Mario Balotelli is one of the most enigmatic and reportedly difficult footballers in the Barclay’s Premier League and like many sports stars, his name is as synonymous with descriptions of arrogance as it is with words of praise. So is the Italian rapscallion arrogant or just confident? And what is it that pushes athletes like him to the top?
It is never a surprise to hear a fan call one of their sports heroes arrogant, especially when its someone like Balotelli. The way he lives typifies most people’s perception of an arrogant lifestyle. The high wages, expensive cars and supermodels that are associated with him and his ilk do little to feed the idea that athletes are actual human beings living in the real world, dealing with the same problems the rest of us face. In reality, arrogance is a trait that top athletes rarely possess. Self-confidence though is vital.
Balotelli is notoriously vocal outside of training and has inspired controversy everywhere he goes. Commenting on AC Milan’s new signing: “Silvio Berlusconi says he (Antonio Cassano) is the best Italian talent. He’s wrong or he doesn’t know Balotelli.” Of course he is far from the first athlete to boast shamelessly about his own talents.
Muhammad Ali was ‘The Greatest’, or so he famously proclaimed in his prime. He was loved by journalists and the public for his sharp wit and astounding ability as a fighter. His speeches consisted of confidence and self-promotion: “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” Quotes like these are the reason he features in so many opinion polls as the most arrogant sportsman of all time, but it is also one of the reasons that he is such a popular figure.
Performance psychologist Andrew Evans believes that arrogance is something very different from confidence.
“Athletes who are confident formulate perceptions about themselves on information that is authentic and reality driven. On the other hand, athletes that are arrogant are likely to take this confidence to a different level, as they overestimate who they are and what they can do, along with acting in ways that make those around them feel inferior.”
Evans believes that it is a misconception that many athletes are arrogant, because an athlete would “withdraw after failure.” An arrogant person is likely to make claims about their superior ability without prior evidence or record to back these claims up, then when they inevitably fail at the sport they claim to be good at they will stop trying it and move on to something else. A professional athlete is someone who has worked incredibly hard to become the top sports person that they are and has overcome difficulties and failures to reach the top. Therefore by Evans’ definition, top athletes are unlikely to be arrogant because an arrogant person would have ceased trying as soon as the first obstacle arose in their path to sporting success.
Evans uses Ali as an example. “Boxer Muhammad Ali’s extreme confidence in his prime was factual; He was winning every single fight. Arrogance would have been if he had belittled others and claimed to be ‘the greatest’ but was in fact not winning many fights.”
The idea applied to modern sports stars would mean that many sports stars are not arrogant but in fact self-confident. There is no doubt in their minds that they are capable of achieving the things they prophesise, and crucially their previous performances must be sufficient to give their words credibility. One star that has always had the arrogant label is Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Even the staunchest Barcelona fan could not deny his prowess, but he is certainly not afraid to say how good he is: “No one did what I did last season and for this I deserve the Golden Boot and why not the best World Player.” Speaking in 2008 after his incredible 44-goal season for Manchester United, Ronaldo has the evidence to back up his claims. Arrogance is defined as an exaggerated opinion of one’s own importance or ability and Ronaldo’s claim that he deserves these awards was justified because history tells us that he did in fact win both of those awards for his performances in the 2007/08 season.
So whether or not arrogance can help an athlete perform better or not is really an illogical sentence because it is the self-confidence, mistaken for arrogance that a competitor has that can give them the edge to succeed.
Distinguishing between an arrogance competitor and a competitor with a self-confident mindset can be difficult but Evans believes that the crux of the issue is “reaction to failure” and says that cricket player Kevin Pietersen is a good example of a confident performer, misinterpreted as an arrogant one.
“Kevin Pietersen had a dip in form for about two years where he did not hit a century for ages until recently. He kept getting out for the same shots, shots which looked lazy, shots that he shouldn’t have been playing like a reverse sweep.”
“That’s not an arrogant performer. Arrogance would have been if he had got out first time then not tried those shots again. He is a confident performer as he had the self confidence to keep trying those shots as he knew they had worked in the past.”
This reaction to failure is the difference between someone who can reach the top and someone who cannot. If athletes like Pietersen gave up trying skills that they know they can execute despite the high risk of failure then they would not enjoy the high levels of success that they do when the skills are performed correctly. Self-confidence is about persistence through failure. Arrogance is indicated by a lack of it and ultimately a lack of success.
The personality of an athlete has never been of such importance to the general public, and the trend looks set to continue. In days gone by it was enough just to be an incredible performer. Now thanks in part to the media orientated world we live in, we have to know what an athlete is like as a person to the extent that in some cases a performer’s personality can eclipse his or her ability. Balotelli falls unequivocally into this category. Stories of visiting a school to use it’s facilities and taking an interest in the case of a boy who was bullied to the extent that he personally mediated negotiations between the youngster and his persecutor, make the Man City striker a journalists dream.
Arrogance has a proven psychiatric association to low cognitive ability, and an arrogant person is unlikely to make friends easily or be a popular figure like Balotelli has arguably become. Stories that are as fascinating as they are dubious follow Balotelli everywhere, such as his method of attracting members of the opposite sex. He reportedly asks a friend to approach girls in night-clubs and say, “Balotelli will see you now.” Antics like this have the peculiar effect of endearing the striker to the public, something that a truly arrogant person would be unable to accomplish.
His club manager, Roberto Mancini is famously talkative about his frustrations over the young Italian.
“If Mario is not one of the best players in the world it will be his fault, because he has everything.”
“I have finished my work with him (Balotelli), I am finished today, but I love him as a guy.”
It is clear Mancini has an unusual relationship with Balotelli and it is probable that having him on his team has cost Mancini countless hours of sleep. But the Man City manager clearly likes Balotelli as a person, therefore the young forward is unlikely to be arrogant but because of his proven ability to form healthy relationships with others around him.
Andrew Evans said, “[Balotelli] believes that he will eventually be the best player in the world. That’s not arrogance, it’s confidence. He believes that he can do something which he debatably could do because he has performed quite well for Man City this season.”
“Research has been shown that a person having 100% confidence in their ability is not always good as they can overestimate what they can do and have unrealistic expectations. An athlete maybe needs to have that 10% of self-doubt. I think there’s something special that makes a really good performer, not arrogance but a little bit of self-doubt.”
It is possible that Mario Balotelli is lacking that self-doubt that could take him to the next stage of his career and see him realize his undoubted potential as one of the best players in the world.
It remains to be seen what will happen to Balotelli. He may be sold by Mancini at the end of the season and disappear into obscurity. Equally he could just as easily stay at Man City and score 50 goals next season. Nothing is beyond the young striker. Balotelli may have self-confidence to the point that it has become detrimental but he is almost certainly not an arrogant person, no matter what the papers say.