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Assertive Aggression

Updated: May 6, 2023

Adam Morris, founder of BelievePerform in the U.K., talks about some of these distinctions between the two closely related terms. This biggest difference is in intent. Assertive play is when an athlete competes at an extremely high intensity level but stays within the rules and does not intend harm an opponent. Meanwhile, aggressive play is where harm is intended either as the sole intent (hostile) or to reach the goal (instrumental). A perfect example of the difference can be found in the 2012-2013 NFL season. During this season, an investigation uncovered “Bountygate” where the New Orleans Saints had put bonuses out for intentionally injuring opposing players. While other teams may have been playing hard and assertive, the Saints players were out to harm by aggression.

Trying to determine intent can be difficult, especially in sports where violence is a core element. Therefore, coaches, players, and those around these athletes should be sure to check in on them. When the mentality goes from assertion to aggression without boundaries, then we could see the aggressive mentality bleed into other aspects of athlete’s lives. If we can properly distinguish these two mentalities, we might have more incidents like former UFC fighter Matt Serra who calmly restrained a customer at a restaurant when he easily could have been more aggressive and caused serious harm.

  1. Morris, A. (2013, May 23). Aggression in Sport. Believe Perform – the UK’s Leading Sports Psychology Website.

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