“Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals”

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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?

 

Are you heading for a Spicer moment? How NOT to Choke Under Pressure

Spicer 

Remember when Marco Rubio seemed to lose his ability to think when Chris Christie attacked him? You remember, a few thousand years ago during one of the republican debates? 

Whether you missed the Marco and Christie show, turned away because it was too uncomfortable to watch or need a refresher because you watched it like a bad accident but didn’t quite get enough, here it is: https://youtu.be/a0WUtNJAo9k

An analysis of the above Rubio video is a great introduction to how powerful is the human stress response is and how it affects us at nearly every level of functioning. It is also a helpful in understanding what is happening with Spicer. Although he seems to come to the podium with lots to say, somewhere aong the way, Spicer seems to derail on a regulra basis. What is happening to him may speak less about his ability and much more about his level of stress and lack of training. 

Our subconscious mind has evolved to keep us safe and it is largely our subconscious processes that determine what is “unsafe.” When we feel unsafe, whether we feel unsafe physically, emotionally or psychologically, our bodies respond – automatically. Without training, we often wind up like Rubio or Spicer. With proper traning (or a whole lot of experience and/or a nose for blood in the water) we can perform more like Christie. 

Let’s start with Rubio.

He is already nervous and he has lots of reasons to be – let’s give him that. He is on live television, is a first term senator and, at 42 years of age, he is the youngest candidate in the presidential race. So, we can assume he probably has less experience with this kind of stress than most of the others. However, it is his body language and social signals that convey the high levels of stress he is experiencing.  

In watching the beginning of the footage, one can see Rubio display multiple signs of stress as soon as the moderator begins to address him. From lip licking, dropping his gaze, and breaking eye contact with the moderator, to body movements such as shifting his weight from on foot to the other, Rubio unconsciously displays his discomfort. As the moderator is winding down his first set of questions, Rubio is accessing his answer which he has formulated in the moment using both his conscious and subconscious minds and is preparing to respond. One can see this by the drop in Rubio’s gaze, the unconscious nod, the sense that his thoughts are turning inward and the slight down-turn to his mouth in what appears to be an internal signal of determination.

So far so good. 

Rubio responds the moderator’s questions and as he relaxes, he gives us the first round of his talking points, “… and let’s dispel, once and for all with this fiction that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Barack Obama is undertaking a systematic effort to change this country.” Continue with Rubio Talking Points, Round #1 with a few extra “systematic efforts” thrown in. Audience applause. Rubio foot shuffle.

Enter Chris Christie.

Christie, appears calm and in control of his thought processes but also his body language, especially when he addresses Rubio directly. He turns and faces Rubio and delivers his challenge in a factual manner. When the audience applauds for Christie, Rubio becomes uncomfortable (slight smile, looks down, shifts weight). Christie continues and delivers several well-constructed soundbites of his own. Christie even has the presence of mind to remember to make direct eye contact with the camera and thus, those of us at home a few times (this shows fluid thinking and access to a wide range of his abilities – read: not very stressed)

Back to Rubio. He holds his own and answers Christie’s charges for a few sentences and then goes back to his memorized soundbite, “let’s dispel with the myth that Barack Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing…” Rubio Talking Points, Round #2. 

Here is where understanding how the human brain responds to stress has everything to do with performance under pressure or #HighStakesPerformance and why trauma informed performance consultants such as #TheHoodGroup are worth their weight in gold. 

Christie not only interrupts the moderator who has moved on to Jebb Bush, he cites for the record the rules by which he has the right to respond. Not too passive, not to aggressive-just enough push to reclaim the stage. One can only conclude Christie is in full command of his mental processes. That and the fact that he is able to think on his feet quickly enough to respond to Rubio’s memorized speech and use it to further his own, previous point (that Rubio is inexperienced and it shows in his robotic memorization.)

The audience explodes with cheers and “Ooo’s and Oh’s” and for all intents and purposes, Rubio is done.

Overwhelmed, Rubio transitions out of his window of tolerance. All of the unconscious body postures and facial expressions resurface in full force and, as if on cue, Christie picks up on them and uses them again and again to verbally pummel Rubio. The Rubio Talking Points, Round #3, #4, and so on are looped again and again, even when completely out of context because they are stored in his long-term memory which is all he can access. By the time the Christie uses the words, “shame” and “ESP”, Rubio is reduced to shaking his head and (literally) giving the “palms up gesture” of universal passiveness and “surrender.”