I had lunch with Alicia Nowak yesterday, a young Polish woman who lives and trains Muay Thai in Vienna. We met through my Muay Thai Facebook page and I was surprised as we sat together across a table how easy it was to talk with her, to relate our experiences and struggles with training. It shouldn’t surprise me, as I honestly believe that no matter how different two people are who are training Muay Thai that a great deal of their experiences will be the same, but it was a delightful surprise.
I mentioned – almost casually – that I’d been feeling as though I was going to cry when I stepped out of the ring lately, regardless of whether I’d done well or poorly in whatever I was just doing in the ring. “Why?” Alicia asked, eyes wide. I wasn’t sure but I also wasn’t overly concerned about it. “I think I’m just tired,” I offered, “you know when you push your body really hard and your mind just kind of does its own thing to cope with it, so the fatigue comes out in emotional bursts that aren’t attached to anything in particular.”
That’s not entirely it either. I mean, I’m overwhelmed in training a lot, usually by Den or Daeng or Big, who are so beyond me in size and experience that it’s completely irrational to get upset at not being able to keep up or – God forbid – better them in any given sparring or clinching session, but it’s still emotionally difficult. I feel like crying almost any time I have a long clinching session. It’s at the end of training so I’m already drained and then it’s about 30-60 minutes of being tossed around, out-sized and out-skilled. The point is to take someone’s heart, so that’s just part of the game whether the guy I’m clinching with is purposely dispiriting me or not. And, quite frankly, peeling one’s self up off the canvas over and over again is exhausting and literally gets harder every time one has to heft his or her weight up off the ground.
But the crying I was referring to wasn’t directly in response to this kind of experience. It isn’t a response to anything directly but more the general need for release after feeling quite pressured and bottled up by being ineffective in any varying degree for the past hour, minutes, days, weeks, years… whatever. Alicia’s eyes were wide as she heard me talk about this because she claimed I’d never talked about it. I don’t think that’s true – I know I’ve written about it at some point – but I do believe it’s been a long time since I’ve talked about it or shared that particular (and somewhat ever-present) struggle. She said she felt this same way and worried that she was alone, that there was something wrong with her and she should just “suck it up.”
To some degree, that’s exactly it. You should just “suck it up.” But that doesn’t mean it’s atypical or wrong in any way and, indeed, she reminded me how important it is to talk about it because nobody is alone in this experience. I think of Tom Hanks’ character in “A League of Their Own,” saying with absolute disbelief, “There’s no crying in baseball!” when the female team he’s coaching sniffle due to his yelling or whatever. It’s a funny moment. But the fact is, there is a lot of crying in Muay Thai.
Not long ago, maybe 4-6 months, Little Neung was working with me in some sparring practice and he was kicking my ass. I wasn’t hurt; I wasn’t overly tired; I wasn’t unable to do anything and was in fact backing him up with flurries every now and again. But I was overwhelmed and my face showed it. I may have been choking back tears… I don’t remember. But Neung saw it and in a soft but matter-of-fact voice he said to me, “Before, I not like this. Before I smaller, now I big, bigger than Tor,” – Tor is the tallest, heaviest of the Thai boys – “but I play with the Falang and I hit really hard because I don’t care,” he said. “Now, I big,” he repeated, “but before I cry every day.” He paused, let that sink in for a second and shook his head, “I cry every day,” he said again. It was one of the most generous moments I’ve had with Neung. He’s young in many ways. He’s 18 years old but has a lot of childlike qualities that make him seem much younger, a kind of sweetness and sensitivity that I respond to because one of my brothers was this way for a long time. The first time I came to Thailand Neung was actually a kid, maybe 13 or 14 years old, and small. When we arrived back at Lanna a year and a half ago Neung was suddenly a young man – his shoulders were so broad that he seems to be made entirely out of chest and back muscles, like an action figure with an angular face and jaw that are sculpted for silhouette but still carry a boy’s expression. Sometimes Neung is very serious and a darkness creeps over his face and he looks much older – you can see what kind of man he might become. But more often than not his face is full of lightness, a teasing joy that is best expressed when he’s running through the gym – fleeing, really – from someone he’s just pranked.
It was important to me that Neung shared this vulnerability with me. He was showing me that it’s something you grow out of. For him, literally growing out of it. I won’t grow out of mine – I will never be physically bigger than these guys who are overwhelming me in the way that I never got bigger than my brothers, who each got bigger than the last and rectified years of younger-sibling submission by literally outgrowing the tormentor. That’s not my path. But Neung could have gotten bigger and never gotten his revenge – he could have stayed the underdog, as one of the other boys at the gym has done. This other boy, Off, is still smaller than the other boys but not greatly so. Physically it’s nominal but emotionally he never broke out and he appears like a scrawny little brother compared to his confident peers. Between Off and Neung, I have a choice: I can cry in response to my weakness – that part is okay – but I have to choose where I move from there.
This is where men have an advantage over women: from a very early age boys are taught to hide their emotions, not to show when it hurts. Babies can cry but that shit stops at a certain age when young boys are taught what it means to perform their gender. Little girls are taught the opposite. We’re taught to show our pain and wear our emotions at the surface and if whoever is hurting us doesn’t stop when we show them that it hurts is an asshole. The onus is on the jerk who doesn’t know better than to hit or tease a girl. This isn’t so with men. If you show that you’re hurt, you’re weak. Period. As fighters, as persons who are learning to overcome every pain that we’ve stitched into ourselves over the course of our lifetimes, women have to – in this one way – move toward the path that is taught to men. (Don’t misunderstand: men do cry too. Watch any given episode of The Ultimate Fighter for a male tear-fest.)
It’s a terrifying feeling that my automatic emotional response – one that comes from real violence and real fear and pain in my lifetime – is holding me back. I’m not saying don’t feel but in the rules of the ring (a space that we “seal” at the start of fights to demonstrate separation) are such that admitting your weakness or showing the effect someone is having on you – someone who wants to hurt you – is in no way going to help you. And the only way to overcome that automatic response is to train it and to learn to leave it in the ring. You have to practice choosing a different response under pressure until you choose it automatically.
I had quite a few responses to this post, right away, which caused me to reach a few points that are also important. You can find them in the comments, but I want to include them here in the body just so they are not lost…
“…Every now and again I’ll get a bit tearful during sparring or clinch work, particularly when I’m getting over powered (not necessarily hurt) and am a bit tired, it doesn’t really interfere with what I’m doing and I can’t always really explain it as I don’t always feel “upset” as such, but I think it takes the guys I train with a bit of getting used to. I find the worst thing is if someone insists on asking if I’m alright or trying to be sympathetic as I just want to get on with training and not make a fuss.”