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Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No.

1-2, April 2013
A Study on the Relationship
Between Sports and Aggression
ggression is a general feature of human beings, a potential
condition which can be activated fast or slow and it may take
various forms of manifestation. In sports, where the main characteristic is
the competition itself, the essential coordinates of the existence are: rivalry,
direct confrontation with the opponents, desire to win and optimal activation.
Today, the increasing number and frequency of aggressive acts occurring
on or around the sports ground, makes us wonder where or which are the
limits of combativity. This situation also demands a good understanding of
deep psychological connotations of such behaviors. This paper is frst of
all a review of the most important theories of aggression shaped over the
time. Also, we mention some of the most relevant studies on the issue of
aggression in sport. The research is based on social learning theory developed
by Albert Bandura. For that purpose, it was developed a comparative analysis
of the results obtained from 106 football players who completed a specifc
questionnaire for assessing hostility. There are signifcant differences between
the index of anger expression specifc to the age of 17-18 years and the one
specifc to the athletes with 14-15 years
Keywords: hostility, football, social learning
1 Department of Psychology, National Institute for Sport Research, Bucharest, Romania
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, no. 1-2, 2013, 33 - 48
DOI: 10.2478/ssr-2013-0003
ISSN: (print) 2066-8732/(online) 2069-7244
© 2013 • National Institute for Sport Research • Bucharest, Romania
Sport and Aggression
Theoretical concepts
”Aggression is not only a behavior that involves hurting others, it is also a
complex emotional condition, a specifc cognitive structure with a strong motiva-
tional base, involving the whole mental life” (Stemate, 2009, p. 3). Every person
knows the feeling of anger because it is a natural response to a problem, to an in-
ternal or external tension (pressure). Therefore it can be directed toward elements
or persons from around or at himself. „The externalization of aggression in ex-
cess and inappropriate lead to violence and to the inability to relate efectively with
activities or with the others, while the inhibition of its expression leads to depre-
ssion, physical diseases and diffculties in communication” (Stemate, 2009, p. 47).
Beside the apparent simplicity, the concept of aggression was often undef-
ned and over time several explanations have been given. The Larousse Dictionary
of Psychology is considering the aggression as ”tendency to attack physical or men-
tal another living being” (Sillamy, 1998, p. 19). On the other hand, the Encyclope-
dic Dictionary of Psychiatry defnes aggression as „a set of hostile behaviors which
can occur in the conscious, unconscious or fantasmatic plan, in order to destroy,
depreciate, constrain, deny or humiliate a person, an object invested with social
signifcance or self-oriented...” (Gorgos, 1987, p. 110). Therefore, whether it
manifests concretely or is repressed, the aggression has as concequence, the pro-
duction of physical, material or psychological damage to himself or to the others.
The different points of view of experts about aggression were condensed
over time in several theories. The psychoanalytic approach highlights the innate
character of aggression and specifes that „people are born with the instinct to
be aggressive and violent” (Mitrofan, 1996, p. 436).
Sigmund Freud proposed two successive models of aggression. Thus, after
a period of neglecting this issue, in 1905 he began to understand aggression
as a reaction to frustration that prevents satisfaction of libidinal desires or
as an expression of jealousy. Later on he abandoned this view considering
that aggressive compulsion is a part of the death compulsion and reffers to
sexuality. Moreover, he highlighted the unavoidable character of aggression, and
therefore, the possibility of aggression to manifest irrespective of the situational
characteristics. However, Freud mentioned that „... because this hereditary
pressure can not be removed, it is necessary to fnd (...) nondestructive methods
of channeling aggressive tendencies” (Mitrofan, 1996, p. 436). In other words, the
rules of social life and the SuperEgo can redirect aggression in a certain measure.
Over time, the psychoanalysis followers criticized the interpretation of
aggression as a compulsion. Thus, it is wrong to consider that the situations
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No. 1-2, April 2013
or the external conditions are not involved in any way in the development of
aggressive behavior and it is just a compulsion.
Although, focused on the idea of the instinctual/biological character of
aggression, Konrad Lorenz (Ethological approach) mentioned the external factors
as triggers of aggressive behaviors. Author of a large number of studies on
animals, he described aggression as a manifestation of an instinct of fght, found
both in animals and humans. Hence, aggression gets an „...adaptive value and it
is essential for survival” (Mitrofan, 1996, p. 437). The famous ethologist did not
specifed if human beings have the instinct of inhibition similar to animals, and
also the capacity to stop the aggressive behaviors when the opponent is weaker.
The social life conditions allow that the aggressive reactions occur even at low
intensity stimulation and frequently the answer is also an aggression; thus, we
can speak about a perpetuation of violence.
The transition from the theories that neglected the role of external
conditions in triggering the aggressive reactions to those that emphasized their
importance, belongs to John Dollard and the connection he made between
frustration and aggression. He defned aggression as „a behavior or a sequence
of behavior whose purpose is to hurt another” (Geen, 2001, p. 2) and understood
the frustration as any action that stops a person to achieve a certain goal.
Therefore, the reactive theory was developed stating that the start of aggressive
behaviors is related with the existence of different types of barriers located in
the way of individual objectives. In other words, every frustration generates
an aggression. Furthermore, the intensity of the aggressive response is deeply
infuenced by the intensity of the frustration. This exclusive interdependence
between frustration and aggression had over time his opponents; therefore, the
frustration was defned as a factor predisposing a person to aggressive behavior
and not the one generating the aggression directly.
One of the most important contribution to the study of aggressive
behaviors belongs to Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. According to this
theory, like many others social behaviors, the aggressive one is acquired through
learning. Bandura thought that “the genetic and biological dower is creating a
potential for aggression while the specifcity of aggressive behavior – his form,
his frequency, the situations that evokes him and the targets to which is directed
– are acquired through experience” (Geen, 2001, p. 17).
Sport and Aggression
Figure 1. The determination of aggression in terms of social learning theory.
Retrieved from Introducere în psihologie [Introduction to psychology], by R. L.
Atkinson, R. C. Atkinson, E. E. Smith, and D. J. Bem, 2002, p. 519.
Empirically, the acquisition of aggressive answers is realized through direct
learning (instrumental learning) or through observation. In the frst case the
reward-punishment or success-failure mechanism is involved. In other words,
the occurrence of positive consequences or of praise and appreciation after an
aggression is a consolidation of this type of behavior and will lead to maintain
this behavior between the action schemes used in similar situations; therefore,
it is just a perpetuation of aggression. On the other side, the failure or the
punishment causes the inhibition of aggressive reactions and subsequently
giving up these type of responses. We have to mention that „the reward or
the punishment that adjusts the aggressive behavior it can be in 3 ways. One
way comes from sources from outside the person and includes tangible rewards
and punishments, social blaiming or rejection and/or the increase of aversive
treatment from the others. The second way comes from experiences made for
someone else. Finally, the reward or the punishment it can be self administred”
(Baron, 1994, p. 35).
The learning through observation is based on the mechanism of imitation.
A person is learning the aggressive schemes of behavior without involving itself
in such actions, just observing the behavior of others which are signifcant or
authoritarian and, therefore, are perceived as models. Most often the aggressive
behavior patterns are found in: family, social environment and media.
In contradiction with the biological vision on aggression, the social learning
theory takes into account several factors which can lead to aggressive behaviors.
It also provides the perspective of control and prevention because aggression
is seen as a learned behavior therefore, its degression and management can be
also learned.

consequences of
Retirement and resignation
Psychosomatic symptoms
Anesthesia (alcohol, drugs)
Solving problems in a
constructive way
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No. 1-2, April 2013
Unlike others activities, sports involves physical confrontation between
individuals and makes it a good framework for the occurrence of aggressive
acts. However, „aggression in sport is not perceived as unequivocally negative;
when it is an assertive behaviour as searching for success, aggression is highly
desirable„ (Wlazlo, 2007, p. 67). From this perspective it is mentioned a special
form of aggression on athletes, close to an assertive behavior that implies
asserting their own needs and a great desire of victory, but all this without the
intention to injure the opponent. Husman & Silva defned this instrumental
aggression as „the attempt to injure characterized by the inner desire to win
an advantage or to receive a reward” (Baird, 2009, p. 380). They highlighted
the difference between an hostile athlete and one which uses the instrumental
aggression. If the frst one intends to cause suffering and pain to others, the
second one uses aggression to bring his team in advantage or to win the match.
However, in reality it is very easy to exceed the limits of this behavior
in sports. Unfortunately, we face a large number of unacceptable behaviors
occurring on the feld or out of it. Surely, everyone remembers the moment
when Mike Tyson was disqualifed for biting the ear of Holyfeld, his opponent
in that match; the incident occured in the third round, when Tyson already
lost the frst two rounds, hence probably he felt dissatisfaction or frustration.
However, we must not lose sight of another important thing: he seemed to have
an aggressive potential, if we take into consideration the fact that until the age
of 13 he was arrested 38 times for various acts of violence.
Another event that shooked the world of sport, was the gesture of
Zinedine Zidane. In 2006, at the World Cup he intentionally struck his opponent
(Materazzi) with his head. It was strange because Zidane was always an athlete
with fair-play. However, if we analyze the context of the event, we may explain
this behavior; it was the World Cup fnal and, especially, the last offcial match
of Zidane’s career. Thus, maybe the expectations of himself, the frustration and
the pressure of such a game, were overwhelning.
As we know, aggression is also learned, therefore 4 years later, another
football player, Samuel Eto, is suspended for 3 games because he struck an
opponent with his head in the cest. Even if the context was different, the gesture
was identical with the above mentioned event.
Everyone agrees that the sport itself is a confrontation, a metaphore
for a war, a civilized manner to manifest your aggressive impulses, specifc to
human nature. In sports these impulses are converted in an offensive attitude
or combativity. Therefore, the winner of such „battle” will not have at the end
feelings of guilt and it will not be blamed socially, on contrary he will receive
Sport and Aggression
recognition and valorization. Russel, in 1993 (Baird, 2009, p. 377) said that
„sport is probably the only environment in which the acts of interpersonal
aggression are not only tolerated but also applauded enthusiastically. Following
this idea, Baird mention that „aggression in sport psychology is an important
point of research because the sport is seen as one of the few areas where the
interpersonal attack is, in the most part, accepted” (Baird, 2009, p. 377).
However, in the present we are often faced with aggression between
athletes or spectators. The aggressive impulses are not only a simple source of
energy and desire to win; various athletes learn right from the junior level that an
aggressive way of playing is a condition for success. Also, today the aggressive
athletes are models and they teach the younger ones that the lack of fair-play
is required on the feld. The pressure of competition is huge and the victory
becomes a must no matter what. Also, frustration is a common element in sport
life. All of this increases the risk of changing the high performance sports from
an environment which promotes health and honest confrontation to one that
promotes aggression. Besides, Tenebaum mentioned in 1997 that „International
Society of Psychology admitted that the aggression of athletes and spectators
has become a social problem” (Keeler, 2007, p. 51).
Over time various studies on aggression in sport were made. Most frecquently
they tried to capture the differences between the aggressive manifestation in
terms of the following factors: the sex, the age of the athletes, the contact level
of the sport, the experience, the motivation and the degree of task orientation.
In 1965, Berkowitz mentioned that „aggression in sport appears because
of the interaction between the level of excitement of athletes and the presence
of adequate triggers” (Keeler, 2007, p. 20). In other words, the aggression in
sport is a reaction to a frustrating situation. Otherwise „in his research about
the aggressive behavior from football matches, Volkamer (1971) concluded that
the highest number of fouls of the defeated team is assigned to frustration”
(Muñoz, 2002, p. 45).
Silva (1983) and Bredemeier (1986) mentioned that „engaging in aggressive
sports could increase the aggressive behavior” (Keeler, 2007, p. 19). In the same
period, Voigt (1982) has studied several types of sports in relation with the
number of committed offenses and he concluded that the aggressive behavior it
is normally found associated with contact sports” (Muñoz, 2002, p. 45).
Regarding the level of experience in sports, Rascle (1998) showed that
professional teams seemed to be more aggressively than the ones competing not
at a professional level (Muñoz, 2002, p. 46). According to Frogen and Pilz (1982)
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No. 1-2, April 2013
„by aging, a scheme of aggressive rules was developed and also the aggressive
offenses in sport grew (...) in accordance with these rules, the aggressive behavior
is a result of a socialization process which is restricted to sport events (...) the
aggressive behavior in sport turns into a normal behavior, socially acquired”
(Muñoz, 2002, p. 46).
In 1991, Duda, Olson & Templin demonstrated that, generally, the athletes
have a higher level of accepting the aggressive behaviors compared to the non-
athletes (Keeler, 2007, p. 5). In addition, the same authors noted that the athletes
which are mainly task-oriented are less aggressive than those centered on Ego/
self (Keeler, 2007, p. 4).
Recent studies revealed the following conclusions:
• Luxbacher (1993) – „the athletes that perceive the victory as very
important for coaches have signifcantly higher level of aggressive
reactions” (Keeler, 2007, p. 21);
• Shields and Bredemeier (1995) – the sport encourages the aggressive
behaviors (Baird, 2009, p. 383);
• Kerr (2002) – „the sport, by its nature, maintains aggression” (Baird,
2009, p. 377);
• Coulomb and Rascle (2006) – male athletes have higher levels of
aggression than women athletes because they have more aggressive
models and the norms of masculinity do not prohibit the use of
aggression (Baird, 2009, p. 383).
There are many important studies regarding the social learning theory on
applied aggression in sports, as follows: Russel (1981), Silva (1983), Husman
and Silva (1984), Mugno and Feltz (1985) or Smith (1988). All of these studies
are based on the idea that the athletes learn the aggressive behaviors in the
environment in which they operate. Moreover, as they advance in sport career,
the frequency of aggression grows proportionally with the time available for
learning such behaviors.
Starting from an analysis of the studies made so far on aggression in sport
and relying on the elements of the social learning theory (Albert Bandura), this
paper aims to capture the way that the socio-professional context contributes on
the development of athletes’ aggression level. The hypothesis of the study implies
that the value of the expression of anger index (parameter) increases as the
professional experience in sport is growing due to aging.
Sport and Aggression
The group of subjects includes 106 football players, members of national teams,
with ages between 14 and 19 years. They were evaluated with the STAXI – 2 (State
Trait Anger Expression Inventory) questionnaire developed by C. Spielberger
in 1988. The psychological evaluation tool is valid to capture the manner in
which the anger is felt (internal living), expressed (outside manifestation) and
controlled. It contains 57 items grouped on the following scales (Pitaru, 2006,
p. 8):
• anger as a state;
• the feeling of anger;
• the tendency to verbally expresss the anger;
• the tendency to physically express the anger;
• anger as a trait;
• furious temper;
• angry reaction;
• the outside manifestation of anger;
• the inner manifestation of anger;
• the external control of anger;
• the internal control of anger;
• the general index of anger expression.
For the present study we considered relevant the values obtained by the
athletes at the general index of anger expression which involves others subscales
as follows: the inner manifestation of anger, the outside manifestation of anger,
the internal and external control of anger, etc. This index provides an overview
on the feelings of anger which are experienced by the evaluated athletes and its
behavioral consequences (aggressive behaviors or inner tension determined by
the suppresion of anger).
Results and discussion
The individual results and the distribution of athletes according to age can
be found in Table 1.
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No. 1-2, April 2013
Table 1
Individual results at the index of anger expression
The values of the index of anger expression
15 years
16 years
17 years
18 years
19 years
Subject Value Subject Value Subject Value Subject Value Subject Value
P. A. 60 B. M. 51 H. R. 38 B. C. 39 A. A. 41
P. V. 50 B. C. 51 R. A. 58 B. A. 50 A. E. 33
T. C. 33 B. D. 51 V. A. 50 E. C. 48 A. A. 37
T. A. 38 C. M. 39 F. S. 49 F. A. 59 B. R. 45
Ţ. A. 33 G. D. 46 B. D. 41 I. D. 42 B. M. 51
H. A. 31 I. V. 38 M. S. 48 M. A. 59 B. D. 41
C. M. 47 P. A. 56 M. I. 43 M. F. 51 B. S. 51
M. S. 41 Ş. I. 40 B. C. 54 N. C. 57 C. A. 47
P. G. 47 T. M. 33 B. A. 57 S. R. 68 C. S. 40
H. G. 51 V. I. 36 H. F. 44 T. R. 50 C. R. 43
N. A. 49 C. C. 41 L. N. 57 C. F. 55 D. S. 45
A. I. 39 C. V. 36 P. D. 41 L. A. 57 D. A. 47
Ş. C. 42 C. M. 50 M. B. 58 Ş. M. 38 F. A. 46
R. A. 39 G. F. 49 N. I. 57 C. D. 56 F. M. 58
B. I. 42 H. R. 38 T. B. 51 L. S. 54 G. M. 60
S. A. 42 N. R. 56 P. I. 33 D. C. 51 G. N. 49
S. C. 37 P. M. 37 B. I. 50 G. A. 34
B. A. 51 P. F. 54 D. F. 54 H. A. 49
H. T. 53 T. A. 37 R. A. 35 I. F. 39
M. R. 40 T. A. 52 L. M. 48
B. B. 50 V. B. 57 M. A. 56
M. L. 54
N. I. 36
P. A. 41
R. A. 54
R. S. 46
Ş. I. 41
S. N. 46
S. C. 50
Mean 43.57 45.14 48.69 51.21 45.79
7.514 7.983 7.956 8.196 6.935
Sport and Aggression
We used the SPSS application for processing the results and verifed the
hypothesis of the study. The descriptive statistics allowed the determination of
the mean and standard deviation for each of the 5 groups of subjects (age
As noted in the Table 1, the mean value begins to increase as the athletes get
older and they extend their professional experience. However, we see a decrease
of average value in the Under 19 years team, a result approximately equal with
the one of Under 16 years team.
Therefore, to obtain an exact image, the t-test for equality of means was
developed. This helps to highlight any signifcant differences between the means
of subjects samples. The means of the following teams: Under 16, Under 17,
Under 18 and Under 19, were compared with the mean value obtained by the
Under 15 years team; in this way, we were able to verify the hypothesis of the
Table 2
T- test for equality of means ( U 15 – U 16)
Levene’s Test
for Equality of
t-test for Equality of Means
Interval of the
F Sig. t df
Std. Error
Lower Upper
Index of anger
Equal variances
.916 .344 -.657 40 .515 -1.571 2.392 -6.406 3.264
Equal variances
not assumed
-.657 39.854 .515 -1.571 2.392 -6.407 3.264
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No. 1-2, April 2013
Table 3
T- test for equality of means ( U 15 – U 17)
Table 4
T- test for equality of means ( U 15 – U 18)
Levene’s Test
for Equality of
t-test for Equality of Means
95% Confdence
Interval of the
F Sig. t df
Std. Error
Lower Upper
Index of anger
Equal variances
.062 .805 -2.001 35 .053 -5.116 2.557 -10.308 .076
Equal variances
not assumed
-1.985 31.429 .056 -5.116 2.578 -10.370 .138
Levene’s Test
for Equality of
t-test for Equality of Means
95% Confdence
Interval of the
F Sig. t df
Std. Error
Lower Upper
Index of anger
Equal variances
.011 .915 -3.076 38 .004 -7.639 2.484 -12.667 -2.611
Equal variances
not assumed
-3.062 36.689 .004 -7.639 2.495 -12.695 -2.583
Sport and Aggression
Table 5
T- test for equality of means ( U 15 – U 19)
Considering 0.05 as the signifcance threshold, we noticed a statistically
signifcant differences only when comparing the mean of the Under 18 team
and the Under 15 (Sig 2-tailed = 0.004 and t = 3.076). In other cases, the values of
Sig (2-tailed) are higher than 0.05 and this excludes the existence of signifcant
The research hypothesis is partially confrmed. By comparing the 17-18
year old athletes to the 14-15 year old, a higher value at the general index of
anger expression stands out. Thus, by its features, the adolescence facilitates the
assimilation of aggressive behaviors. In the adolescence period, the young people
compare themselves with others, they have an acute need of acceptance and
afrmation inside the group; they redefne their relationship with authority; often
violate rules and norms; they want autonomy and freedom of expression; easily
imitate the behaviors of idols and models. In addition, „facing a lot of changes
in self-perception, generally, the teenagers have a poor ability to recognize and
control the emotional life, and the anger and aggressive behavior, in particular”
(STEMATE, 2009, p. 46). All of these can lead to an easier assimilation of
aggressive behaviors. Moreover, as the social learning theory states, the aggressive
behaviors will be consolidated by social validation. Therefore, the success in sport
or the public acclamation can be viewed as rewards for aggressive behaviors and
Levene’s Test
for Equality of
t-test for Equality of Means
Interval of the
F Sig. t df
Std. Error
Lower Upper
Index of anger
Equal variances
.481 .491 -1.080 48 .286 -2.222 2.058 -6.359 1.916
Equal variances
not assumed
-1.066 41.112 .293 -2.222 2.085 -6.432 1.989
Sport Science Review, vol. XXII, No. 1-2, April 2013
this reinforces the perception of athletes that aggression is absolutely necessary
for victory.
Nowadays, the sports is quite full of aggression and the integration in such
environment may be associated with the adoption of aggressive behaviors. As an
athlete, you can learn fast from the people around you (athletes, parents, coaches,
spectators) that aggression is an essential coordinate in sport. Hurting the
opponent or breaking the rules got to happen with a frequency so big that they
have obtained in the general perception the status of normality. The infuence
of coaches in the process of values transmission is essential. Therefore, it is very
important to be trained and educated appropriately; so they strengthen prosocial
behaviors of the athletes, clearing them from aggressive behaviors.
Unfortunately, as long as the normality of combativity and fair-play in
sports is risking to be replaced by the „normality” of aggression, it is essential
to treat this issue as a major social problem. Looking for solutions, Cruz et al.
(1996) mentioned a few strands regarding the training of future athletes (Muñoz,
2002, p. 49):
• the development of cooperation and the promotion of morality in
physical education classes;
• the improvement of the training programs designed for coaches;
• training the referees and organizers specialized in children competitions;
• promoting the sports education for all throughout national and
international campaigns on fair-play.
Reinforcing the same idea, Tenebaum, Stewart, Singer & Duda (1997)
recommended the following: „coaches, managers, athletes, media, offcials and
authority fgures should take part in workshops on aggression and violence to
ensure that they understand the topic of aggression, why it occurs, the cost of
aggressive acts and how aggressive behavior can be controlled“ (Kerr, 1999, p. 86).
Sport and Aggression
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Ioana OPROIU is a researcher and psychologist within the National Institute for Sport
Research since 2005. She is a psychotherapist experienced in assisting athletes. She is
concerned in her research by the coach-athlete relationship and the aggression issues in
sports. Her current research areas include the valences of aggression in contact sports
and the positive channeling of an aggressive potential existing in each individual. She has
over 20 scientifc papers published or presented at national or international conferences.
Corresponding address:
Ioana Oproiu
National Institute for Sport Research
41A, Basarabia Bvd
Bucharest 022103
Phone: +40 311 024 912
Fax: +40 311 024 913