If it were not an art the strong would always win - Dobringer MS

A Trickle But Not a Torrent: Tears and the Female Fighter


By Courtney Rice and Randy Packer (Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly)


Vera’d had a great day at work. Her boss had called her into his office late in the day. She went with the usual stab of fear - what mistake had she made to warrant a private meeting? It turned out to be quite the opposite. He wanted to praise her recent project. And backed up the nice words with a hefty raise.


She was bouncing as she entered the school gym where her twice-weekly fencing classes were held. She grinned at her favourite training partner and they planned to go out for beers afterwards to celebrate (unlike most days, when they go out for beers afterwards to fight off the post-workout pain, drown their relationship sorrows, or simply out of habit). She zipped through the warm up with more energy than usual, buoyed by her good mood.


The class grabs swords, masks, and minimal armour to start the day’s drills. Vera’s still distracted and energetic, and she and her partner get chastised a couple of times for speeding up during what’s supposed to be slow precision work. Slightly ashamed, they get back to work, slowly.


Then it happens. Feeding off each other’s energy, they speed up again, just a bit. What’s supposed to be a quarter-speed, no-pressure hit goes wrong as Vera steps the wrong direction, and the tip of her partner’s sword lands with a thump right in the middle of her chest.


Vera’s knocked breathless for a moment, and feels a wave of heat wash over her. The tears come alongside the jumbled rush of thoughts that inevitably follows: “Ow, that hurt ...pain... you jerk! ...anger... Shit, it was my fault ...guilt... why did I go left instead of right? Still hurts .. pain... at least I can breathe now ...fear... why is everybody looking at me? ...confusion... And why the FUCK are my goddamned eyes leaking?!?  ...anger/shame/panic confusion/annoyance pain/frustration...



If you’re new to combat sports, you will be caught off guard the first time this happens to you. Sure, you’ve cried before, sometimes at nothing more than a sappy commercial. But being struck by another person when you’re already amped up on adrenaline is an entirely different experience than stubbing your toe on the coffee table for the fifth time this month. Knowing what’s going on is a good start to removing an extra layer of stress, worry, panic, and confusion.


Crying is a response to pain, stress, or strong emotion. In women, the tear duct is smaller than it is in men. This simple mechanical difference has an effect on how quickly tears will break out of the tear duct. It’s a tiny difference … but enough to make the small step between a tear brimming on the edge and the wet running down the cheek come a little quicker than in men.


It’s not quite that simple, though. The real kicker is hormonal. Testosterone and androgen are the two hormones that act as a brake on tear production. The higher the levels of those hormones, the higher the tearing threshold. If you have low levels of testosterone and androgen, you will also have a low tearing threshold. It’s one of the reasons we speak of “old man tears.” As a man ages his testosterone levels decrease, so he cries more easily than he did when he was younger.


Being lower in both these hormones, women cry more easily than men. That’s not news, and it’s not even a particularly interesting fact, even when the science backs it up. For athletes in a combat sport it’s a little more interesting to know the reasons behind crying, because our training gives us so many occasions to cry. The normal stresses of training combined with an unexpected impact, not even a notably hard impact, can easily breach the tear threshold.


For coaches, it’s critical to understand the mechanics when we are coaching women or mixed groups. Women do cry more easily and therefore more often, but it needs to be understood that they aren’t crying for the same reasons. Crying in a female athlete needs to be assessed differently than in male athletes. It’s just as important for the athletes (male and female) to understand what’s happening to themselves and their teammates to avoid unnecessary emotional repercussions.



Putting aside obvious cases of injury, tears from a female athlete should be considered part of the training environment. Recognizing that they are triggered more easily than in male athletes, it should also be recognized that they mean less. While most adults of either sex have developed a social control over their individual crying reflex, the inherent stresses of combat sport training can undermine that conditioning. Less than traumatic impacts can still deliver an unexpected shock to the body, and when that is combined with the internal critiques that are common in all athletes, the tear trigger level can be easily surpassed.


For the most part, the tears are nothing more than a sign of intense, or even just moderate emotion. A male athlete feeling the same level of emotion might react with swearing, a visible show of gritting teeth, shaking the limbs out, posturing and shouting, having a grumpy exchange with another athlete or vocally berating themselves.


If a male fighter gets cracked in the head during a sparring bout, at a higher than expected level of force, he might swear loudly, throw his sword down, and pace for a moment or two. The coach will usually raise an eyebrow, wander over to see if any actual injury happened, and if none did...usually issue a slight warning to both parties to be more careful. The fight continues and no one really notices.


When the same situation happens to a female fighter, she may react the same, or she might cry. It’s important to understand that both are equivalent reactions to the male reaction and need to be dealt with the same way. Assuming the safety/first aid assessment shows no issues, the reaction should be the same as it is with the male athlete. Move to return the class back to productive work as soon as possible.


Male or female, an overt display of emotion or pain can leave the athlete feeling exposed immediately afterwards. The coach should, by their actions, show that such displays are business as usual, and not worth any special attention. Tears, for the most part, are no different than any other display of emotion.


When you’re coaching mixed classes, the athletes will follow the lead of the coach or teacher. By accepting tears as normal, the athlete will start to see them as a normal part of training, and not worthy of any special attention. They will be less of a distraction to the person with the tears and to the rest of the class, which is how it should be.


As the athlete in the middle of an unasked-for crying fit, you can’t quite dismiss the episode immediately, you have to wait until your hormones are done with their little party in your bloodstream. The first thing to do is self-assess: Are you actually injured? Count all your limbs, major and minor, and scan the floor for tell-tale blood spots. Once you’ve determined that your skin and bones are still intact, remind yourself that this is normal, it sucks, but it happens sometimes.


Informing those around you is the next step, particularly the person on the other end of the sword (or fist) that struck you. Make sure they know you’re not injured, just a bit shaken and possibly mad as hell. If they come over to check on you, tell the person in charge the same thing, and don’t let them stop the class on your behalf. Remember the first time you went through this, and keep in mind that your partner or instructor may be witnessing the phenomenon for the first time and may be just as confused as you were then. If you need an analogy, tell them to imagine you were just kicked in the testicles, and to please treat you accordingly. Give your hormones some time to get themselves back in order before picking up your sword again. Sit down for a minute and sip some water if you need to, or just take a couple of deep breaths and make sure you can see well enough to continue.


If you’re in the middle of a competition bout, the way to deal with it will vary a bit depending on the situation and the rules. Assuming the trigger shot didn’t end the bout, your first priority (after the injury assessment) will be to maintain your tournament mindset. Pre-tournament training will help with this, if you practice dealing with a variety of physical or mental stress factors (doing handstands before sparring, or being pointedly stared at while fighting, for example), it’s easy to brush off the tears as just one more. Unfortunately you can’t control other people, so the marshall or your opponent may hesitate and question your ability to continue. Make it clear that you are in control of yourself and are willing and able to continue. Be brief and to the point with your explanation. Stay focused on the fight, and get back to it as quickly as possible.


Vera rips her mask off and grabs a nearby towel. She wipes her face dramatically.


“Damn, am I sweaty today!” she declares, at volume.


The class erupts in laughter, and goes back to their drills.



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