The Psych of the Fight

Thursday night, March 18th might be fight night in Boston.  The sports radio pundits have been debating it since March 7th whether the Bruins should seek a pound of flesh for Matt Cooke’s brutal hit on Marc Savard.    To some this may seem like a foolish (even childish) debate.  To others an important question centering the unwritten rules of sport and “code” that must be followed.  Regardless, fighting is part of some sports and how athletes learn it’s ways and application ought to be examined.

This issues is one that has particular credence because sport by its nature is aggressive and there are some sports where fighting is regularly accepted.  The art and science of the fight is something that must be learned by athletes in a variety of sports.  This being said, I on occasion have been particularly concerned by young athletes and their approach to fighting.

One clear example of this was a conversation I overheard on the subway between a few middle school boys.  The young men were planning a mixed martial arts fight that was to take place behind their school in about a week.  The “training” that one fighter was planning on committing to and some basic rules of the contest were being discussed.  Overall I was struck by the vividness in which they discussed the violence they expected one young man to exact on the other.  We are certainly in a day and age where mixed martial arts is a legitimate sport.   One with clear rules, regulations, and governing bodies.  Many sport medicine professionals will argue that it is safer than boxing when all is said and done.  This being said, a couple of teenage boys fighting behind a school is not mixed martial arts, it is juvenile delinquency.

In a second example, I am always struck by young men fighting in youth hockey (and at times coaches and parents encouraging it).  It is quite often that I hear about teenage hockey players regularly starting fights during games just for the sake of starting fights.  I have even met players who have found it to be a badge of courage that they have been thrown out of more games than they completed over the course of a season.  Don’t get me wrong, Slap Shot is a great movie, but fighting has no place in youth and/or minor junior hockey.  It’s just boys succumbing to the social pressure of boys… more often it is purposeless and leads to unnecessary scraps, scares, or even concussions.

With all this being said how is one to put this whole fighting thing into perspective.  Perhaps let’s start by making two clear statements:  1. All sports have an aggressive element to them,  2. Purposely striving to injure someone physically or mentally is wrong.  Considering this, how does one learn to be a successful ultimate fighter without striving to harm others?  Keeping this in mind, how can someone strive to the highest levels of hockey without dropping the gloves a time or two?  The answer likely lies in the art of understanding the subtleties of aggression in sport.  Three types of behaviors are typicially seen on the playing field: 1. Assertive behavior – the goal is to act aggressively/achieve one’s goal, but there is no intent to harm an opponent, 2. Instrumental aggression – the goal is to achieve one’s goal, likely harm one’s opponent, but there is no anger involved, 3. Hostile aggression – the goal is to achieve one’s goal, harm one’s opponent, and there is anger involved.  This is not a nice neat continuum of actions, but rather one where some actions are open to interpretation and often exist in a shade of gray.  It is clear however that combat sports and sports that involve combat (i.e. hockey) are filled with instrumental aggression, yet at the highest levels have little respect for hostile aggression – behaviors that strive to permanently harm or damage an opponent.

This may seem like a strange statement when watching a sport like mixed martial arts where blood can flow and violence is brutally inflicted.  Yet, the name of the most prominent clothing manufacture in the sport says it all, “Tapout.”  Knockouts may happen, but great fights end because one combatant “taps out” – in essence is conscious, relatively unbroken, but feeling helpless and unable to continue.  It is quite rare that even during the pre-fight trash talking and bravado do you hear that one fighters goal is to cripple or permanently harm his opponent.  The bread and butter of ultimate fighting is instrumental aggression.  The fighter that drifts into hostile aggression not only has questionable character, but likely will not fight well (see Emotion: Regulation, Not Control).

Now fighting in hockey is a far more delicate subject than in combat sports. In reality, it is not necessary and most games are contested without the gloves ever dropping (the exception may be in the CHL, ECHL, and other lower level professional hockey). This being said, there is a long tradition of dropping the gloves and enforcement of unwritten rules through violence. It can easily be argued that it does have its time and place in major junior hockey, minor league hockey, and the National Hockey League.  Sports philosophers can argue its necessity, and promoters understand that it puts fans in the seats  Perhaps more importantly many hockey purists believe it is necessary for the safety and good of the game – it is too difficult for officials to always protect players, at times the players themselves must fulfill this role. A thoughtful analysis of the nuances of the “rules” of fighting are well documented in The Code by Ross Bernstein. A well thought out read and one that makes it clear that while there are many potent gladiators in the sport, at the end of the day fights are much more instrumental aggression than hostile aggression.  Fighting in hockey is quite a bit about protecting teammates, self, and the character of the game.

Fighting below the elite levels of sport…  unless it’s a tightly controlled boxing ring or closely overseen in a martial arts center is either a sign of emotional immaturity or simple lack of emotional control.  Immaturity and lack of control are a bad combination if one’s ultimate goal is athletic achievement.  Many mixed martial artists and hockey goons are vocal about the fact that fighting is not child’s play.  If it is a path one chooses or a role one must play – wisdom advocates that it should not be undertaken until the athlete is cognitively able to understand purpose of the violent actions.  This in essence reserves the fight for adulthood.  The rules of hockey fit this path with fighting not allowed in college hockey – while the player bodies may be of adult size, speed, and strength, minds are still developing and maturing.  This plan also fits if one considers that many elite mixed martial artists were wrestlers in college prior to adding striking and “more violent” disciplines to their repertoire.  Even when full adulthood has been achieved too often frustration has led to combat at the wrong time for the wrong reasons.  When the age is right, one way to develop the psych of the fight is through the following plan:

1.  Learn and master the skills of your sport.

2.  Learn and master your emotions.

3.  Embrace aggressive play – whether it be beginning a game with good bursts of energy or playing the body well on a clean check.

4. Remaster controlling and managing your emotions and frustrations.

5.  If your sport demands, fight when the fight is right.

6.  Reflect upon your actions.  Were they done for the right reasons?  Where the done with the right intent?  Were they done without anger?

7.  Continue steps 1-6 over and over again.


When the time and mind are right the art and the science of the fight can be learned, but there is no rush, quality skill development, tactical knowledge, and mental toughness need to come first.

What happens on the ice on March 18th is soon to be seen.  Let’s just hope any and all actions are appropriately aggressive yet contain thoughtfulness in the midst of an emotional situation.

1 Response to “The Psych of the Fight”

  1. 1 polizen May 14, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    I like this post. Thank you very much. I will follow your Blog.

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