Learning Confidence and the Limits of Success with the World’s Best Soccer Player

“In order to become one of the best, you have to remember that there’s really no such thing. We’re all still part of this world.”

Adam Grant is the bestselling author of Give and Take and Originals, and is an award-winning professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He recently joined Abby Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold medal-winning soccer player and FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion, for a conversation on achievement, unlearning inequality, and following heartbreak to find confidence. Abby retired from professional soccer in late 2015 and released her New York Times bestselling autobiography, Forward, in September 2016. She is the highest all-time goal-scorer for the U.S. National Team and holds the world record for international goals (for both male and female players). This conversation took place as part of the Authors@Wharton speaker series.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below. 

Adam: I want to start at the very beginning. Take us back to when you were kid and your very first soccer game—what happened?

Abby: When I was little, all I did was play sports: basketball, swimming, soccer. My first three soccer games, I ended up scoring 27 goals. I was five.

Adam: Three games, 27 goals. Were you just a freak of nature?

Abby: I was naturally gifted and, also, I had six older brothers to beat me up in the backyard and learn from and watch. I had a lot of pent-up yearning when I was young. I wanted to be older. When I finally got my chance, I’d had enough watching them succeed and fail that I figured my way around a soccer field.

Adam: You’re saying you grew up watching older siblings do things [you] couldn’t do, but this is what, two years of pent-up rage when you’re five? How else do you explain this?

Abby: I think certain people are born with certain skills and I was put in an environment that exacerbated those skills. I wasn’t a kid that was reading tons of books. I wish I had done more of that, but sports was what my life revolved around and I loved it.

[But] to answer your question, I don’t know how I was able to be so good right away. I have always been a confident person, especially in sports, and I enjoyed doing it—and it offered me an opportunity to get attention from my parents. That was another draw: as the youngest of seven, you’re vying for attention and the love and affection of your mom and dad, because there’s so many kids that you very rarely get it.

Adam: I’m curious about this process of going from unusually talented to one of the best in the world. Talking last spring with Angela Duckworth, you agreed that talent is not enough. What was the process that you went through, suddenly competing with people who were as talented as you?

Abby: When I was a new kid on the national team, I felt inferior. These women had been playing for many years. Mia Hamm was on the team! I was like, “Oh, my God, this is insane. I can’t even believe I’m here, I’m so grateful.”

“I believe that every human being on this planet has something to give.”

Then I started realizing that I had something to give. There was value I could bring to the team that nobody else could. Everybody has to figure out what that one thing is. I believe that every human being on this planet has something to give.

Whenever I change situations or environments, I have to figure out where I can add value in that environment. So it’s always changing and evolving. When I was younger I remember feeling inferior and then putting consistency into my work routine. Every single day I would do very similar things, especially in the morning. Wake up, have coffee, have a good breakfast, and work out.
That’s something that’s very similar across all industries of really successful people: they have consistency in their routine. Once I developed a routine for myself that worked, I was able to grow confidence.

Of course, talent doesn’t make you successful. I never knew how good I could become, so I was always driven to figure it out. But as an athlete, you never really know how much you can push yourself or push your body. You’re always trying to reach your goals, trying to get better. That has to be the case for any person who wants to be successful.

Adam: A lot of people in the world want to become great at something. What are tips that you can offer from having achieved the very pinnacle of what’s possible in soccer?

Abby: Well, there’s no such thing as best in the world. I mean, I won—

Adam: The World Cup, Olympics.

Abby: That’s just for your mantel. It doesn’t do anything except push you to the next thing that you want to go after.

In order to become one of the best, you have to remember that there’s really no such thing. We’re all still part of this world. There’s so many people that do crazy and amazing things.

Adam: [Like] the diving headers you did. I’ve never seen anything like it. Did that just come to you one day?

Abby: It’s something that you work on, like anything. The fearlessness, in terms of smashing your head against an object—or stupidity, depends on how you look at it—I did it repetitively.

It was a skill that I practiced a lot. As a ball travels in the air, it’s more difficult for a goalkeeper to know where or how it’s going to come off your head. Whereas when you’re striking a ball with your foot, they can get a sense as to where the ball might go.

That’s why I enjoyed heading so much: it was much more difficult for a goalkeeper to save. It was just more effective and efficient. Isn’t that the whole goal in life? To figure out what’s the most effective path to spend the least amount of effort to get the same result or better?

I had an edge in that I’m this huge woman, so most goalkeepers and defenders were like, “I’m just going to let her do that.” More times than not, there were chances for me that, if given to another player, defenders would be more prepped and ready for. I scared the living you-know-what out of some people. And I was lucky to have some of the best teammates. They put me in great positions to score goals.

Adam: You got to work with some of the greatest coaches alive. Can you talk about what you learned from your coaches about leadership, about motivating other people?

Abby: One of my favorites, Pia Sundhage, is a Swedish coach. She believed in nothing but positive reinforcement.

As Americans, we’re like, “Wait, tell us what we’re doing wrong.” She’s like, “No, we’re going to focus all of our energy and attention on what you’re doing right and try to replicate those patterns.”

Other American coaches would focus so much on the negative that it would be more fear-based. What I found is that the positive made us focus. It’s a shift of noticing the good instead of focusing on the bad. If you do make it a mindful, intentional choice to repeat positive behaviors, I have to believe that will turn into some level of success.

Adam: One of the things you got involved in is pay equality. [Though] the U.S. women’s team has been way more successful than the men’s team, your salaries are a fraction of what men make. It’s grossly unfair. When did you decide to speak up about it, and what do you think is going to actually change it?

Abby: We’ve never placed out of the top three of any tournament. [The men] have never placed in the top three. How are we not getting paid even close to what the men are getting paid?

This goes back to the messages we get told when we’re young: women aren’t pro athletes. So when I became a pro athlete, I was like, “Wow, I’m just grateful that I made it here.” There’s an unlearning process that has to go with that way of thinking. The one thing that I’m most upset that I didn’t do enough of is say something when I felt it. I was afraid that I was going to lose my job. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills, that I was going to get cut.

That is something that the women now are fighting against. 75 cents to the dollar—that’s around the world. It’s not just about our team, this is about equal rights in all environments, in all industries.

The mindset would be the men’s team brings in more money because of FIFA. But that doesn’t make it right. Maybe the men’s team does earn more money back from FIFA, but we have statistics and data from the women’s World Cup that we’re the most watched soccer game in the history of soccer in North America.

There’s so many different arguments that can be made, but the one that really matters the most is that we’re all human beings and we deserve what we deserve and that’s fair and equal treatment.

“The way you find out what you’re going to be passionate about is you need to follow your heartbreak.”

Adam: You’ve tried lots of different ways in presenting this issue. What’s opening people’s minds?

Abby: Two years ago some of the arguments were, “How do you want your daughters to be treated? How would you want your mother to be treated?” That’s such a BS reason. If you are playing in big tournaments and earning money for your federation, for your company, you deserve to be compensated for it.

No longer is it the right and feel-good thing to do. It’s the smart thing to do. The statistics show that companies who have more women in their managerial positions actually do better.

Adam: How did you find the confidence, once you decided this was an important issue, to cross the bridge from “I care” to “I’m going to be outspoken about this”?

Abby: Since retiring, I’ve been trying to figure out this new identity and what I want to be. The way you find out what you’re going to be passionate about is you need to follow your heartbreak.

The truth is, I’m heartbroken for myself that I didn’t do more when I was playing. So I’ve dedicated myself to learning more about women’s rights issues. And the more I talk about my frustration and experience, the more people go, “Me too.”

That grows my confidence—having people around me that have similar experiences, that want to fight similar battles. Especially since I’ve gotten older, I’m not scared to disagree with people. I’m not scared to tell my story.

I marched on Washington on Saturday and it was one of the most amazing experiences, because there were so many people from so many different walks of life doing something together. Whenever you’re trying to figure out a fight or cause or passion, you’ve got to find your people.

As it pertains to the march, we’ve got to figure out what’s next. For me specifically it’s digging in and fighting for women’s equality and equal pay. It’s such an important cornerstone. I think we’ll look back in 30 or 40 years and say, “Wow, I can’t believe that was even our lifetime that that happened.”

Adam: Another issue that you’ve begun to advocate on is LGBTQ rights. [It] is striking how open you are about coming out, and the struggles that you faced as a teenager. What was that like and what did you learn from that?

Abby: I grew up in a Catholic family. Throughout my life, not just because of my sexuality, but the way I viewed religion, I felt there was something wrong with me.

So I rebelled against the church when I was young. I had to make a choice when I was 15 or 16 years old between God and my mom and myself.

It’s something that I’m really proud of, that at 15 or 16 I was stubborn enough to choose myself. I knew my mom would eventually come along, and I’d figure out God. Once I started to get more comfortable in my own skin, I made the choice [that] I was just going to be myself.

I’m proud, because it’s not easy to go against the grain. That’s something that I think everybody needs to develop. My sexuality isn’t all of who I am, but when you find out big pillars of who you are, being unapologetic about that and holding true to who you are will set you up for success.

Success isn’t how much money you make. Success is the things that bring you value, joy, happiness. Early on, I was scared to come out publicly. I’m this women’s national team player, I’m one of the best players on the team, scoring all these goals. I didn’t want to create this stigma for all the other women who were straight on my team that they would become gay by association.

As time went on, I never really felt like I needed to come out publicly, because we got to a place in our world that I felt that coming out was actually moving backwards. Everybody knows somebody who is dealing with these issues. My advice is, have that open conversation with your friends or people that you’re concerned about that’s nonjudgmental. Nonjudgmental stuff is where real conversations actually happen.

Adam: There’s this idea that you have to be passionate about something to be that good at it. How do you feel about soccer today, and did that wax and wane throughout the years?

Abby: It definitely ebbed and flowed throughout my career. It’s not always peaches and cream. Running sprints sucks all the time, every time.

But there were a lot of things that I didn’t realize until now that I was getting from the game. Whether it be identity, a sense of self, confidence, passion, there were more days than not when I would be warming up that I would say to one of my teammates, “Can you believe we do this for a job?”

Speaking, being on the planes, trains and automobiles, that’s actually work. But being with your friends, and working out and pushing your body and opening your heart to failure and heartbreak—those were some of the best times of my life.

Adam: You used this term twice, “following your heartbreak,” which is different from follow your heart. What do you mean by that?

“What I’ve learned is the more we talk about the things that you’re struggling with, not only can you heal from that, but you allow other people to heal from just hearing about your heartbreak. When you feel sad or alone or lonely or depressed, the isolation is what gets you.”

Abby: Last spring, back in April, I got a DUI. I was struggling with my retirement and drinking way too much and got myself into trouble. At that time, I thought my life ended. But I’ve been able to transfer that into the most positive thing that happened to me, because it was an opportunity for me to separate my life. Like a before and after event.

What I’ve learned is the more we talk about the things that you’re struggling with, not only can you heal from that, but you allow other people to heal from just hearing about your heartbreak. When you feel sad or alone or lonely or depressed, the isolation is what gets you.

Being alone on the road was the kiss of death for me. Putting up this front of who I thought everybody thought I should be. I just won the World Cup and finished this amazing career, but I wasn’t that way in my motel room by myself. Talking about this has allowed me to not just heal but thrive.

In our culture, we don’t talk about things that hurt as much as we should, because we’re embarrassed or ashamed. With any addiction or issue, it’s the shame that takes us out of the game. It’s not necessarily the event itself, it’s the way we feel or think about ourselves through those events.

I have found so much healing in my heartbreak by going towards it rather than running from it. Throughout my career as a pro athlete, [I thought,] “I’m just going to work harder.” You just can’t do that with life.

Adam: A lot of people are stunned about how open and honest you are. Do you think [the positive reaction] would be the same if you weren’t a star athlete and weren’t someone that people already looked up to?

Abby: It’s hard for me to say, because I only know my experience. I will say, the more honest and truthful you can be, the more honest and truthful the people will meet you. This is the advice that I give all women who are trying to apply for a job in any male-dominated industry: men will meet you in truth. Even if they’re pissed off or angry with what you just said, they’ll meet you there.

We should all start meeting each other in truth. People get lost in trying to be overly polite, and I’m pretty much done being polite these days.