Well, I was totally wrong.

I have told my students to stop referring to violent attackers as adversaries for over two decades. But in researching and understanding the mechanisms and processes that unfold in a high stress situation, I’ve come to learn that everything is a competition – and your attacker, whether a person or an inanimate object, is your adversary. So, why the 180 degree reversal?

I put the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak, and here’s what I found. First, researcher Angela Duckworth wrote Grit: The Power of Passion & Perseverance where she examined over 2,000 cadets attending West Point who were all engaged in a very tough crucible. Duckworth found that “grit” (which is really mental toughness) was the most potent factor in predicting and determining success – not intellect, athleticism or other talents. For more on this, read the book.

Secondly, I came across a series of research efforts focused on performance and states of arousal (in coaching parlance, we often refer to arousal control and attention control as effective, highly valued skills). The findings in these studies consistently pointed to two juxtaposed internal perspectives – how the subjects responded to “competitive versus threat” scenarios.

The bottom line here is this…when we (as humans) perceive a situation as “competitive,” we experience high, relative conscious anxiety that boosts performance while also experiencing relatively low physiological stressors (that can and do severely dampen performance). However, when we (as humans) perceive a situation as “threatening,” we experience high, relative conscious anxiety that could boost performance while also experiencing very high physiological stressors that tank performance at an absolute level (in short, we often flail and fail).

Thirdly, self-talk that has its genesis in either an external (I cannot change the outcome) or internal locus of control (I will determine the outcome) plays a major role in mental toughness. For instance, if confronted with a knife wielding adversary, the person that thinks, “Oh no, I hope he doesn’t hurt me” is operating in an external locus of control where outside forces determine his/her fate. Conversely, a person who thinks, “Oh no you don’t! Come any closer and I’ll put you down!” is operating from an internal locus of control where he or she controls the outcome of the conflict.

What does this all mean? If we can train in Krav Maga to operate from an internal locus of control, and we can also learn to shift our self-talk (and our default setting) to a competitive perspective in all manner of things (even situations others perceive as threats), we will very likely benefit from a powerful boost of mental toughness and the corresponding increase in performance by managing arousal control and the effects on our minds, bodies and overall performance.

Key take-away: change the way you train (and self-talk) to reflect the idea of a “challenge” in how you approach high stress drills and danger in and of itself, think about your level of control in your life as predominate and you’ll find more mental toughness and higher overall performance in every aspect of your life.

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  1. Cary Michael Cox

    One of your best articles yet – love the change in mindset – not just for Krav/Self-Defense applies to work and sports as well.

    Thanks for sharing!