It is not uncommon for people involved in budo to claim that their art provides them an outlet or channel for their frustrations and hostility. Further they claim that this makes them less likely to actually participate in aggression or violence. The theory that combative arts (or other physically demanding activities) can provide a healthy outlet for frustration and aggression  is often called “catharsis theory” . Unfortunately there is very little support for this theory. The three articles below discuss the relationship between aggression and various forms of athleticism including combative sports.

Self-reported Hostile Aggression

in Contact Athletes, No Contact Athletes and Non-athletes

Patrice Lemieux, Stuart J. McKelvie and Dale Stout
Department of Psychology
Bishop’s University


To investigate the relationship between athletic participation and off-field hostile aggression, Buss and Perry’s (1992) Aggression Questionnaire (AQ) was completed by two groups of 86 university athletes in either contact or no contact sports and two control groups of 86 non-athletes who were matched to the athletes in physical size. In general, bigger participants scored higher on hostile aggression and reported more fighting than smaller participants, but athletes and non-athletes did not differ. These results contradict the learning and catharsis theories of aggression in sport, and undermine the media image of the belligerent off-field athlete.

Aggression and Catharsis

By Billy E. Pennal, Ph.D.

Although there is some evidence that aggressive behavior can be cathartic, much of this evidence involves fantasied aggression rather than overt aggression. When a physiological measure is used as an indication of aggressive drive, fairly consistent results obtain across studies. Blood pressure appears to reflect a catharsis effect whereas other physiological measures do not. Whether physiological arousal indicates aggressive drive is a problem open to argument.

Most studies supporting a catharsis effect have used dependent measures rather loosely. Measures of aggressive drive obtained from projective tests are open to considerable doubt, and this is the primary type of dependent measure used to measure an instinctual drive. Based on these kinds of measures, fantasied aggression does appear to decrease after some aggressive activity, particularly when that activity is socially sanctioned as in a sporting event.

Making Men of Them: Male Socialization for

Warfare and Combative Sports

Garry Chick
Leisure Studies Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 201 Mateer Building, University Park, PA 16802;

Combative Sport and Sham Combat. In a replication of the hypotheses proposed by Sipes (1973), we found that combative sports— those that involve actual or potential contact between opponents with the object of inflicting real or symbolic injury on opponents, gaining playing field territory, or are patently warlike— are related to frequency of warfare and
homicide in a cross-cultural sample (Chick, Loy, and Miracle 1997). We also noted the existence of a form of activity in some societies, which we termed “sham combat,” that was even more strongly related to warfare (though not to homicide) than individual or team combative sports. These were combat like activities that were not sportive in the sense that they lacked winners and losers and appeared, as often as not, to be training activities for males in the arts of war.

If we assume that the catharsis theory is fundamentally flawed then the following are things that I would be curious about:

1) I would want to know if the rehearsal of violence (training) in my group is  likely to actually encourage aggression in my students.

2) I would want to know if there are other social or psychological processes at work within a training community that mediate the tendency to greater  aggression.

3) I would want to know what I could do to enhance the efficacy of the  suppressive processes active within the group.

4) I would want to know if the tendency to become more aggressive could be suppressed (where appropriate) without compromising students real fighting ability.

I am hoping that we get some good comments on this as I feel it is a particularly important issue.