport and the application of it can be recognised as passion for that particular game, and therefore in some cases, a desirable characteristic. Earlier research by Zilman, Johnson and Day (1974) found a similar outcome where aggressive behaviour displayed in contact sports was commonly rewarded, providing a form of positive reinforcement, and encouraging the same nature of behaviour outside of a sporting context (cited in Lemieux, Mckelvie & Stout, 2002). Football and Rugby, two very popular contact sports, have also been identified as more likely to trigger aggression both on and off the field (Tenebaum et al, 1997; cited in Lemieux, Mckelvie & Stout, 2002).
A lab study conducted in 1999 on high school athletes provided results showing that individuals who participate in high contact sport demonstrated a higher chance of behaving aggressively following provocation than those involved in low contact sports (Huang et al, 1999; cited in Lemieux, Mckelvie & Stout, 2002).
Bandura (1973) and the Social Learning Theory propose the idea that the behaviour of significant others and even oneself during sport, can have a strong influence on the way that individuals act outside of a sporting context (cited in Lemieux, Mckelvie & Stout, 2002). Aggressive behaviour away from sport is more likely to be demonstrated by those involved or interested in sport which allows contact (Bandura, 1973; cited in Lemieux, Mckelvie & Stout, 2002). Conroy et al (2001) also found that athletes participating in non- contact sports did not perceive acts of aggression to be tolerable in the way that individuals who participated in contact sports did (cited in Tod, Thatcher & Rahman, 2010).
However, the Catharsis Theory also argues that aggression is a natural and intuitive motivation which has the compelling need for release through physical action within a controlled environment (Bushman et al., 1999; cited in Cox, 2007). Similarly, the more recent Reversal Theory submits that contact permitting sports are predominantly opted for, due to the opportunity to exert a certain level of aggression through the nature of play (Kerr, 2004; cited in Tod, Thatcher & Rahman, 2010).
So, although there has been findings to suggest that contact sports have a causal effect on aggression both in and out of a sporting context (Bandura, 1973; Zilman, Johnson & Day, 1974; Tenenbaum, 1997), there are also contrary beliefs that aggression can be utilised positively through sport as an opportunity for release of naturally accumulated aggression (Apter, 2001; Kerr, 2004; Bushman et al, 1999).
Burton, W., R. (2005). Aggression and Sport. . Clinics in Sports Medicine. 24 (4), 845-852.
Cox, H., R. (2007). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications. 6th ed. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies. 350-358.
Lemieux, P., Mckelvie, J., S. & Stout, D. (2002) Self-Reported Hostile Aggression in Contact Athletes, No Contact Athletes and Non-Athletes. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology. 4 (3).
Tod, D., Thatcher, J. & Rahman, R. (2010). Sport Psychology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 44-51.
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About Luci Smith
Luci Smith, 20, Applied Sport Psychology student, Liverpool John Moores University.