Did Simone Biles make a bad decision?

This isn't a request for advice, but it is a question that some people have been asking, so I think it's worth addressing. So here it goes.

First of all, I'm not going to do what a lot of people want and expect me to do. I'm not going to judge her decision.


"But you specialize in decision making," one might say. "Who's better qualified to judge the quality of a decision than an expert on decision making?"


Any expert on decision making should know the number one cardinal rule of bad decision making, which is this: don't assume you know things that the evidence shows you clearly don't know - and then don't jump to conclusions based on those assumptions.


I clearly don't know what was in Simone's head when she made her decision. I'm not going to pretend I do, and I'm not going to draw conclusions about her when I can't know all the details. Judging her decision would be a bad decision.


Here's another good rule: don't judge the quality of a decision by its outcome.


Some say Simone's decision was just fine because her team won silver and that's ok, and Sunisa Lee killed it in the individual competition. But Simone's decision wouldn't have automatically been a bad one had the team done horribly, nor is it bad because her team didn't win gold. Why? Because too much is beyond the control of any one person. Blaming one gymnast for an outcome that is also shaped by so many other people and factors doesn't quite make sense.


Though I won't judge her decision, I will say this: a good decision is one that follows a good process. A good process is one in which the pros and cons are weighed rationally, and in which the choice provides the best chances of reaching the desired end objective. If Simone did this, then she made a good decision - even if her decision might have felt bad to her, her teammates, and her fans and critics, and despite the outcome.


I will also say this: not all decisions to push through injury, pain, or a "wonky" mindset (like one that comes with the "twisties") are bad decisions. Sometimes (not usually in the case of the twisties, but sometimes) our minds tell us we can't do things that we actually can (if you're a subscriber, and read my email letter on this subject, you'll know what I mean). Sometimes it's a good decision to push yourself a little. Sometimes the stories in our heads hold us back, and keep us from knowing the reality of what's possible.


But the decision to push through should be made rationally. It shouldn't be made impulsively or rashly. It shouldn't be made in honor of an end game that involves ego. It shouldn't be a decision you're forced to make by your coach (like in the cases of Elena Mukhina and Kerri Strug), and it shouldn't be made with only your team's or country's interests in mind - or the interests of the organization you're competing with.


It's also worth noting that an Olympic gold medal, though prestigious and amazing, is just a social construct. Humans made up the whole concept of competitive sports, and we made up what it means to win. We can redefine those meanings. We can decide to think differently about them. We can choose to care more about athletes as people than as machines that earn sports organizations prestige and money, and that bestow countries glory.


In the end, if whatever meanings we attach to winning are more important than growing and learning, then our priorities are out of whack. If satisfying ego is more important that being the best version of ourselves, then we need to rethink what sports are all about. We may even need to think about why money has such a huge place in sports.


Maybe Biles and her coaches didn't decide rationally (though most accounts suggest they did). Either way, her decision should make us think about the end game of competitive sports. It should start a conversation about what we're putting our competitive athletes through, and even our kids who compete. It should force us to make new decisions about what end game - and who's end game - we really care about.


Based on the support Simone has been getting for her choice, I can feel our society changing, embracing belief systems that signal a shift in our collective end game, and an embrace of a more rational way of thinking.


As a decision scientist, there's nothing better to see than that.