Danny Zelig Has the Best — and Simplest — Piece of Advice For Overcoming Challenges
When I met Danny Zelig last year, he offered me a piece of invaluable advice: “F*ck it.” He was a guest testing instructor for my P2 test and therefore an integral part of the most challenging four hours of my life thus far. “When you feel yourselves wanting to give up,” he told the room, “just think one thing: f*ck it.” For whatever reason, it helped get me through the test — drove me to throw that last punch, do one more roundhouse, run one last lap. And I think I can speak for the rest of the students when I say that Danny’s presence, which was surprisingly calm, somehow helped fortify our resolve to finish. As we all pushed ourselves well beyond our known limits, we knew we were in good hands.
Danny is a second-generation Israeli Krav Maga instructor of Imi Lichtenfeld, having been certified by one of Imi’s highest-level disciples — of which there were only 10 in the world. He’s devoted much of his life to learning Krav Maga, and has been teaching civilians, military personnel, and law enforcement for more than 30 years. After serving as Infantry Staff Sergeant for an active combat unit within the elite Golani Brigade of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and obtaining his military instructor certificate at the renowned Wingate Institute, Danny taught Krav Maga to active infantry service members in the IDF. Today Danny is one of the highest-level Krav Maga instructors in the world. On most days you’ll find him at the school he founded and owns, the Krav Maga Institute in San Francisco, helping his own students forget all about giving up.
I spoke to Danny about all things Krav, from Imi’s ultimate motto, to which traits help a Krav Maga practitioner and which traits hurt, and that one piece of advice that will stay with me forever.
1.) I have a very distinct memory of you being very calm and almost zen-like at my P2 test. How does one who devotes much of their life to combative sports cultivate such a calm personality? Do you feel that you have achieved Imi’s goal of walking in peace?
The answer to this question depends on a particular person’s chosen path. If the person is on a path towards personal growth, and his “engine” — what drives him/her forward — is a positive force, then that person’s result is positive. If one’s path is motivated by power and ego, then for that person it is a never-ending journey full of frustration, competitiveness, and negativity. I consider myself to be a relatively positive person and I owe much success to that mindset.
I am still in the process of reaching Imi’s level of “walking in peace,” but I’m not in too much of a rush to get there.
2.) In your many years of experience, what qualities have you observed that are crucial for a successful student?
To be a successful student, the student needs to be clear on what s/he wants to do, and why. If the student has a goal and the student is on the road of reaching that goal, s/he has a good chance of being successful, regardless of his or her physical ability or talent.
3.) Which traits are absolute impediments to effective training?
A toxic ego is the biggest roadblock a person can have, in my opinion. Lack of self-discipline and close-mindedness to new or different techniques and training methods are also giant impediments to effective training.
4.) Has there been a noticeable increase in the number of women who take Krav Maga over the years? How equal are the numbers today?
Yes, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of women who are interested in Krav Maga. For now, let’s say that about 30 percent of Krav Maga practitioners are women. I expect that number to grow.
5.) Women are often portrayed very helplessly in entertainment, media, and society, as if they need to be rescued by a man. Do you think this portrayal perpetuates domestic violence? How can Krav Maga shift this mentality?
I think that over the last decade the image of women in the media has changed quite a bit. Women take more leading roles in movies in the theater, politics, and sports. In the movies and on TV, you can definitely see more powerful, strong roles, such a superheroes, law enforcement agents, or strong female characters in general. For example, on the TV show Game of Thrones, the show is dominated by strong female characters. In combative sports (MMA, BJJ, etc.) you see many more women participating and being represented in the media.
I think that these things are changing in the right direction, but we still have a very long way to go. One of the biggest problems in the western world when it comes to self-defense is relying on a third party’s help — law enforcement personnel, the “good Samaritan,” or the mercy of the attacker himself. Those things, in general, make the defender weak. The Krav Maga core of thinking, “If it’s not me, then it’s nobody,” is absent. Therefore, the will to survive is not as strong.
This feeling is much more deeply ingrained in women, generally, than in men. Women were historically taught to rely on “their men” or on others for their needs in a lot of ways — especially when it comes to defending physical attacks. I believe that Krav Maga was one of the pioneering systems in the self-defense world that empowered women to take control. Even in the media, in the movie “Enough,” you can see the lead character deciding to take control by learning Krav Maga, and in doing so, she protects herself against an abusive man. The movie came out in 2002, a full 12 years ago. I have worked with many women who have used Krav Maga as a means to take control over their lives, their well-being, and their personal safety.
Krav Maga promotes self-defense to all genders and physical conditions. You don’t have to be big and strong, you can be young or old — everyone can train in Krav Maga. I hope to see more people from all backgrounds come to train because for many people the process is life-changing.
6.) One of the best bits of advice you gave during your talk before our P2 test was that if we feel like giving up at any point, we should just say, “F*ck it” and keep going. I thought it was an interesting bit of advice because “f*ck it” is usually said when one gives up, but in this instance it meant facing your fears, kind of like, “I think I might die if I punch one more time, but you know what? Fuck it.” That’s why I really liked that bit of advice. What other areas in life should we apply the same “f*ck it” attitude?
The idea of “f*ck it,” in its core, is not to take ourselves or anything else so seriously that it keeps us from moving forward. “F*ck it” means if I’m too tired, so what? If I’m feeling sorry for myself? “F*ck it.” It also helps with feelings of failure and self-pity. Those feelings aren’t productive in any realm, let alone in a situation where your life may depend on your mental state.
Here, now, this struggle — this is not the “end all, be all” of life. If I don’t succeed, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try again. It doesn’t mean I can’t try to accomplish what I’m doing in another way. Do not take here and now so seriously that it prevents you from moving on and becoming successful in your endeavors. “F*ck it” helps you keep an open mind — if something doesn’t work the first time, it doesn’t mean that it will never work.
We tend to judge and assume things about ourselves and our lives by our ability to successfully accomplish things the first or second time we try, rather than by our ability to redesign or hone our original approach until we achieve success regardless of how many false starts we have. “F*ck it” means, in the most basic sense, GET OUT OF YOUR HEAD AND KEEP FIGHTING.
7.) This is sort of a silly question, but if Krav Maga were to become so prevalent (which would be great!) that all men (and maybe even women) started wearing cups around everywhere they went, how would you suggest we modify our techniques to effectively counter attack?
The core principles of Krav Maga are efficiency and problem solving under stress. As for problem solving, the solution needs to be simpler than the problem. We would ask ourselves, what would be the next most-efficient target if targeting the groin is not an option? And it’s not in many cases. For example, attackers under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs will likely not respond to a groin attack in the way that a sober individual would. The next most-efficient targets would be the throat or the eyes.
Our goal in Krav Maga is not necessarily to inflict pain — it is to stop an attack. If a person is on PCP and feels no pain, our goal is not to find a way to hurt him, it is to efficiently find a way to stop the attack. Although this person may not feel the sensation of pain from a strike, a defense that takes away his ability to continue the attack is what we are training for (striking the throat disrupts a normal breathing pattern, and striking the eyes takes away the ability to see). At the point that the attack stops, you can safely escape your attacker and notify the proper authorities. There are no hard-line rules for surviving the dangers presented in our lives, and Krav Maga tries to prepare a person’s body and mind for anything that might be thrown at them.