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Mental Toughness For Modern Life

By Hirini Reedy

Have you ever wondered how would survive in a hostage situation? Being captured and held as a hostage by terrorists? What would give you the will to survive and stay alive?

Make a mental list of memories, loved ones, beliefs, techniques that would keep you alive if taken hostage or a prisoner of war. In today's uncertain world there is a reasonable chance that someone we know will be one or two degrees removed from a hostage, a bomb blast victim or a prisoner of war (POW).

My own grandfather was a Maori prisoner of war during World War 2. Taken prisoner by the Germans during the Crete campaign, he had to endure the harsh conditions as well as the humiliation of being taken prisoner. A key lesson I learnt from his experiences and others was the power of the mind to transcend one's physical situation. A bare cell, little food, psychological and physical mistreatment. Reducing a human being into an object of no more significance than a cockroach. He had to look deep within himself to endure his plight and make some sense of his suffering.

Other examples come to mind.

Major James Nesbeth spent seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. During those seven years, he was imprisoned in a cage that was approximately four and one-half feet high and five long. During almost the entire time he was imprisoned he saw no one, talked to no one and experience no physical activity. In order to keep his sanity and his mind active, he used the art of visualisation.

Everyday in his mind, he would play a game of golf. A full 18-hole game at his favourite green. In his mind, he would create the trees, the smell of the freshly trimmed grass, the wind, the songs of the birds. He created different weather conditions - windy spring days, overcast winter days and sunny summer mornings. He felt the grip of the club in his hands as he played his shots in his mind. The set-up, the down-swing and the follow-through on each shot. Watched the ball arc down the fairway and land at the exact spot he had selected. All in his mind.

He did this seven days a week. Four hours a day. Eighteen holes. Seven years. When Major Nesbeth was finally released, he found that he had cut 20 strokes off his golfing average without having touched a golf club in seven years.

Another example is Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest ranking United States military officer in the "Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp during the height of the Vietnam War. Tortured over 20 times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973, Stockdale lived out the war without any prisoner's rights, no set release date, and no certainty as to whether he would even survive to see his family again.

Stockdale had an additional challenge. As the highest ranking officer, he had to also help his own servicemen survive their ordeals. He instituted rules that would help people to deal with torture (no one can resist torture indefinitely, so he created a step-wise system"after x minutes, you can say certain things"that gave the men milestones to survive toward). He instituted an elaborate internal communications system to reduce the sense of isolation that their captors tried to create, which used a five-by-five matrix of tap codes for alpha characters. (Tap-tap equals the letter a, tap-pause-tap-tap equals the letter b, tap-tap-pause-tap equals the letter f, and so forth, for 25 letters, c doubling for k.) After his release, Stockdale became the first three-star officer in the history of the US Navy to wear both aviator wings and the Congressional Medal of Honor. Like many others, he lived to tell and inspire others of his POW experiences.

What can we learn from these prisoner of war experiences?

I believe it illustrates the power of our mind to transcend our current circumstances. We don't need to be a prisoner of war to learn this. We sometimes imprison ourselves with our own fears, our own limiting thoughts. Thoughts like:

  • I can never be rich!

  • I will never get out of this dump!

  • My life sucks!

  • I blame my mother for my weight problem!

I would say to the above, "toughen up and get a life". Weak thinking begets weak results. Feel sorry for yourself for a moment and then get over it. This type of repetitive sorry thinking would create a loss of hope in a POW and lessen their chances of survival.

Also we can create our own internal mind ritual that we can turn into a daily mental discipline. Go inside your own mind and create your desired outcomes. Live the dream inside your own mind. Change it daily by adding something new. Make it fun. Make it short or as long as you like. 5-10 minutes a day.

I believe these inspiring prisoner of war stories shows us clearly that an enduring faith, an unyielding will to succeed combined with a daily mental discipline gives us the power to overcome incredible odds.

About The Author

Hirini Reedy is a mental toughness expert who helps people find inner strength. A former military officer, martial arts founder and NLP mind coach, he has designed short sharp mind-body fitness workouts for the high achiever. Visit


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