Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cry Baby

I have been wanting to write this blog for awhile.  With improved time management, I am all caught up on time sensitive things (things that have to get done right fucking now) and have time to write this post.

Having said that, this post has taken up several blocks of blogging time, as opposed to getting out shorter blogs every week.  I felt a need to figure some of this out and writing down helps me process it.  This blog grew far too huge to be fun to read so I broke in into a few chunks.

It goes back to an article I read last fall after the Olympics in Rio.

You can read the entire article HERE

The following are the portions I found relevant.

Written by Helen Maroulis

Go ahead. Google me. When you do, here’s what you’ll see: First American woman to win Olympic wrestling gold … Stuns Japan’s 16-time world champion and 3-time gold medalist … Historic Olympic triumph recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama.”

And all of it is true. But there’s something even truer that you won’t see. It’s a secret. Something you can’t Google, until now.

Come close; I’ll whisper it to you…

I’m afraid.

Like, of everything. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of people looking at me. Afraid of being home alone. Afraid of not being enough. Afraid of my fear. Afraid of your impression of me after you read about my fear.



I know what you’re thinking. ‘Helen, you’re an Olympic gold medal recipient — the first ever to do so in your country. You had to wrestle boys to get to where you are. How are you possibly afraid?’ And now you’re judging me. Maybe you think this admission is a plea for attention. Maybe you’re questioning my true strength, or my courage. Maybe you think my accomplishment was just plain luck.

Or maybe, just maybe … you will say, ‘Me too.’

When I was a little girl, I was asked to quit every sport I ever played. Correction, my mom was politely asked to never bring me back. Countless coaches and instructors would say to her “It would be in everyone’s best interest if Helen didn’t return. Ever. Again.”

You see, I cried all of the time. Swimming? Forget it, not getting me on that high dive. Ballet? Ummm, all of those people staring at me? Never. I would stand there, frozen solid, then cry.

She’s not moving … still not moving. And now … yep, she’s crying became the repertoire for everything I attempted. Like a giant hook, my fear yanked me off of every stage, field and platform I’ve ever attempted.

That is, until one day.

I was seven years old. My younger brother wrestled, and my mom and I attended his practice. He was a little too young for the team, and needed a partner to continue. My mom, concerned he would quit, looked at me and said, “Helen, hurry! Kick off your shoes, stand on the mat, and be your brother’s dummy.”

So I did.

My tiny feet decked out with pink ankle socks sank into the leather mat like quicksand. They anchored me still as I stood there, playing the role of a dummy. To this day, I can’t tell you why, but at that moment, something was different.

I wasn’t afraid.

Maybe because no one was there to see me; after all, I was just a dummy. Or because rolling around with my little brother in my socks just felt familiar, like two siblings acting up at home waiting for their parents to yell before bedtime. Whatever the reason, I was seven, and I found the one stage where I wasn’t afraid to perform. And I loved it.

I begged my parents to let me wrestle. My dad finally conceded, and said, “I’ll let you wrestle one match. If you win that match, you can continue.”

So I did.

It was the only match I would win all year, but it was all I needed. That one precious victory cemented my dad’s promise. I now had permission to keep going.

So I did.




Wrestling with boys would become the norm. I didn’t have a choice. If I wanted to succeed at my newfound love, it’s what I had to do. Growing up in Maryland, girls wrestling didn’t exist, but at seven years old, I was surprisingly unfazed. It was everyone else who had a problem with it.

When you’re a cute little grade school girl, having fun, you hear things like, “ahh, you play well for a girl.” But then, things started to change.

... other than taking down their little sister in a living room match for the TV remote, they’d never wrestled a girl before.

And they didn’t want to.

It was obvious during warmups. Coach shouted, “Find your buddy.” I scoured that gym with the panic of a last person standing at a boy/girl dance, searching for one hopeless face that matched mine. I walked over to Coach.

“[Coach], I don’t have a partner.”

He said, “Helen, you have to find your own partner.”

Desperate, I ran to my mom and said “no one will work with me.” Heat rushed to my cheeks. I felt my eyes well up. My mom knew it. She saw it in me. And in a surprisingly stern tone, she looked at me and said, “Helen, I can’t help you.”

Then she stood up, and walked out the door.

It was cold. It was callous. It was exactly what I needed.

I watched her get smaller and smaller as she left the gym. The part that I didn’t see was my mom getting into her car, sitting in the driver’s seat, and crying for two hours.

I like to think in that moment, she had my cry for me.

When she came back inside and asked what happened, I told her, “I went up to these two boys and said, ‘Hey, I’m working with you.’”

And that was it.

Boys would still take turns pummeling me, though. One by one, they would try to hurt me so I wouldn’t return.

... And things were good; things should have been good. But inside I was tortured, especially at night. I still often find myself staring when the darkness is too loud replaying my insecurities. They swirl in my head like ghosts in a dark room. Darkness is still the one opponent, I can’t take down.




Oh, how my mind taunts me.

Being around boys all of the time, I found myself trying to adopt their mentality. Don’t show emotion. Push through. Don’t expose weakness. I was studying men who won gold medals in wrestling. I tried to mimic their mental game. I couldn’t do it. I tried, but I just couldn’t.

...When I pretended to be fearless, I learned I was closing myself off to my creative side. For me, the mat is my canvas. Without fear, there is no courage. And without courage, there is no creativity. And without any of those, being on the mat just doesn’t work.

I also learned that anxiety has a well-worn passport. Mine became my travel companion: London, China, even Rio. At the Olympics, you watched me pin a champion. You saw me accept my gold. Maybe you even cried a little when I carried our country’s flag over my shoulders.



...I couldn’t breathe.

Before the opening ceremonies, I was pinned. My journal entry read:

“I can’t stop crying. I’m making myself sick. For the first time in my life, I explained to Terry [my Coach] what my anxiety was like. What it felt like to be afraid of irrational things. I was always afraid to tell him, because I was afraid he wouldn’t think I was mentally capable of a gold medal. And at the Olympics, I didn’t want to look weak.

He said that I was strong to reach out and talk to him. He also said when we are hyper-sensitive to everything, it’s our bodies way of preparing for battle.”

He was right.

After you win a gold medal, you get to do a lot of cool stuff. Like, be the first female to lead the Baltimore Ravens in a pregame locker room pep talk.

Coach Harbaugh rallied the team:

“I met Helen Maroulis, the gal from Maryland who we saw beat a legendary Japanese champion in wrestling. And when you beat a legend, you become a legend…”

My eyes circled the huddle. Like sizing up an opponent across the mat, I stared at their faces — stoic, fearless, exactly what you would expect from anyone about to enter into battle.

Ah, that face, I know you all too well.

My parting words to the men were this:

“You don’t have to be the best. You just have to be enough. And on that day, I was enough.”


...See, this story isn’t about me. It’s is about expectations. It’s about assumptions. It’s about being human. I think asking us athletes to progress in our chosen sport and live a life devoid of fear is just a smidge too much responsibility to impose on one fragile human psyche, don’t you think?

Especially one as fragile as mine.

My journey brought me to a definitive realization: We live in an illusion that champions are fearless, and that any admission to the contrary is defined as weakness. While we need to believe that the extraordinary can happen and glimpses of God exist in our heroes — and believe me, we do — my fear … my deepest fear … is when another seven-year-old girl steps off the mat because feeling afraid isn’t welcomed. Or because hurt isn’t allowed. Advances of young girls in our nation and the sport of wrestling itself cannot afford to see fewer pink socks.

There’s a stigma that only tough girls wrestle. There’s a stigma that only fearless people win. Yet here I stand in front of you. In front of our country. In front of the world − distinguished by my gold − and by the overwhelming feeling that all of my fears and all of my anxieties in that moment rolled down my body with every tiny bead of sweat, one by one.

But just for now, let that be our little secret.

This article resonated with me for several reasons.
First and foremost is because I wrestled, and... I was a huge crybaby - I get it.
I cried all the time when I was a kid.  I cried all through high school.  Then I learned to stop crying.

Now I make jokes that I'm dead inside. I don't have weak human emotions.  I don't cry, but sometimes it gets dusty.



I'm not dead inside, but necessity has caused me to become emotionally hardened.

If someone does not have an emotional response to all that many things, then by definition it is more difficult to have their "monkey" triggered and they can operate from a much more logical perspective.

However, on those rare occasions when their monkey is triggered, when something causes an emotional response, it can be much more difficult for them to deal with because they have much less "field experience" managing their emotions.

Emotions are natural and you can not be devoid of them.
As Helen wrote

When I pretended to be fearless, I learned I was closing myself off to my creative side. For me, the mat is my canvas. Without fear, there is no courage. And without courage, there is no creativity. And without any of those, being on the mat just doesn’t work.

So if we can't be devoid of emotion we have to learn to use emotion to our advantage.

I used to cry before wrestling meets, I used to cry whenever I didn't get my way.  Now I get paid to kick doors on high risk felony warrants.  I have lots of "field experience" dealing with emotion. Helen's article encouraged me to share my unique perspective on the topic.

Emotion and diminished capacity

Helen wrote

  •  I think asking us athletes to progress in our chosen sport and live a life devoid of fear is just a smidge too much responsibility to impose on one fragile human psyche, don’t you think?

Fair enough, if that is true for our athletes - how much more so for our Police and our Military.

Bad day at work for an athlete you lose.  Hopefully you learn something from it and come back stronger.

Bad day in other professions you die, or your actions (or inaction) cause the death of one of your crew, or an innocent.

That is a heavy burden.  It is easy to sit in comfort and second guess people in those difficult positions days after the incident.

Much harder to be able to function while feeling emotion (in an adrenalized body)


Here is a video that makes that point well


Emotion diminishes capacity.  It is imperative to be able to function, to perform at a high level when adrenalized.

How is that done?

To answer that, first we need to ask - what is emotion?

And, to answer that, we use this exercise at Violence Dynamics during the Conflict Communications class.

Have you ever been in love?
If so, especially when it was new, what did it feel like?

If you would like to play along at home take a second and write down your answers before you scroll down any further.

Perhaps you felt:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Face flush - blushing
  • Butterflies in your stomach
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Voice Squeaks

But that felt really good right?  Being around that person gave you a rush.  You "loved" that person, at least for a while.

Did you try to talk to the person that made you feel like that?
Were you eloquent ?  Or maybe that smooth, flirtatious pick up line just wasn't there.

How about this, have you ever been in a fist fight?
If so, what did it feel like?

Again, if you would like to play along at home take a second and write down your answers before you scroll down any further.




Perhaps you felt:

  • Sweaty palms
  • Face flush - blushing
  • Butterflies in your stomach
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Voice Squeaks

That didn't feel so good right?  Being around that person made you angry.  You "hated" that person, at least for a while.

Did you try to talk to the person that made you feel like that?
Were you eloquent ?  Or maybe that slick come back that would have crushed them just wasn't there.

Stuttering over your words is an example of diminished capacity.

Every wonder why the perfect comeback or the perfect line comes to you hours later?


That perfect line comes to you, when you are no longer adrenalized.  When you are no longer experiencing the symptoms of emotion.

This all stems from a survival mechanism.  You perceive a stimulus in the environment that triggers a fight of flight response.

A chemical cocktail starts pumping through your blood. (Adrenalization)

Emotions are just physical symptoms you feel when your brain is experiencing that chemical cocktail that pumps into your blood

The specific emotion is just how we label the experience.  Whether we perceived it as positive or negative.

That might upset some folks.  Please don't be upset.  This concept may seem new, and even scary. How ever, all of us have been exposed to this idea in one form or another before.  Hollywood is full of tropes that deal with these ideas.

For example:

The man and woman that are best friends since they were kids, then one is going to get married to someone else.  The other "fears" the change, "fears" they will lose them.  Then BAM!, all of a sudden they realize they "love" this person.  Romantic inspiration for 90% of the movies my wife watches on the Hallmark channel and also an example of the chemicals caused by a fight or flight response being labeled an emotion.

Or, the two that always bicker and fight - until "anger" leads to passion



What is emotion?

Emotions are just physical symptoms you feel when your brain is experiencing that chemical cocktail that pumps into your blood in response to a fight or flight stimulus.

The specific emotion is just how we label the experience.

I'm not saying that you never experienced love.  I'm not saying that you do not love your someone special.

I just want readers to look at emotion from a different angle.

We can't live our lives devoid of emotion.  Nor would we want to.  However, emotion diminishes our capacity to perform in high stress situations.  So we have to learn to use emotion to our advantage.

Recognizing the symptoms of adrenalization is the first step to controlling your emotions under stress.

Once you can recognize them  - what are you going to do about it?

Answers to that question and much more when the Budo Blog returns with Cry Baby Part 2

Until then...
Train hard, Train smart, Be safe


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