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Mitch Abrams discusses anger and violence in sport

Interview with Mitch Abrams, PsyD, author of Anger Management in Sport


Why was it important to write an entire book devoted to the issue of anger in sport settings?

One could make a reasonable argument that my book only opens the door on this important issue. Violence, in general, and violence in sport specifically, are impacted by many factors.  One of the main goals of the book was to explore as many different aspects to anger and sports as possible.

Do you feel the environment has drastically changed in the past several years, or are we only now recognizing the need to address anger issues among athletes?

I don’t think that we are only now realizing the need to address anger in sports because we have been reading incidents of athletes’ transgressions in the sports headlines for years. I believe sport psychology’s commentary on this behavior has been long overdue.  More recently, people have started to question the value of sports and competition. Some people are starting to believe that athletes are a group that is more violent than non-athletes. I do not agree with this sentiment. Our society is a violent society where we have seen increases in violence across the board. Expecting that athletes would not be represented in those increases is unrealistic, especially given the fact that, depending upon the sport, they are reinforced to being aggressive, and arguably violent, in their sport setting, thus making it more difficult for them to know where violent behavior is condoned, where it is prohibited, and how to prevent it.

In your book, Anger Management in Sport, you offer programs and suggestions for preventing athlete violence. Can you briefly describe what actions should be taken by coaches, parents, administrators, and athletes themselves to reduce violent behavior in various sport settings?  

I think the first step is to normalize anger. Perhaps no emotion has greater judgment placed on it than anger. People wrongly assume that they get in trouble for being angry, instead of getting in trouble at times for what they do when they get angry. Expect that athletes will get angry in sports because not being successful is frustrating and frustration can lead to reactive aggression. As such, athletes need to be taught how to be aware of their emotions as well as how to modulate them. This must be taught in practice, pre-competition, and drilled repeatedly; as any new skill would be taught. This process is crucial because if these skills are not in their toolbox, they won’t be able to access them during competition.

For coaches and parents, besides making sure the athletes are taught how to maintain one’s composure, it is of utmost importance that they model the expectations. It is very difficult for athletes to remain cool when the people that they look up to, their coaches and parents, are yelling and screaming much of the time.

And lastly, for administrators, leagues must have zero tolerance for violence. If left unchecked, a relatively minor incident can escalate to a culture that not only tolerates, but accepts and expects violence. Early intervention, clear delineation of codes of conduct, and solid mechanisms for enforcement are crucial to keeping violence out of their sports organizations.

In a recent women’s college basketball game, a frustrated player punched an opponent. While the chief executive of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association framed the act as an isolated incident, what implications do these types of incidents have in the college sport environment?

I believe the biggest implication for college sports is that viewers and critics will be quick to extrapolate an isolated incident into a theme and further overgeneralize athletes as a violent bunch. Viewing that incident, and some of the footage of the wrestling for position in the paint, I was not at all surprised that Britney Griner was frustrated. One could argue that the officials have a responsibility to maintain greater control of the athletes before it escalates to a thrown punch. Nonetheless, regardless of how frustrated she may have become, Griner and Griner alone was responsible for her behavior which was violent and outside the lines. That same behavior, had it not been on a basketball court (and even that is questionable if you consider how some hockey violence has been prosecuted), is a criminal act and it should have very strict consequences. Those consequences should be fair and appropriate for the act, and most importantly, the consequences should be levied on the athlete in question, not all of the athletes in the world that had nothing to do with the incident.

In another recent incident, a top-ranked college squash player dropped out of the national singles championship after an outburst against a competitor. His coach called the athlete’s decision to drop out "a classy thing to do.” Do you think the athlete made a wise decision?

Although the footage of the outburst I saw did not demonstrate very good sportsmanship, I did not see this as a particularly violent incident. In this particular situation, the victor in the squash match happened to stand about a foot taller than his competitor, which made it even more pronounced when he yelled in his face in the seconds after victory. Interviews with the coaches of both players in the days afterwards demonstrated excellent balance of behavioral accountability and empathy towards the competitive fire. The athlete’s decision to drop out was somewhat surprising to me, but one explanation was that he was embarrassed by his behavior and felt the need to self-impose a sanction. While no one would blame an athlete for their hunger to return to competition, his decision to step down from the tournament spoke to an unusual maturity for a young man his age. It is not uncommon for suspensions in sports to be appealed to the point that the sanction disappears or becomes nearly meaningless. This athlete took matters into his own hands.  For the sake of winning, his decision may not have helped his team. For the sake of sportsmanship, he made a very powerful statement that should be applauded.

Hockey has long been a popular scene for athletic violence. Recent investigations have caused minor hockey leagues in Canada to impose new rules about racial taunts and violence, but some still feel more needs to be done. In an inherently aggressive sport like hockey, who should be held accountable for ensuring aggression remains controlled? Who should set the standards?

The leagues must set the standards, the coaches must hold the players to them, and the referees must enforce them. I don’t have a problem with severely punishing athletes that go over the line and deliberately try to injure an opponent. I think there are sometimes double standards at work, however, that need to be considered. In football, while quarterbacks need to be protected as they are often the “faces of the sport”, it is of no less consequence when a defensive lineman gets their knee torn up when engaged with an offensive lineman and another “chop blocks” him. The same thing goes for a situation in football or hockey when a player catapults himself at an opposing player who is completely defenseless, if not unaware, that danger is approaching. I admit that the line is sometimes blurry and it is difficult for athletes to make split second decisions on whether or not to let up, but there are times that it is blatant – and in the most extreme cases, I believe it is criminal. It should not require career ending injury, paralysis, or death before we tighten the reins on these extreme acts of sports violence.

It seems that every week there is another incident (or several incidents) in sport that shows there is a lack of control in sport. Is it realistic to envision a day when we won’t have these types of behavioral issues and violence in sport to point to? 

No. Part of the attraction of participating in sports and watching them is the passion and aggression that the competitors display. If this completely disappeared, I believe participation and viewing would soon follow. But, we can do a better job than we are currently doing.

There’s no question media coverage has allowed the public to hear a lot more about incidents at all levels that in the past would not have been widely known. But how has the tremendous exposure that many sports now receive impacted athletes’ understanding of how accountable they need to be for their behavior on and off the field? Are athletes, especially young athletes, likely to make better decisions because of this increased awareness?

That is an excellent question; I am not sure how aware most athletes are. However, I would not count on their awareness as the mechanism to lead them to better control or decision making. The burden for this falls on the organizations, coaches, and parents involved in youth sports. Sportsmanship, discipline, respect for the game, and respect for your opponents are all things that must be taught early and often. The older the athlete is before they understand and appreciate this, the harder it will be for them to learn. 

 

Mitch Abrams, PsyD, is a clinician administrator for University Correctional HealthCare/UMDNJ, where he is responsible for the delivery of mental health services for 6 of the state’s 13 state prisons. Dr. Abrams co-coordinates the forensic track of UMDNJ’s predoctoral psychology internship and has been involved with several aspects of advancing the quality of mental health services in prison systems. He is a clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UMDNJ/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and has held adjunct faculty positions at Brooklyn College, C.W. Post, and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Since 2000, he has been in private practice providing sport, clinical, and forensic psychology services.

Dr. Abrams began consulting with athletes in 1997 while developing the only comprehensive anger management program for athletes. He has created a niche in using anger management training to assist athletes in reaching peak performance on the field and in life. He has consulted with thousands of athletes and has developed programs for athletic organizations at the youth sport, high school, and college levels. He is the founder and president of Learned Excellence for Athletes, a sport psychology consulting company located in Fords, New Jersey.

Raised in Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Abrams received a bachelor of science degree from Brooklyn College and earned a master of science degree in applied psychology and a doctorate of psychology (PsyD) in clinical psychology from C.W. Post/Long Island University. He also received specialized training in family violence and anger management. He is a full member of the American Psychological Association as well as its Division 47 (Exercise and Sport Psychology) and Division 41 (American Psychology-Law Society). Further, he holds membership in the Association for Applied Sport Psychology (AASP), where he is also the chair of the Anger and Violence in Sport Special Interest Group (SIG), and the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT).



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