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Learn the difference between anger, aggression, and violence

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

A New Vernacular

I believe that the definitions used in the sport psychology field regarding anger and violence require streamlining. As we go through relevant terminology and definitions that I think should be standardized (if for no other reason than to have pragmatic language that people can agree on), I will explain why I have made refinements to previously used terms.


Anger is a normal emotion. Anger is neither good nor bad, and no judgment need be attached to it. Some people believe that a problem arises if a person becomes angry. This idea is not true. To pass judgment on anger and condemn those who admit to becoming angry is the equivalent of robbing people of their humanness. Disallowing oneself from any part of the human experience weakens the experience in its totality. Sadness gives a reference point that makes happiness more appreciated. Tension can be better understood when compared with relaxation. It is about time we stopped making value judgments about anger. No one has ever gotten in trouble for becoming angry. You could be furious right now, but no one would know it unless you demonstrated some behavior associated with the anger. The belief that anger is bad is so strongly engrained that people will sometimes deny its existence even when it is spilling out all over the place. We have all heard someone with a red face expel incendiary words accompanied by saliva and then follow up by saying, “I am not angry!” The bad rap that anger has received has made it even more resistant to examination.

Truth be told, anger can be harnessed and used as fuel to assist in performance. Can it interfere with performance? You bet! Does it have to? Absolutely not. I have helped athletes compete harder with greater intensity for longer periods, motivated by their anger. The issue is not a matter of eliminating anger; it is a matter of keeping it at a level where it assists, not detracts from, performance.

Studies have shown that as anger increases, cognitive processing speed goes down, fine motor coordination and sensitivity to pain decrease, and muscle strength often increases. So for some athletes doing some tasks, anger can be helpful. For example, the defensive lineman who must make his way past a blocker to make a tackle might benefit from having some level of anger. For other tasks, anger would be a hindrance. The quarterback who needs to read the defense before deciding which receiver to throw to would likely perform better if he was not angry. In fact, some research supports this thesis. Players at football positions that require a lot of decision making tend to demonstrate lower levels of anger than players at positions that do not.

Therefore, when we talk about anger management for peak performance in sport, we are not always talking about making athletes polite and calm. Rather, we are referring to their ability to self-regulate their emotions to what their tasks require.


What does it mean to be aggressive? Definitions that have permeated sport psychology for decades have stated that aggression has harm to another as a goal. It is no wonder that people frown on aggression in sport; it means that someone has to get hurt. This statement is not true. The adverb aggressively describes the method by which people go after their goals. It refers to the tenacity, the hunger, and the determination that people embody when striving for accomplishments. I checked: The women who succeeded on Wall Street climbed the corporate ladder aggressively. Success in life is not just handed to people. They have to want it. They have to go get it themselves. At the heart of Nike's “Just Do It” campaign is the idea of not waiting for it to come to you. Instead, you go from being passive to active and doing it yourself. Aggression is a necessary requirement for success in sport and in life in general.

Aggressive behavior can be broken down into various categories. The delineation that makes the most sense is that between instrumental aggression and reactive aggression.

Instrumental aggression is goal-directed aggression in which harm to another is not the primary goal, although it can be a secondary result of the action. In sport, an example would be the basketball player who slashes to the basket, leaps over a defender, and accidentally catches another defender with an elbow on the way up to scoring two points with a resounding dunk. The goal was to put the ball in the hole, not to harm an opponent. People who participate in sport know that injury is always a possibility. Accidental injuries happen. No blame should be assigned, and nothing in the rules of the game bans these incidents. Instrumental aggression is the hallmark for success in life and in sport and should be encouraged.

Some authors have described instrumental aggression as assertiveness. I believe that in making this distinction, psychologists are trying to soften things up in defense of the position that aggression is bad. Let us examine this for a moment. To be assertive is to stand up for one's rights. In fact, in the psychotherapy world, assertiveness training is used for people who have self-esteem problems. We teach them communication skills (we will revisit this topic later in the book) that will help them effectively and appropriately have their needs met.

To illustrate how assertiveness is not the same as instrumental aggression, consider the following: The tailback is 10 yards out from the goal line. Three defenders block the path between him and six points. Will he assertively communicate to his opponents, “Excuse me, gentlemen, would it be OK if you just acquiesced and allowed me to run past you? After all, it is my right to score this touchdown, you know”? Of course not! The tailback has no entitlement to score. He has no right to win. He succeeds only by aggressively going after his goal. So when you see the tailback launch his body through the air like a missile trying to bowl over the last defender after skillfully dancing his way between the other two, do not think assertive; think Walter Payton—aggressive.

But that is not the whole story on aggression. Another type of aggression is called reactive aggression, sometimes referred to as hostile aggression. Reactive aggression is behavior that has as its primary and sometimes solitary goal to do harm to someone. Usually, this action is in response to a perceived injustice, insult, or wrongdoing. This form of aggression is related to anger and is the behavior that gets athletes in trouble, both on and off the field. An example of reactive aggression may be the pitcher who is furious that the last time a certain batter came to the plate, he hit a 450-foot (140-meter) homer that cleared the bleachers. Still fuming, the pitcher aims his 95 mile-per-hour (150-kilometer-per-hour) fastball between the hitter's shoulder blades.


Reactive aggression, in its most extreme forms, is violence, but the definition is not reflexive. Not all violence comes from anger and reactive aggression. Violence has, at its root, harm to another as its planned result.

Predatory violence, for example, is behavior in which the hunter seeks the hunted. In the animal world, the stealthy lion waits patiently in the brush for its prey to wander close enough to be ambushed. In the world of serial killers who hunt their victims, predators often do not have an increase in heart rate or sympathetic nervous system activity that usually accompanies anger. Anger is not related to this activity and in fact would interfere with the ability to hunt.

Terry and Jackson (1985) clarified sport violence as harm-inducing behavior outside the rules of sport, bearing no direct relationship to the competitive goals of sport. This definition nicely carved out a type of violence different from society's violence.

In an attempt to explain sport violence, I developed the Abrams model of sports violence (figure 1.1) that reflects the seeming overlap between aggression and violence. Understanding that injury can be part of the game, we can differentiate violence in the same way that we differentiate aggression. Incidental violence is violence that does not have harming another as its sole goal; it is directed toward sport goals. In contrast, reactive or hostile violence has the specific goal of causing harm to someone else.

Both represent behaviors that may go beyond the rules of the sport, but incidental violence is an extension of acceptable behavior. Checking in hockey provides a useful example. The line that differentiates checking from cross-checking or boarding, both of which are penalties, is often blurry. Overzealous players can certainly have their behavior spill over to being illegal. This behavior is different from reactive violence, in which the behavior is retaliatory. This kind of behavior can also be broken down into two categories. The first is the spontaneous response. There are some players who pride themselves on their ability to get inside their opponents' heads and will deliberately provoke them to take them off their game. New York Rangers forward Sean Avery, often described as an agitator, is particularly proficient at this. So, the player provokes the other repeatedly, perhaps by checking them with their stick. Finally, the provoking player checks the first player one too many times, and the player turns and swings the stick at the opponent's head. The response, although extreme, was not planned. This is spontaneous reactive aggression and is directly related to anger. Anger management programs specifically target reducing this type of behavior. More immediately though, the league or organization must penalize, fine, or suspend players engaging in such behavior as it can very easily cause serious injury.

More Excerpts From Anger Management in Sport



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