When sparring makes you cry

Tuesday night I was walking down Camden Road in tears. They just fell down my face and I cried openly, with no real motive. No motive that is, unless you count the blood spewing from my nose and mingling with those tears, the dull ache in my head and the pain in my forehead every time I went to raise my eyebrows.

Once, in a job I had a long time ago, a colleague was telling me he thought another colleague was unstable. Erratic behaviour, extreme demands and shouting at others were all invoked as evidence, and then we came to the piece de resistance: she had been known to cry at work. To him, that was proof she was a loon. I wanted to tell him that on numerous occasions, I had been inconsolable in the toilets. Sometimes that was due to conflict with other members of staff, sometimes it was personal life stuff, sometimes it was just a release of tension and stress. But I couldn’t admit that without tacitly admitting I too was unstable.

The belief has stayed with me. The first time I sparred in my white collar boxing group, people apologised every time they made contact. Some punch too hard (you are only supposed to use 60% of power in sparring, which is practicing your fight skills without getting injured), drunk on the cocktail of fear, outrage and adrenaline. Some people get upset when they get hit in the head, and some cry. It takes some getting used to.

I have surpassed that stage, but it can still be a shock. I recently sparred on a Sunday morning with a formidable partner. Still sleepy from the melatonin I had taken – and I don’t want to face up to the fact that fighting might aggravate my insomnia rather than ease it, because I CANNOT give it up (I’ll save why that is for another blog) – I took a lot of punches from her, and they hurt. Right about that minute, I knew I was going to cry. It was like a dam bursting, and I couldn’t contain the water anymore. The shock and pain merged with all the residual self-doubt in me and I felt like I was hurting because I deserved it. Yes, there was self-pity in there too.

Then I looked up, and saw a quote from Mike Tyson on the gym wall. “Never show weakness,” it said. I went to the toilets, again, to blow my bloody nose and sob a bit. I came back smiling. When I came back, another woman who had been sparring was openly in tears. Why did I feel like I had to hide it?

When I was in Brazil, the first foreign correspondents I met were generally men. They talked about the choice to move to Brazil as a relatively untapped market which was to be the venue for two mega sporting events, the World Cup and the Olympics, and as an exciting and beautiful place to be. They never mentioned it might be difficult to be away from home in a dangerous country. If anyone thought that, they kept it to themselves.

Then I met a young female correspondent who was arriving soon before I was leaving. She wanted advice, so we agreed to have a drink one evening. I thought it would be about the practical stuff, like how to pitch a story, how to keep safe, etc. And the first questions were about that. Then, “How did you manage your emotions?” she asked. It took me by surprise. Nobody ever asked me that, but of course it mattered. Tyson was right that you can’t show weakness in a fight, or your opponent will take advantage of it, but that’s not the whole story.

I don’t know how far I’ll get yet, but I’m interested in these questions: do men and women deal with these emotions differently (in boxing and in life)? What can we learn from each other? What is true strength and courage all about? I don’t know the answers yet, or if I ever will, but for now I know that I can deal with it if I cry sometimes after sparring.

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