The Mastery of Mindset: A Ph.D.'s Views On Motherhood, Combat Sports and Leadership

Speaker-Buzz Staff | July 26, 2018

Speaker-Buzz recently sat down with Dr. Alice Atalanta, Ph.D. to discuss the mindset topic and upcoming book "Meditations of an Army Ranger," she co-authored with JC Glick. We were curious to discover what motivates and inspires a doctor of philosophy, mother and boxer towards positive change. Here's what we learned:

SB: How did you first get involved with your endeavor?

AA: I think that my life, like anyone’s has been a process of trial and error. But what I have found, above all, is that I have achieved my greatest successes when I was just living authentically. Instead of trying to fit into any prepackaged notion of the person I should be, or the person others wanted me to be, I just went full steam ahead throwing myself into the things that stirred my passion--deeply.

My work with veterans and members of the military was one such endeavor. As someone who had spent over a decade teaching and studying at top tier universities, I knew what intelligence and talent looked like, but when I began to engage with members of the special operations community, I recognized immediately that special operations veterans were very much an untapped resource that the civilian business world barely understood. Book smarts are one thing, but functional intelligence that demonstrates adaptability and agility under extreme pressure is another.

There’s really no substitute for it, and you can’t learn how to do that at Harvard the way that you can when you take someone who’s Harvard smart, put them through SEAL training or Ranger school, and deploy them with a high level unit to Afghanistan. It’s a whole different ballgame, and I saw an opportunity for myself as an academic and a writer to help these individuals tell their stories and share their leadership wisdom.

Alice Atalanta Boxer

The potential for them to contribute to the professional world is immense, but business leaders need to understand that when looking at resumes. There’s a Wharton MBA and there’s 20 years serving on the SEAL Teams during the GWOT: both are indicative of high achieving individuals. But if I were doing the hiring, I’d hire the SEAL and give him the business books. He’d be able to knock them out in a week, and he’d probably come back with unconventional solutions to old problems, as well.

SB: Tell me about someone who has influenced your life.

AA: I have a very dear friend who is currently on deployment overseas serving in a special operations capacity. More than almost anyone, his life has served as an example to me of the highest principles I believe in put into action. He truly does live the “quiet professional” ethos, even in his personal affairs, and living his life out of the spotlight like that is proof that he makes the immense sacrifices that he makes, and lives his life the way that he does, not for personal recognition, but because he truly does believe in service, humility, faith, family, and America. Knowing someone like him upholds my faith that there are others like him—others who truly do base their lives on the principle that “the deed is all and not the glory.” It gives me hope for humanity.

SB: What would you tell a woman who is thinking about getting into the fight world, or is interested in learning personal defense?

AA: A lot of women hold back from getting started in fighting because we’ve been raised to think of ourselves as fragile—but we’re far from it. The best analogy from this that certainly any mom can relate to is that of the second or third child. When we give birth to our first, we think that the slightest unsupported movement could harm the baby. We don’t realize until the house is crawling with preschoolers that infants are far more sturdy and resilient than we thought—just ask the third kid who takes baths in the kitchen sink. It may be a crass metaphor, but getting punched in the face works the exact same way.

The biggest challenge to beginning in combat sports is simply believing that you’re too weak to take it, when the truth of the matter is that you are far stronger and more resilient than you ever could believe. I’ve found that the greatest psychological value in fighting comes from the realization that you are able to withstand far greater challenges than you ever thought before. My sparring partner Kayla and I often joke that getting punched in the face is like a nice hot cup of coffee; it just gives you the energy and little adrenaline rush you need to fire back--harder.

SB: What do you find most challenging about life?

AA: Mastery of mindset, hands down. We’ve long known, as the field of sports psychology will attest, that mindset in athletics is paramount. Still, as a writer working with high-performing clientele—military leaders, special operators, business executives—what I didn’t anticipate learning is that the same cognitive tools which enable high level athletic achievement are equally applicable in all areas of life. Any high achiever anywhere, in any field—from an Ivy League professor to an Olympic figure skater to a Navy SEAL to a heart surgeon—has drawn upon the same psychological skill-set in order to put in the time and make the sacrifices necessary to excel in their field. If this were easy, everyone would do it; mastery of mindset is, in my opinion, life’s greatest challenge. This is what draws me to the fight gym. There is no purer iteration of mindset than fighting. It tests our ability to pursue our goals even in the face of pain, fear, and mortal threat. But the people who can master this are the ones who will go on to excel in anything that they choose.

I have one friend who is like this: he was a professional soccer player, then a Special Forces operator who was severely injured and had to relearn to walk. He bounced back, became a professional Muay Thai fighter in Thailand, then a pro racecar driver in Europe, and played on the U.S. national soccer team. He’s now working as a counter-poacher in Africa. Mastering mindset is truly the key to unlocking that type of potential, and you don’t see it every day because it’s not an easy thing to do.

SB: Are you more a hunter or a gatherer?

AA: This might be surprising to some, but I’m more of a gatherer than a hunter. I’m not looking for a fight, and my goal in fighting isn’t to cause anyone pain or strife. In many ways, that’s why I’ve naturally transitioned from competing in boxing to focusing on using my skills to teach personal defense. The greatest warriors I know—warfighters and combatives experts alike—have proven to me that the people capable of the most impactful violence are the ones who are least eager to wield that capability recklessly. The goal in life is to be nonviolent and never need to use your skills—but to be lethal when called upon. We see this in nature to be sure; animals may engage in combat for play, but life-taking combat is reserved for real threats. No good comes from glamorizing violence. I love coach Tony Blauer’s theories of combatives because he emphasizes the importance of detecting and avoiding threats above all. There’s no sense in fighting if you don’t have to, just as there’s no sense in taking a deer’s life for dinner if you’ve got enough to eat from your garden.

SB: What’s the best thing to happen to you in your life?

AA: Everyone says this, but for me it was absolutely becoming a mother. When I became a mom, I went through a mini identity crisis. Real talk: I felt like my youth, beauty, and desirability had all flown out the window. What I didn’t anticipate was the rich opportunity my children would afford me to fully evolve as a human being. Taking responsibility for another life is a privilege that forces you to get real with yourself about what really matters to you and what you believe in; you can’t parent effectively and pass on these lessons to your kids if you lack that self-knowledge. The birth of my children was the turning point that threw my life into overdrive down a path of authenticity and passion. Every day, because of them, I strive harder than ever before to live according to the principles I’m trying to teach them. It’s a very powerful experience when our children make us better in this way. They are the ultimate motivator.

SB: What is your favorite ‘80s movie?

AA: Three-way tie between Top Gun, Rocky IV, and Dirty Dancing. These have been my favorite movies since youth, and they cannot be topped. That they scarily predict my current life endeavors is a matter I can’t explain. Well, I take that back. I’m a horrendous dancer.

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Dr. Alice Atalanta Ph.D | Speaker-Buzz

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