"I believe that we will win" is inappropriate for the USWNT

Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET, the United States women’s national soccer team will play against Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup. The game will be televised on Fox but I will not be watching. I’ll be at the game, wearing a U.S. jersey and screaming a lot. I am about as excited and nervous and full of dread as I can remember being the night before a sporting event. To prepare for the event, I’ve written a lot about the game. In this post, I comment on a common chant used by supporters of the U.S. team. I also wrote about dreading our opponent and previewed the game’s plot and important characters.

Impostor syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” Although anyone can suffer from impostor syndrome, in our culture, it’s particularly something that women feel. It’s something that thoughtful organizations should be on the watch for so that they don’t inadvertently reinforce it by giving more opportunities to people (predominantly male) untroubled by self-doubt. Impostor syndrome is a pernicious little brain-worm that stops people from achieving everything they can achieve by convincing them they’re not worthy of attempting anything great.

One of the wonderful things about watching international women’s soccer is the sense you get that these women have escaped impostor syndrome. Here are women whose strength and self-confidence is obvious just from looking at them. The fact that they’re able to step onto the field in such a pressure packed environment and perform at a world class level must be evidence that they, unlike so many other women, have taken ownership of their abilities and accomplishments. Women’s soccer is wonderful to watch as sport but it’s also wonderful to watch for its aspirational message to women (and people) everywhere. “You don’t have to cut yourself down. You don’t have to apologize. Look at what is possible when you stop doing those things.”

That’s why it particularly irks me when I hear fans of the U.S. women’s national team chanting, “I believe that we will win.” This cheer comes from fans of the men’s team who popularized it during the 2014 men’s World Cup. The 2014 men’s World Cup captivated the United States like soccer has rarely done before. Bars and town squares were packed with cheering, patriotic fans. People wearing jerseys and scarves nodded to each other on busy city streets and in subways and busses. At the heart of that positive energy was the U.S. men’s national soccer team. The U.S. men’s team is known for its never-say-die attitude, its heroic goaltending, and its tilting at windmills. The U.S. men’s team is a real underdog in world soccer. It’s never won a World Cup and it doesn’t seem likely to anytime in the near future. Although its coach got some flack during the lead up for the 2014 tournament for saying his team had no chance to win, he wasn’t wrong. That’s why the team’s clarion cry, “I believe that we will win,” fit the team so well. Rooting for the United States in men’s soccer is an act of faith despite inevitable disappointment. Men’s soccer super powers would never shout something like this. German fans, Brazilian fans, Italian fans, would be more confident and more straightforward, like: “We’re going to win!” “You have no chance!” “Our team is the best!” “Why even bother!”

The United States women’s soccer team is to women’s soccer what Brazil, Germany, or Italy is to men’s soccer. We’re tied with Germany for the most World Cup championships, with two each. In six World Cups, we’ve never placed outside the top four, and by qualifying for the semifinals in 2015, that record is guaranteed to stretch to seven. The United States team is ranked second in the world by FIFA. It has athleticism and skill that few countries can match. It is, in short, a giant overdog in international women’s soccer. The women’s team deserves a more confident cheer — and a more demanding one as well. How about, “I expect that we will win?”

There is something charming about the “I believe that we will win” chant when applied to the men’s team. In the men’s game, the United States doesn’t have a lot of accomplishments to internalize. We aren’t obviously competent. The fact that fans still “believe” that the team “will win” despite all evidence to the contrary is one of the things that makes them such great fans. However apt it is for the men, the cheer doesn’t fit at all with the women’s team who do have accomplishments and skill that goes far beyond competence. If the genders were reversed, it wouldn’t matter as much, but applying the tentative, self-doubting men’s cheer to the women’s team inadvertently reinforces the idea that women should be apologizing for their strengths. Chanting “I believe that we will win” about the U.S. women’s national team reduces the impact the team can have on women who suffer from impostor syndrome. That’s not something to cheer about.

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