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Pepe's Headbutt Earned Him a Red Card. But Does Anger Sometimes Help Players, Too?

Whether or not it’s true, most athletes believe it does


On Monday, with his team already down 2-0 to Germany, Portugal's Pepe let his anger get the better of him. After his hand struck Germany's Thomas Muller in the face—sending the player to the ground, perhaps overdramatically—Pepe headbutted him for good measure. That earned Pepe a red card, ejecting him from the game and all but guaranteeing a loss. That's an example of how anger can hurt your performance in an athletic competition. But does anger sometimes help, too?

U.S. soccer captain Clint Dempsey “has to have a chip on his shoulder” to play well, a teammate told The Wall Street Journal last month. According to the teammate, he’s motivated by anger and desire for revenge. The Journal went on to claim that anger is detrimental to performance in sports, consuming athletes’ energy and distracting them from more pressing tasks. But even a limited review of the literature reveals a more complicated picture. Though anger is undoubtedly detrimental to many athletes’ performance, Dempsey might not be as much of an outlier as the Journal suggests: For some athletes, anger does appear to have a positive effect on performance—and regardless of whether or not it’s true, most athletes believe that anger helps them.

For a 2011 paper in Psychology of Sport and Exercise, Finnish sports psychologists Montse Ruiz and Yuri Hanin examined anger levels among 20 elite karate athletes in Spain. Ruiz and Hanin asked their subjects to recall their best and worst performances, and to think about their state of mind before, during, and after these memorable matches. They had their subjects fill out the “State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory”— rating statements like “I am quick tempered” and “It makes me furious when I am criticized in front of others”— based on their state of mind at the time. Ruiz and Hanin compared anger levels during best and worst performances—and found some slight differences. Anger tended to be a little higher prior to worst competitions (compared to the best competitions), and, unsurprisingly, higher afterwards. Interestingly, most of the athletes—75 percent—believed that anger facilitated rather than impeded their performance, saying that it helped generate extra energy. One athlete, for instance, told the psychiatrists, “Being angry made me more alert, more motivated, tense, fast, it made me react much faster.” Another recalled, “Being angry made me feel euphoric, wanting to doing well, it didn’t let me feel tired.” Karate, though, might be more likely than other sports to encourage or accommodate anger and aggression, since, like other martial arts, it’s based on fighting.

In a 2007 paper in the same journal, Italian sports psychologists Claudio Robazza and Laura Bortoli examined levels of anger in 197 male rugby players taking part in the national championship. Robazzo and Bortoli classified the athletes into two groups: “high-level” and “low-level.” When they compared scores on the State-Trait Anger Expression Inventory between the two groups, they found no significant difference in levels of anger. They also found no difference in whether the athletes interpreted their anger as facilitative or debilitative. (Like the karate athletes, the rugby players tended to report experiencing their anger as facilitative.)

Anger doesn’t seem be as draining on performance as The Wall Street Journal assumes. But the relationship between sports and anger isn’t one-way: Just as anger could affect performance, playing sports could have an impact on how athletes experience anger. It’s a harder question to address, requiring longer-term research, but psychologists from Tehran University of Medical Sciences approached it by carrying out a longitudinal study of 18 elite teenage female karate athletes in Iran. For a new paper in the Iranian Journal of Psychiatry, a team of doctors, led by Vahid Ziaee, evaluated the girls’ anger levels, and then checked back in with them a year and a half later. By this point, 12 were still practicing karate at a high level, while six had given it up; this allowed the doctors to compare anger not only over time but between current and former athletes. Despite the small sample size, what they found was striking: Anger levels increased significantly among the girls who continued practicing karate, but not among those who quit.