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Sports & Aggression in Kids

by Scott Thompson

Some parents firmly believe that participation in sports encourages kids to be more aggressive and has a negative effect on their development, while other parents are just as convinced that sports makes kids less aggressive and helps them develop stronger characters. Some parents consider aggression to be a positive trait and encourage it on and off the field. The truth is that sports has varying effects on kids, largely depending on how adults approach the game.

Athletes and Aggression

Ricardo Portillo, a soccer referee in Utah, was killed in 2013 by a punch to the head from a 17-year-old after an argument on the field. This incident ignited public debate about aggression in youth sports. Parents of young athletes sometimes encourage them to be not only competitive but aggressive, and some don't make a clear distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of aggression. However, the fact that some young athletes behave aggressively when they shouldn't does not prove that their participation in sports is the reason for their bad behavior.

Conflicting Evidence

Although many studies have looked at the relationship between sports and aggression, the results have been too inconsistent to provide meaningful guidance. For instance, a 2010 article on the topic on the "Bleacher Report" website cited numerous studies that showed a link between sports and aggression, but some of the studies found that sports increased aggressive behavior and others found that they decreased it. A 2011 study at Tel Aviv University found that participation in sports made boys less aggressive, but found no such effect for girls.

Acceptable Aggression

Aggression, whether in sports or life, is neither good nor bad on its own. A basketball player without aggressive qualities, for instance, would likely be a poor rebounder and defensive player. Outside of the game, a child with no ability to assert himself would be at a disadvantage in many circumstances and could become the victim of bullies. Aggression in the context of a sport must adhere to both the rules of the sport and the principles of good sportsmanship to be socially acceptable. The same athlete who forcefully tackles an opponent in a football game should be the first to congratulate the other side for a game well-played. When parents encourage aggression for its own sake, kids can get the wrong message and make bad decisions.

Unacceptable Aggression

Some parents and coaches believe that an attitude of extreme aggression in sports is more important than fair play or honorable competition. When kids get the message that good sportsmanship isn't gung-ho enough to satisfy their parents or their coach, they can cross the line from thinking of the activity as a game to thinking of it as something more like a battle. From that perspective, punching a referee who gives you a warning card can seem like standing up for yourself rather than a criminal act.

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