If you are a child of the 70s, chances are you sang along to Free to Be You and Me, a compilation of songs and stories celebrating tolerance, individuality, and diversity. I’d be hard pressed to choose a favorite (anyone remember the title song or “When We Grow Up,” sung by Diana Ross, or “Glad to Have a Friend Like You,” to name just a few?), and I’m pleasantly surprised at how often their messages play out in my life.
When thinking about this article, the Free to Be You and Me song “It’s All Right to Cry” came immediately to mind. Sung by Rosey Grier, a former defensive tackle for the NY Giants and the LA Rams, “It’s All Right to Cry” has a message clearly suggested by its title. And the choice of Grier to sing the song was probably quite calculated to reach men and boys, signaling that even though men are socialized to cry less than women, sometimes even the biggest and strongest of us do – and it’s okay. (Sure, the production values of the video are decidedly disco-era, and Rosey himself is no spring chicken anymore, but I still wouldn’t want to be the person who pokes fun at him for shedding a tear or two.)
For better or worse, I do not have difficulty turning on the waterworks, and sometimes I cry for fitness-related reasons. Both Brazilian jiu jitsu and CrossFit/weightlifting, my two main athletic pursuits in recent years, can be as demanding as they are rewarding. It got me thinking about when I cry and why. I’m not trying to encourage tears at the gym – as a matter of fact, when I cry, I try to do it in my own home, or at least make it to the car or the bathroom before I let fly, though this may not always be entirely controllable. But I am aware of the fact a good cry can be cathartic and can help me deal with my stuff and then move on.
I’m sure many of the men and even some of the women reading this are more than a little skeptical, and a lot resistant to the idea that tears can play an adaptive role our athletic progress, seeing them instead as something to be avoided in any situation other than eating super-spicy food. My point is simply that athletic pursuits require much of us, that they wear down our natural defenses as we work ourselves to and beyond exhaustion. Further, our stresses, fears, and disappointments are going to manifest themselves one way or another, and it turns out crying is actually a pretty efficient method for processing these.
So, bear with me as I list a few circumstances where even the strongest and bravest of us might succumb to a few “raindrops from your eyes,” as Rosey puts it, and where our teammates and coaches would surely forgive them, and maybe even join in:
When you have been injured. A scrape or a bruise is one thing. But something more serious might warrant some tears. None of us want to get seriously injured, which is why tearing up when we do is not a sin, or the sign of some kind of weakness. Especially if there’s a lot of pain.
When you have been frightened. This may go hand in hand with being injured. As with minor injuries, someone sneaking up on you and saying, “Boo!” is not a reason to cry. But if you fall off the rock-climbing wall or see someone you care about narrowly escape a dangerous situation, it might trigger an (understandable) emotional reaction, either in the moment or shortly thereafter.
When you are frustrated. You got spanked up and down the mat. You missed your PR attempt even though you felt like everything from diet to sleep was completely dialed in. You boffed the muscle-up again. You were the anti-Neo, where every attempt to dodge the bullet failed, and you got hit head-on time after time. Everyone has these days, and sometimes we can’t shake them off. (Not for nothing did The Band record a song called “Tears of Rage.”)
When you have accomplished it. You know what it is. The goal you had that seemed like an impossibility. The one that took more hard work and heart than you knew you possessed. The one that required you to put everything and everyone else on hold. When you have accomplished it, you get to cry, for joy, for relief, for exhaustion. You may not have a choice.
I’m not saying you’re going to cry if/when any of these things happen. I’m just saying you might, and if you do, you can use your reaction as an indication that something profound has happened, and you can just allow it to be profound.
When’s the last time you cried while pursuing athletic excellence? Post your stories to comments. We’ll pass the Kleenex.
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