WRITER: Amy Couteé
CONTACT: DAVE PEDERSEN
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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
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
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