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Developing anger management programs for athletes

This is an excerpt from Anger Management in Sport by Mitch Abrams.

The culmination of the previous chapters leads us to the “How To” of anger management. As should be clear by now, getting angry in and of itself, is not a problem. It is the high levels of anger that lead to reactive aggression. The program that is outlined below provides guidelines on how to recognize one's emotion levels and control them. This is done by becoming aware of one's body, how it changes when one is very angry, and different methods to both calm down when very angry as well as ways to avoid getting so angry in the first place. These techniques are truly cognitive and behavioral skills.

Prescreening for Anger Management Participation

Certain groups of people should be evaluated before they are enrolled in an anger management program. When I say evaluated, I do not mean unilaterally ruled out, but prescreened. Certain kinds of people are more likely to benefit than others are from this type of work, and determining who they are is important before beginning any anger management work.

The first question should always be this: Why are you here? If the person is self-referred and motivated—great! If the person shows up because someone said that he or she had to be there—beware! Mandated therapies are notoriously difficult, particularly when people are getting help for behavioral patterns that may be ego syntonic (they like acting that way). People who are doing this work are more likely to benefit from it if they are there because they chose to be there. I am not opposed to discussing with clients the benefits that they can get from anger management training, which certainly includes satisfying the mandate of whoever made the referral. Ultimately, success or failure will come from the client, not from the leader, so the person has the choice of how to proceed. Often, when the issue is posed that way, the client will concede and stay, at least to check it out. If you demand that they stay and participate, you may be wasting each other's time. Sometimes, people do better by delaying their participation until they are ready to do the work.

The second question is this: Who is the client? As in all sport psychology interventions, this question is critical. The issue is about more than knowing who is going to sign the check. The more important issues involve who is expecting results and how they are going to know about them. Sorting this out ahead of time is necessary to avoid confidentiality concerns and ethical conflicts as well to create a safe therapeutic space for the work to be done.

The last area of prescreening, which may include pretest questionnaires or other psychological testing in rare cases, is whether the likely problem for the individual is a skills deficit or severe psychopathology or even psychopathy. Refer to chapter 3 for instruments that may help make this determination.

When I receive an anger management referral, whether clinical or sport related, I ask for information about a recent medical examination and any counseling history. The screening should ask direct questions about past or current pathology, including substance abuse, to ascertain whether the client would be best served in a more controlled arena, such as in individual sessions where clinical problems can be addressed along with the anger issues. If you are not psychologically trained, you should refer the client to someone with the proper background before you start down this path. It could quickly go to places that you never expected.

Individual Versus Group

As Bruce Hale and I explained in our chapter for Shane Murphy's Sport Psych Handbook, both individual and group interventions have pluses and minuses. These attributes should be considered when deciding how to implement anger management skills.

Individual counseling sessions allow greater exploration of incidents and issues that may be embarrassing if addressed in front of others. Furthermore, if a hidden psychopathology may present, especially a trauma-related issue, a group setting could be not only humiliating but also damaging. In addition, current teammates may soon be on opposing teams. Sharing thoughts and feelings may leave a person feeling vulnerable. Exploring those thoughts and feelings one-on-one in a safe environment may promote greater honesty; the lack thereof is a considerable obstacle to progress.

Group interventions offer the opportunity for a group of athletes to learn the skills together. This aspect may be particularly valuable when the intervention is for a whole team or parts thereof. Reinforcement can then occur outside the leader's office, and what is learned can be extended to new environments. In my experience, group sessions can have a significant team-building effect. Athletes learn more about how other athletes think. Through role playing, they can see how their peers react to situations that may also develop in other venues. This area would be another good topic for research. In research on these types of interventions, measures of team cohesion may provide some useful information. By learning each other's triggers, players can help their teammates regain composure and self-control in volatile situations rather than react in a destructive manner.

In no case, however, do I assign any athlete to be responsible for the behavior of another. I do believe that athletes influence each other and contribute to the culture in which decisions are made, but people must ultimately take responsibility for themselves. Collectively, the team takes responsibility for the team.

Finally, although role playing is an excellent way to teach the lessons that follow, and it tends to be more effective than a lecture-based format, the leader must strive to make the program exciting, interactive, and fun. People learn better when they are having fun.

Anger Management

Hey, how do you feel?




Not bad?

No, how do you feel?

Several basic elements can hinder the effectiveness of anger management programs. The first is that most people do not know how to label their emotions. Any emotion management program must begin with teaching people how to recognize how they feel. Just as important is to recognize that the purpose is not truly to manage anger. The real purpose is to manage behavior associated with anger, or reactive aggression management. The place to start is with emotion labeling because as arousal increases, controlling emotions and related behavior becomes increasingly difficult.

Emotion Labeling

In my opinion, the deficit in emotional labeling has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. The cause may be our susceptibility to the more-is-better approach: “If one is good, then give me a thousand.” We have great difficulty identifying how we feel and how much we feel. After all, emotions have their own experience, which varies slightly from person to person, but they can also be experienced at different intensities, frequencies, and durations.

Nothing about any emotion is inherently good or bad. The judgment that we place on them is the single greatest obstacle to managing them. To expand, parents often tell their children that being angry is not good. Men are socialized as boys to hide their emotions, especially their fears and sadness, although they may be simultaneously confused by the intense football coach who encourages their anger and aggression. The 12-year-old Pop Warner football player who cries may be called a sissy, a girl—as if being a girl is a bad thing—or worse. I will focus more on communication between coaches and athletes later, but at the onset, we must divorce ourselves from the idea that having a particular emotion is good or bad. Making that sort of judgment is complete nonsense.

The way to go about teaching athletes to label their emotions is twofold. The easier way to start is to teach them how their bodies react during emotional changes. They have their bodies with them all the time, they tend to pay close attention to their bodies (in my experience, the only group of clients who pay more attention to how their bodies feel are substance abusers), and they can gain tangible results from controlling the physiological changes associated with emotion.

Ask your athletes to imagine for a moment that they are not young human athletes but instead cute fuzzy bunnies in the woods. (Expect some groaning from your young male athletes, but proceed anyway.) Set up this scenario. You are hopping along and out of nowhere, a giant grizzly bear pops out with its claws bared and saliva dripping from its fangs. It growls as it moves toward its next meal . . . you.

Are you scared?

You bet your butt! How do you know? Think about how your body feels. What must you do to survive? You need either to run or to get ready to fight. In either case, your body needs to prepare for action. The autonomic nervous system is the automatic, involuntary part of the nervous system. It has two parts. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the increase in the following functions, and the parasympathetic nervous system controls the decrease. A loose analogy would be that the sympathetic nervous system is the on switch and the parasympathetic nervous system is the off switch. It is not quite that simple because some bodily functions do not abide by those rules, but in a fight-or-flight situation—in which you must either run or fight to survive—the sympathetic nervous system kicks in full force.

More Excerpts From Anger Management in Sport