Lessons from a POW

Let me tell you a story about Lanny Bassham. He was an Olympic marksman shooter in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. At just 25, he was already the youngest world champion in that sport and odds in favor to take the gold that year. He took silver instead. He had overheard some Russians talking about how the pressure to take gold must be so great, and it really messed with his mind and he choked. Lanny said his definition of silver medal became, “the very best you can possibly do and still lose.” He suffered with this disappointment for many years.

Then in 1974 he met a man who changed his life forever. He counts a story in his book Freedom Flight, where he calls the man Jack Sands. The guy’s real name was Jack Fellows. He talks about how Jack was shot down over Vietnam and spent six years as a Prisoner of War at the famous POW camp known as Hanoi Hilton. Six years later he was finally released and flown back to San Diego where they put him in an ambulance to get him over to Balboa Hospital. He barely weighed 100 pounds since he had been in a prison camp for six years with awful conditions.

Lessons from a POW

As they headed to the hospital, they drove past the golf course by the back gate of Naval Air Station North Island. Suddenly Jack called out, “Wait, stop the ambulance!” What? The ambulance driver pulled over, alarmed. Was this guy dying or something? “Let me out for a bit,” said Jack. “I’ve got to play some golf.” The driver looked at him like he was crazy, but Jack insisted as he was the returning hero.

The driver let him out of the ambulance and took him over to the golf course clubhouse, where the club members at first refused to let him play and tried to throw him out. He explained who he was, and that he been holed up in the worst imaginable prison in north Vietnam for more than six years, and that he really wanted to get out on the green and play a round of golf. Most of these guys were vets themselves. They took pity on Jack and brought him around to the pro shop to get outfitted, meanwhile shooting each other nervous looked behind Jack’s back. This guy was absolutely in terrible shape. Not much more than skin and bones, and could barely walk on his own.

Jack went out onto the green and shot par on the first hole. And then the second hole. And then the third. His drives were ripping down the fairway, every time. His putts were perfect. He shot par on all 18 holes. The club regulars all stared at him like he was from outer space. This guy hadn’t been on the golf course in years. He hadn’t even seen grass in years! He’s been wasting away in a tiny cell. What he just did simply wasn’t possible. Yet they watched him do it.

“Pardon me for asking, Commander,” said one of the clubbers, “but how did you do that?” Jack just said, “Gents I’ve played thousands of rounds of golf in my head over the past six years and let me tell you, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve missed a putt.”

That’s how the man kept himself sane during this long stretch as a POW. He would sit in his tiny cell, build pictures in his head of all his favorite courses, and then he walked through them, playing round after round of golf. Every day, for six years. He hadn’t physically been on the golf course for at least six years, but he’d mentally rehearsed his game to the point of perfection, and done it so thoroughly that all his muscles and articulations knew exactly what to do.

I have told this story to the students on more than a couple of occasions. When the students in class are standing on the side waiting for their turn to test or demonstrate their technique, I ask them to close their eyes and picture themselves doing their form perfectly. Or in the case of sparring, how they would spar. This way their muscles will know exactly what to do when it’s their turn.

I say all this because right now with this virus pandemic going on, we are all isolated to our homes. What Jack said that changed the course of his life boils down to this:

  • If your environment and circumstances control your attitude, you’re in prison.
  • If you are in control of your thoughts and your attitude, then you’re free.

Keep the right attitude while this is going on and you will come out better and stronger on the other side!

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