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Mindset: The Cornerstone of Success in Martial Arts and Self Defense

All victory begins in the mind.

Every skill and every accomplishment begins with the same thing: belief. Through my 14 years of experience as a mixed martial artist and 5 years as a self defense instructor, I've noticed that the main component missing from otherwise great training is belief. We hear the buzzwords all the time: 'confidence', 'self-esteem', 'mental toughness', etc. While mostly used for instagram captions, these concepts are based on the same real idea: believing in yourself. And without that, expert training can be useless. You can get the best training in the world, read all the books, and have the coolest gear in the gym, but if you lack the belief that you will win the fight or survive the attack, it could all easily amount to nothing.

Julianna Pena beats Amanda Nunes by submission in second round
Julianna Pena beats Amanda Nunes by submission in second round

A great example of the power of belief is the recent "greatest upset in UFC history" when Julianna Pena defeated the unbeatable Amanda Nunes for the UFC bantamweight belt. Nobody anywhere thought Pena could win, she was even considered delusional for entering the cage with the GOAT. But Pena showed up after a year of hard training and complete conviction in herself. While Amanda, assumably bought into her own hype that she couldn't be beat (much like the Rousey/Holm upset) didn't train hard, and when she got hit, and got tired, her confidence collapsed.

It wasn't Nunes' skill (or lack of) that lead to her defeat. It was the loss of self belief that overpowered all skill and preparation.

In contrast, the self belief of Pena is where her triumph began. Without it, she would never have sought a fight against such a fearsome opponent, and she may have given up after losing the first round. But loss, odds, or 'expert' opinion didn't shake Penas' belief that she could win, so she did.

Belief is the cornerstone of success in all that we do. Therefore, mindset should be developed early on in a persons combat journey to maximize the effectiveness of physical training. In this post, I focus on the common 'mindset hurdles' that are most detrimental to students who seek to learn self defense.

"Your mindset is your primary weapon" -Jeff Cooper

The Four Greatest Mindset Hurdles

1. I am worth protecting.

Self-worth varies greatly among us. To some, it may seem obvious that you are worth protecting as a human being, but to others, it's not. Often this is the case with those who have experienced severe mental, physical, and/or emotional abuse or bullying. People with low self esteem, a bleak outlook of their future, who feel like not much matters. Low self-worth shows through body language, which indicates that a person is not likely to stand up for themselves or fight back. That's why, unfortunately, people with low self worth are one of the highest risk demographics for victimization and repeat victimization of bullying, abuse, human trafficking, and abduction. This is why self-worth is so crucial for the self defense mindset.

I don’t know who you are, or what you’ve been through, but no matter your past, you are absolutely worth protecting. You are worth standing up for. You are worth speaking up for. You are worth fighting for. You matter, regardless of how anyone treats you or whatever you’ve been through. Developing self worth is a journey, and I know it will take more than reading these words to accept this for some. But start by realizing that your value is not determined by anyone else, not by anything that’s happened to you, not by accomplishments, failures, or mistakes you’ve made, not by your looks or your bank account. It’s intrinsic, it’s in you, and it can never be taken from you. When you realize how valuable you truly are, protecting yourself becomes duty.

“Self defense is not just a set of techniques, it's a state of mind that begins with the belief that you are worth defending” -Rorion Gracie

2. I am responsible for protecting myself.

Speaking of duty, that brings us to our next mental roadblock, responsibility. You might be thinking, 'why should I have to learn self defense? People should just not attack me!' And of course, they shouldn’t. But unfortunately, there has never been a time in human history without bad people willing to harm others; and no science, society, or activist has ever figured out how to change that.

"It is up to the private citizen to protect himself and his family, this is not only acceptable, but mandatory" - Jeff Cooper

It’s not fair and it’s not our fault, but it is our responsibility to become our fiercest protector. We cannot control criminals, we cannot control society, we can only control ourselves, so we can only rely on ourselves.

It sucks that this is true. I wish that criminals would stop attacking and that guardians could always get to those in need of help on time. But I cannot control or change any of that. I can only control and change myself. Protection can only come from a personal conscious effort to develop defensive skills and preventative habits. The beautiful thing is that when you put in the work to acquire these skills, they can never be taken away from you.

"Do not depend on the enemy not coming, but depend on our readiness against him. Do not depend on the enemy not attacking, but depend on our position that cannot be attacked" -Sun Tzu

3. I am capable of protecting myself.

The third, and often the biggest mindset hurdle is the myth that one’s preparation is useless because they would not be able to defend themselves in a real attack anyways. If anyone tells you this, they are not only wrong, but doing you a great disservice. There are countless examples of small children breaking free from the grip of motivated abductors simply because they refused to stop fighting. If a small, naive, untrained, child has the ability to escape an adult attacker, imagine what you’re capable of with education, physical training, and an unrelenting will.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” -Maya Angelou

It’s true, defending yourself from an attack is no easy task and there are no guarantees. Every situation presents different factors and risks that are impossible to fully prepare for. But the more knowledge and skills you develop the more probable your survival becomes. No one is saying it will be easy. But it's unequivocally false to say it is impossible.

Believing that you can defend yourself is not only true, it's required.

Not only is survival possible, but everything you learn about self defense is built off the foundation of this belief. Yes knowledge and skill are required, but belief is what allows you to put them to work. You can spend all day practicing effective combat techniques with Navy Seals. But if you don't believe in them or yourself, then they're never going to work. Not because of the moves, but because you simply won’t have the confidence required to fight back long and hard enough to do the job. World class fighters can instantly look like amateurs when they start to doubt themselves. Yet regular citizens have accomplished super human feats of strength that defy all laws of nature when threatened. Victory, like defeat, is a mindset.

“As you think, so shall you become” -Bruce Lee

4. I am not afraid of the world.

When it comes to dealing with the reality of chaos, we have three options. To live in ignorance, fear, or confidence. The choice is ours. Some live in ignorance because they've never had to face chaos, some don't want to deal with it, and some don't think there's anything they can do about it anyways. Ignorance is not a good strategy. But living in fear of the world is even worse.

Fear holds you back from living a life of freedom, fulfillment, and independence. Fear is the anthesis to life and counterproductive to self defense, because when you're afraid, you look and act afraid, and that makes you a more attractive target to criminals. Not a good strategy either.

Confidence, through preparation, is the only choice that makes us both better prepared to handle the chaos of the world, and at the same time less likely to have to face it. When you become aware of yourself and your environment, when you learn the methods used by attackers and gain your own tools to avoid and respond to them, when you develop physical combat skills- you become confident and competent, and this repels evil-doers.

"Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity" -Carl Von Clausewitz, On War.

So instead of telling yourself "I didn't know how dangerous the world was, and that makes me scared", think "now I know how to prepare for the dangers, and that makes me confident".

Change "wow, I'm scared", to "wow, I'm prepared". And then never stop believing in your ability to survive.


The world is a dangerous place no matter what you believe internally, but what you believe internally can make the difference between falling victim to it or surviving it. It is the essential difference between victory and defeat. Thus your job as a protector is first to see yourself as the victor, the survivor, the winner, of your life - and then to arm yourself with all the necessary physical and tactical skills available.

"To be prepared for war is the most effective means of maintaining peace" -George Washington

Thanks for reading! If you're interested in self defense and street safety, have a look around our blog and website, and don't forget to follow our instagram and facebook for great tips!


Author: Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight Inc.

Gemma is an ex-MMA fighter who started Girls Who Fight Inc to bring the value of martial arts and self defense training to the female audience.



The Girls Who Fight Film, By Jennifer Roberts

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