It used to really bother my first serious coach when we’d be sparring really hard and then on the break I’d cuddle and coo my son or daughter who had just fallen down or had a toy stolen from them. Not because of having to stop my focus (which at first was a very hard skill to learn), but because he would say things like “At least f*&^ing wipe the blood off your face before you calm them.” It didn’t seem to bother them. They had been in the gym with me since they were 1 and 3. They knew they were safe, that that was just as likely the other person’s blood as it was mine, and that I loved them—that they came first. The ability to switch modes from sparring to the levels of blood sprayed around the ring to consoling my son or daughter about the INCREDIBLE pain they felt they were currently in from having fallen down and bumped their knee really freaked him, and some of the other guys, out.
But it wasn’t really that hard for me. I had horrible pain inside and out a lot of the day, and I was never, ever going to take that out on my kids in absolutely any way. They were also going through so much with my divorce and their dad, in their eyes, was all of a sudden just gone. Their mom went from being a stay at home mom to seriously never, ever stopping working. They didn’t understand anything that was going on. No matter how much pain I was in or how beast mode I was tackling the work I had in front of me (mowing, cleaning, school work, or a person I was boxing) I had to have the ability to constantly control my emotions and actions and constantly read our surroundings and the emotions of those around us. Even when I had no idea how I was getting through, I was never going to make their pain worse. Everything I was doing was for them. I had to deal with my emotions, yes. But I had learned how to do so in healthy ways and safe times that were outside of the times that I needed to be focused on someone in front of me weather that was a child that needed me or a sparring partner trying to frustrate me. That coach, and some others, felt that my “maternal” instincts that they always saw pop in the second my kids were around made me weak--or that I was soft. I feel like they were one of my biggest strengths.
I put maternal in quotes just now. That’s because you need to not think of these as something that only applies to mothers. Women, in general, have these. These aren’t heightened abilities to care for children—although those of us with kids have extra practice having to set aside our own feelings or thoughts in order to handle what’s most important in front of us. These skills are ingrained in all women to some extent from the time they’re three years old. See, there are slight differences in preschool children between girls and boys in what they choose to play. Then, as they grow, we (as adults) make those differences much, much larger by pushing them into these categories and with same-gender playmates. So remember the example of playing with Legos versus playing kitchen? These differences in play aren’t only about spatial reasoning advantages as my example included last week. They also include things like side-by-side play versus cooperative, role-playing and relational play. Fast forward to grade school, and females are already having to defend their bodies from boys pulling pig tails, touching without our consent, and asserting dominance. And that’s just their classmates. The darker, more secret side of being a female that we all know is that it very sadly doesn’t stop at children our age. From a very young age we have to learn to read the danger around us to survive.
I call these my Spidey Senses for Danger, but really they’re for reading anything that someone is feeling or thinking or about to do. The ability to feel or understand the other person like that is called empathy. It's often what people stereotype about women being too emotional. Or that we always want to talk about our feelings. We have names for our (and other people's) feelings and acknowledge them. They're more important for us to survive in our day to day than they are for men to be quite frank. We, as women, are actually proven to have empathetic skills more so than men. They show up differently in all of us. While I attempt to calmly talk down the situation (or sometimes quickly huff up to back someone down and meet their attack with surprise), my sister makes jokes. The thing is, they’re conditioned into us. They are not from birth. We’re taught far more relationship skills, including reading people’s language and tone and body movements for danger, because we’re constantly at a physical disadvantage in life. We are forever vulnerable. We forever must sense exactly how much danger we are in at any point in time. This makes us exactly perfectly wired for reading our opponent. From the slightest change in body language I can detect when the person across from me just got cocky and is ready to come in too boldly, angry/frustrated and ready for wild swings (or if I push them just a little more they can get there), slightly defeated and I need to put anything else I have into cementing that before I run out of gas, hesitant because I showed a power they didn’t expect (and I again need to jump on that with anything I have left in my tank to ensure they keep that weather I’ve got anything left or not), or even scared.
Have you ever met one of those women that even when it’s not her baby she still knows when he’s upset from hunger, tired, or wanting to play? I am not one of those magic women, it takes me a few minutes with a baby to start picking up on what they want, but lots of women have that. That’s exactly the same set of skills that we use with these danger spidey senses. Even with kids who are non-verbal, we’re able to communicate and meet their needs, know what they’re feeling, thinking, saying, asking. Your opponent is not going to talk to you about where they’re vulnerable. While we usually use this skill to meet someone’s needs, or make them or ourselves safe, it is the same necessary skill to properly reading what to do next in the ring.
A correctly read weakness, that is then correctly taken advantage of, can make you invincible against opponents that you should never have stood a chance against. The correct way to enter the ring can make or break a fight. For example, should you wear them out and play the long game? Should you come in with everything and defeat their mindset from the first punch? Or should you slowly frustrate and anger them, setting very careful and strategic shots? Do you need to get in close to a weak body that they’ve left unprotected? Do they get nervous on the ropes? What about keeping them at distance? Are they frustrated when they can’t get inside where they can bully and slam your body with everything they have? Carefully and quickly reading a person is something that we’re taught from birth as women through everything from danger of older/stronger males, pretend relational play with other females, and even the caring of children that we’re raised to be able to help with the second our mother’s have a child younger than us or we reach that age where we’re supposed to babysit. This is a huge advantage over our male counterparts.
It also can make us the greatest teammate when we work together. See, a teammate who can perfectly read your weaknesses can make sure you’ve got them covered before you enter the ring. She can have your back, front, middle, and face all the way covered when you’re humble and listen and work together. This is, again, a time that it’s important to have both males and females as teammates. The reason that so many coaches feel like our empathy-based skill set is a weakness is because eventually (hopefully!) it’s time to finish someone. If you don’t connect yourself with them to be able to read all of their body language and emotions, it’s easier to put them down when it comes time. Having had almost no female teammates throughout my boxing life, I very quickly changed my outlook about being able to put someone down.
See, I would get in there and drill or spar with men who would try to kill me per the coach’s orders in order to get me out of the gym. But I would also get in there with a whole lot of men (or coach’s orders throughout the years) that were told to go so, so, so light on me because I was so delicate and just a woman. This would frustrate me so much because I knew I was not, but also because I had worked so hard to use these skills and I didn’t even get a chance to practice them sparring because they thought so little of me. I knew that the woman standing across from me had worked her ass off to be there. It was about respect for her, and what she was bringing to the ring, that I was going to finish her if I had the chance. I wasn’t going to go light on her and I wasn’t going to be unprepared because I assumed she had worked as hard as I had. I respected her enough to bring my A game into that ring. It is very hard, at first, to detach yourself from the person in front of you that you’ve just been through war with and deliver that finishing punch. The men who have stood by my side and been true, trusted teammates have helped me reach the ability to get there. In exchange, I have done everything I can to help them learn to activate their own empathetic skills and how to use them in the ring. We have to work together guys. Any privilege on either side has to be shared if we want equality to be possible, and even if we don’t! Even if we just want to be the best possible boxers to grace the ring!