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Trainee eye surgeon and Sikh warrior, Pavandeep Singh Sandhu, talks about what drives him to push his limits, his philosophies on mental resilience, and what it takes to take on the military’s most brutal selection course.

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Channel 4 SAS Who Dares Wins Pavandeep Singh Sandhu

Can you tell us a bit about your journey so far and how it led you to take part in Channel 4's SAS: Who Dares Wins?

I was always fascinated by ‘heroes’ and their stories/myths. In my early 20s, I decided I didn’t want to just keep telling stories about great warriors and their deeds in history but to go through it myself and try to walk the hero’s path. So I reflected deeply and decided to find out what makes a hero. I discovered it was essentially a collection of virtues. I then asked myself if these virtues could be developed and trained from the ground up. I realised they could be. And my journey really began there. I feel that for a Sikh, training is a form of worship, and that mentality led me to find greater and greater challenges, as I felt that is what a true warrior strives for.

In 2016, I took part in The Cateran Yomp 2016 which is a 54 mile loaded march through the hills of Perthshire for ABF The Soldier’s Charity and managed 36 miles in 19 hours after walking for 7 hours with an injury. I was behind the cut off time so was retired. I returned in 2017 and managed 46 miles in 24 hours and then went back in 2019 and completed the 54 miles in 23 hours and 52 minutes and 59 seconds. These yomps broke me down completely but in those moments of darkness, I found great peace and clarity and hence why I kept going back for more. It whetted my appetite and applying for SAS: Who Dares Wins turned out to be the natural progression of this (lifelong) journey.

SAS Who Dares Wins Channel 4

Why did you want to take part in the show? Did you have any particular reason for testing yourself against this challenge?

The Sikh concept of the Warrior Saint, to me, means I must endeavour to make myself physically, psychologically, and emotionally robust. Ultimately, this has been the mentality which has driven me for many years and applying for the course was a part of this journey. The whole experience was a gift – a chance to practice courage and bravery, and to take myself to breaking point and see what happens. I feel incredibly grateful and privileged to have had this chance.

To me, ‘living’ is to struggle and strive whilst pushing yourself far beyond your comfort zone. In our world now, we have become so used to comfort and pleasure and I believe it has weakened us and robbed us of the chance to realise our true potential. A former US Navy SEAL, David Goggins, once said that ‘On the other side of suffering, is a beautiful world’. I suffered on the course, but when I came out, I saw a beautiful world. That is why I wanted to sign up, and I got it.

It was the best experience of my life. It was incredibly difficult and horrendous but also life-changing. The suffering is what made it so good as it allowed me to get a visceral feel of what Special Forces selection is actually like and what SF operators have to go through to become the best of the best. Furthermore, it allowed me to put myself to the test in really extreme conditions and to me, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. 

I also wanted to find a sense of belonging and purpose and found this amongst a group who were, at first, strangers, but then became like a second family. Everyone was raw and there was no pretence and so I had the chance to bond and make lifelong friendships. I found my band of brothers (and sisters!).

When I left the course, I had a massive sense of fulfilment and felt that a hole in my life had been filled. A hole that I never even knew was there. 


SAS Who Dares Wins Ant Middleton

What was the biggest thing that the course has taught you?

It taught me self-reliance and I truly feel now that I can overcome anything in my life. We experienced ‘their world’ and I got to ‘face the dragon’ multiple times. This is more than I could have gained from any number of books or movies.

I feel like the DS have imparted tangible gifts to me, in terms of the unique tools and skills I gained from them. The special forces are a unique collection of people and nothing else comes close to what they do. I learnt, practically, how to push my limits beyond anything I knew before and how to tap into huge reserves of power through the techniques of controlled aggression, positivity and limitless belief and self-confidence.

I have also become much more aware and humbled by what Special Forces soldiers go through when they serve and the incredibly difficult conditions under which they operate. They deserve a lot of gratitude and respect and I feel more should be done in society to honour our armed forces.


Pavandeep Singh Sandhu

Do you subscribe to any particular philosophy on life?

I am a Sikh and so I follow the Sikh way of life. The concept of the warrior-saint is very important in the Sikh faith and for me, it is about being a protector and guardian for those who cannot defend themselves and to be someone that makes the world around them a better place. Therefore I need to push myself to be the best I can be so that I may be as useful as I possibly can. What better than the SAS course to learn and test myself?

I am also a believer in Stoicism, which essentially isn’t much different to concepts within the Sikh faith and together I find these to be a very potent combination.

The speech ‘Man in the Arena’ by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 is my blueprint for life. And I am a strong follower of David Goggins.

 

How do you define mental toughness, and what specific skills do you feel individuals need to be mentally tough? 

I think mental toughness is about having a direction, a goal, and then having the unrelenting drive to achieve that goal. You must resolve to let absolutely nothing get in the way. You must be like a high-calibre armour piercing bullet fired towards a target – no power on this earth will get in your way or disturb your momentum. This is ‘Drive’ and I think it can be cultivated by starting small – just like any other kind of training. RESOLVE to get up at a certain time (slowly get earlier and earlier until you hit your target time). RESOLVE to train X times a week (can be initially once, then twice, and so on). RESOLVE to stick to a certain diet – small changes at a time. Once you start sticking with the small goals, I feel that your brain chemistry and your subconscious start getting wired differently. They learn consistency and discipline and the rewards associated with these things. You then start sticking to bigger goals and plans as it becomes your ‘norm’. It’s just like powerlifting. At the start you may squat an empty bar, then you get used to it and say, add two 10kgs, then two 20kgs…some time down the line you are lifting over twice your bodyweight, but its come from the small steps and small positive decisions you have made of sticking to your workouts over a period of years. It’s the accumulation of important small decisions in our lives (of never giving up and taking the ‘hard road’) that leads us to mental toughness and greatness. I think this is within anyone’s grasp. You just need the courage to take the plunge. And I saw this quality exemplified in the Directing Staff.

 

Pavandeep Singh Sandhu Sikh Warrior

How did you physically prepare yourself for the show? Could you give us an outline of your typical day/week of training?

I had a good strength base from powerlifting, but toned that down a bit and focussed more on running and hill walking with weight. I didn’t have anyone prepared to let me carry them around on my shoulders, unfortunately, as that would have helped! I also had to reduce some of my ‘land-based’ training to take up intensive swimming lessons which took up a lot of time. I was booking two-hour slots at a time and the instructors were surprised and thought I was mad as it was so tiring. I started taking cold baths and showers from mid-July (not too hard at the start because we were having a heatwave). I stuck with it until I went on the course in October and I do believe it paid off to some extent.

As my day job is so busy and as I have to do on-call work, I only really trained 3-4x/week – I would have liked to do more but there just wasn’t any time. 

My typical workout consisted of weight training – hitting the whole body over the course of the week and then finishing each workout with a certain pace of run – medium 5k or hill sprints for example. Also, on top of this, I was taking swimming lessons which ate into my time considerably. Now that I’ve been on the course, I reckon my training wasn’t too bad but the secret to doing well is loaded carries (ideally carrying bodyweight) for distance. And ridiculously high volume press-ups, squats, sit-ups etc. Just to add, loaded carries are an incredible exercise and everyone should be doing them!


When things got tough, what did you call upon to help you push through the pain to the other side?

Really good question – you think you would go on there and have all your motivations on tap – summon images of Rocky Balboa or your favourite motivational quotes etc – but everything is effectively stripped from you. Your ‘image’ and bravado goes. What you ‘think’ you are, goes. You are just left with what you have at your core. I had resolved to never give up.

The best I had managed to swim before going on was 25m in an indoor swimming pool. I had managed that once and had passed the video to the production team. It was enough to get in. During that training attempt, I endeavoured to just never give up even though I was struggling at the end. I just endured, persisted and ground it out. This was the mentality I had to take on the course. Just don’t throw in the towel, keep doing something, keep pushing and grinding and you will find a way through. Even this ‘ability’ is trainable. Whatever your discipline, push yourself and go to that point where thoughts of giving up and stopping start to creep in. Then stay in that place and fight those thoughts. You will win some, and you will lose some. But with practice and the more time spent in that ‘arena’, your wins will start to increase and you will begin to ‘learn’ the art of not giving up at that level. Then you can increase the ‘load’ and start again – just like any kind of progressive training.

I think you have to be prepared to suffer. If you have this in your heart, you will do well in any aspect of life.

I would like to say I had the teachings from the Sikh faith to call upon – stories and deeds of the great Sikh warriors of old. But even this was stripped from me. Maybe they were seeped into my subconscious and provided support from there, but ultimately, in the darkness, I was always left with one question – ‘do you want to give up? Is this the legacy you want to leave…? No? Then keep going.’

 

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If you could share the most important motivational quote with our members, what would it be?

There are so many, but one which I recite to myself when things get tough is ‘Who’s gonna carry the boats?!?!’ This is something from David Goggins and it means a lot to me as it’s in the context of the hellish BUD/S training Navy SEALS go through. To me, it's saying, ‘If you don’t do this, who will?’ That’s enough for me to dig deep and spring into action.

 

The Fear Bubble - Ant Middleton
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