GETTING PISSED - A LOOK AT AGGRESSION IN SPORT AND SOME SIMPLE TIPS TO MANAGE IT.
Sports provide a microcosm for living and society, and it is generally expected that conflict may arise in competitive sport settings. Contact sports, in particular, involve physical exchanges that can arouse competition and create conditions that have even been compared to war. Sports psychology recognizes that combative emotions can be energizing and useful for performance, while violence can be destructive and detrimental to the reputation of athletes and sports culture. Confrontation and aggression are an integral part of organized sports, and worthy of further investigation.
Aggression can be defined as “any behavior directed toward intentionally harming or injuring another living being” (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). Aggressive behaviors can include verbal and instrumental attacks to cause physical or psychological harm. In sports, an injurious foul or tackle, a verbal assault, or a strategic intimidation can all be considered aggression if the act is intentionally directed toward another person. Such aggression can be highly controversial with regards to morality and ethics, yet it is inherent in contact sports with high levels of physicality.
Aggression can be divided into two categories: hostile aggression and instrumental aggression. Hostile aggression is when the sole intention is inflicting harm upon another athlete. Instrumental aggression is when harm is intended with the purpose of achieving a non-aggressive goal, like scoring a point or winning the game. In some sports instrumental aggression is common, like in rugby, hockey, and American football. These sports are very physical in nature, and aggression can be helpful for performance. In these cases, game rules become extremely important, as well as the officials who enforce them. The NBA, for example, has seen a tremendous revision of rules in the past 20 years including video review and other rule changes which serve to protect players' safety. However, the controversy over how those rules are enforced has not dissipated.
Assertiveness is a non-hostile tendency to behave intensely or energetically toward a specific goal. Although the terms are often used synonymously, aggression is not mutually exclusive from sportsmanship. Aggression does not necessarily signify hatred for another athlete, it merely shows frustration in context. The nature of competition implies that opposing teams will block each other's efforts to achieve goals, thus making them frustrated and possibly aggressive. Aggression, then, occurs regardless of one's ideals of fairness, respect, or any other quality of sportsmanship. Competition creates tension and highly emotional environments which can often lead to aggression.
Physiological and psychological arousal are vital factors in performance and may play an important role in athlete aggression. Psychological arousal is a state of being alert, awake, and attentive. Physiological arousal is the body's manifestation of symptoms, which include increased heart rate and respiration, sensory alertness, and readiness to respond. States of arousal are experienced differently by each individual. The IZOF (Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning) model suggests that each person has different levels of arousal and emotion which are optimal or dysfunctional for performance. Certain sports, individuals, and circumstances may have a tendency toward high levels of arousal for performance. These high levels of arousal, when experienced in pressure situations by athletes who are inexperienced or untrained in managing feeling states, can often lead to misinterpretation of thoughts and emotions, which can lead to aggressive behavior.
In order to teach athletes to control aggressive impulses, we must integrate education and mental skills training into the structure of organized sports. “Aggression or sportsmanship can be learned and/or reinforced by significant others, the structure of sport, and the society's attitude [...] Reinforcement and modeling of aggressive behaviors and/or sportsmanship by parents, coaches, referees, peers, and the media influence their reoccurrence” (Nucci & Young-Shim, 2005). It is important that professional athletes, role models, and media represent aggression in an appropriate way. Building a greater understanding of the role of aggression and assertiveness in competition can be useful in normalizing instrumental assertive behaviors without promoting violence. Coaches must make the effort to teach the rules early on in athlete development. If coaches incorporate the use of legal and appropriate physicality into trainings, it can even stimulate greater intimacy and cooperation between individuals in the team. The members can bond over the mutual goals of using physicality as an instrument for success. Furthermore, we can give athletes practice in regulating emotions and managing stress and anxiety through mental skills training. Here are a few examples:
- Regular mindfulness/meditation practice
- Intentional breathing
- Calming self-talk, focusing phrases
- Mental imagery of stressful situations and how to cope
- Utilization of routines to stabilize arousal states
- Keep a journal to reflect on feelings and emotions