What is fighting spirit? Most people agree that it is important. We can see if somebody possesses fighting spirit or not. Fighting spirit seems to be ubiquitous. We all know what fighting spirit is. Until we are being asked for an explanation.
When I started competing in the early 1980´s I heard a well-known German coach explaining to one of his students: “You lost the fight because your opponent had more fighting spirit”. I knew exactly what he meant. Even though I was rather inexperienced as a competitor I clearly saw that the other fighter wanted it a little bit more. But what exactly was this karate expert saying? Is fighting spirit something one has and somebody else does not?
Later as a black belt II understood that there is still a lot to learn. So, I went to many seminars. With all the big names. Unfortunately, fighting spirit never really became a topic in our discussions. Many of the well-known instructors would mention that fighting spirit was the most important thing for a fighter. I believed them. However, it never went beyond these one-liners. Thus, I researched in fields like psychology, education, neuro science, philosophy, and sport sciences. Being a sport scientist myself I came up with the following idea: Fighting spirit can be understood just like fitness.
Fitness is a complex and very balanced combination of a variety of skills like power, speed, endurance, strength, agility, and others more. We only speak of fitness, if all those virtues are being established at a decent level. The same applies to fighting spirit. To illustrated that I have created the fighting spirit puzzle. In this puzzle, all parts are interconnected . Together they constitute our fighting spirit.
The fighting spirit puzzle has six parts: self-confidence, persistence, determination, control, risk-taking, and competitiveness. This analytical puzzle helps us to to target specific weaknesses in us. It enables us to reach specific goals. Like in fitness, when we want to increase our speed, we need to work on our maximum strength, do plyometric drills, and practice a specific number of karate techniques at maximum speed. When it comes to fighting spirit we would apply the same principles. We would train a specific part in order to increase our fighting spirit.
But what are the different elements of the puzzle? The first element is our self-confidence. Self-confidence is a central part of fighting spirit. Self-confidence is a positive feeling, it increases our self-esteem. Self-confidence is based on our skills and our positive experiences with challenges. That means, we have self-confidence in a certain area, whereas in others we might lack self-confidence. Think, for example, that you as a Karate expert teaches a Karate class. You have the skills, the experience, and hence the self-confidence to teach a successful and exciting class. But than you need to talk about Karate. In front of strangers, hundreds of them.. This is still the same topic, but a different setting. As a result, your confidence might be low. That is why, it is so important, to always implement specific training impulses for specific goals. You cannot increase your self-confidence for a self-defense situation by signing-up for a kata seminar.
The second elements persistence. With persistence I understand the virtue of standing your ground when under pressure from outside. Pressure from outside can come in all different forms: a strong opponent in a fight, a mean boss, an important test, but also pain. While we don’t have much influence on the things that hit us from the outside, we can consider the way we look at them. We can change our perspective. We can look for weaknesses in an opponent. We can take lessons from peers who went through the same challenge. Over time, we will get used to all kinds of pain. In doing so, we will reduce the pressure and the stress that comes with it. We will be able to deal with a challenge or threat.
The third element is determination. It is the skill to set a goal and then motivating oneself to reachit. No matter what is being thrown at us. Somebody determined will always be first in class or practice and the last one to leave. She focuses on the possibilities and not on the problems. If she is not satisfied with a situation, she will change it.
Control is the next element of the fighting spirit puzzle. With control I allude to the control over our feelings. The understanding that showing ones’ emotions is a sign of weakness and will not help us reaching our goals. Keeping our emotions under control in times of pressure, stress, and anxiety is an important aspect of a grown-up Karateka and of fighting spirit.
Taking risk is another element of the puzzle. We live in a society where taking risks is considered something to be avoided. But in order to progress as fighters and as human beings we need to take risks. As Karateka, if we go into a Kumite class and we do not feel butterflies in our stomach, we probably will not progress much as a fighter.
Competitiveness is the last element of our fighting spirit puzzle. It is closely related to risk taking. But as Karateka it includes an opponent. It makes a challenge more dynamic. For instance, if we want to increase our fighting skills, we need to fight in class. The less rules we implement the more dynamic a situation will get. It becomes more realistic. Every interaction will be different, always changing. Every interaction will be a challenge. If we find the strength to always seek out stronger opponents, we will eventually get stronger, mentally and physically.
How do we train these elements? Let us assume that we are Karate teachers and there are two young fighters particularly promising. But both do not get the results everybody is expecting from them. Both are in their early 20s. One of them has been cruising through the junior divisions, winning tournament after tournament. He was a talent from the start, picked up techniques and concepts easily, never needed much practice. Even older Karateka respected his talent. When he was entering the senior division (over the age of 21) though, things did not go quite as smoothly anymore. He started losing, often losing against obviously less talented fighters. Eventually, he was often injured or sick, especially before competitions. The other fighter has also been successful, but not quite as impressive. He never actually won a tournament but placed second or third a few times. When he is in regular class things look very different though. There is almost nobody who can keep up with him in the Dojo. Nobody practices harder and more often than he does. Everybody is wondering, why is he not fighting in competitions the way he is in practice?
So, we have two young Karateka who do not show the results they could. The causes for that differ . That also means that the way to deal with those fighters needs to be different. The traditional way of treating them the same way, often by simply increasing the number of repetitions, will help neither of them.
The first Karateka draws his confidence from the fact that he is talented, genetically superior. But when he enters the grown-up division, talent becomes secondary. Now quantity becomes a force to reckon with. As a result, we need to explain our student that he will have to step up the number of weekly training hours he puts into Karate. He needs to understand the relation between training hours and competition results. We will need to help him motivating himself by pointing out the benefits of a life as a competitor, fame, trophies, maybe even money. Once he is ready, we will have to teach him about the really important things in life and how success in competition can help to achieve them. This Karateka needs to work on his determination.
The second Karateka does not need to practice more often. He already practices enough. With him we need to work on stress management. We need to help him understand why it is he is not delivering. If he is showing world class skills in the dojo but keeps on losing the important bouts, then there is something putting too much pressure on him. This pressure results into too much stress. Stress he is not able to cope with. So, we need to find the stressor, the coach, the parents, peers, audience, or a combination of the above. The first step is to accept the fact that it is this stressor and his inability to deal with it that is holding him back. Then we need to set-up a training program to help managing his anxiety. For instance, with meditation, with visualization, with writing about his anxiety, or/and with practices where he will progressively face his daemons. This Karateka needs to work on his persistence.
Fighting spirit is a very complex concept. By breaking it down into different elements, the whole issue becomes understandable and manageable. We are now able to set-up a specific program for a specific problem or goal. Just as we do with fitness. If we don’t set specific training goals and address those with specific training measures, then Karate training is no more than a lottery. A hit and miss situation. As Karateka we are surely aiming for more.