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How to cultivate fighting spirit in all parts of life

Live life from the heart – how to cultivate fighting spirit

An an Olympic Judo athlete, many times I won matches on sheer grit. It’s definitely true that sports, and most of life in general is 90% mental and 10% physical.  When I first starting developing my motivational speaker, I realized that most Judo clubs wanted me to come teach specific techniques like my signature Judo choke. Instead, I wanted to talk about how to cultivate fighting spirit and stay motivated through skills like goal setting, journaling, avoiding injury (this too is part mental), finding time for training, video watching, and having great conversations with people who know the sport. I still have a workshop available about these skills and would love to share it.

AnnMaria de Mars teaches how to cultivate fighting spirit at Encino Judo club

AnnMaria de Mars teaches how to cultivate fighting spirit at Encino Judo club

As I came up through the junior ranks in Judo, whenever I lost a match, I could look back and see a split second in the match that I’d given up. I’d realize, “I didn’t want it bad enough.” I tried to train myself to never give up, to never have those moments of quitting. I started winning much more when I knew that I could find a way to win any match. I started being able to feel when my competitors gave up. In the one tournament I fought recently, after my retirement, I grabbed a girl and as soon as she got a hold of me and felt my strength and the way I was moving her around, she gave up.

Later I talked to her and she said no one had told her that I was an Olympian before we fought. She said, “I got a grip and thought I’d grabbed hold of a tiger or something.”  It’s important to cultivate fighting spirit so that there is always a desire to win. Fighting spirit isn’t about being a bully or being domineering. It’s enjoying a good fight, believing you can win, and being willing to do whatever it takes to be the person who earns the medal. Some people naturally have fighting spirit, and others can develop it with their time in Judo.

Dr. AnnMaria DeMars was the United States’ first world champion in Judo, even though Mike Swain typically gets the credit because he is a guy. She is the person who taught me the most about fighting spirit.  When I was training for the Olympics I paid my way to North Dakota to visit her over a Thanksgiving holiday just to talk. I came back with a huge list of notes and sayings that were very helpful to me the next few years as I improved my skills. My favorite was, “Someone is going to win, why shouldn’t it be you?” I’ll publish that whole list on another blog.

Cultivate fighting spirit in Judo clubs

Have drills that teach athletes to fight. One example is a stand up drill, where one person starts on their knees and the other person starts standing. The bottom person tries to stand up and the top person tries to keep them on the mat. Or have one person stay out in randori until they are knocked off their feet. Try tag team randori. All of these drills let people know that its OK to go out there and get after it.

Start new athletes doing randori early in their introduction to Judo. They might even be able to do matwork randori on their first night. Encourage them to try tournaments early on in their career. My club used to host Friday night tournaments where athletes chose their own parings and the goal was to get as many matches as possible. This was a low pressure introduction to fighting.

Corinna West teaching a basic turnover during a Judo clinic in Jefferson City

Corinna West teaching a basic turnover during a Judo clinic in Jefferson City

To cultivate fighting spirit in tournaments, fight that way in practice. Go hard even against people that outmatch you. Push yourself father than you think you can go. It takes a certain amount of humility to put everything on the line, not to save back a reserve. Just fight the person across from you, regardless of reputation. Try to get the first score and make a dent in their armor. Always keep in mind how hard you have trained, so you know that you deserve to be there. I had always heard that sometimes people passed out from working so hard. I remember one Judo camp int he middle of summer where I got hot and a little faint, so I decided to try to work that hard and see what happened. Instead of passing out, I just found out that I had greater capacity than I’d thought before.

Try combative games, where the students have fun and don’t realize they are learning to fight. One good game is to have everyone circle up, grab their neighbors’ lapels, then try to footsweep the people adjacent to them. Once someone leaves their feet that person is out and the circle reforms. Another good game is chicken fighting, where athletes reach behind themselves and grab one of their own feet, then hop on the remaining foot to try to pull down an opponent who is also hopping. Or students can make a circle with their belts, then try “sumo wrestling” to knock their opponent down or out of the circle.

Fitness is the most important thing that will help avoid mental mistakes. Someone who is having a hard time breathing has a lot less confidence. Conditioning builds fighting spirit simply because it keeps you in matches. Fitness can be built during Judo, but serious Judo requires training off the mat as well. Running is great, although I found that cycling worked better for me. Try training with a heart rate monitor ($40 at so you know exactly how hard you are working.

How to cultivate fighting spirit in all the areas of life:

In all areas, you can cultivate fighting spirit by ignoring or disproving anyone who doesn’t believe in your dreams.  If someone says something isn’t possible, it might just be that you haven’t completely thought through all the steps. It might be that you have more imagination to see all the steps than your critic does.

The fourth or fifth poem I ever wrote, when I was 13, was to my mom when she said that going to the Olympics was really a long shot. Later she came around and helped me a ton.  The most important thing she did was give me unconditional support plus plenty of skills to prepare me for independence.  This was inspired by one of my favorite quotes at the time, by Marianne Moore, “If you will tell me why the fen appears impassible, I then will tell you why I think I can cross it if I try.”

1) If you think I can,
I will,
to prove to you you’re right.
To show you that you can too.
If you think I can’t
I will,
To prove to you you’re right: I can’t quit.
To show you that you can too.
So think whatever you want.
And I will succeed.

2) You think I can’t.
And that is why I can.
Because your denial gives me strength
To try even harder
And not just try, but succeed.
You’re right, it is an obsession.
At least it’s partly healthy.
You think I can’t.
So I will prove to you I can.

My mom, Gwen Broz, taught me to cultivate fighting spirit with her example of going to med school as a single parent at age 35.and her husband catch a quick moment during Kansas City Critical Mass at her visit here.

My mom, Gwen Broz, and her husband catch a quick moment during Kansas City Critical Mass at her visit here. She taught me to cultivate fighting spirit with her example of going to med school as a single parent at age 35.

Cultivate fighting spirit in mental health recovery

There is a link between “compliance” and recovery. The people who follow directions, don’t ask questions, and do exactly what they are told tend to remain stuck for a long time. Here is a good essay on the confessions of a non-compliant patient. I know for myself the key recovery realization I had was the day I figured out that no one was going to fix me. I just wrote a great poem with this repeating theme as the keybottlneck to overcoming the medicalization of emotional distress.

As a coach, or certified peer specialist, you can provide opportunities and create expectations. Talk to the people you serve and set the tone.  Let them know that you expect them to work hard as well as having fun. Suicide attempts, although seen by many as the ultimate form of giving up, are really seen as a logical step when someone is in the depths of emotional distress.  However, it’s flawed logic, so helping people see the flaws in the logic in a non-judgemental way can help. What was the most helpful for me, though, was just to hear someone say, “I used to have that problem myself a lot but it went away. Now I have a great life.”

Sustained inspiration to cultivate fighting spirit through a lifetime or a very complex goal

I’m a huge fan of journaling. Since I type must faster than I write, sitting down with pen and paper and writing long hand slows me down enough that I can process in a much different way. I also like keeping lists and putting worries on paper so they’ll get out of my head. Now that my life is pretty much working the way I want it, I use my journal mostly for writing poems and keeping track of things that make me so excited I can’t sleep. Once my recovery journals were featured in an art show since I’ve decorated the covers with collages. In Judo, I kept track of all my matches in a journal. Over time trends emerged and I could figure out which losses weren’t technical, but just because I didn’t want it bad enough.

Use positive self-talk to cultivate fighting spirit. There is always a internal conversation, and you can choose whether you’re hearing, “I’m scared, I can’t do this,” or “I deserve this chance.” Use affirmations, where you repeat positive messages to yourself. You can repeat to yourself, “I am a winner, I am a champion, I am tough.” Or repeat, “I want, it’s mine, I’m ready.” Whatever works for you. Some people think this sounds silly, but no one hears what goes on in your head. When I’m working through emotional experiences and want to give myself permission to feel emotion, sometimes I think, “I’m stable, I’m competent, I’m emotional.” Or I’ll repeat a lyric from one of my favorite songs by the Flobot, “My tears are mightier than my fears.”

My Olympic Poem where I talk about the affirmations and how to cultivate fighting spirit: “What makes you think I play the piano with my finger?” Because you play from the heart.


 Tell me how you cultivate fighting spirit – what was your toughest thing you ever overcame? What helped you make it through?

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