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The Truth about contact sports and aggression in kids

Separating Aggression from Healthy Competition in Young Athletes

As parents, we all want what’s best for our children. When our kids show an interest in sports, we encourage them to get active and learn important life lessons like teamwork, discipline, and handling both wins and losses.

But when it comes to contact sports like football, wrestling, or martial arts, many parents hesitate. We worry that these rough-and-tumble sports might make our kids more aggressive or hostile. Who wants little Johnny coming home as a pint-sized bully after football practice?


It’s a common concern. But what does the research actually say? Can sports like football and wrestling lead to increased aggression in youth athletes? Or is this just an unfounded myth we’ve come to accept?


I recently came across an interesting study that tackles this question head-on. Published in the academic journal TIMS Acta, the study compared youth athletes in contact sports like wrestling, boxing, and taekwondo to those in non-contact sports like swimming, athletics, and dance.


The goal was to see if contact sport athletes showed higher levels of aggressiveness. The researchers surveyed 154 young athletes ages 10-15 using different scales to measure aggressiveness, anger, motivation, anxiety, and more.


The results were notable.


Key Finding: No Increase in General Aggression

The study found no difference in overall aggressiveness between contact and non-contact sport athletes. In addition, the contact-sport kids did not report greater hostility or aggression in general.


This challenges the common belief that sports like football, wrestling, and martial arts inherently make kids more aggressive day-to-day.


The only difference found was slightly higher “competitive aggressiveness” in contact sports. This shows the physicality and intensity of these sports may bring out more assertive behaviors on the field or ring.


But this competitiveness doesn’t necessarily cross over into greater aggression at home, school, or in the community.

What This Means for Your Student Athlete

This is an important finding for parents. It tells us that participation in contact sports won’t turn our aspiring athletes into bullies or troublemakers. Properly structured programs can teach positive values and fair competition.


The authors of the study explain it this way:


Contact sport-specific tasks may serve as [an] environment for youth athletes which decreases their general aggressiveness...The positive effect of the participation in whether contact or non-contact sports may strengthen appropriate behavior patterns without negative effects of contact sports training.”


They also highlight the importance of coaching:


“Researchers explain that well-structured training programs teach and reward positive, prosocial behaviors – not antisocial hostility. Contact sports provide an outlet for competitiveness. But under the guidance of good coaches, they also build character.”


This coincides with what we see in youth leagues that prioritize mentorship, ethics, and skill-building over winning at all costs.


The influence contact sports have on young athletes doesn’t stop there. Research also touches on some of the following benefits:


Contact Sports and Emotional Skills

A key takeaway from the study is the impact of contact sports on emotional skills. These sports don’t just build physical strength; they also help young athletes develop emotional intelligence. They learn to manage stress, handle high-pressure situations, and bounce back from setbacks. These are invaluable skills in sports and in life.


The Role of Contact Sports in Developing Self-Esteem

High self-esteem is crucial for young individuals, and sports play a significant role in this. The study found that participating in sports, contact or non-contact, can boost a child’s self-confidence. This confidence comes from mastering skills, being part of a team, and achieving goals.


Building a Positive Body Image

In a world where body image issues are rampant, sports offer a healthy perspective. Young athletes learn to appreciate their bodies for their strength and capabilities. This appreciation fosters a positive body image, which is essential for mental health.


Contact Sports and Social Skills

Teamwork and communication are at the heart of contact sports. Athletes learn to work with others, understand different perspectives, and develop leadership skills. These social skills are beneficial in various aspects of life, from school to personal relationships.


The Importance of Sportsmanship

Contact sports teach young athletes about respect, empathy, and sportsmanship. Learning to respect opponents, accept victories humbly, and handle defeats gracefully are lessons that extend beyond the sports field.


The Role of Parents

The role we play as parents is just as, if not more, crucial to developing healthy athletes. It starts with asking the right questions when assessing sports programs for our kids:

·       What are the coach’s values and credentials? Do they emphasize player development over wins and losses?

·       Does the league/gym have a code of conduct? What values do they profess, and do they adhere to them?

·       Are there sportsmanship and skill-building awards alongside competitive achievements?

·       What’s the culture like? Is it welcoming rather than cutthroat?


Once enrolled, we can support lessons in fair competition by:

·       Discussing sportsmanship and rules of the game at home

·       Emphasizing effort and attitude over athletic success

·       Modeling positive cheering and avoiding “playground dad/mom” behavior

·       Keeping competitions in perspective rather than overemphasizing their importance


The Truth About Aggression in Contact Sports

The bottom line is that when taught properly, contact sports don’t directly cause increased aggression. Sports like youth football, wrestling, martial arts, and hockey can teach great lessons in self-control, respect, and healthy competition.


That’s not to say every program gets it right. As parents, we need to keep a close eye to ensure values align with a positive environment. But contact sports themselves are not inherently harmful.


In fact, these sports provide benefits like:

·       Athletic development

·       Learning controlled contact/physicality

·       Developing mental toughness

·       Making friends and collaborating with teammates

·       Channeling energy into productive pursuits

·       Building confidence by learning new skills


This shows why we should avoid buying into stereotypes about contact sports athletes being overly aggressive. The research doesn’t back this up. Kids who succeed in athletics and life come in all shapes, sizes, and interests – including football players, wrestlers, and more!


The Takeaway

Our ultimate goal as parents is to raise well-rounded individuals. Contrary to popular belief, contact sports can be a powerful tool in this journey. They provide a platform for comprehensive personal development and prepare our children for life’s challenges.


Next time you hear someone suggest contact sports lead to increased aggression, remember the facts. When done right, these sports can teach crucial lessons that stay with kids long after the final whistle blows.


So don’t be afraid to encourage your kids’ athletic interests, whether it’s taekwondo, lacrosse, hockey, or another contact sport. With sound guidance at home and in their programs, contact sports can help build better athletes and greater leaders!


I hope exploring this important topic provides a more comprehensive understanding of the multifaceted benefits of contact sports for young athletes. Let me know if you have any other questions! I’m always happy to dig into the research on youth sports and development. Together, let’s support our young athletes in their journey towards growth and excellence in all aspects of life!



Huđin, N., Glavaš, D. and Pandžić, M. (2020) 'Contact sports as a sport of more aggressive athletes?: Aggressiveness and other psychological characteristics of youth athletes involved in contact and non-contact sports', TIMS. Acta, 14(1), pp. 5-16. doi:10.5937/timsact14-27343.


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