This post is part of the Basic Training series. In this series, I lay out a roadmap to success for the armed citizen seeking tactical training.
Basic Training: Where Do I Start?
Basic Training: Get Your Priorities Straight
Basic Training: Get Your Mind Right
Basic Training: Harden Your Body (Part 1)
Basic Training: Harden Your Body (Part 2)
Basic Training: Tactical not Tacticool
Basic Training: Become Technically Proficient
In my previous Basic Training post, Get Your Priorities Straight, I outlined what I see as the five most important aspects of your survival. The first one on that list was mental fitness, also known as mindset by many.
Here is the bottom line up front: Your mental fitness is the single most important component in your survival. It is the foundation – the base upon which your survival rests. Hesitation and weakness kill faster than a bullet or blade, sapping your very will to fight – to live – long before the physical battle ever takes place. Without a strong mind and a will to succeed, all other efforts you put forward are wasted.
What is Mental Fitness, and What Kind of Mindset is Required?
So what exactly do I mean by “mental fitness” or “mindset”? I guess that the best way I can explain it is to say that I’m talking about your overall mental state. It’s more than just your attitude, though attitude is definitely a part of mindset. A mentally fit person has developed a state of mind that allows him to succeed despite the circumstances that surround him: he’s resilient, and he bounces back from tragedies, disappointments, and setbacks; he’s focused, and he can continue to perform when everything is going sideways; he’s determined and willing to go as far as needed to complete the mission.
A platitude in the gun culture is that you need a combat mindset. I suppose that is technically true; obviously you have to be prepared for a fight and all the bloody, dirty, brutal, exhausting things that go with it. But I’m going to focus on a different type of mindset that is broader and more encompassing than something specifically concerned with fighting. I think that what you really need is a winning mindset. The will to thrive and excel will get you so much farther than the will to just merely survive.
Mental Fitness Requires Effort
There is a huge difference in a gun owner and an Armed Citizen. One of those two people decided to spend some money on an object, and the other made the decision to invest sweat equity in bettering himself. As Coach Bobby Knight famously said:
The key is not the will to win… everybody has that. It is the will to prepare to win that is important.
Do you understand what Coach Knight was saying? Everybody can say that they have he will to win. But the reality is that you have to be willing to put in the work before game day if you want to be able to perform, and significantly fewer people actually are willing to do that. Something that really burns me up is when I hear some gun owner say stupid crap like:
- “Why do I need to run? I’ve got a gun.” (Said in reference to doing PT)
- “No, I’ve never had any training, but if something ever happens, I’ll know what to do.”
- “Well I may have never done any martial arts, but if somebody ever tries to hurt me then my killer instinct will kick in and I’ll take ’em out.”
- “I don’t need training; I’m good enough. I have my permit, and I shoot IDPA.”
- “I’m already trained; I went to boot camp when I was in the military.”
See, when somebody says one of those ridiculous things, I know that it’s code for “I’m too lazy/arrogant/foolish to actually do any kind of training, but I’m just going to act like I’m some kind of bad dude.”
Here’s the truth of the matter: if you don’t have the mental toughness, discipline, or drive to endure discomfort in training, then you don’t have the mental toughness, discipline, or drive to win a real knock-down, drag-out fight against a determined opponent.
Seriously: how do you know that you’ll break bad instead of just breaking down when somebody lands a hard right hook across your temple if you’ve never gotten in the ring and mixed it up? How do you know that you’ll pull out all the stops in a fight when you’ve never pulled out all the stops in a 300-yard shuttle run? How do you even know what you’re capable of if you’ve never tested your capabilities? It’s basically mental masturbation; you’re telling yourself something so that you feel good. But it’s a lie.
It’s time to stop making excuses and start making gains. If this guy can train, then you can too:
A key component of a winning mindset is mental toughness. As human beings, we are creatures of habit and comfort. As a group, we tend to be pretty easygoing as long as we have food to eat and a warm, dry place to sleep. We like to remain in our comfort zone and not rock the boat too much. When we’re tired, hungry, cold, hot, or in pain, we tend to make decisions aimed at getting rid of those conditions.
That crap is weak.
You need to come to grips with reality right now: your pain and discomfort from those outside circumstances are all just in your head. The mind will always give up before the body is actually finished. General George S. Patton Jr. was a fire-breathing, warfighting, man’s man and here’s what he had to say about how your mindset can affect your physical state:
“Now if you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired. When you were younger the mind could make you dance all night, and the body was never tired… You’ve always got to make the mind take over and keep going.”
In my opinion, the absolute best way to improve your mental toughness is to get out of your comfort zone. Survival classes, spending time in the field being hot/cold/dirty/sweaty/sleep-deprived, and sparring or doing force-on-force training are great for getting you out of your comfort zone. Heck, just doing some backpacking/tent-camping or signing up for some kind of class on something you have no experience with (not necessarily a fighting-related class) are great places to start making yourself uncomfortable. Having to endure all these discomforts and still push through will make you realize that all pain and discomfort is just temporary. You can do more than you think.
Working on your mental toughness in this way also yields another huge benefit: stress inoculation. Just like how controlled exposure to weakened or dead bacteria will cause the body to build up resistance against it, controlled exposure to stress in training will cause the mind to build up a resistance to real stress encountered in life-and-death scenarios. This is a crucial component of learning to function in the extremely stressful environments in which real fights take place. Force-on-force training is especially effective for this.
Just like Old Blood and Guts said above, if you want to win, then you need to master yourself. The Apostle Paul even wrote about this in his letter to the Corinthians: “But I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor 9.27) This very concept, that the mind has to be the master and the body must be the slave, is the next component of a winning mindset, and it’s called discipline.
The need for discipline is exactly why Marine Corps recruits spend 13 weeks in basic training at Parris Island. I can tell you from personal experience that the training at boot camp doesn’t turn a sloppy kid into a highly-trained killing machine. No, the goal of boot camp is to turn a sloppy kid into a disciplined kid who can then go on to learn the skills he needs at his additional training.
Discipline is pretty closely tied to mental toughness in that it involves performing while uncomfortable. The difference is that whereas mental toughness primarily refers to shrugging off stress, pain, and discomfort put on you from the outside, discipline is all about mastering the battle that goes on within your own mind. In other words, discipline is all about self-control.
In my opinion, the single best way to improve your discipline is to work on your physical fitness. Think about it: everything within the human mind wants to take it easy and be comfortable. Delaying gratification is one of the hardest things for anybody to do. Forcing yourself to get up every single day and go through the discomfort of exercise as well as denying yourself your favorite delicious junk food so that you will be stronger and healthier in the future takes a lot of discipline.
There are other steps to take to improve discipline, too. You have to understand that at its core, discipline is a habit. So take control of your habits to build discipline in your life: start getting up and going to sleep at set times, carve out dedicated time during the day to read or pray, make a point of cleaning up and getting dressed every morning instead of hanging out in your sleep clothes on the couch all day. You’ll start to find after a while that as you take control of of your habits, your discipline will extend to other areas of your life, as well.
A Cause Worth Fighting For
The last component of the winning mindset, as I see it, is to have a cause worth fighting for. Nobody, no matter how mentally tough or well-disciplined, will endure pain for nothing. Why take the hard road when the easy road gets you what you want? Ultimately, someday, if you don’t truly believe in what you’re doing, you will stop putting forth the effort. Have you ever heard the “true believer” meme? Here it is, in case you haven’t:
Somewhere a True Believer is training to kill you. He is training with minimum food or water, in austere conditions, day and night. The only thing clean on him is his weapon. He doesn’t worry about what workout to do—-his rucksack weighs what it weighs, and he runs until the enemy stops chasing him. The True Believer doesn’t care ‘how hard it is’; he knows he either wins or he dies. He doesn’t go home at 1700; he is home. He knows only the ‘Cause.’ Now, who wants to quit?
Having a cause worth fighting for is HUGE – it’s quite possibly the most important aspect of having a winning mindset. It comes up a lot when our students mention something about not thinking that they would be able to take a life if it became necessary. A lot of times this problem is framed in the context of the question, “What makes my life more important than theirs?” I tend to think that a lot of this problem comes from our society’s emphasis on handed-out self esteem over genuine self respect developed through legitimate accomplishments. The evil of moral relativism also plays a huge part, as well.
Maybe you think that your life isn’t really worth fighting for. Maybe you think that you’re not even capable of fighting for yourself. Well if nobody has ever told you this, then allow me: You are worth fighting for. You are valuable, and you are loved by God if nobody else. I’m a Christian, and it informs a lot of my mindset. I believe that all life is valuable, and that is why I’m willing to fight. Whether you’re a Christian or not, consider some of the following verses, and think about the implications of them:
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Genesis 1:27
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” Jeremiah 1:5
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
Think about that: you were created in the image of the almighty Creator of the universe, He knew you before you were born, and He loved you so much that He died for you. That is who you are, and that is how much you are worth. Don’t throw that away. Even if you’re not a Christian and have no desire to become one, you can grasp the message there, right? The message that your life is precious and there are those out there who would die for you. Don’t cause them to have to do that.
And don’t think that because I just spent a few paragraphs writing about how you are worth fighting for that you can’t pick another cause to believe in. I start with the idea that you are worth fighting for because for most people, that one is easy to grasp. There are plenty of other things worth fighting for, though.
If you have a family, then you need to understand that they depend on you in some form or another. To allow yourself to lay down and die when you have a family depending on you is unacceptable. Think of them; think of what they mean to you. How will you provide for them if you’re out of the picture?
Maybe for you the cause is something else besides the value of human life or your family. Maybe it’s God, Country, or Corps. Heck, maybe it’s your dog Mr. Muggles who won’t have you around if you kick the bucket. I don’t know what your cause is going to be, but you need to figure it out and decide right now what you believe is worth fighting for. Burn it into your mind, and let it drive you forward. Because one day when your world is going to hell and it looks like there’s no way out, you’re going to need something to push you through.
The Bottom Line
I have a lot more to say about developing mindset, way too much to cram into this already too-long article. All I did here was show you the tip of the iceberg to hopefully help you understand the importance of mental fitness to your survival and give you some ideas on how to start developing it. There are a lot more things to talk about when it comes to mindset, but let me restate what I said at the beginning: Your mental fitness is the single most important component in your survival. Without an appropriate mindset, everything else you do as an Armed Citizen is pointless.
Maybe you have some soul-searching to do after reading this. Maybe some of the stuff I said was a gut check for you, maybe it even offended you. Good. If it touched a nerve, then obviously it got through at some level. Regardless of your reaction to this post, just understand that everyone can benefit from increasing their mental fitness.
Better get started.