Aggression in Sport

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.


  1. Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 27–51.
  2. Baron, R. A., & Richardson, D. R. (1994). Human aggression (2nd ed.). New York: Plenum Press.
  3. Coulomb-Cabagno, G., & Rascle, O. (2006). Team sports players’ observed aggression as a function of gender, competitive level, and sport type. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36, 1980–2000.
  4. Kavussanu, M. (2008). Moral behaviour in sport: A critical review of the literature. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1, 124–138.
  5. Stephens, D. (1998). Aggression. In J. L. Duda (Ed.), Advances in sport and exercise psychology measurement (pp. 277–292). Morgantown, WV: Fitness Information Technology.

See also: