In the brain I want, thoughts line up like soldiers on a parade ground. My spit-and-polish drill team of positive ideations marches in dress blues, executing the most intricate maneuvers with never a misstep. Negative and self-defeating thoughts sit on the sidelines meanwhile, smoking cigarettes, their shirttails out. They never get to march.
In the brain I’ve got, thoughts collide like slapstick comedians. When I try to win a game of tennis or a skirmish in the game of life, it’s plain that no one’s in charge in there.
This is where Lanny Bassham comes in. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Flower Mound-based world champion marksman who has trained people who shoot things—SWAT teams, Navy SEALs, the FBI, archers, golfers. Bassham’s self-published book, With Winning in Mind, has sold more than 100,000 copies. He is trying to prove to a skeptical world that thought control is not the province of science fiction—or mental illness—but something most of us need. Are you petrified about your upcoming PowerPoint presentation? Maybe you should call Bassham. He says he can help “anyone whose performance under pressure makes a difference in their lives, or in their vocation.” He has even trained pageant contestants.
Business is good. Bassham has coached three of the last five Miss USAs; a handful of PGA Tour golfers, including Justin Leonard and Rory Sabbatini; and champion archers and shooters without number. He charges $5,000 for two days of one-on-one training, with 60 days of unlimited phone and e-mail consultation. More and more corporate gigs come his way, and the participants always take him aside and say, “I’m gonna use this for my golf game.” In his columns for Clay Shooting USA, Skeet Shooting Review, and Trap & Field, the recurring theme is how to hit the target by controlling your thoughts.
“The world is coming my way,” Bassham says. “You need a mental game and you can’t do it on your own.” Maybe it is, maybe you do, and perhaps you can’t learn this stuff without a guide. But are there limits to what mental training can do? And aren’t some of us so poorly wired that we are impervious to his techniques?
Lanny Bassham began to think about thinking after the 1972 Olympics. He’d been favored to take the gold medal in the 50 Meter Three-Position Rifle, but the moment overwhelmed him; he had to settle for silver. “I choked,” he says. “I just couldn’t hold the mental game together. I was a mental midget. We [on the team] were all mental midgets, but we just didn’t know it.
“I came home wanting to learn how to control myself under pressure. I went to the best psychologist I could find. But I didn’t need psychotherapy; I needed to know how to win. So I spoke with Olympic gold medalists in every sport—runners, divers, sprinters. And I created a system.”
The punch line, you can guess: great success. Bassham won his gold at the next Olympics. During a six-year run as No. 1 in the world, he set four world records and doesn’t remember finishing lower than third in a competition. “Now that’s dominating your sport,” says Bassham, sitting at a long polished conference table like a Buddha in a shooting jacket, his fingers linked across his belly. “If I had been a golfer, I could have bought California.”
Bassham started Mental Management Systems in 1977, when the first shots in the self-help revolution were being fired, by people such as Zig Ziglar and Maxwell Maltz, the plastic surgeon who wrote Psycho-Cybernetics. Mental Management is a family business now: wife Helen is president of the company; son Troy, himself a champion marksman, specializes in helping golfers organize their thoughts at the Jim McLean Golf Center in Fort Worth; and that’s daughter Heather doing the voice-over for the What Every Beauty Pageant Contestant Should Know CD.
Faith Bates wanted to know what she didn’t know. She had heard Bassham’s speech at the Miss Texas spring meeting in 2007, a competition in which she would finish fourth. “I went to the Miss America that summer, and it kind of freaked me out,” says the current Miss Fort Worth, a 22-year-old senior at the University of Oklahoma. Bates did her turn at Mental Management in preparation for the 2008 Miss Texas. Although she won swimsuit, interview, and talent, she finished second overall, or “first runner-up” in pageant-ese. “If I’m supposed to be Miss Texas, I will be,” she says nonchalantly.
And here Bates enunciates the most difficult and intriguing aspect of the Mental Management philosophy: not caring about the outcome. “That part’s difficult to grasp,” Bassham says. “Not everyone can do it.” The trick, he says, is to focus explicitly on execution, not on the result. “You win when you learn, when you advance,” the master explains. “Winning is not special without the losing. You need the failure, the tragedy.” Thus Bassham believes his most important victory was his “defeat”—the silver medal—in the ’72 Olympics.
Failure and tragedy pervade golf, a game in which even the best players win very few times relative to the number of tournaments they play—winning one out of every 20 makes you a superstar on the professional golf tours. A case in point is Melanie White, 17, a senior at Colleyville Heritage High School. Like golfers everywhere, she’s frustrated. She doesn’t win enough. “I never broke anything or bent anything,” she says in a low voice. “But I get really emotional out there.”
Troy Bassham nods. “We’re going to talk about pressure today,” says Lanny’s son, flipping open his Macintosh laptop on a table in a room at the McLean Golf Center. Melanie, he knows, is stressing. She’s climbing two steep mountains: maintaining a sterling 4.96 (out of 5) grade point average while playing golf so well that she gets the college scholarship she wants. But her heart’s desire, SMU, is not interested. Stress. Pressure. (And, finally, relief: she received a scholarship from Baylor.)
“Remember the principle of reinforcement?” Troy asks. Like his father, he has the calm demeanor of a man who can control his heartbeat, his breathing, his thoughts. “I’ll bet you’ve got it memorized. Page 47 of the book? ‘The more we think about, write about, and talk about a thing happening, the more likely it is to happen.’ This is vital for training: any comment you make creates an imprint on your subconscious. This is why, after a bad shot, you don’t say, ‘I suck, I suck.’ ”
Melanie sips from a giant Sonic cup of blue POWERade. It’s been a long day. “Keep everything in its place,” Troy is saying. “We’ve talked about this, about mental cubbyholes. Boxes for work, family, sports. Don’t think about the math test during the golf tournament. Wherever you are, be all there.” The lesson lasts for two hours and concludes with Melanie demonstrating her unvarying ritual on the putting green. Three practice strokes; “smooth and strong,” her silent mantra; and, just before she hits the ball, a firm tap of the club on the ground, as if driving out an evil spirit.
Perhaps the Mental Management way boils down to that most prosaic and difficult thing, discipline. Presumably, Bassham encounters an organically undisciplined mind from time to time, a brain that cannot march in step. Like mine.
No. “If they’re not receptive, they don’t become clients,” Bassham says. “Paying for something is a powerful motivator. About the only time I don’t get much results is when I’m speaking to 25 guys on an Olympic Development team, and some of them might not be ready. But they always come to me later. And my least-favorite situation is when a CEO brings his executives in on a Saturday, and they don’t all want to be there. That’s when I have to try very hard.”
And to the other doubting Thomas question posed above—regarding the limits of mental training—Bassham replies that those limits are not worth considering. After all, he won Olympic gold and two world championships largely because he could control his thoughts. “What’s unfortunate is that people’s mental games are much more haphazard than they have to be,” he says. “They’re not aware that you don’t have to live with that kind of chaos.”
Curt Sampson’s most recent book is Golf Dads: Fathers Sons, and the Greatest Game (Houghton Mifflin, 2008).