Aggression has a long history in both sport and nonsport contexts. There is some variation in the definitions of aggression employed by different people. However, it is commonly agreed that aggression is a verbal or physical behavior that is directed intentionally toward another individual and has the potential to cause psychological or physical harm. In addition, the target of the behavior should be motivated to avoid such treatment. Typically, definitions of aggression incorporate the notion of intent to cause harm; that is, for behavior to be classified as aggressive, the perpetrator must have the intent to harm the victim. However, strict behavioral definitions of aggression exclude the term intent because it refers to an internal state, which cannot be observed.
Aggression has been distinguished between instrumental and hostile. Instrumental aggression is a behavior directed at the target as a means to an end, for example, injuring a player to gain a competitive advantage, or late tackling to stop an opponent from scoring. Thus, instrumental aggression is motivated by some other goal. In contrast, hostile aggression is a behavior aimed toward another person who has angered or provoked the individual and is an end in itself. Its purpose is to harm for its own sake, for example, hitting an opponent who has just been aggressive against the player. Hostile aggression is typically preceded by anger. Instrumental aggression, in pursuit of a goal, is not normally associated with anger and, in sport, is far more frequent than hostile aggression. In both types of aggression, a target person is harmed, and the harm can be physical or psychological.
In this entry, the construct of aggression is presented. First, the distinction is made between aggression and assertion, and difficulties with the notion of intent in the definition of aggression are discussed. Then measures of aggression are outlined followed by factors associated with aggression in sport.
Aggression, Assertion, and Intent
In sport, the word aggressive is often used when assertive is more appropriate. For example, coaches describe strong physical play as aggressive, when this type of play is actually assertive; it is within the rules of the game and there is no intention to cause harm. The difference between aggression and assertion lies in the intention to harm. If there is no intent to harm the opponent, and the athlete is using legitimate means to achieve goals, the behavior is assertive, not aggressive. When one is being assertive, the intention is to establish dominance rather than to harm the opponent. Behaviors such as tackling in rugby, checking in ice hockey, and breaking up a double play in baseball may be seen as assertive as long as these are performed as legal components of the contest and without malice. However, these same actions would represent aggression if the athlete’s intention was to cause injury.
It is often difficult to distinguish aggression from assertion in sport. Although assertive behaviors are forceful behaviors that are not intended to injure the victim, by their nature, they may result in unintended harm to the athlete’s opponent. In addition, some sports involve forceful physical contact, which has the capacity to harm another person, but this contact is within the rules of sport. Assertive behaviors have also been labeled sanctioned aggression. Thus, sanctioned aggression is any behavior that falls within a particular sport’s rules or is widely accepted as such: for example, using the shoulder to force a player off the ball in soccer and tackling below the shoulders in rugby. Examples are combat sports, such as judo, karate, and wrestling, and team contact sports, such as rugby, ice hockey, American football, and lacrosse. Perhaps the confusion between assertion and aggression arises because both have the capacity to harm the target, although, as noted earlier, only aggression involves intention to harm.
Incorporating the notion of intent in definitions of aggression has the difficulty of establishing which behavior is aggressive. This is because the only person knowing whether there is intent to cause harm is the person who carries out the action. Two features of definitions of aggression that have not been questioned are the capacity of behavior to cause harm and the intentional (nonaccidental) nature of the behavior.
The Measurement of Aggression
The notion of intent, which is part of most definitions of aggression, has created difficulties in the measurement of aggression. Therefore, many studies have operationally defined and measured aggression without considering intent, or the reasons for the behavior. A very common aggression measure in the laboratory context is administering electric shocks, which is known to hurt the participant. Thus, aggression is reflected in the intensity of the shock administered. Other studies used delivering an aversive stimulus, for example a loud noise, as their measure of aggression.
In the sport context, aggression has been measured in a variety of ways, such as number of fouls, coach ratings, penalty records, as well as using self-reports and behavioral observation. In studies of behavioral observation, instrumental and hostile aggression have been measured. Instrumental aggression has been operationally defined as aggression occurring during game play and involves opponent-directed physical interactions that contribute to accomplishing a task. In contrast, hostile aggression has been operationally defined as physical or verbal interactions aimed at various targets but not directly connected to task accomplishment; these behaviors are directed at opponents, teammates, or referees. For example, in handball, repelling, hitting, and cheating have been coded as instrumental aggression, and insulting, threatening, making obscene gestures, and shoving against opponents, referees, teammates, and others have been coded as hostile aggression. Aggressive behaviors (e.g., late tackle, hitting, elbowing) have also been measured as part of the construct of antisocial behavior, which has been defined as behavior intended to harm or disadvantage another individual and has considerable overlap with aggression.
Other studies have used athlete self-reports to measure aggression, either by presenting them with a scenario that describes an aggressive behavior and asking about their intentions or likelihood to aggress, or by asking them to respond to a number of items measuring aggressive or antisocial behavior. Self-described likelihood to aggress has been used as a proxy for aggression. In these studies, participants are presented with a scenario in which the protagonist is faced with a decision to harm the opponent to prevent scoring and they are asked to indicate the likelihood they would engage in this behavior if they were in this situation. Finally, aggression (e.g., trying to injure another player) has been measured as part of antisocial behavior in sport.
Why Aggression Occurs
Aggression has a long history in both mainstream psychology and sport psychology. One view is that aggression results from frustration. In sport, frustration can occur for a variety of reasons: because of losing, not playing well, being hurt, and perceiving unfairness in the competition. Frustration heightens one’s predisposition toward aggression. Contextual factors come into play so that the manner in which an individual interprets the situational cues at hand best predicts whether this athlete, or spectator, will exhibit aggression.
Some theorists view aggression as a learned behavior, which is the result of an individual’s interactions with personal social environment over time. Aggression occurs in sport where an athlete’s expectancies for reinforcement for aggressive behavior are high (receiving praise from parents, coaches, peers), and where the reward value outweighs punishment value (gaining a tactical or psychological advantage with a personal foul). Situation-related expectancies, such as the time of game, score opposition, or the encouragement of the crowd, also influence the athlete in terms of whether this is deemed an appropriate time to exhibit aggression.
A number of individual difference factors have been associated with aggression. Three of them are legitimacy judgments, moral disengagement, and ego orientation. When athletes judge aggressive and rule-violating behaviors as legitimate or acceptable, they are more likely to be aggressive. Moral disengagement refers to a set of psychosocial mechanisms that people use to justify aggression. Through these justifications, athletes manage to engage in aggression without experiencing negative feelings like guilt that normally control this behavior. For example, players may displace responsibility for their actions to their coach, blame their victim for their own behavior, claim that they cheated to help their team, or downplay the consequences of their actions for others. Finally, individuals who are high in ego orientation feel successful when they do better than others; they are preoccupied with winning and showing that they are the best. These players are more likely to be aggressive in sport.
Social environmental variables are also associated with aggression. One of them is the performance motivational climate, which refers to the criteria of success that are dominant in the athletes’ environment. Through the feedback they provide, the rewards they give, and, in general, the way they interact with the players, coaches make clear the criteria of success in that achievement context. As an example, when coaches provide feedback about how good a player is relative to others and reward only the best players, they create a performance motivational climate, sending a clear message to athletes that only high ability matters. Players who perceive a performance climate in their team are more likely to become aggressive.
Aggression is a construct with a long history and considerable debate around its definition, primarily due to the difficulties of determining whether the perpetrator has the intention to harm the victim when acting in a certain way. Aggression can be instrumental or hostile. Many sports involve forceful play, which could result in an injury. However, if players do not intend to harm the opponent, this play is considered as an assertive act, not an aggressive one. Finally, several individual difference and social environmental factors have been associated with aggression in sport.
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