Asking for Team USA: What’s the Difference Between Confidence and Arrogance?

Photo: Getty Images/Franck Fife

Having confidence as an athlete can give you a competitive edge. But as the U.S. women's soccer team has demonstrated in the past few days, confidence and arrogance sometimes wear similar if not indistinguishable attire. The team faces off with England on Tuesday in Lyon, France, at the World Cup semi-final. With accusations swirling about a hotel turf war (aka "Spygate") and unwarranted cockiness, the real question is: When does confidence enter the territory of arrogance?

Susie Moore, life coach and author of What If It Does Work Out?, says that the basic difference between the two manners of expression is a person's—or a player's—intention. "Confidence comes from grounded, healthy self-esteem," she tells me. "Confidence is the willingness to experience negative emotions like fear, uncertainty, embarrassment—and do the thing anyway." Arrogance, on the other hand, comes from insecurity. "Arrogance is about thinking you’re the only one that matters—winner take all. You’re the only star," adds Moore.

In the case of the three-time World Cup champions, it's not exactly clear what Team USA's goals were with their actions toward England's team. England viewed "Spygate"—the alleged effort by Team USA staff to scope out the rival's hotel in Lyon—as a breach of etiquette.

"It's not something that I would want my team ops person doing," England coach Phil Neville told CBS Sports. "It's not something that we'd do, send somebody around to another team's hotel." From Neville's perspective, the intention behind the incident seems to point toward arrogance rather than confidence. But Team USA framed the whole situation as logistical investigation, not an intimidation technique. "The only two people that think planning ahead on my team is my administrator—she has to book all the flights and everything— and her boss. And everybody else, yeah well they don't worry about that," said Team USA coach Jill Ellis in response.

Hotel scandal aside, the Team USA's behavior seems mostly confident (with just a pinch of arrogance) by Moore's definition. They want to win because they believe they can, but there may be just a touch of ego present, too. And personally, I think that's okay. As Coach Ellis pointed out after the U.S. win over Thailand on June 9 (which was followed by headlines highlighting a "ruthless" and "relentless" victory), "arrogance" is a word too often tossed toward female athletes. "I sit here, and I go, if this is 10-0 in a men's World Cup, are we getting the same questions...?," said Ellis, according to CBS Sports.

"Arrogance is about thinking you’re the only one that matters, winner take all. You’re the only star. Confidence still leaves room for others to shine, too." —Aimee Daramus, PsyD

It's a fair question. Three months ago, the U.S. women's soccer team spearheaded a fight against gender discrimination (the men's team gets paid about $27 million more than women in the World Cup alone). They've worked hard to be three-time world champions, and they'll do the same to make sure the zeroes at the end of the men's prize earnings match their own sometime in the near future. No, we don't need "proof" that athletes of all gender identities deserve to be paid an equal wage, but won games help spotlight the injustice. So if a streak of overt confidence is a necessary ingredient for making it to that final round, I say game on.

Chicago-based clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, makes this interesting distinction. "Arrogance is about thinking you’re the only one that matters, winner take all. You’re the only star," she says. "Confidence still leaves room for others to shine, too. Confident people can be happy as part of a team, arrogant people often can’t." The women soccer players are using confidence as an offensive strategy—and what they're playing for is about way, way more than defending a winning streak.

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