There’s an Al Pacino movie about football, Any Given Sunday, and towards the end, he gives a speech to the team he’s coaching (it’s the stereotypical locker room speech). In the climax of his speech, he says “In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch.”
I think about this line a lot, because the truth of it rings loud and clear. In any fight, whether for sport or in the street, almost always the person who is most determined to come out on top is going to win. You can’t say the bigger person will always win, because physical size has no impact on fierceness. You can’t say the stronger person will always win, because they can be defeated by someone who is faster. You can’t say the faster or more skilled person will always win, because all it takes is one well-landed hit to stop them in their tracks.
In a street-fight, or in a self-defense situation, you’re (usually) going to have 2 people. Let’s call them the attacker (the bad guy) and the defender (you). The attacker wants to hurt you. They want to have power over you, they want to control you, they want to show you who’s in charge. You’re going to have a lot of thoughts. You’re probably scared, you don’t want to get hurt. You may be thinking about whether or not you’re going to be raped. You’re thinking about your family, maybe you want to show your attacker they aren’t so tough, maybe you want to show them what happens to people who mess with you.
But what is the most important thought? What is the thought that is vital to this situation? You need to get away. If someone is trying to hurt you, you can’t be distracted by your fear, or your ego, or anything else other than your need to get away from this person and be safe. So how do you do that? How do you block out every other emotion so you’re only focusing on what’s going to help you get away?
You start with mental health. Mental Strength. Now, I don’t mean to say that I think you can defend yourself with no training at all, I definitely do not believe that – I am a huge advocate for everyone to train in some kind of martial art or self-defense. The more you study and learn how you may be attacked and effective defenses for those attacks, the better off you’re likely to be. BUT, if you don’t have the right mindset, all the training in the world isn’t likely to help you.
So I’m kind of working backwards here. To be able to best defend yourself, you need the right mindset. To get the right mindset, you need to have mental strength. How does one go about achieving mental strength?
This is one of the reasons why I think everyone should train in martial arts. Martial arts is an excellent way to work on your mental strength if you find the right school. Schools that focus on going to competitions or building your confidence are good if that’s what you’re looking for, but that is only a small part of what makes mental strength. A school whose focus is creating well-rounded martial artists is going to do the best job at increasing your mental strength.
Sports are another good option, if you have the right environment. Having a coach and a team that are working to build you up and teach you focus and make you want to work hard even on days when you’re not sure if you have it in you are a sure track to gaining mental strength. On the flip side, if you leave practice feeling defeated and like you just can’t win and you’re all alone, you probably need to find a different team/sport/activity. Really, anything that gives you that intense focus and can-do attitude is going to be good for you.
Now, I realize that the idea of what mental strength actually is probably still feels incredibly abstract, so I’m going to use another movie to illustrate my point, because analogies are how I function.
In The Last Samurai, we find Tom Cruise as an ex-soldier trying to learn the way of the Japanese sword in Meiji-era Japan, from, you guessed it, a samurai. And by “trying,” I mean he’s getting his butt thoroughly kicked. After one particularly rough hit, another samurai comes up to him and says “Please forgive. Too many mind…Mind of sword, mind of people watching, mind of enemy. Too many mind. No mind…” And of course, because this is a movie, Tom Cruise immediately understands and and gets back up to fight to a draw (hooray!).
In the real world it won’t be as instantaneous as all that, but being able to focus and block out what thoughts/ideas are hindering you, that is the biggest part of mental strength. I said at the very beginning: in self-defense, your need to get away and be safe has to be larger than anything. It has to be larger than anything else you might be feeling, and larger than your attackers desire to hurt you.
Tom Cruise’s character also touches on another facet of mental strength, which is mental health. His character is plagued by inner demons, in the form of PTSD, survivor’s guilt, alcoholism, shame, and just general grumpiness. In order to fully become samurai, he has to deal with all of these issues first. Unfortunately, we don’t all have access to an isolated samurai village brimming with instruction on self-reflection, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. If you are a student, especially a college student, you should access to free counseling services are your school. If not, there are resources here and here to websites, organizations, and groups designed to help people improve their mental health.
To be perfectly clear, I am not saying that if you follow the above steps, you will be able to defend yourself in any situation. That is most definitely not true. You can’t plan for every eventuality, and there are some situations where there isn’t much you can do at all. But starting from a foundation of good mental health and working your way up, that’s going to give you a better chance or knowing what to do, and more importantly, being able to do it if and when the time comes.