“Smiling doesn’t win you gold medals”


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?


High Stakes Performance: What it is and (more importantly) what it isn’t

jetBy: Lorie Hood

“A High Stakes Performer is someone upon whose ability to consistently perform at their potential rests the win or loss of something of great importance.”  ~ Lorie Hood

Merriam Webster defines “stakes” as “something you could win or lose as in a contest” and “high” in the context of “high stakes” as “of great relative importance.”

Performance is defined as, “the execution of an action, the fulfillment of a claim, promise, or request and the ability to perform.”

Given the above, a simple definition of a “High Stakes Performer” is: Someone upon whose ability to perform rests the win or loss of something of great importance.

I first conceptualized the term “High Stakes Performer” (HSP) well over a decade ago as a researcher working with profoundly intelligent individuals. I had worked through the research on intelligence and creativity, motivation and eminence, nature and nurture, under achievement and perfectionism. I had, by about midway through my doctoral training, successfully raised two profoundly intelligent children and been identified as profoundly intelligent myself. I had figured out that high intelligence did not equal high performance. It did not equal success or happiness either. What I had not figured out (nor had anyone else) was what made some people able to perform at high levels while others were not? More specifically, why were some individuals with more than enough intelligence, opportunity, education, support, and other things that we as researchers believed were predictive of “success” winding up wildly unsuccessful, while many we were identifying as “high risk” were succeeding in terms of fulfillment, performance, happiness and, well, life!

Part of the answer came when I defined “success” differently however, much of it came in realizing what HSP was not.

It took almost another decade of research on trauma, posttraumatic growth and resilience and well over 1,000 interviews and case studies to come to my current understanding of what High Stakes Performance is and, more importantly, what it is not.

  • High Stakes Performance is not simply being a top producer. While HSP’s are high producers, high producers are not necessarily HSP’s.
  • High Stakes Performance is not simply being a top performer. There must be a high stakes component to the equation. For example, an attorney working a death penalty case.
  • High Stakes Performance is not simply working in a performance position where you earn a high income. Yes, many HSP’s are top income earners however, income is not what drives them.
  • High Stakes Performance is not being a rainmaker and, in fact, many of them resist being “reduced” to being “only” a rainmaker.
  • High Stakes Performers are multipotentialities. They have likely struggled with multipotentiality as a child and even into adulthood however, they have learned how to use it to serve their choices. It does not debilitate them.
  • High Stakes Performance is not simply having a lot of power however, they are some of the most powerful people you will meet, they seek a different kind of power. HSP’s seek a power that comes from the personal satisfaction of putting their abilities to good use.
  • High Stakes Performers rarely drink, use drugs or engage in other numbing behaviors.
  • High Stakes Performers tend to be very intuitive and use a balance of intuition and pragmatism. They consult from a place of heart and mind.
  • High Stakes Performance is not (and this is a biggie) being able to white knuckle it, apply all your assets, skills and abilities and then be crumble and be unable to perform for the next several weeks to months. True HSP’s do not burn out because they have trained to access, at will, any of their abilities at any given time. They have also honed their ability to”turn off” skills and parts of themselves to which they do not need access. This highly trained ability to only access what is needed in the moment conserves mental, physical, psychological, emotional and other forms of energy.
  • High Stakes Performance is not easily won. There are very few true HSP’s out there and those who are the real deal have worked at self- mastery on multiple levels for a very long time. When you meet them, you will know them. They somehow ride the edge between the mundane and overwhelm. They can be calm and smooth yet accomplish amazing things in less time than most of us. They are neither ego driven nor self-effacing. They hold their place in the universe without apology. They feel powerful yet safe to be around. True High Stakes Performers can teach us all how to handle the high stakes situations and events in our own lives.