The use of aggression in sport is perhaps the biggest unresolved argument in sport today. A large amount of research has looked at aggressive behaviour in sport, trying to understand the processes underlying such questionable behaviour and whether it helps or hinders performance.

Whilst aggression is predominantly seen as a negative characteristic, some sports psychologists agree that hostility can actually improve an individual’s performance.  If players use aggression recklessly during a game, it will doubtlessly damage their performance, but if used in a controlled manner this same aggression can help them play more competently. It has been said that football tends to be one of the more socially acceptable channels for aggression however professionals need to learn the difference between controlled aggression and violence and transfer that knowledge into their game.

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We were passive. That’s not good in life or in football. We have to be more aggressive” – Jürgen Klopp, after Liverpool’s big loss to West Ham in January.

Diego Costa is often accused of being needlessly aggressive

Diego Costa is often accused of being needlessly aggressive

You often hear footballers praised by their managers for being aggressive during football games, as it can reflect how much the player cares about their team winning. José Mourinho has previously praised Chelsea striker Diego Costa for his aggressive playing style and stated that those qualities and mannerisms are what Chelsea needed to win the Premier League. In the aftermath of a 2-0 win over Arsenal this season, where Costa’s antics saw an Arsenal player sent off for retaliation, many pundits viewed his behavior as unnecessary and cynical. Costa was seen as a ticking time bomb that would be sure to backfire, result in red cards and suspensions as soon as referees wised up to him. And so it has proven as the season has gone on – Costa’s petulant red card against Everton in the FA Cup came when his team were already losing, and helped no-one but the opposition as they went on to lose 2-0.

If players are taught by their professional coaches and managers how to maintain controlled aggression on the pitch, it will enable them to play better by making contact with other players in a controlled manner without fear. Being aggressive in football is a sought-after quality in a player, especially in the English Premier League. However this is not to be confused with playing with anger or reckless abandon that Diego Costa is now often accused of. Aggression must be confined within the rules of the game. There is a strong distinction between playing aggressively and playing dirty, with fans, pundits and referees certainly able to make this distinction. However when it comes to players, this becomes difficult to conceive as the red mist falls. When players are told to ‘be more aggressive‘, on occasions this translates into commiting more fouls because they fail to understand what playing aggresively actually means and instead interpret the instructions to play dirty.

Dele Alli has been in the spotlight recently for his aggressive behaviour

Hugo Lloris supported his teammate Dele Alli by encouraging him to not lose the aggressive side to his game

20-year-old Tottenham star Dele Alli was put under the spotlight recently following a punch against West Brom’s Claudio Yacob. Dele Alli’s remarkable season came to an end with a three-game ban. This wasn’t the first altercation Alli has been involved in. He got away with just a yellow card following a foul against Fiorentina’s Nenad Tomović during their Europa League clash and afterwards revealed that his fellow teammate and captain Hugo Lloris told him to not sacrifice the aggression in his game or give up on his angry side. His manager, Mauricio Pochettino also insisted that Dele Alli wouldn’t and shouldn’t change his abrasive character.

Even though controlled aggression does evidently help in certain circumstances in games, at the same time it is crucial that you can control your emotions and don’t get too frustrated because this could then lead to dangerous tackles, arguing with refereeing decisions and subsequently being booked or even sent off, much like the case of Dele Alli. Even if the referee doesn’t spot an incident, you could risk a post-match citing and suspension as officials are trying more than ever to stamp violent acts out of football.

Luis Suárez has been in the receiving end of long bans following three separate biting incidents

Luis Suárez has been in the receiving end of long bans following three separate biting incidents

Luis Suárez is another example of someone who clearly doesn’t know the right way to express his frustration. From three separate instances, we can evidently see that Suárez has a distinctive taste for the controversial and indeed, human flesh. Any opponent who comes up against Suárez knows that he could potentially be facing a situation you would normally find in a petting zoo. “It’s not a conscious process and he is trying to release emotion” claimed Aimee Kimball, a mental training consultant who works with athletes and coaches. But why biting? It is behaviour we associate with babies, not fully-grown adults, not to mention world-class professional football players.

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When I am angry in the field I play better – according to me. And if people say I’m aggressive it stimulates me because I will be even more aggressive. People say I shout? I will shout even more. Because it stimulates me” – Zlatan Ibrahimović after being questioned on his aggression

In comparison to another sport, rugby is aggressive in it’s nature but as a result it requires firm refereeing to ensure that the players’ aggression doesn’t escalate to violence. Players are taught to respect each other following a specific code of conduct which helps maintain good behaviour. As a show of respect players actively engage in the shaking of their oppositions hands after 80 minutes of controlled aggression, that to an observer could look violent. What’s more, rugby players are not allowed to talk back to the referee or they will be sent off (as happened to current England rugby captain Dylan Hartley in a club match) – often it is only the captain who speaks to him, and refers to him as ‘Sir’. When you see footballers aggressively getting in the face of the referee, you can see the merits of these rugby principles – what better way to ensure that the aggression is controlled and focused on the match itself, than to create a system of respect where any aggression towards the referee is immediately punished? This is not discouraging aggression, but making sure it is focused in the right areas. Referees are hardly going to change their mind over a decision, so footballers would be better off using their obvious aggression against the opposition team.

Aggression is an integral element of football. However it is fundamental that young professional sportsmen and women understand the difference between controlled aggression and violence. In the modern game with players throwing themselves to the ground at the slightest touch, players have to control their aggression now more than ever. It would be interesting to see how many red cards former players like Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira would get in a modern Premier League game. Players must adapt to this current state of affairs, or they’ll be spending more time on the touchline than on the pitch.