Do Sports Protect Against Aggression and Violence or Encourage It?


   By: Danielle Spino

   2011-07-21 12:00 AM

Have you thought about placing your son or daughter in a sport to keep them out of trouble? Many believe that placing your children in an organized sport encourages them to learn about teamwork, the value of physical fitness, discipline, hard work, etc., as well as keeps them busy and thus avoiding interactions with their deviant peers. This view has been supported in the literature; in particular studies have found that youth who participate in sports are less likely to demonstrated delinquent behaviour as opposed to youth who do not participate in sports (Pate, 2000).

However, studies have also shown that children and/or youth participating in sports demonstrate more aggression than those who do not participate in sports (Burton, 2005; Forbes, 2006). This contrasting view is also supported by many parents and professionals who point out that aggression in contact sports is legitimizing or institutionalizing aggression, showing children that it is okay to hit, kick, or punch another. 

With seemingly opposing research findings, the question of whether or not to place your child in organized sports needs to be clarified.

Research has not shown that all children who participate in sports are more aggressive than those who do not participate in sports, or that sports causes aggression/violence in children. Rather, research has shown that sports are related to aggressive behaviour in children/youth. For example, a recent study revealed that participation in an organized sport was associated with higher scores of delinquency compared to participation in a non-athletic activity (Gardner, 2009). The fact that involvement in organized sports is related to higher delinquency scores compared to other non-athletic activities requires further research to determine the various factors involved in the association. For example, athletes may have a stronger group identity with their team as opposed to non-athletic activity involvement, which may lead to groupthink and potentially a gang mentality.

The same study, as described above, also revealed that adolescents who do not participate in any organized activity have higher scores of delinquency compared to adolescents who participate in sports or non-athletic related activities (Gardner, 2009). In other words, sports participation may not be as hazardous as no involvement in any activity. The investigators theorized that organized sports and non-athletic activities provide structured socialization for children/youth, prohibiting them from unsupervised socialization where more deviant behaviour can ensue. 

How does one maintain the benefits of sport participation without experiencing the risks?

One possible way to extract the benefits of sport participation while avoiding the risks is to encourage a healthy perspective of the sport, to stress that it is just a game. For instance, one investigator found that the acceptableness of dating violence was higher in athletes who had a strong desire to win as opposed to athletes in general (Merten, 2008). By stressing that the sport is a game, as opposed to laying on pressure to win, the athletes may apply a similar attitude to their life outside the field.

The association has been investigated more closely to show that aggressive behaviour is not related to sport participation in general, but particularly to contact sports. For example, a large sample of children in the 6th grade showed a higher prevalence of verbal aggression, physical aggression, and anger in the children that participated in boxing, wrestling, kickboxing, football, etc., as opposed to the children who participated in volleyball, bicycling, walking, and rope jumping (Murray, 1997).

Another researcher has suggested that athletes should be trained to gain control of their anger by channeling it to execute skills, rather than struggling to suppress it (Robazza, 2006). This particular study found that athletes in contact sports viewed their competitive anger as facilitative rather than debilitative of their performance. If trained effectively, athletes would be able to direct their anger towards perfecting their athletic skill as opposed to expressing aggression on and off the field.

One contact sport in particular has effectively been shown how to train its athletes to control and channel their anger, karate. In a group of children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder, karate was found to be an effective treatment for both disruptive behaviour and aggression (Palermo, 2006a). The investigator’s editorial discusses how karate “enhances self-regulation and executive skills and helps the child to develop better behavior through consistent conditioning, establishing self-confidence, self-esteem, respect toward authority figures, and camaraderie” (Palermo, 2006b).

While views of the morality of adolescent sport participation continue to be disputed, research has provided a few tips on how to maintain the benefits of sports while reducing the risks. For example, parents and coaches can encourage their adolescents to play the game for the love of the game, rather than to win. Parents may want to enroll their children in a non-contact sport. Or, if participating in a contact sport, attempt to teach their children to channel their anger towards their skill execution as opposed to physical aggression.  Finally, for adolescents who demonstrate a defiant personality, enrolling them in a type of martial arts such as karate may help them to express their anger in a disciplined manner.


Burton, J. M., & Marshall, L. A. (2005). Protective factors for youth considered at risk of criminal behaviour: does participation in extracurricular activities help? Criminal Behaviour & Mental Health, 15(1): 46 – 64.

Forbes, G. B., Adam-Curtis, L. E., Pakalka, A. H., & White K. B. Dating aggression, sexual coercion, and aggression-supporting attitudes among college men as a function of participation in aggressive high school sports. Violence Against Women, 12(5): 441 – 455.

Gardner, M., Roth, J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2009). Sports participation and juvenile delinquency: The role of peer context among adolescent boys and girls with varied histories of problem behavior. Developmental Psychology, 45(20): 341 – 353.

Merten, J. M. (2008). Acceptability of dating violence among late adolescents: The role of sports participation, competitive attitudes, and selected dynamics of relationship violence. Adolescence, 143(169): 31 – 56. 

Murray, N. G., Conroy, J., Kelder, S. H., & Orpinas, P. (1997). Type of physical activity and level of aggression in urban sixth-graders. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 29(5): Supplement, p 103.

Palermo, M. T., Di Luigi, M., Dal Forno, G., et al. (2006). Externalizing and oppositional behaviors and karate-do: The way of crime prevention. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 50(6): 654 – 660.

Palermo, G. B. (2006). Editorial: A possible alternative therapy for childhood aggressivity. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 50(6): 607 – 608. 

Pate, R. R., Trost, S. G., Levin, S., & Dowda, M. (2000). Sports participation and health-related behaviors among US youth. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 154(6): 904 – 911.

Robazza, B., Bertollo, M., & Bortoli, L. (2006). Frequency and direction of competitive anger in contact sports. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 46(3): 501 – 508.

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