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Sport Psychology: Why Do Some Athletes Snap?

Posted by: Dr. Granat on March 11, 2007

Last Saturday, I appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America. A producer


asked me to comment on the the recent violent act in the Ranger vs. Islander hockey


I have written on violence in sports in the past and I have been interviewed

by the British Broadcasting Company on this subject. However, this most recent

act caused me think a bit more about what causes this kind of vicious behavior and

what can be done to prevent it from happening again.

I believe that some of the athletes who behave violently are people who

were raised in dysfunctional families where they were exposed to violence, cruelty,

substance abuse and chaos. These kinds of environments do little to foster

the development of qualities like kindness and empathy.

To make matters worse, some violent athletes are currently abusing drugs,

alcohol and/or steroids which can intensify their internal rage.

Some of the violence can be attributed to the fact that many athletes have failed to

learn how to control their emotions because they have devoted so much of their time to

mastering their craft, which is their sport. In short, they are physically quite talented, but

they are emotional quite undeveloped and quite immature.

Many of the sports we love like football and hockey have a violent component to

them, and athletes are, in some instances, rewarded for being tough and very physical

competitors. It is sometimes difficult to control one’s aggressiveness once some of it

is allowed, appreciated and rewarded.

Top athletes are held in high regard in our society and sometimes get special

treatment, special favors and special attention during their formative years. This

“special treatment” can give rise to a feeling of grandiosity which can lead some athletes

to feel as if they are “above the law” and not susceptible to punishment. Consequently,

they have difficulty thinking about the consequences of their actions.

Some athletes may suffer from one of several a psychiatric illnesses

like intermittent explosive, oppositional defiant disorder, depression or narcissistic

personality disorder. People with these kinds of illnesses can have trouble controlling

their rage and have difficulty being concerned about other people’s feelings. Harming

others may not bother them the way it is apt to disturb most of us. Players with these

kinds of conditions can be quite dangerous on and off the field.

It is also important to remember that athletes are human and a violent act on

the playing field may be related to some frustration that they are experiencing in

another aspect of their life. A conflict with a wife or lover can cause an athlete to

have a bad day at “their office” which is a court or a playing field.

Some athletes get fired up by crowds and the fans. Like rock stars and entertainers,

some sports stars thrive on the attention and the adoration they get from large numbers of

people. Top athletes may get caught up the fans’ enthusiasm and lose control of their

emotions and their behavior.

Leagues can help to minimize violence in sports by having clear and strict

penalties for violent acts. I have helped many athletes to manage by teaching them

anger management technique, meditation, visualization and self-hypnosis. These

kinds of programs should be included in many organized sports programs. And it is

probably a good idea to start this kind of training with young athletes while athletes

are in their formative years.

Athletes who demonstrate a pattern of violent behavior need to be evaluated and

referred for the appropriate kind of mental health counseling. Some leagues may

resist these kind of interventions, but I believe these kinds of programs are essential

if violence in sport is to be minimized.

Jay P. Granat, Ph.D. is a Psychotherapist in River Edge, NJ. He is the Founder of His Stay In The Zone Program contains a
chapter on managing anger and frustration. This program can be ordered at

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