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Assertive vs Aggressive, What’s The Difference?

“The basic difference between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behaviors affect the rights and well being of others.” - Sharon Anthony Bower

Aggressive is defined as a forceful action or procedure especially when intended to dominate or master. Gill (1986) sights that aggression is a behavior that involves the intent to cause harm or injury that is directed toward another person.

There are five types of aggression:

1. Impulsive Aggression: it’s a reaction to something that happens in the moment, like when a basketball player is hard fouled by an opponent. In reaction, she gets up, screams at her opponent, and shoves her.

2. Accidental Aggression: when a person does something aggressive by accident, like when a runner stumbles and accidentally shoves a fellow runner, causing him to fall down.

3. Expressive Aggression: a reaction to a behavior or action as a means to release stress, like when a tennis player smashes her racket into the ground after hitting a ball into the net; or when a quarterback throws his helmet after throwing a interception.

4. Hostile Aggression: to cause pain and suffering onto another human being. It can be physical or psychological pain onto others. It's a power play to gain an advantage over others, like bullying.

5. Instrumental Aggression: is a planned aggression toward an opponent. Where an athlete has the intent to due harm against an opponent in hopes of gaining an advantage or to win. For example, in the movie Karate Kid, Johnny’s sensei instructs him to take Daniel out of the competition by illegally kicking Daniel at the knees to injure him.

On the other hand, assertiveness is defined as being disposed to or characterized by bold or confident statements and behaviors. Bredemeier (1994) identifies assertive behavior as playing within the rules of the sport at a very high intensity, and the athlete has no intention to harm the opponent. It’s proactive, forceful, and assertive, like driving hard to the hoop in basketball, challenging a 50/50 ball in lacrosse, or pushing a faster pace in a marathon.

The biggest difference between the two:

Being assertive is a positive form of expression that leads to productive thoughts and actions. It’s the act of playing hard and within the rules of the sport. When you perform in this manner, you are showing respect for the game, your opponent, and for competition. The main intent is to perform your best, go all out with effort, to show good sportsmanship, and to compete. It's a reflection of your values and it shows confidence without the need to put others down.

Being aggressive is a negative action that shows disrespect for the game. The reason being, you are reacting with negative emotions. Negative thoughts and actions tend to spiral to poor performance. An aggressive mindset can also take your focus away from competition and on the intent to do harm unto others. Be it to gain an advantage, or to exploit others for your benefit.

So remember, when a coach tells you to go out there and be aggressive, he/she is actually telling you to compete by being more assertive.


Tips For Performing with an Assertive Mindset:

1. Raise your level of physical intensity in your pre-game and pre-practice routine. Getting a good warmup and getting active can help you to shift toward a more assertive mindset.

2. Use self-talk that is focused on high-energy and assertiveness. Create affirmations focused on the things that remind you to play your best. For example, “Play hard!” “Get after it!” “Go big!” “YOLO!”

And remember, it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say and express it. Make it assertive, action oriented, and focused on performing your best.

3. Imagine how you want to play assertive. Involve your five senses, and image it at game speed. Imagine how you look when you are performing with competitive fire, focus, confidence, and assertiveness!

In the end, if you are going to improve and strive for mastery, competition is about learning from the experience, learning to play the game, and creating an environment that allows for growth and excellence. This includes getting the best out of your competition. If you can inspire your opponent to bring their "A" game, it will in turn, challenges you to bring your "A" game as well!



Aggression. (n.d.). Retrieved February 09, 21, from

Bredemeier, B. J. L. (1994). Children's moral reasoning and their assertive, aggressive, and submissive tendencies in sport and daily life. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 16(1), 1–14.

Gill, D.L., (1986) Psychological dynamics of sport, Champaign IL, Human Kinetics

Hallam, L. (2014, April 07). Aggression in Sports: Theories and Examples - HowTheyPlay - Sports. Retrieved February 09, 21, from

Taylor, D. J. (2017, December 07). 3 Essential Mindsets for Athletic Success. Retrieved February 09, 21, from

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