Mental Toughness

“The true measure of a man is not how he behaves in moments of comfort and convenience but how he stands at times of controversy and challenges.”

Martin Luther King Jr. encompasses the idea of mental toughness. Many people may perceive themselves as tough without ever being in a position where they are forced to find out how tough they really are. The truth is that actual mental toughness can only be achieved under stress. Stress activates your fight-or-flight response. How your body and mind react to this indicates your level of resilience. People can thrive in times of comfort and excel well at the tasks presented to them on a daily basis, but once stress is added to the equation it can cause them to unravel. 

The key to real toughness is performing under stress, building resilience, and the ability to predict the outcome of a situation whether positive or negative. I often tell people “you become what you do, so be careful of it”. In other words, you become what you practice and react the way you are trained to react. Sometimes you are trained to react in a way that contradicts your own survival instinct. A perfect example is how most parents would protect their kids, even with the cost of getting hurt badly. A more intense example is soldiers who are trained to run towards the source of fire in order to eliminate it. As a soldier, and as a parent, you learn you are wired to protect others. It comes with the territory and hours of practicing this mindset.

In Francis Ford Coppola’s classic film “The Godfather” Michael Corleone is forced into a war over how business is done between his faction and The Five Families. He decides to remove his father’s longtime consigliere, Tom Hagen, from his position and instead rely on his father, the retired don, to advise him. A puzzled Tom respectfully questions Michael’s decision to which Michael replies, “You’re not a wartime Consiglieri, Tom. Things could get rough with the move we’re making.”

It wasn’t that Tom wasn’t great at his job. We see him accomplish almost every task asked of him up until this point in the movie with relative ease. The issue was Tom had never been tested in a situation this stressful before. He always maneuvered in times of peace. Many of us are just like Tom Hagen. We see ourselves as ready for anything. In our minds, we can handle whatever comes our way, but in reality, we may not be as prepared as we think.

Recently, a student of ours asked one of my employees an interesting question: “What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit?” He thought about it for a second and answered that he hadn’t been hit too hard in class. But the student didn’t mean in class. He wanted to know how hard he’d been hit in real life. The student then mentioned that he hadn’t ever been hit in his life. He said that during class he started to feel anxious. Working with his partner made him feel his fight-or-flight response. It was a new experience for him. He embraced the feeling and actually wanted to see how he would respond to even more stress. He wanted to see just where the line is crossed and how his body would respond under different conditions. While I respected it, I also admired that the instructor knew not to push him too far, so he could still feel successful with his first experience.

Our approach to these situations is defined by many factors. A lot of it has to do with your upbringing. What you were exposed to as a child will often be what you measure your experiences by. Things like your relationship with your parents, the neighborhood you grew up in, and the schools you went to have a drastic impact on how you process and handle stressful situations. The more you endure the more resilient you become. Take getting a tattoo for example. Some people endure hours under the needle with ease while others cry out in pain. We all have different thresholds for what we can and can’t take. The more stress you’re exposed to the more resilient you become. I am not suggesting that people who didn’t grow up around violence are less resilient, but like our immune system, exposure to various allergens, bacteria and viruses improves it when you have the antibodies in your blood.

Resilient people have a tendency to see difficulties as challenges rather than obstacles and they respond with action and take responsibility for the outcomes. In my opinion, optimism is the key to sanity when you have to deal with hardships. This sentiment is reflected in the age-old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” An important factor in building true mental toughness is knowing when the correct response is to fight and when the answer is flight.

As you experience more in life the ability to predict outcomes would be more refined. Many of us can fall into the trap of overthinking. Our minds race around everything in a situation that can go wrong filling us with fear and anxiety. It’s rare that we let our minds toggle over everything that can go right in a situation. Even in the face of a bleak outcome, a resilient person will find a way. In order to properly assess a situation’s outcome, we must first ask ourselves a simple question. Is my response a product of facts or anxiety? Once you determine if a threat is real or not you’ll be able to come to a solution on how to handle it more easily. It’s important to remember that our minds are powerful tools and we can become tremendously strong if we don’t cripple ourselves with negative thoughts.

At Krav Maga Experts, we believe training and practice is the only way to learn and refine self-defense skills. True peace comes from mental toughness. I’ve seen students time and time again break past whatever has held them back in their life once they understand how strong they really are. Our minds are our greatest tool, but they can also be our greatest enemy if we allow ourselves to think negatively and live in fear. So remember to stay positive, build resilience, and become the badass you were always meant to be.

Do something amazing,

Tsahi Shemesh

Founder & CEO
Krav Maga Experts