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UI study looks at aggressive behavior in girls' sports

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- With the help of 10 to 14 year-old female soccer players, University of Iowa sport psychologist Dawn Stephens has found out why girls may become aggressive in sports.

According to Stephens' findings, the athletes' perceptions of their peers' behavior lead them to be aggressive on the field. Aggression, the initiation of an attack with an intent to injure, occurs when the athletes believe their teammate would be aggressive in the same situation.

Stephens created an internationally recognized test that assesses the different types of moral atmospheres present in team sports that may be related to each child's unique aggressive behavior. Her study, which looked at organized soccer, was published in last December's issue of the International Journal of Sport Psychology.

"If we can understand what causes the aggression, then we can help stop it," says Stephens, an assistant professor of sports, health, leisure and physical studies at the UI who is curious about what makes athletes do what they do.

"The number one result, across the board, was that their actions were based on what they thought their teammates would do," Stephens says. "It's so amazingly consistent it's almost boring."

In order to determine how players decided whether or not to be aggressive, Stephens laid out a familiar and easily understood soccer scenario followed by a questionnaire. The girls read about a defender named Sue who was supposed to be protecting the goal. Unfortunately, Sue was not in the right position on the field to do her job. Wendy, the opposing team's best player, was dribbling the ball towards Sue's goal. There were no other defenders to stop Wendy, and the only way for Sue to prevent Wendy from shooting was to trip her from behind. Sue knew that if she did, Wendy would probably get hurt, and Sue had to decide if she would trip Wendy from behind or not.

The questions asked the girls to decide if Sue should trip Wendy from behind, and then asked what the girls would do if they were in Sue's position and what they thought their teammates would do. The study participants were also presented with six different motives for tripping Wendy and asked which motive was the most tempting. Finally, the girls were told to imagine they were in the situation with the most tempting motive and were asked what they would do. The answers allowed Stephens to determine what types of reasoning the girls used to decide whether or not to trip Wendy, and what affected their decisions most.

The girls' decisions whether or not to trip Wendy were based on the atmosphere they experienced on the team and their perceptions of their teammates. Stephens found that if the girls believed their teammate would trip Wendy, they would trip Wendy.

"Even if they knew it was wrong they would still do it," Stephens says. "We don't always do what we know is right."

Most girls answered that hurting another player was wrong but many went on to say that they would hurt if they thought their teammates would. The team atmosphere is what tells the child what their teammates would do in the situation, Stephens points out.

"We don't look enough at the context of the situation," Stephens says. Often, adults think the aggressive kids are 'bad kids', but that is not always the case, as this study shows.

According to Stephens, coaches often have wonderful philosophies on sports and why it is important for children to have the opportunity to play. Building self-esteem, instilling confidence and teaching teamwork are some of the most common. The problem is that few coaches know how to facilitate these aspects of sports. Sometimes coaches develop an atmosphere that promotes aggression despite intentions to promote teamwork and fair play.

There are many events on the field where, Stephens says, coaches tell kids not to play in a way that might hurt another player. However, when one child is able to win the game for the team by being aggressive and the coach praises the child for winning the game, the rest of the kids get a mixed signal.

"Actions speak louder than words, and kids learn by observing. The kids are smart, so coaches really need to be aware of the signals they give. Consistency is the key, and coaches need to ask themselves 'what am I teaching by my actions and what I say?'," Stephens says.

Recommendations from Stephens on how to stop aggression in child athletes range from letting the kids make up their own rules for the game, which teaches them the purpose of rules, to emphasizing aspects of the team like making friends and learning how to cooperate. She advocates that coaches watch more pick-up games. As part of her research, Stephens observed the behaviors involved in pick-up games. She found that kids are capable of making rules and will truly be playing for the love of the game when they are given the chance to have a say in how the game is played. This offered a stark contrast to organized sports where children can be prevented from enjoying the game because of rules and regulations adults create.

Stephens' research has helped further the study of children's aggression in sports. While the aggression scenario in this measure has generated the most interest, it also contains scenarios that examine lying and cheating in sports. Her test is currently being used to assess aggression in older male and female athletes across a variety of sports. The questions are being used with Malaysian children to find out if the causes of aggression are similar across cultures. A future study in Spain will also examine cultural variances. So far, the measure has found that a team's moral atmosphere was the key to predicting the aggression of athletes participating in boys' ice-hockey, girls' basketball and even co-ed adult basketball, floor hockey and softball.