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On Fighting Spirit and The Will to Survive

What do Nashali Alma and Kelly Herron have in common?

They both defended themselves against a man who attacked them.

Neither were trained in a martial art or had a weapon (Kelly had taken a self defense class three weeks prior). But both had an indomitable will to survive. Both had fighting spirit. And fighting spirit is one of the most powerful survival tools a person has.

But why? How can an intangible like ‘will’ or ‘spirit’ overcome tangibles like size and strength? Because victory starts in the mind. Believing that you can survive is the basis for survival. And believing that you will be defeated is the basis for defeat.

The remedy to the unpredictable is the intangible.

In self defense there are no guarantees. There will always be an unpredictable element, even for the most trained fighter. No matter how many techniques you master or how well rounded a fighter you are, there will still be an unpredictable element. And you cannot remedy the unpredictable with a plan. You remedy the unpredictable with a mindset.

Itzik Zur, Ph.D writes: “Fighting Spirit is a concept that describes the mental state in which a person is prepared to cope with a challenging situation and does not shy away from the difficulties they face, even when the odds are against them."

"— Fighting Spirit is a supreme and revered expression of the human soul’s ability to overcome, transcend, and attain the unattainable.”

The person who's told that they have 3 months to live with no chance of survival yet fully recovers from cancer has fighting spirit. The fighter who's been dominated for 4 rounds but pulls off a finish in the fifth has fighting spirit. The woman who refuses to give up fighting off her attacker when he's bigger and stronger has fighting spirit. Fighting spirit makes the unattainable attainable.

In self defense, nothing is guaranteed for the defender, but nothing is guaranteed for the attacker either. This part is so often left out of the conversation. We tend to only consider that the attacker is a threat to us, and forget the fact that we are also a threat to the attacker.

We’re a threat to their freedom. Their family. Their social fabric. Their job. Their life. Because if they make a mistake they risk losing all of that. That's often more important to a rational actor (not all attackers are rational actors) than any specific attack. Fear of getting caught is their weakness.

That’s why this grown man fled from a small child after a few seconds of resistance. That’s why another grown man fled from a child after one scream. It's obviously not because the attacker feared losing a physical match— it's because they feared getting caught by taking longer than they originally anticipated.

The spirit of resistance is the basis for survival. In a 10 year study on attempted abductions, NCEMC found that "83% of children who escaped their would-be abductors did something proactive. They walked/ran away, yelled, kicked, or pulled away. This means the best thing a child can do if someone tries to abduct them is take action instead of being passive or polite." - National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children

So whats the point?

The point is that fighting spirit matters. But you can’t develop fighting spirit if you don’t believe that you can survive. I hope that by sharing real stories of women and children who succeeded in surviving an attack against a man, that you'll see that it's possible for you too.

Because if you listen to ignorant comments like “well he wasn’t really trying”, “a woman could never beat a man”, or even.. “The only way to defend yourself is years and years of training and then maybe you have a chance”..

Then you'll be misguided into the belief that you have no chance from people who don't know and don't care.

That’s an extremely harmful lie.

You always have a chance. The only possible way to increase that chance is if you believe you can survive, and then do everything in your power to do so.

Survival is the objective. Not winning. It’s not a UFC fight. You most likely won’t be defending a trained fighter either. You don’t have to destroy them, you just have to destroy their willingness to engage (or to keep engaging). Your goal isn't to over-power but out-last. And that’s entirely possible, as proven by Nashali and Kelly and so many others.

Combat skills significantly improve your fighting ability. But the basis of survival is fighting spirit. Don't be fooled into thinking that if you don't have the former, you're crap out of luck.

Thank you to all the women who've showed us that it's possible.

Nashali Alma in Women's Health Mag >

Kelly Herron in People Magazine >


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Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight.

Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives. Learn about our programs >

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