Strength; it’s not what you think it is – the role of mental and physical strength

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The mat is a very specific realm where strength seems to be an obvious quality. Strength is visible, it’s advantageous, and it helps you to win. Overall, it’s, indeed, what we expect it to be: synonymous with physical strength.

It can be an eye-opening experience, however, to see champions struggle to deal with everyday life where physical strength has less use. Witnessing how they get confused when someone wants to confuse them, get upset when someone wants to upset them, or get insecure when someone wants to belittle them is difficult. It brings into question everything about strength that seemed so obvious on the mat.

What IS strength?

Strength, at its core, can be translated into integrity [1].

Safety starts with maintaining our boundaries against external pressure and defending an attack when it’s still just an attempt. Physical strength, off of the mat, is only relevant at the very last stage of self-defence, when all boundaries have been broken by the pusher and nothing is left for us to protect ourselves with but physical strength. Therefore, there’s a clear correlation between a lack of mental strength and the need for physical strength (which can lead to another topic to explore later).

When mental toughness is lacking, conflict is in the corner

Every single interaction starts in the mental realm; we get in touch with people’s brains first. This is where most of the battle is fought and, thereby, won or lost.

We constantly interact with other adults who try to feed their nest, seeing us as a source of help (which can vary from attention to money and opportunities). In the civilised world, others will try to lower our emotional guard or play with our social circle to get their way. These mental battles are constant and could span from a few interactions to several years of emotional push and pull.

Here are a couple of common examples:

  • the colleague who asked you to review some of their work and got so far that you do half of their job;
  • the friend who borrowed your car for a couple of weekends until it’s like his own car and you have to ask to use it;
  • the training buddy who questioned your support so smartly that you keep serving them materials, links, training spots, etc.;
  • the nurse who explained you don’t need treatment, that it’s you who created your issues and so it’s you who should solve them instead of her.

The list is endless. All these battles are about making you take on as much as possible to make others’ lives easier.

Life is extremely dangerous without mental toughness

When we lack mental strength (or mental toughness), we’re prone to lose these mental battles, one round after another, allowing the pusher to get closer and closer. Standing up against this exploitation when the physical exchange happens—be it free work, borrowing money, or a holiday shift—is the very last minute. It’s like standing in front of a freight train with a straight arm out to stop it: it can turn into a dangerous situation easily. The earlier we shut them out, the safer we are.

Beyond a certain point, it’s likely that only physical means will be left to stop the exploitation, which comes with physical danger.

the battles of the mental arena

Let’s look at a real-life scenario showing the several rounds of mental battles that are lost before the actual exploitation, the physical action, takes place:

  • I walk down the street. Someone approaches me, talking fast, showing distress…
  • I stop. The first round is lost. He managed to change my route and divert me from my original plan.
  • He talks about his wife trying to pick up the kids, but the parking ticket is expired. They can’t drive out without buying another ticket, but they have no cash; their card is in the car, and the car is in the parking lot. He builds a scenario in which he seems helpless.
  • I listen to his story. The second round is lost. He’s got my focus. His story is in my brain, and he’s feeling more and more embedded in my psyche. And so, he becomes confident to proceed.
  • He begs for money so that he can pick up his kid.
  • I go to take out cash. The third round is lost. He controls my actions. He made me go the extra mile to give him what he wants. He’s the puppet master now.
  • He promises to leave his phone with me until he gives the money to his wife, changing his story to calling his wife to pick him up.
  • I don’t comment on the conflicting story, despite starting to worry that I might be scammed. The fourth round is lost. He knows he can say anything and I won’t argue because I’m confused and insecure.
  • He asks for the money he now knows is in my pocket.
  • I hesitate but give it to him. The fifth round, the physical round and the actual exchange, is lost. If I say no at this point, he will get physical with me. Unless I have the muscle to back myself up, I shouldn’t start defending myself at this point, as denying payment when the predator already has full control will likely trigger a physical fight, and I don’t know what he might pull out of his pocket (by now it’s clear that he’s prepared).

Four rounds were lost in the mental realm before the actual exploitation took place. Any of them is safer to stop the exploitation then trying something in the physical realm. The earlier the round, the safer you are to deny access to your resources.

Possible Causes of mental weakness

The critical question is, what could makes someone have the kind of weak mental defence I had in the example scenario? (Mind you, I realised that starting the fight in the fifth round would be dangerous, so the example shows good a basic understanding to build mental defences on.)

  • Personal complex—the single most common and most dominant component that causes fragile or missing boundaries. A personal complex comes with a lot of self-questioning, which is an open door for any pusher to walk in. The ingredients of a person’s complex are very personal, but amongst those with weak mental defences, anxiety, insecurity, and depression are very common.

  • Immaturity—not realizing just yet that resources are scarce and can be actively preyed upon. The workplace is not a kindergarten, companies buy labour there; dojos are not funfairs, fighters learn to take others down there; and parties are not rose gardens, people go there to put themselves in a better position than the rest of the attendees. You can find friends everywhere, but being a friend is not the baseline of most interactions.

  • Lack of role models—losing a parent or parents early in life or having limited time with them makes it hard to copy effective defence mechanisms. Sometimes, the parents themselves struggled to show boundaries or what was copied was not effective in the new environment you found yourself in [2]. Mentors, who could be parental substitutes to a certain extent, usually come from the local environment, which can be limiting as well.

  • Lack of emotional control—nothing makes an otherwise composed adult more vulnerable than losing their rational judgment (and with that, their integrity) due to an emotional charge [3]. The incredible impact it has and the physiology behind it are discussed in detail in the Brain and Combat tournament preparation series. To be fair, control comes and goes. Under stress, it mostly goes.

One thing is certain: the stronger your mind is, the safer your life is. If you want success on and off the mat, the definition of strength needs to be expanded into both mental and physical toughness because, just as in the above example, four of the five rounds of a battle are won or lost in the mental realm. That’s where toughness needs to be cultivated to stay intact and ensure physical safety is achieved as well.


References

  1. Literature review on mental toughness and the way to cultivate it
  2. Literature review on the human belief system – The science of belief
  3. Literature review on emotional resilience (known as emotional control) and the methods to consolidate it

About the author

Ydus

MSc (Hons) Life sciences, PC Cognitive psychology, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu