“Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals”

09e5ed1629ce72ab102f082f3b77b67ae746103a

What Simone Biles can teach us about High Stakes Performance

– Lorie Hood

“Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals” was a shot heard round the world. And it’s about time.

As a High-Stakes Performance expert, I read people for a living. As a former gymnast and professional dancer, I understand a thing or two about performance and dance. As a woman and mother of two children, I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face after hearing Simone Biles respond to the host on “Dancing with The Stars” Monday night.

The Question  The question really wasn’t a question, it was a statement posed as a pseudo-question, and it demanded a response. Well, that and the microphone host Tom Bergeron shoved in Biles’ face while allowing the silence to hang in the air. “I was waiting for you to smile at some of the compliments, you didn’t” said Bergeron. Translation: “What’s wrong with you? Why aren’t appropriately fawning over the judges? They gave you some compliments and you should be grateful and smiling to have gotten their compliments.”

The Pause  Biles was uncomfortable and understandably so. Bergeron’s statement placed her in a tough position; she could choose to conform and play along with him or say what she was really thinking. Make no mistake, Simone Biles didn’t get where she is by always smiling and conforming however, she didn’t do it by blurting out every thought that crossed her mind, either.

The Mind and Body of a High Stakes Performer  As a researcher of High Stakes Performers, I was fascinated by watching how quickly Biles cycled through her emotions, thoughts, and choices. Her face and body language revealed everything from confusion and frustration to fear and anger, yet she managed all the external and internal stimuli and calmly came to a place of resolution.

The long-hand version was (consciously and unconsciously) likely the product of the following: Ms. Biles has gotten the message most girls do growing up in American Society. If she smiles and conforms with social norms, she will be rewarded. Yes, this is still the case in 2017. Even search engines support these biases. A recent study showed that Bing more often retrieved photos of women when searching for “warm traits” such as “emotional” and retrieved photos of men when terms like “rational” were used. The researchers even observed a backlash effect, where individuals who did not fit socially accepted norms were penalized.

Because of this conditioning, Ms. Biles experienced all the pressure placed upon her just like any other young American woman. However, she is different. Very different.

The Resistance of the Pressure to Conform  As an athlete with a High Stakes Performance mindset, I saw a young woman carefully assessing her response. Indeed, her response may have been to smile and go along with what was expected of her prior to her “four gold medals” stage of life. The point is that she is consciously aware of herself, her feelings and how what she says and does will affect her and those around her. This is the ability of a High Stakes Performer – to be “conscious self-evaluators who are consistently present for themselves and their work” (Hood, 2015). For the opposite of this, read about, Choking Under Pressure.

The Response  Bergeron (and most of those watching) fully expected Mes. Biles to smile, be “polite” and self-deprecating which is what he wanted or he wouldn’t have presented her with a question/statement that placed her in a (nearly) no win situation. Faced with the choice to give him what is expected or allow her true self to come through, she chose the latter because “Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.”

Ahhh…can I just write that again? “Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals.”

Thank you Ms. Biles.

And now it’s up to the rest of us. Do we, as a society, put her back into the good girl box or do we applaud her for allowing us to see how a true High Stakes Performer responds to pressure?