Playing Small

My tenth and final year as a gymnast was during my senior year in high school. With only a small handful of meets left in my career, I was actively trying to make the most of my farewell season. Or, to be more precise, I thought I was trying to make the most of it.

I’ll never forget a winter competition we had one Thursday night in Brookfield, Illinois. I was comfortable in my role on the team. I was one of the captains but, on a good day, only the second best gymnast on the team. Although I was competitive, I never tried to be the best. I liked second place.

As we did at every competition, the coach would give us our lineup as we headed into each new event. I, more or less, could predict the lineup without trouble. We’d start with the weakest gymnast on any given event and end with the strongest. It was a model that every team followed without hesitation, so I was hardly listening to my coach as we readied ourselves for the balance beam on that Thursday evening in Brookfield.

My coach rattled off the competition order for beam but, after saying my name, she stopped talking. Did she lose her train of thought? Was she distracted? Maybe she had fallen ill? I looked at her, my heart beginning to race, and asked her to repeat the order. Once again, she stopped talking after my name was said. What’s more, the name of the best girl on our team was said before my name! Something was very wrong here.

It turns out, my coach hadn’t made a mistake after all. Apparently, I had received the highest score on the balance beam in our previous meet, bumping me to the coveted last spot in this competition. I instantly began pleading with her. Please don’t make me go last, I begged. I’ll take any other spot!

My coach, however, refused to adjust the lineup. This is how it’s done and I deserved the last spot, she told me. Eventually, we landed on a compromise: I would go last in this competition and, no matter how well I scored, she would never make me go last again.

I remember nailing my routine that night, though I cannot recall if I received the highest score on the team. I do know that I never again took the final spot in the rotation. Now, nearly twenty years later, I often find myself thinking about that night in Brookfield when I was terrified of my own success.

As a woman in the workforce, I have experienced more power plays at work than I care to catalog. I see the need people have for power and have encountered the comments from others passive aggressively justifying why I am where I am in a leadership role. All of that, of course, is one thing—one maddening, difficult thing.

What about, however, when I am the one trying to recreate the order of things in order to downplay my own abilities? Sometimes the most difficult power play to confront is the one we’re in with ourselves.

Marianne Williamson writes,“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” I wanted to be small that night in Brookfield, Illinois. Anything more was scary and pressure-filled. There were expectations I probably could have lived up to but it’s much easier not to disappoint people when you’re second best.

These days, not much has changed about where I like to be in the lineup; I want to be great but not the best. How, though, does that constrict me as a leader, an employee, a woman, and a mom? How does my fear of being “big” and, therefore, my tendency to stay small ultimately harm myself, my organization, the women who look up to me, and the men who work around me?

How high would I soar if I unbuckled my own restraints and allow myself to live up to my own potential?

I do not know the answers but I am earnestly seeking them. Little by little, I’m trying to find my footing when I find myself last in the lineup, leading a team of people or being an influential decision maker at work. It’s difficult and there’s a lot of pressure, but my playing small will simply not serve the world — and neither will yours.

Mallory Redmond embraces anomalies–she is an adventure-loving homebody who keeps a clean house yet always makes a mess while eating or brushing her teeth. She loves dry humor, clean sheets, and gathering around the table with friends. Mallory and her husband, Darren, live in Ohio with their beagle, Roger, and daughter, Evelyn. You can follow her writing here, where her stories are told with the hope of further uncovering the places of connection in our humanity.