The Stockdale Paradox ( Revisited )

Today – August 26, 2018 – as the nation mourns the passing of Senator John McCain – one of the United State’s most famous war heroes and prisoner of war – I thought it might be fitting to revisit a post from last fall. In the post below, I highlighted a lesson from Admiral James Stockdale who was a prisoner with McCain at the infamous Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War.

Later this week, about a dozen Single Plane Swing golfers will descend upon Chicago’s Prairie Landing Golf Club for a very special 2-Day Mental Game School. (Yes…still an open slot! But you have to move immediately! Click here for details!)

At this school, we will talk about how understanding the fundamental paradoxes of performance can positively impact your golf game.

Here is the blog from last November:

James Stockdale was one of the greatest military heroes our country has ever produced.

As a Navy pilot and commander, he flew over 200 combat missions during three separate deployments in Vietnam and became one of the most decorated Navy pilots ever.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale
James Stockdale

But his most significant achievement came after September 9, 1965, the day he was taken prisoner after being shot down over North Vietnam.

As the highest-ranking Naval officer to serve as a prisoner during the war, Commander Stockdale’s leadership among the POW population was legendary. And he was credited with saving the lives of hundreds of American POWs throughout his eight-year captivity.

(If you ever want to be inspired by someone’s capacity to influence others in positive ways, read Stockdale’s essay Courage Under Fire.)

Years after the war ended, Stockdale was asked about how he managed to cope with the challenges of being a prisoner under such horrific conditions. (Stockdale and others – including a young aviator named John McCain – were routinely beaten and tortured.)

He explained that he never lost faith that things would turn out ok. He believed that he would prevail. And that he would be a better person for having persevered through the struggle.

But here is the exciting part.

When asked of his impressions about those who did not make it out of the prisons? The soldiers, sailors, and airmen who perhaps lost the will to go on. Stockdale said it was the optimists who struggled the most:

“Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

(Good to Great author James Collins described this as the Stockdale Paradox.)

Stockdale also was quoted as saying:

“This is a fundamental lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

It turns out Commander Stockdale had studied Stoicism while in graduate school. Stoicism teaches that happiness in life comes from acceptance of each moment as it is, and from preventing one’s desire for pleasure or fear of pain to control one’s behavior.

I love Stockdale’s perspective (and Stoicism) when it comes to the human development process…and especially the Single Plane Swing.

The challenges we face as we learn to play this game of golf at a higher level are not as grim, and the stakes are not as high as those faced by American POWs…not even close. But the human psychological dynamics are similar.

The Single Plane Swing journey – in fact, any endeavor of change or transformation – is one which requires both FAITH and DISCIPLINE.

The faith to know that you will prevail.

And the discipline to forge ahead even when you experience the challenge or setbacks.

What does that look like for those on the SPS path?

That you KNOW and trust that the Single Plane Swing model can produce amazingly consistent shots and that if you listen, work at it, get feedback, and repeat the cycle enough times, you WILL improve.

When you have faith, you don’t need to put a timeline on your development. You don’t need to be an optimist. Just DO the work and trust that you will make progress.

Let go of your story about WHEN you will “arrive.” Just know that you WILL get one day. (Or that “arriving” may not be the point after all!)

And when you feel like you have plateaued or regressed, have the discipline to STAY IN THE GAME. Don’t ever quit.

You’ve done this all your life – and you have produced a lot of success in your life and careers because of it.

Have faith. Keep it real. Be disciplined. Stay in the game.


Paul Monahan, PCC is a Peak-Performance coach, member of the International Coach Federation and a certified COR.E Performance Dynamics  Specialist. He resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife Paula, is the proud dad to three young men and is also on the Single Plane Swing journey. Paul can be reached at

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan

Paul Monahan is an International Coach Federation (ICF) - credentialed coach working in the arena of human potential. Paul’s clients are leaders, executives, athletes and musicians who are serious about transforming how they perform in critical moments. His experiences in leadership and development over a highly-successful 25-year corporate career have created powerful context and understanding for the leaders and executives he coaches. Additionally, his passions and experiences in sports and music have uniquely positioned Paul to profoundly impact his clients in those areas as well.

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