One of the bigger sporting events of this summer is the British and Irish Lions Rugby tour to Australia.  Whenever people watch Rugby Union with limited knowledge of the sport (or of A-level Physical Education!) they will be thinking about aggression.  Ideas such as Rugby is aggressive, or seeing incidents of violent play, lead observers to talk about aggression and Rugby in the same breath.  But is Rugby aggressive and what is aggression anyway?

Aggression has been defined as:

“Any form of behaviour directed toward the goal of harming or injuring another living being who is motivated to avoid such treatment.”

This definition raises several points:

  1. Aggression is behaviour.  Thinking negative thoughts or being angry is not aggression.
  1. Aggression is intentional behaviour.  Accidental harm is not aggression.  The idea of intent is usually interpreted by the referee.
  2. Aggression involves harm or injury.  This may be physical, but could be psychological, such as trying to embarrass an opponent.
  3. Aggression involves living beings.  Kicking your dog is aggression, but kicking a chair is not.


So in simple terms, aggression is where there is intent to harm, and as far as Rugby is concerned, this must be outside the rules of the game.

So not all forceful behaviour exhibited in Rugby is aggression.   Contact is allowed by the laws of Rugby, and collisions/tackles are not necessarily aggressive.  Such actions usually do not involve intention to harm.  They are purposeful, goal-directed, assertive behaviours.

Assertive behaviour has a certain purpose; it is goal directed.  Assertive behaviour is not intended to cause harm.  Assertive behaviour only uses sufficient force from within the rules and confines of the situation.

Aggression is divided into two forms:

  • Hostile or reactive aggression usually involves anger and has injury as its primary aim.  Such as the Rugby player who tackles another player without the ball with the sole intention of hurting him.
  • Instrumental or channelled aggression is behaviour that has the intent to hurt in order to achieve money, praise or victory.  For example, the Rugby player who makes an illegal tackle on an opponent in order to discourage him/her from running with the ball.  Hurting an opponent might increase the players’ chance of victory.


The dividing line between instrumental and hostile aggression is quite fuzzy.

People want to know why aggression occurs; which factors – social and environmental, produce aggressive behaviour; and whether aggression can be directed or controlled.

One theory is instinct theory, which suggests that aggressive behaviour is an innate characteristic of all individuals.  We are born with an aggressive instinct that makes aggressive behaviour inevitable.

Instinct theory suggests that we an innate fighting instinct that has developed through evolution, based on the idea of territory, and territorial domination.  It also suggests that the instinct to be aggressive continues to build up until it is released through an aggressive act – the idea of “letting off steam”.

This suggests that performers who participate in the aggressive sports (such as Rugby) have the most opportunities to be aggressive.  They should expend all their aggressive energy (catharsis) during the game, and therefore be the calmest and least aggressive off the field.  Rugby can thus be seen as a calming influence.

Another theory is the  frustration-aggression hypothesis.  This suggests that frustration always leads to aggression, and that aggression always stems from frustration.

If the Rugby player tries to achieve a goal/target and his opponent stops them then the player will develop frustration, leading to more aggression.

The idea that frustration leads to aggression makes sense, and it fits into many of our observations about Rugby.  However, there are far more examples where Rugby players do not commit aggressive acts.  Their responses involve non-aggressive action, or simply despair.

Furthermore, many aggressive behaviours occur without being due to frustration.

This suggests that the frustration-aggression relationship may not be as inevitable as the hypothesis suggests and most current researchers do not accept the linking role of aggressive drive as inevitable.

Another theory (aggressive-cue theory) suggests that frustration increases arousal, rather than leading directly to aggression, and it is this increase in arousal that was most likely to produce the aggressive response.  But again, increasing arousal itself is insufficient to lead directly to aggressive behaviour unless there were cues in the environment.

These cues in Rugby could be items such as:

  • the aggression-related activity – Rugby
  • aggression-related people – specific player, coach or fan
  • aggression-related places – a pitch where an aggressive incident had occurred previously


Social learning theory proposes that aggression is a learned social behaviour, and as such is acquired, demonstrated and maintained in the same way as other learned behaviours, that is through direct reinforcement or through observational learning.

Many aggressive behaviours may be encouraged and reinforced in Rugby. For example, fans cheer fouls; the intentional elbow in the ribs is used to increase arousal and deliberate obstruction used to allow your team-mate more time and space.

All these are examples of incidents where aggressive acts are reinforced.  Reinforcement can also be more subtle, such as where the referee penalises the aggression, but the captain says ”well done”.

Unlike instinct and drive theories, social learning theory does not suggest any constant drive towards aggression.  It suggests that aggression is learned through reinforcement and observation, and individuals are aggressive only under conditions that produce or facilitate aggressive behaviours.

Social learning theory is the most optimistic approach to aggression, because if people can learn aggressive responses to certain situations and cues, then they can just as easily learn non-aggressive responses to the same situations.  Whereas instinct and drive theories see aggression as inevitable, social learning theory suggests that aggression is learned and therefore can be directed or controlled.

Social learning theory suggests that although high arousal levels are common in Rugby, and many incidents in Rugby provoke players, these conditions do not necessarily produce aggression.  Whether or not the players actually behave aggressively depends on the situational cues and the responses that have been learned and reinforced.

Rugby matches on their own do not cause aggression, it is the situation which is the important factor.

During a competitive situation, such as a Rugby match, aggression is possible for three reasons:

  1. The situation can cause aggression by the level of arousal experienced by the players.
  2. The situation can cause the individual to anticipate defeat.  Performers seldom act aggressively when they are wining.
  3. The provocation from the match can cause acts of aggression.


Hence to minimise the chance of aggression, performers, officials and coaches should:

  • Use punishment to reduce aggression
  • Encourage assertive behaviour
  • Reduce levels of arousal
  • Avoid aggressive cues






Governing Bodies

Punish aggressive play Peer pressure to discourage aggression Substitute aggressive players Warn aggressive players/yellow card Ban aggressive players
Reinforce assertive play ‘Well done’ comments from team-mates Mention contribution of non-aggressive play in team talks Encourage assertive behaviour through rapport Promote fair play awards
Reduce levels of arousal Use of cognitive  arousal-reducing techniques Teach somatic arousal-reducing techniques Remove players from arousing situations and calm them down Educate players and coaches
Avoid aggressive situations Mark another player Play another team Send off aggressive players Ban aggressive players


Examination questions will usually ask about the different types of aggression; the possible causes of aggression (where you must name the theory) and possible strategies to combat aggression.  So when watching the Lions tour to Australia, watch out for incidents and decide whether it was a case of aggression or assertion.  The referee has to do the same thing!  If you see aggression, try to explain the aggressive act in terms of the different theories – instinct; frustration-aggression; aggressive cue; social learning.

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