What Krav Maga and Powerlifting teaches us about building mental resilience.
Everyone has their own path towards achieving outcomes - this was and continues to be mine.
(This is a repost from my blog at jproz.coach/blog.)
Everyone has their own rock bottom.
It’s a dark and depressing place to land. Summertime last year, that’s where I found myself. I had emotionally flatlined – both personally and professionally – as a result of circumstances completely out of my control. At some point, life just punches you in the face. Whether you saw it coming or you were served a good ‘ol sucker punch, we are all handed a tough set of circumstances from time to time that leaves you wondering if you’ll ever see the light of day again.
That’s certainly how I felt; stuck in the trenches, depressed, feeling as if there were no way to dig myself out of the dark hole. Each day carried a level of resistance that made every moment feel heavy and arduous. No one ever asks to plummet down this ravine, yet it happens to many. Believe it or not, I think it’s important for everyone to experience their own crucible at some point or another; looking up the precipice offered me an opportunity to take away important life lessons. I’m aware of others that have experienced the same.
How did I trudge through muddy waters and climb my way back to the top – higher than I was when it started and more resilient? Two ways: building a mindset anchored in never being a victim, even to myself, and a recurring practice in identifying my weakness in the moment, and pushing past it. I could not do this alone, and so I sought out help for my body and mind. This help came in the form of doubling down on my Krav Maga practice and joining a powerlifting community. (I also began a meditation practice, which I will explore in another post in the future).
Krav-ma-what? If you’ve watched Batman, popular Netflix series, Jessica Jones, or the 2002 Jennifer Lopez thriller, Enough, you’ve seen a peek into the world of Krav Maga. And powerlifting? But you’re like 5’7” and in your 40s. Patience grasshopper…let me explain.
What is Krav Maga?
The best, simplest description I’ve seen so far comes from Tacticta’s (a Krav Maga school in Santa Clara, California) website: “Krav Maga (pronounced ‘krahv mahGAH’) is an effective, modern, and dynamic self-defense and fighting system. It is designed to be practical and intuitive for people of any age, shape, or size. The techniques expand on your natural instincts to develop skills quickly and effectively while enabling you to address attacks under any scenario. You will learn how to defend yourself and your loved ones while gaining increased awareness and instinctive reflexes. Krav Maga (“contact combat” in Hebrew) was developed in the 1950s, combining the most effective techniques and philosophy from various martial arts and fight training. It was originally taught to the Israeli Army, and instruction for civilians began in the late 70s. Multiple forms of Krav Maga continue today: civilian (self-defense), law enforcement (arrest or detain), and military.”
While it’s a fairly young system (relative to many martial arts and combat/self-defense systems out there), it’s been taught and used by organizations both public and private all over the world. Some argue it was the original mixed martial art as it was derived from a combination of other fighting systems, like judo, jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and boxing. The system also embraces a no-holds-barred mentality, which begins with de-escalation but then moves rapidly to using your body’s natural reaction to defend and counterattack simultaneously, aggressively targeting vulnerable areas. And above all else, all techniques must be effective regardless of your gender, build, or height.
What’s your point? My point is Krav is designed to ensure you are never a victim. Everything you learn in Krav is practical and applicable day one. It’s about taking a shitty situation and coming out on top, whether you are a professional law enforcement professional or simply a small teenager walking home from the train station. This mindset became very important to me as I began raising myself out of the hole. When the world hands you lemons, you make lemonade.
Attack the Attacker, even if the Attacker is yourself
A fundamental principle in Krav is the second you are attacked, you become the attacker — you are never the victim. If the inevitable happens and you’re attacked, then your job is to protect yourself by responding stronger and more aggressively than your attacker. If you find yourself in a vulnerable position, you simply change the position. Krav teaches you to maintain your cool and to be comfortable in uncomfortable situations. You learn how to face scary, vulnerable scenarios, dissect them, and ultimately conquer them with the simplest of shifts (both in mind and body).
Similarly, at some point or another in the business world, you will be ambushed, embarrassed, or abused. It could be something minute, like a customer leaving a negative product/service review on your Facebook page or a piece of code that just won’t work despite hours of trials. It could be something personal, such as a scathing 360 performance review. Or, it could be something incredibly disruptive, like losing several large, profitable accounts in a short period of time. The list of things that can and will set us off is almost endless.
Instead of retreating into victimhood, you need to protect yourself, your company, your customers, and your employees. It boils down to attitude, preparation, and practice in adopting the skills necessary to attack the attacker, even if that attacker is simply that asshole in your head telling you that you just aren’t good enough.
Bruises go away; learning is forever
Listen, you’re going to take a few hits, and it’s essential to be prepared for what that feels like. In my Krav Maga training at DogoKravMaga, Gustavo Desperatti, the owner and head instructor, regularly places us into sparring duos and trios requiring participants to quite literally feel what it’s like to be hit, trapped and thrown down. Imagine an assailant grabs you from behind while walking to your vehicle, puts a knife to your neck, and demands the keys. Despite knowing what to do, after practicing the defensive technique over and over again, the sheer experience of being grabbed and visceral feeling of a sharp object held to your neck can erase all that training in an instant. For many, it’s simply, “Here. Take the car.” But for others, who choose the other direction (and it is a choice), Krav’s sparring sessions are designed to reduce this initial shock through experience (in a safe environment). It’s all about anticipation and preparation. You can’t expect to win a fight if you’ve never experienced a punch to the gut. The physical pain is simply a momentary sensation and it removes any trepidation you may have about what life throws at you down the road. You become stronger and more resilient.
The same applies to planning and development in business. My role as an executive and leadership coach is to infuse my clients with the same level of preparedness. An unexpected hit won’t be debilitating if you continuously analyze and evaluate weak points; subsequently making preparations should you face an attack in the future. My goal is to show my clients how to avoid and deflect punches while making adequate arrangements for any bumps that may arise along the way. Remember, the small “punches” are not massive failures, they’re simply lessons bottled into small upsets (bruises) and can be used to catalyze explosive learning.
Being prepared and never being a victim is one thing, but growing beyond where you are today, that’s something else entirely, which brings us to powerlifting.
What is Powerlifting?
Powerlifting is a form of competitive weightlifting in which contestants attempt three types of lift (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press) in a set sequence to achieve a total lifted (in aggregate weight). The Conjugate Method, a type of training used at Westside Barbell, is arguably the best system to achieve this. Invented by Louie Simmons, it places a high priority on physical preparedness by tailoring a program specific to the individual. This is done through a series of movements varying the approach and accompanying accessory exercises to maximize effectiveness and efficiency towards the athlete’s goals.
More importantly, and according to Westside Barbell’s Burley Hawk, “By constantly identifying and attacking weakness, you are ensuring you are producing the strongest lifter you can, using the most efficient means. Your success is 100% dependent on your ability to identify your weakness, and make proper exercise selections.”
Breaking through barriers
This was the second important aspect of the mindset change that fueled my transformation. Using these powerlifts in a well-balanced strength training program leveraging the Conjugate method was and continues to be a means towards building and refining the ability to attack weakness not just in my body but in my mind as well, on a regular and consistent basis.
As stated, Powerlifting is a competitive sport, and to be clear, I am not a competitive powerlifter. However, when it comes to training like one, if I’m being honest, I learn something new about Life, the Universe and Everything every day (hopefully some of you will get the humor in my linked reference). The powerlifting program has forced me to adopt a growth mindset and showed me how to really effect change. Remember the hilarious Planet Fitness commercial, “I lift things up and put them down?” While the ad will make you chuckle, there’s a certain truth to that phrase. People often traipse around the gym, eyeballing some of the equipment, maybe picking a few curious items up – but at the end of the day, there will be a level of discouragement and dissatisfaction that comes with the inability to achieve your goals.
Ted O’Neil, the owner of Diablo Barbell, is my hero. His philosophy is simply that there is a solution for every problem. He extends this to his Diablos through the fundamental principle that every rep and every set is an opportunity to practice breaking through barriers and limiting beliefs. Oh, and their gym is also mirror-free. When I began powerlifting, I realized early on that Diablo is not just a gym, it’s a community of people who want the very best versions of themselves (physically, spiritually, and emotionally). As a Diablo, I don’t see it as a gym at all, despite lifting heavy things and putting them down; it’s truly a transformation center. When I asked Ted about this, he shared the following parable:
Let’s say you are struggling to smooth a turbulent relationship with your in-laws. However, you only see them 2, 3, maybe 4 times each year. That leaves you with a small handful of opportunities to shatter the barriers keeping you from enhancing these relationships. Or, at a minimal level, improve your own mindset to better deal with the friction. At Diablo, we train to break through barriers every rep and every set of workouts. We practice breaking through limiting beliefs, preventing us from moving forward, EVERY WORKOUT.
Ted continues with his sage wisdom in an interview with successful podcaster and member of Diablo Barbell, Jon Leon Guerrero: “We kind of stay stuck in ourselves, in our dogma, and in our story. And then we try to use willpower to grind through something or to exert some kind of a change, hoping that ultimately, something external is going to bump into us and our lives are going to be different, right?” Oh Ted – how did you know?
Change your story. You’re not going to make forward strides without changing your mindset and having the courage to step outside your comfort zone. You have to let go of past habits in order to see progression. As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Otherwise, what you were doing would already be working for you.
Bringing it together
aken together, Krav Maga and powerlifting helped me climb out of the ravine, providing me with some fantastic lessons about myself. They also led me down the path of becoming a formally trained executive coach – enabling me to truly share what my experience and training has taught me about building and growing people and teams.
In reality, if you are stuck at the bottom of a ravine, or you are just simply static and can’t seem to get past the wall in front of you, all you’re doing both personally and professionally is making excuses based on a chemical response in your brain. You can’t breathe. Your shoulders hurt. You can’t drive more product revenue. You’ll never meet that perfect partner. You can’t stop eating a donut every morning for breakfast. Your brain in these instances is working against you because it’s a catalog of all your past experiences. So, any type of “unknown” only feels impossible because your mind has no prior recorded footage of obtaining what you’re striving for and thus is filled with uncertainty.
Practicing Krav, along with the powerlifting process, doesn’t just physically alter your body, it’s a mental transformation as well. As Ted says, “… as a methodology, as opposed to something that you did, you now really hold the keys to the rest of your life. Because if you did that, in one place where you transform from a state of a to b, then you begin to come to realize that every problem does have a solution.”
Once you’ve proved that challenging yourself, stepping into the unknown, and putting in the hard work is the formula for metamorphosis, then you can replicate the process and apply it to every facet of your life. And over time, you’ll move closer and closer to what you set out to achieve while also building a sustainable level of resilience to life’s twists and turns.
A big component of succeeding also lies in being honest with yourself. Don’t confuse your reality with that of others. What you thought you couldn’t do, what you refused to accept — you discover you can. Reflect inwards and build your capabilities from there.
At this point, I’m thankful for the people and circumstances that caused me to fall down so hard that I could do nothing but to simply get myself back up. The lessons I’ve learned, the growth I’ve experienced, and the path I’ve discovered just would not have happened otherwise. And I am obviously super grateful to be a part of the communities that Diablo and Dogo provide.
Looking for someone in your corner? Let me know. And if you live in the San Francisco East Bay, check out Ted’s Diablo Barbell and Gustavo’s DogoKravMaga – maybe I’ll see you there.