September 2011 • Revised July 2014


Aggression and sport is paradoxical; a certain level of aggressive behaviour is legal, expected, and even glorified but there is a line where it crosses into violence leading to ostracism and shame. Whereas often the team that possesses the higher level of emotional intensity will gain advantages via intimidation of opponents and establishment of a certain tone and tempo to the game, a loss of control will be penalized by officials and lead to a lack of focus. The number of adolescents with severe aggressive behaviour has risen extensively over the past few years and problems are appearing earlier in life (Margolin, Youga, & Ballou, 2002, p. 229). This trend has spilled over in youth sport, manifesting itself in unnecessary penalties, outbursts of anger, and violence. All coaches must proactively address this issue so that the teams that they coach remain in control of their seasons.

Causes of Aggression

Aggressive behaviour is caused by a combination of factors: biological, cognitive, social, and situational. Biological characteristics of individual athletes are impossible to alter in a short season and one cannot predict every single situation that may occur during games but a coach can influence the cognitive process of each player and the team’s social environment.


Boys’ high school teams present many factors which increase the risk of aggression. Boys during puberty experience higher hormonal levels which can lead to aggressive thoughts and behaviour (Archer, 1991, pp. 15-16). This aggressiveness could manifest itself as simple rebelliousness and anti-social manners or extreme anger leading to outbursts and poor performances. During physical activity, hormones such as testosterone and adrenaline are accentuated and trigger aggression. Cortisol, which is released due to stress can also increase aggressive behaviour (Clarkson, 1999, p. 211). Ill-tempered or moody individuals are predisposed towards aggression and violence. Those who show a lack of empathy or impulsiveness may be those who demonstrate poor conduct during competitions (Bartol, 2002, pp. 244-245). Youth with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (A.D.H.D.) may also display impulsivity (Stabeno, 2004, p. 59). Mental illness, such as depression, imbalanced brain chemistry, or a neurological disorder may be at the root of aggressiveness. When multiple attempts to reduce aggressive behaviour fail, coaches should work with parents and school administrators and consider referring the athlete to a doctor (Bartol, 2002, pp. 245-246). Males are more likely to undertake direct aggression (i.e. arguments and physical fighting at the moment) whereas females will make use of indirect aggression (i.e. passive-aggressive behaviour over time) (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 35).


Some of the most common reasons for aggression that crosses the line into violence or inappropriate conduct is the defence of one’s ego. Any athlete – not only teenagers – is subject to feeling that they have been somehow personally attacked (Clarkson, 1999, p. 213). Today anger and frustration are seen as justification for aggressive retaliation, within the rules of the sport or not (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 44). A teenager’s life experience will colour how they respond to every situation. The values and beliefs that they witness at home, at school, and in the community influence their attitude towards aggression. Parents, siblings, guardians, and friends may encourage the youth to play sport in order to demonstrate toughness or they may emphasize a more restrained approach.


Morality reasoning within the sports context has been found to decrease with age as teenagers perceive how their peers and role models respond to situations (Fraser-Thomas, Côté, & Deakin, 2005). Experiences at school, in the community, in the media, and during previous sporting events influence how adolescents act. As they grow up, teenagers learn scripts from peers, role models, and the media. These scripts, which can be comprised of very hostile elements, are part of the memory which is referenced when a person needs to respond to a situation under duress. The individual will assign a script to the situation (i.e. “He insulted my friend. Therefore he insulted me. I must retaliate to defend my ego) and act without thinking. Although these scripts become stronger if left unaddressed, they can be altered if corrected in a timely manner (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 31).


The thrill of competition increases the arousal level of all team members, from players to the coach. Anxiety felt before games, excitement during the moment, and frustration in the face of failure heighten arousal. At this time, individuals are susceptible to aggressive behaviour based on the ebb and flow of the game (Gould, Greenleaf, & Krane, 2002, pp. 221-233). Finally, aggression has been found to increase with temperature and physical pain. An athlete playing in a hot gym or with a nagging injury is at risk of aggressive thoughts, even if all the other factors are reasonably controlled (Anderson, Anderson, Dill, & Deusar, 1998, pp. 162-163).

Types of Aggression

Hostile aggression is impulsive and thoughtless, driven by anger. Usually, a person feels that they are under siege and must react towards a specific target. Provocation in sport includes verbal taunts, physical contact (sanctioned or unsanctioned), (perceived) bad calls, and frustration. Even such spontaneous aggression has some rationale behind it – however thin the logic may be – such as preventing future rough play or defending one’s ego (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 29). On the basketball court, these displays of aggression often result in unnecessary technical fouls and possible ejections or suspensions. Instrumental aggression is planned and premeditated, driven by a motivation to achieve some goal besides harming a particular target (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 29). For example, taking a charge may discourage a basketball player from driving into the paint in the future and give the team an emotional lift. Athletes must understand the differences between the two types of aggressive behaviour. Coaches want to minimize hostile aggression and the rash actions associated with it. Teams must employ instrumental aggression in order to find an optimal level of intensity but every player must know where the line is and how to stay in control of their emotions.

Strategies to Reduce Aggression

Establishment of Team Standards

Social Learning is an important component in the education of a teenager. If the team determines how they will respond to particular situations, athletes will feel pressured to live up to the agreement. For a younger team, the coach should provide most of the rules and serve as a model for emotional control. It is equally important to behave appropriately when coaching an older team but it is fair to discuss the role of emotion in sport and the reasoning behind the coach’s decisions in the face of different situations. In this case, the coach fills more of a facilitator role, balancing their experience with respect for the opinions of each player. This co-operation gives the team ownership for their actions. Since the players are on the court and the recipient of these coaching strategies, they deserve a say in determining where the line is located for the team.


Individuals learn from others and calculate the outcome of their behaviour based on what happens to others. They will act differently when facing known consequences compared to an intrinsic reward or unknown outcome (Bandura, 2001, pp. 6-7). This is problematic when adolescents see role models, for example famous athletes and celebrities, act violently without any great penalty. Also, many peers, friends, and family members encourage violence when playing sport as part of a belief that one must prove that they are “tough.” When behaviours which contravene the team standards occur, they should be addressed and corrected as soon as possible. Simple acts of poor sportsmanship and tactics that were not caught by the officials may require a coach to pull a player aside and speak to them about their behaviour whereas more serious actions require serious discipline such as a suspension.

Performance Anxiety

One of the prime situational factors in sport that leads to aggression is increased stress. Tools such as the Competitive States Anxiety Inventory II, the Profile of Mood States – Adolescent, and the Competitive Aggressiveness and Anger Scale permit a coach to indentify particular players who are under stress and the situations that make them anxious.


Individuals with inflated or unstable self-esteem are prone to anger and aggression when their self-esteem is threatened (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 35). Success in sports should not be contingent upon performance-oriented goals because the uncertainty of victory or defeat leads to a shaky level of self-esteem. Teenagers who accept themselves (and believe that others feel that they have value) will have a steady level of self-respect by which to judge themselves. Supporting Players: Phil Jackson realized that Ron Artest (as Metta World Peace was known in 2009-10) was putting intense pressure on himself to adapt to the Los Angeles Lakers championship teams and the vaunted Triangle Offense. Rather than criticize the player and increase the stress that he was feeling, Jackson resolved to coach him only positively. He created a safe environment, used encouraging words and body language and listened, and Artest was able to fit in an contribute to a championship team (Shelburne, 2014).

Mastery-Oriented Goals

When performance is significant and the perceived rewards, testosterone rises when someone falls short of success. This leads to frustration and possibly aggression. A player following mastery-oriented goals, with frequent feedback, is more likely to remain focused and understand how retaliation will sabotage their long-term objectives (Archer, 1991, pp. 17-18). Assist athletes to set realistic goals so they will not be frustrated if they fail to achieve a lofty goal (Berkowitz, 1989, p. 71).

Consistent Energy Level

Help team members stay balanced and even-keeled on game days. Avoid extremes (too excited or too relaxed) because they remove players from their Ideal Performance States (Clarkson, 1999, pp. 20-23). Players will good sleep nutrition habits are more likely to play at their best and under control. Put Players in a Position to Succeed: Players who are naturally aggressive can help drive a team’s offense. For example, on the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers, Lance Stephenson was the offensive player most capable of getting the ball into the paint. Early in the season, when the team was strictly focused on reducing the numbers of dribbles taken by each player, Stephenson proved to be an effective change of pace. The coach should not give players carte blanche but provide parameters than make it easier to make decisions. As the year worn on, the Indiana’s philosophy seemed to disintegrate as individual Pacers were less likely to adapt their play to their abilities and offensive production stagnated.

Coping Skills

Generally speaking, a high level of arousal is at odds with optimal performance. Strategies that can help players maintain self-control during games include smart goal setting, mental visualization, and proper warm-ups. Strategies that can help players regain self-control include positive self-talk, positivism, and breathing exercises. Different approaches work best for different players (Jensen, 2003, p. 29). During adolescence, integration enables the mind to come together, growing fibres of cognitive control and reducing impulsivity (Siegel, 2013, p. 77). Players may experience a tendency to become consumed by the emotions of a competition instead of analyzing the events that actually transpired. Teachers and coaches can help student-athletes become more mindful by teaching us about reflection. Listing the facts that happened during a game, practice or day objectively helps youth act rationally.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

A.D.H.D. affects approximately five percent of school aged children (Johnson & Rosén, 2000, p. 150). Players may display a lack of focus, hyperactivity, or impulsiveness. Outbursts can be managed with regular intervention ahead of time and prompt action afterwards (Reitman, O’Callaghan, & Mitchell, 2005, p. 62). Self-control can be taught by keeping expectations simple and instructing by repetition (Stabeno, 2004, pp. 91-96). Coaches should make an honest effort to see the perspective of each player and treat them accordingly. Winning is not as important as effort, personal bests, improvement, and social interactions (Stabeno, 2004, p. 105).

Simulation of Game Situations

In states of high arousal, humans activate a fight (hormone: adrenaline) or flight (hormone: noradrenaline) response (Clarkson, 1999, pp. 8-9). Repetition alleviates the disruptive effect of higher hormonal levels by acclimatizing athletes to how their bodies respond. Frequently rehearsed scripts can replace the associations that exist already in the athlete’s mind (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, pp. 31-32). Excellent preparation means that athletes never encounter something for the first time on game day. By creating pressure packed situations in practice, coaches can observe how players handle the situation (Robb, 2011). Sample situations include trash talking during a scrimmage or poor referee calls. Afterwards, a team discussion could inspire everyone to think about the issue and how they reacted.

Thorough Understanding

When participants understand what is happening (or what might happen or has just happened), they are less frustrated and consequently less aggressive (Berkowitz, 1989, p. 67). Common misunderstandings include the role of officials and the rules of the game and conflicts between positions or age groups. Coaches guide players by communicating the rules and how they will be enforced and permitting them to see other viewpoints.


Coaches can help adolescents reappraise an aggressive situation and see alternate perspectives. Most teenagers have difficulty seeing the long-term consequences of actions and may react rashly. If a player understands that a scramble for a loose ball was not intentionally hostile, they will not retaliate (Anderson & Bushman, 2002, p. 41). Dopamine receptors are most active during adolescence so the desire for rewards may encourage more risk-taking behaviour (Siegel, 2013, p. 262). Video showing how a play unfolds can help show how a play is developing and illustrate that the drive into traffic was not the best possible shot for the team. Taking a player aside during or after a game and holding a team meeting is a good opportunity to reframe an aggressive situation. Taking a player aside during or after a game and holding a team meeting is a good opportunity to reframe an aggressive situation.

Aggressive Situations in Basketball

Description Source of Conflict Ideal Resolution
Poor Officiating Officials during games
  • Do not embarrass the official (by using profanity, gestures, yelling).
  • Remember that the coach and captains are your advocates.
  • Politely ask questions about the call during the next stoppage (“Could you please tell me why that is a foul?”, “Could you watch the hand check both ways please?).
Hard Fouls Opponents during games
  • Help a fouled teammate up.
  • Walk away from the foul towards the bench if personally fouled.
  • Take time to recover for free throws
  • Retaliate on the scoreboard.
Trash Talking, Verbal Taunting, HecklingOnline Taunting has also become increasingly prevalent Opponents during games (and online)Teammates during practicesSpectators (at home and away)
  • Remain calm and collected.
  • Detach ego from the standards of others.
  • Never interact with a spectator.
  • Advise coach or captain.
  • Self-talk to remember goals.
Dirty Play, Cheap Tricks Opponents during games
  • Calmly ask official to watch for the behaviour
  • Move without the ball, forcing the opponent to keep up, running around the court and going through screens.
Fighting Opponents during games
  • Do not instigate a fight.
  • Step back and allow officials to break up the scuffle.  Always protect yourself.
  • Never leave the bench during a fight.
Frustration with Teammates Errors committed by teammates during games or practices
  • Question the process, not the outcome.
  • Discuss the play in question afterwards during a meeting or practice.
Frustration with Self Failure to live up to personal standards
  • Remain calm and centered.
  • Visualize success.
  • De-grief, then debrief after all performances.
Frustration with Coach Reduced playing time or scoring opportunities
  • Talk to the coach before the next practice.
  • Speak to another teacher or adult.
  • Do not listen to other players or friends regarding this issue.
  • Self-evaluate and look for areas of improvement.
Pain or Discomfort Environmental conditionsPersonal health
  • Mentally prepare for stress of competition.
  • Learn to ignore distractions.
  • Seek treatment for injuries.
  • Remain hydrated.


Coaching is not only teaching athletes how to play but instructing adolescents how to think under pressure. At the beginning of each season, players join the team with their own set of attitudes, values, and beliefs and it is up to the coach to ensure that everyone is on the same page when games begin. Despite everyone’s best efforts, aggressive situations may occur on the court and athletes may respond unpredictably. During every game and practice, the coach seeks to influence each player so that they grow as a result of the experience. The season is a series of small steps in a positive direction.

Works Cited

  • Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. (2002). Human Aggression. Annual Review of Psychology , 53, 27-51.
  • Anderson, K. B., Anderson, C. A., Dill, K. E., & Deusar, W. E. (1998). The Interactive Relations between Train Hostility, Pain, and Aggressive Thoughts. Aggressive Behavior , 24, 161-171.
  • Archer, J. (1991). The influence of testosterone on human aggression. British Journal of Psychology , 82 (Spring), 1-28.
  • Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentive perspective. Annual Review of Psychology , 52 (1), 1-26.
  • Bartol, C. R. (2002). Criminal behavior: A Psychosocial Approach (8th Edition). Edgewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.
  • Berkowitz, L. (1989). Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis: Examination and Reformulation. Psychological Bulletin , 106 (1), 59-73.
  • Clarkson, M. (1999). Competitive Fire. Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  • Fraser-Thomas, J. L., Côté, J., & Deakin, J. (2005). Youth sport programs: an avenue to foster positive youth development. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy , 10 (1), 19-40.
  • Gould, D., Greenleaf, C., & Krane, V. (2002). Arousal-Anxiety and Sport Behavior. In T. Horn, Advances in Sport Psychology (2nd Edition) (pp. 207-242). Champaign: Human Kinetics.
  • Jensen, P. (2003). The Inside Edge. Rockwood: Performance Coaching Inc.
  • Johnson, R. C., & Rosén, L. A. (2000). Sports behavior of ADHD children. Journal of Attention Disorders , 4 (3), 150-60.
  • Margolin, A., Youga, J., & Ballou, M. (2002). A Study of Male Adolescent Aggression. Journal of Humanistic Counseling, Education and Development , 41 (2), 215-231.
  • Reitman, D., O’Callaghan, P. M., & Mitchell, P. (2005). Parent: Enhancing Sports Partcipation and Social Behavior for ADHD-Diagnosed Children. Child & Family Behavior Therapy , 27 (2), 55-67.
  • Robb, D. (2011, February 3). Coaching Aggression. (B. Bourgase, Interviewer).
  • Shelburne, R. (2014, July 27). Crossroad puzzle. Retrieved June 14, 2010, from
  • Siegel, D. J. (2013). Brainstorm. New York City: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin Group.
  • Stabeno, M. E. (2004). The A.D.H.D. Affected Athlete. Victoria: Trafford.

Leave a Comment