Chapter 18. Aggression

Definition of aggression:

Assertive, bold, and energetic.  An energetic pursuit of one’s ends.


Assertive, bold, energised, charged, adrenalized, amped, attacking, uncompromising, letting rip, decisive, big, overpowering, overwhelming, intense, strong, powerful, forceful, commanding, dominant, unstoppable

In squash, the drop shot is considered a delicate shot, yet when hit well it has pace and spin.  In tennis, the players with the hardest serves dominate the world rankings.  In golf, being aggressive results in lower scores:  Ryder Cup players always talk about how much more aggressively they play in matchplay golf, and the scoring is always lower than in the strokeplay tournaments throughout the rest of the year.

For some, aggression is a dirty word, so we need to clear up any confusion.  Often when I have asked someone if they are aggressive in their sport, they have looked a little embarrassed by the question, and quickly said “Oh no, I’m not aggressive.  It’s good to want to win but I would never use aggression against an opponent”.    But they misunderstand me.  I am not referring to the distasteful side of aggression:  frustration, anger, violence outside of the rules, or threatening behaviour.

Aggression is how a player stamps their authority on the opposition.  It’s about intent.  It’s about power and dominance.  The way a scrum locks horns in rugby.  The grunt in a tennis forehand.  The way Tiger’s driver recoils off his back when he hits flat out.  It is decisiveness, pace, strength, and commitment.  For every non-aggressive sportsperson you can name, I bet you can name another ten who are aggressive.

Aggression is one of the most basic human instincts.  It is a behaviour which bypasses the conscious mind, and that means it’s easy to achieve.

Ideal aggression levels

Being in an aggressive state for a long time can be tiring so it is best if you aim to build your aggression to reach its target (usually eight out of 10) at the start of a competition and then keep it there for the duration.  Outside of these times, it is best to keep your aggression down to a fairly low level.  During the preparation stage however, if you are practicing your skills then you need to practice them with a similar level of aggression to how you will be competing.

Incrementing methods for aggression

Since aggression is such an innate behaviour, very little is needed by the way of incrementing methods other than “just do it”.  However, it is worth performers thinking about exactly how they want to channel their aggression.  They might ask themselves:  “I’ve got all this aggression, how should I best use it?”  For example, a tennis player may channel his aggression into relentlessly going for winners.

Pat Cash, while commentating at Wimbledon in 2008, gave a fascinating insight into the effectiveness of playing tennis flat out.  His point was that to break serve you have to win four points, and the only way that you will win that many points against serve is if you hit four stupendous returns.  You only need to break your opponent’s serve once in a set, and as long as you hold your serve for the rest of the time then the set is yours.  Therefore the scattergun approach of highly aggressive returning is an effective strategy.

He argued that it is very difficult to break serve if you return in a controlled manner.  This is because, although you will gain consistency (you will return most serves back into play), your returns will be weak enough that the opposition can capitalise on these slow returns and win the points anyway.

Cash said:  “I remember I used to spend the whole set just blasting the ball back and ninety percent of the time they were going out.  And the guy I was playing would be thinking ‘What’s this guy all about?  He’s getting nothing in!’.  But then out of nowhere I would hit four consecutive winners and I’ve broken serve even though I haven’t been able to hit a thing the entire set!”

Other examples of channelling aggression are:

  • A rower may plan for his aggression to be released steadily throughout a race so that he has something left to give in the final sprint.
  • A boxer may choose to feel that her aggression is used as much in defending herself as it is in throwing punches.
  • A golfer may channel his aggression into hitting big drives and taking the break out of putts.
  • A defender in football may use his aggression to limit his opponent’s movements rather than to make reckless challenges.
  • A squash player may use her aggression to hit the ball hard and low, and play drop shots firmly at the nick.

Being too aggressive

For all its positives, performers who utilise aggression run the risk of becoming over-aggressive and this can lead to disaster, headlines and even national shame.  Here are some famous examples, and some more general cases:

  • David Beckham’s red card against Argentina in the 1998 football World Cup.
  • Wayne Rooney’s red card against Portugal in the 2006 football World Cup.
  • Ben Crenshaw breaking his putter in the 1987 Ryder Cup.
  • Zinedine Zidane headbutting Marco Materazzi in the 2006 football World Cup.
  • Loss of points and games in tennis due to racquet abuse.
  • Over-ambitious golf shots hit out of difficult lies or with no easy route to the hole.

Many sports performers have become acutely aware of the dangers of over-aggression.  The majority of trial participants who used aggression as an attribute decided to manage this at eight or nine out of 10, rather than allowing it to go all the way to 10 where big mistakes start to happen.  In some cases, they used an attribute name that would promote the right level of aggression, e.g. “aggressive but not careless” or “commanding”.

Greg Norman:  an example of over-aggression

As much as I love Greg Norman, I can’t help but think he hasn’t always managed his mental state very well in final rounds of golf’s majors.  He has led, or been within five of the lead, 24 times in major championships.  For those 24 times he has a rather high final round scoring average of 73.3.  In seven of those majors he shot a final round score of 75 or over, and on four of those seven occasions he was leading the tournament going into the final round.  He has only won two majors.

This is surely a disappointing statistic for Norman and it points to a failure to perform when he has had the chance to win.  So how is it that he got into contention so many times but only converted two of those opportunities?  How do you play three rounds well and the final one badly?  Something has to have changed in his mental state because his fitness and technical skills could not have vanished overnight.

The press have been onto it for years, but they haven’t quite hit the nail on the head.  Whenever Norman has spoken to reporters after failing to win a major, he has been accused of choking.  Norman has looked them dead in the eye and adamantly denied that he choked.  And do you know what?  He didn’t!  He got too aggressive instead!

In the 2008 British Open this was clear to see.  He worked his way into contention by playing imaginative shots in windy conditions.  He would punch a seven iron 90 yards under the wind if that’s how he saw the shot.  But in the final round, out came the driver on every tee – the aggressive “I’m taking this major by the throat” attitude – and he frequently landed in trouble, too much trouble even for Norman to escape from.


If Greg Norman had managed his aggression better, he could have won five majors instead of two.

So it is clear that Norman didn’t manage his aggression.  He let this attribute build up to a frenzy throughout the first three rounds, fuelled by his continued success – he didn’t think he could do anything wrong!  If he had known to keep his aggression down to just five out of 10, then I suspect Norman could have won at least five of the 24 majors he seriously contended.

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