Athlete Mental Toughness Articles

Should You Play With an Aggressive Mindset?

Eli Straw
Should You Play With an Aggressive Mindset?

This is a question I used to consider a lot while playing baseball and now has become a recurrent thought in my mind as a professional mental performance coach.

Growing up, I was called a nice guy.

Not always the best description you want to hear as a competitor. I had one coach who talked to me about how I needed to develop more of a killer instinct while playing. What this always left me with was feeling as though my natural personality wasn’t good enough.

However, as I grew older, gained self-awareness, and began studying sport psychology, I realized that I didn’t need an aggressive mindset or a killer instinct to succeed…I needed to fully accept the mindset that allowed me to play my best.

Because that was really what I was after; playing as well as I could on a consistent basis. Which is something any athlete, no matter the sport they play, is after.

Well, the more I began to realize this for myself, and the more athletes I worked with in one-on-one mental performance coaching, the less I believed an aggressive mindset was best.

One athlete in particular matched what I used to feel quite perfectly. It seemed the only difference was the sport he played.

His mom told me that coaches were always trying to get him to play with more aggression and anger, saying he lacked the edge needed to succeed in basketball.

Thinking he needed to change himself left the athlete frustrated and distracted, failing to focus on what he actually needed to do to elevate his game.

Once again, it wasn’t an aggressive mindset this athlete needed, but rather one that fit him and his personality. As a result, he saw his enjoyment and level of play increase.

Now, what’s interesting is that it took me quite some time before I came across an athlete who truly played his/her best with an aggressive mindset. Since it took so long, I began to think it wasn’t actually a good way of approaching the game at all.

Though, there is a certain type of person who not only benefits from this way of thinking, but can use it to reach peak levels of performance.

But…it has to be done carefully.

So, in this article, we will cover what I mean when talking about an aggressive mindset, the benefits and potential dangers, and then help you see if it’s truly the best fit for you.

What is an Aggressive Mindset

I believe one of the main reasons an aggressive mindset is pushed within competitive environments is because of what the opposite would be…a passive mindset. Waiting for your opponent to attack, rather than proactively going out and seeking the win.

This pretty much means you are going out there wanting to win. But in all honesty, what athlete doesn’t want to win? I like to refer to this as a no brainer goal. Of course, you want to win, that’s a given.

When I’m referring to an aggressive mindset, what’s being noted is the type of thinking where you are going out there wanting to crush your opponent.

It is very much based in external thinking; where you are focusing on proving yourself to other people, and proving them wrong.

It’s about wanting to destroy your opponent and making them feel sorry for ever stepping on the field or court with you in the first place. Showing them they have no right to even think about the possibility of beating you.

With an aggressive mindset, a lot of times you find something about your opponent (maybe something they said) that pisses you off. You then use that as fuel for your play.  

Dangers of an Aggressive Mindset

An aggressive mindset can almost immediately sound like the best option for any athlete to adopt. I mean, who wouldn’t want to go out there and absolutely destroy their competition?

It would be silly to think, “Oh I think I’ll let them win today.”

But of course, that’s not the opposite of the type of aggressive mindset I’m referring to. This mindset has everything to do with focus. Going into a game, you are focused on proving other people wrong and focused on destroying your opponent.

It is such focus that helps some athletes who work well with this mindset, while does nothing but distract others.

Which is why, before adopting an aggressive mindset, you must take into careful consideration if it’s truly the best option for you.

I mentioned earlier the idea of no brainer goals. Chief among these is the desire to win and perform your best within athletics. To do so, for the majority of athletes, does not come from focusing on other people or even trying to win.

A large number of athletes benefit the most from focusing more on themselves, the process, and letting go of outcomes and expectations altogether.

So really, we are talking now on a level of focus. What are you thinking about and where is your attention being placed going into a game?

Here are the top dangers that can occur when you focus more on proving yourself and destroying the opponent (the aggressive mindset).

"A large number of athletes benefit the most from focusing more on themselves, the process, and letting go of outcomes and expectations altogether."

High Expectations & Anxiety

If you already struggle with placing too high expectations on yourself, resulting in performance anxiety, then an aggressive mindset will only worsen the problem.

Wanting to do well is one thing, but high expectations become a demand which sucks the joy out of the game and leads to lower levels of confidence.

Accompanying such high expectations is typically performance anxiety. Constant worries about what’s going to happen result in you playing tight and below your potential.

The more you’re focused on having to prove yourself, and needing to destroy the opponent, the greater your expectations will rise and the more anxiety you may face.

"Wanting to do well is one thing, but high expectations become a demand which sucks the joy out of the game and leads to lower levels of confidence."

Social Approval

A key characteristic of the aggressive mindset is wanting to prove other people wrong. That’s the exact phrase an athlete I was working with recently used. His aim is to show everybody what he can do!

That’s a terrific mindset…if you can manage it in a healthy way.

What can easily stem from this, however, is the need for social approval.

With one of your chief motivators being proving other people wrong, how are you going to know when you’ve done so? Well, what may form is a habit of always looking to see how others view your performance.

Are they impressed by your play? Do they seem disappointed in how you played?

This type of thinking leads to lower levels of confidence which can have disastrous effects on your game.

Uncontrolled Anger

An aggressive mindset is based on wanting to destroy your opponent. I said earlier that a lot of times that is done by identifying something about the other team that pisses you off.

If you’re not careful, this anger can get the best of you.

To use this way of thinking to your advantage, you must have great control over your emotions. If not, the anger you meant to use as fuel can quickly turn into blinding rage that distracts you and causes you to fly off the handle at the smallest irritation.

This can then lead to stupid mistakes made on your part, causing trouble for both yourself and your team.


Adopting an aggressive mindset has the potential to lead to high levels of perfectionism.

When you think, “I have to prove other people wrong,” and you’re out there to destroy the competition, this can result in black and white thinking.

If you play well, you feel great, if you don’t, well, you’re likely to feel pretty lousy.

Perfectionists demand perfection, and if it’s not achieved they beat themselves up over failing to reach their high standards.

Is an Aggressive Mindset Right for You?

Adopting an aggressive mindset, just like adopting any other mindset, should be done through careful consideration. Deciding for yourself, is this the best way for you to be approaching games mentally?

As a mental game coach, my main job when working with athletes is to help them identify their peak performance mindset. The coolest part is, this varies depending on the individual. It’s largely based on their personality, and experience from the past.

So, up to this point in the article, I’ve outlined what an aggressive mindset looks like, and the potential dangers it brings.

But an aggressive mindset can also be incredibly valuable to you if it matches your personality!

So, for the remainder of the article, I am going to cover a few different key points to be sure you follow if you decide this mindset is right for you.

"Adopting an aggressive mindset, just like adopting any other mindset, should be done through careful consideration. Deciding for yourself, is this the best way for you to be approaching games mentally?"

Be Sure You Stay Focused on Your Job

When you’re caught up in proving yourself and dominating the other team, you may lose track of what your responsibilities are. And in all reality, those responsibilities are what will lead to you proving yourself and will help you beat your opponent.

Someone with an aggressive mindset who uses it to their advantage focuses solely on their role and what they need to be doing in the moment.

The desire to destroy the opponent fuels this complete focus on what you need to be doing.

Rather than becoming distracted by the outcome, your mind is fixed on your responsibilities and performing them to the best of your abilities.

Your aggression serves as motivation to perform your best in the moment.

Control Your Aggression

You’ve identified something about your opponent that is fueling your anger. Like an animal ready to charge, the aggression is building up inside, ready to burst at the sound of a whistle.

This is great…if it remains under your control.

Controlled aggression is powerful, while uncontrolled aggression is dangerous.

Many times I’ve seen players lose their cool, make stupid mistakes, and cost their team a lead or even worse, the game.

If an aggressive mindset is best for you, it must come from a place of self-control. Harness the anger and use it as fuel when you need to. But do not allow it to take over and turn into a blinding rage.

"Controlled aggression is powerful, while uncontrolled aggression is dangerous."

Use Self-Analysis, Not Self-Criticism

Your goal is to dominate, proving to others what you’re capable of. In doing so, it’s easy to slip into a self-critical mindset. Where you nitpick everything you did wrong, in hopes you will improve.

However, no matter what type of mindset you adopt, the process for analyzing your performance must remain the same.

Immediately examining everything you did wrong will only reduce your confidence and put you in a negative frame of thought.

Instead, what you want to do is analyze your performances from an objective perspective.

This happens by first looking at what you did well (yes, even during bad games, there is something you did well). Then you ask yourself, “Where can I improve?”

Be sure to use self-analysis rather than self-criticism as you strive for domination.

"Immediately examining everything you did wrong will only reduce your confidence and put you in a negative frame of thought."

Don’t Let it Turn into a Need for Approval

One of the main dangers I outlined earlier was adopting the need for social approval.

Due to the fact you are focused on proving yourself, this is an easy frame of thought to develop. However, to truly use an aggressive mindset to your advantage, you must be sure you do not allow it to turn into a need for approval.

The best way to do this is through the use of the self-analysis described above, and be sure you are sticking with your own self-analysis plan.

Though your mind is focused on proving yourself and destroying the competition, it still must be anchored in a continual search for self-improvement.

Know that the approval of others will happen, but only as a result of you being focused on yourself, doing your job as well as it can be done, and analyzing your performance with an eye for improvement, rather than an eye for judgment.

Final Thoughts

An aggressive mindset seems like the best approach to take to a game. After all, sports are a competitive environment, so going out there determined to destroy and dominate your opponent should set you up nicely to succeed.

However, an aggressive mindset, one that is centered on other people (opponents and those judging you), can lead to many unhelpful frames of thought that work against your ability to perform your best.

Though, for some athletes, it does prove to be the optimal approach.

Your job is to decide for yourself, based on your own personality, if an aggressive mindset is right for you. If it is, be sure to keep in mind the four key points outlined in this article to use this type of mindset in the best way possible.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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