Jeet Kune Do Blog

Insights from Sifu Joel Ledlow

Mental Fortitude

Mental Fortitude

fight not only with the body, and not only with your mind, but with your entire spirit."

There are a lot of things that you need when fighting against someone else. Mental fortitude is one of them, what is often referred to as "fighting spirit". That ability to apply while under stress. When you're faced with an opponent who is determined to hurt you, possibly kill you, then you must fight with everything.

Yes, you need to be in the best physical condition you can. Yes, you need to know and apply tactics to overcome your opponent. But it all comes down to that fighting spirit. That determination to overcome adversity. To endure so that you can succeed. Mental fortitude is often the deciding factor. This is readily seen in sports when underdogs win.

When I was in high school, I wrestled. I was pretty good. Not the best, but I'd put me in the top 10%. (The top 1% are on a whole different level!)

There were more than a few times where I could barely hold the pen to sign a winner's card at a tournament, because I'd held onto a grip with everything I had until the end of the match.

At a tournament, one time, I was matched up against this tough kid from another school. I went down to the gym floor beside the mats and started going through my pre-match warm up. Loosening up my muscles and getting my body ready to perform at its best. Getting my head into the right frame for the upcoming match.  Our match was coming up in a matter of minutes. In tournaments, there were multiple mats with matches going on at the same time. A kid could get pinned (ending the match) and then you were up super quick. Almost every kid got themselves ready well in advance because of this. A match was three 2-minute periods with a one minute rest between. Eight minutes. But it could be over in thirty seconds. So I was getting ready. A lot of other kids were too.

Then I looked up into the stands. There I saw the kid I was going to wrestle. He was sitting with his girlfriend. Relaxing.

And in that moment, I knew I was going to win. I KNEW. He wasn't going to be ready for me. He wasn't getting himself ready physically or mentally. I was. I saw that I could win. I had that confidence that I could win. And I did win. He was tough, but I went after him, knowing that he couldn't beat me. He didn't have what it took to beat me in this match. And I won. A large part of that was my mental fortitude. It was stronger than his. I was able to more fully apply myself during the match than he was.  I didn't understand it in those terms back then.

I was on the other end of that sometimes too, but not too often.

There was another time when I had a kid in a guillotine, or cross body lock. See the picture for the blog? That's me putting someone in a guillotine. Yeah, it's pretty brutal if you lock someone up like that. Not the opponent for this story, but a good example of what I did to other wrestlers. I used to figure-four the leg to give me even more torque. Sort of like a python. And I worked kind of like that too. I'd sink the leg in, break a kid down flat, then work my hand into his arm. At this point it was more about time. If I had the time, I'd get that arm over my head and reach back to get them in a headlock. Then I'd slowly adjust them deeper into the lock. Yeah, it really was like a python now that I describe it.

Most times, I could lock you up even if you knew about it. It was my signature move.

So, I had an opponent in a guillotine and was twisting him up hard. I was going for the pin. That would end the match with a win for me.

Here's the thing. It's actually pretty difficult to pin (get both shoulder blades flat on the mat) someone with a guillotine. That is, if they can endure. If they can go beyond the temporary pain. But, I was really good at making people give up. I was methodical in applying the lock. If I got the leg in, it was just like a python getting a bite. I would coil myself around them and squeeze.

The guillotine was more about breaking the opponent's spirit than his body. When you broke his spirit, a wrestler would put his shoulder down. He might not even know he was doing it. Or he might just not resist so much and that shoulder would go down. I was trying to pin him after all. Whatever way it happened, it happened because I'd broken the kid's spirit.

Quick note: Girls wrestling was a VERY rare thing back when I was wrestling. I never wrestled a girl. It's actually one of the cool things about grappling arts like Judo and BJJ, that they include everyone. Wrestling does a better job of it now too, but still not on the same level. But that's why I use "he".

If I got the lock on an opponent in the first or second period, I'd crank. Oh, I'd go for the pin, but I wouldn't worry about it. I don't think I ever lost a match where I managed to get my opponent in a guillotine for a decent chunk of time. Because it allowed me to break their spirit. Even if they didn't get pinned, they were already defeated. They were like the kid I mentioned early, their head and heart just weren't into it. Each squeeze took them further out of the fight, and it put me that much more into it. My resolve sharpened as I moved closer to victory. They began to just want the match to be over. They wanted an exit. When they got to this point, that shoulder would go down for the pin.

During one such time where I was methodically applying this spirit-breaking lock on my opponent, he groaned. I was cranking on him! I was rather good at applying this lock, as I mentioned, and it obviously hurt a good deal. The referee, being a nice guy, said to me "easy, easy". To which, I opened my hands (I still had the kid locked enough that he wasn't going anywhere) and looked this grown man squarely in the eyes and retorted, "What?!" He couldn't say anything, because I hadn't done anything illegal. The lock was perfectly legal and the cranking and squeezing was all part of the match. With no further argument from the referee, I locked my hands back together and cranked!

SNAP, the kid's spirit was broken with the clasping of my hands. There would be no respite for him. He put his shoulder down. The referee put him out of his misery by blowing the whistle and slapping the mat for the pin. I won.

Years later, I would use mental fortitude to dominate the spirits of others while working in Hollywood as a bouncer. I worked security at various places for 7 years, moving up through the ranks quickly. Before and during that time, was a lot of martial training. A lot.

Most people want to have a good time. And if things go sideways, they'll take an exit if you give them one. I was good at doing this. I was a "nice guy". I wasn't the big, hulking brute. I didn't look all that threatening, but I was almost always the most capable on the team. I was approachable and well-spoken. People liked me.

When an altercation came up, I would insert myself into the situation and give all parties an "exit". Verbally, if possible. Physically, if necessary. If they chose to not take said exit, then I would do what we called "alpha dogging". This is just what it sounds like. You showed that you were the "alpha" in the group, or pack. It might be with words, it might be with body language, or it might be with hands on. And often a combination of all.

I never "lost" in any altercation at work, but there were definitely a few times where things could have gone better. Luck, help from others, and preparation all played their parts in my success.

In my earlier years, there was a fight that broke out at the end of the night. The place I was working was quieter during last call, so closing for us was normally pretty mellow. This night wasn't normal.

I was at the end of the bar, near the front door, when the manager yelled. I look up to see three guys attacking our bartender. I sprint down and tackle the main culprit. At the time, I was doing a lot of sport training. And as you have already guessed, I have a grappling background. Well, I went straight up wrestling/BJJ on the guy and took him down smoothly then transitioned into a rear naked choke in moments. Then I counted him out as I choked him unconscious. That was to ensure I didn't give him brain damage! It also helps others know you aren't trying to kill a person.

So, here's where this wasn't the best night. And where I got lucky. REALLY lucky. Had some help, and where my training and outlook made a massive shift.

While I was choking out guy #1, his buddy, guy #2, was trying to pull me off. There were a few other people involved here. None of them were bouncers, but I was sure glad they were there! A regular patron and one of the bus boys were helping out in addition to the bartender, who was at the center of things from the get go. A little help can go a long way. Guy #2 could have grabbed an empty bottle off a table and smashed it over my head. They don't shatter like what you see in the movies. Or he could have just kicked me in the head. Either way, I'd be in a bad way. Luckily, he didn't do either.

I got off guy #1 (who I'd choked out) and tried to calm guy #2 down. I was trying to de-escalate the situation. Get everyone home. Guy #2 and guy #3, weren't having it.

The bartender had jumped on guy #1 and was holding him on the ground where I'd choked him out. He was starting to wake up. Just as guy #3 stepped forward to start kicking at the bartender, guy #2 changed. He went from trying to reach past me to his friend to seeing me as an obstruction that he needed to remove. It was like a switch went off in his head. I should also point out that he was a bit bigger than me. And stronger. Which he immediately used upon this same realization.

Stand up grappling skills kicked into gear. My body and mind were shifting from sport to combat. Stabilize myself and go with guy #2's movements. Guy #3 kicking at the bartender? He got a back kick. I sent him flying. He hit a booth, landed on the ground, and then got up and limped away. (I kicked a heavy bag several days later with the same strength. Yeah, he had my shoe bruised into his torso.)

Guy #2 in front of me? He was mad and it was all directed at me. He was trying to physically bully me and take control. He was trying to be the alpha. I did go through several options before I hit him. I didn't want to maim or kill him!! I was thinking of some serious ways to hurt this guy. Quickly, I resolved on a solution. Then my mental fortitude focused sharply on guy #2 and how to apply my solution. I gave him a head butt to the face. Twice. His response? "Dude, what are you doing?" He seriously said that. I told a training partner, who also bounced, that part and he totally expected a different response too!

Shit! Change gears. Go, go, go!! A couple of knees to the thigh and a leg sweep.

Down he went. A wrist lock and flipped him face down. Then his arm then went behind his back, his fingers tickling his own ear, my knee in his hip, and I looked up to find a very large circle around us. Nobody wanted close.

I was the alpha.

My superior mental fortitude had allowed me to come through a difficult situation. And it was. That was probably the scariest altercation I was ever in. There very well could have been more danger in some other situations I was in over the years, but for me this felt like the most dangerous.

Early in my security career, I needed to pay bills like we all do, and a buddy had gotten me a job at a strip club. I don't recommend it. But, the money was good. One night, a "patron" didn't want to pay up after getting several lap dances. I was called over. The man, a well-to-do, middle-aged guy, sat there with a look on his face that said he thought he could get away with it. I leaned over to the guy and said, "There are three options." He listened, but was still sure of himself. "Number one, we can go to the ATM and you can pay what you owe." He listened. "Number two, we can call the police and they'll take you to jail, AND you'll still owe the money." There was still a chance I wouldn't call, and there was still a chance he wouldn't have to actually pay.

I waited for an answer.

The guy looked up at me. And....."What's number three?" he asked me. "Let's just focus on one and two," I answered. And done. He was broken. I walked him over, he got money from the ATM, he paid the dancer, and it was another night in the books. I was still alpha.

I ended up at this upscale place on Sunset Boulevard for several years. We wore suits to work. One time there was a fight that broke out while several celebrities were there after an award show. Yeah, it was that kind of place. So, I get the call and go charging up a flight of stairs to the patio where the fight is. And I run up to a wall of men. Seriously. It was like running up on an NFL line. I pulled up short. I mean, I'm not joking about their size. These guys were HUGE! Luckily, they weren't the issue. These were the security for the celebrities who were sitting on one side of the patio, and they were making a human wall between the fight on the other side and their clients. One of whom was singer Nelly, who watching and saying "Don't blame it on hip hop!"

It was a bunch of punk, white guys.  I waded into the fray, which was focused on two guys. I grabbed one guy around the neck and peeled him off the other guy he was pounding on. Then, while holding the one, I looked the other in the eye and said, "stay." And in that moment, he acknowledged me as the alpha. He stayed. The guy I pulled off had acknowledged me as alpha the instant I laid hands on him. I had given them both an "exit" and they both accepted it, spirits broken but happy to not be in that situation anymore.

I've done that to a few people. Yes, there is the application of skill to the situation, but a large part of that is the application of your mental fortitude, or mental dominance, to the situation.

The phycology isn't just about dominating another person. When people are in a crisis, and a fight is a crisis for your average person, they want someone to come in and take control. They want to give up their authority, because they don't have a solution to the problem they are facing. It's beyond them. It's seen every day with doctors, paramedics, and firefighters. These people step forward and apply their skills with confidence to a situation. We, acknowledge them as the alphas in those situations, because they have solutions and we don't.

So, I wasn't so much dominating other people as I was giving them a solution. The tough part is convincing them that your solution is better than theirs. That's where the spiritual fortitude came into it. You are using your body and your mind to come up with an "exit" for another person, but you had to stay in this volatile situation long enough to get them to defer to your authority. I was good at security, because I could sit there

Fighting on the street for your life is like all of these. You have to see your opportunity and have that confidence that you can win. You have to do what is needed in the moment and rise to you best potential. You need to take advantage of any help you can, using it to overcome. And sometimes, a "win" is messy and painful. It's the best you can do and it got you through the event.

Sometimes, your mental fortitude is only to get you through a crisis long enough so that you can relinquish your authority to someone else. Think of applying first aid until paramedics arrive. My mother-in-law actually did just that when my father-in-law had a heart attack. Her mental fortitude saved his life.

Life isn't so clear cut. We have to have mental fortitude to get through a crisis, but we also have to acknowledge when someone is giving us an "exit" out of situation that is beyond us.

Sometimes you're the alpha, and sometimes you're just a contributing member of the pack.