Need A Role Model? Try Dabo Swinney

Dabo Swinney, head coach of the 2016 National Champion Clemson Tigers, overcame multiple life challenges before reaching the heights of coaching success.

How did Swinney conquer his circumstances when so many others are defeated by life’s misfortunes?

Imagine: Your older brother is injured in a devastating car accident. He spends two weeks in a coma and suffers severe memory loss. The aftereffects from the head trauma lead to a lifetime battle with alcoholism.


Around the same time, your father’s business begins declining. He tries in vain to keep his business afloat and care for his growing family. In the process, he amasses $250,000 of debt. He, too, turns to alcohol. Your once average American family life is now filled with daily tension, distress and domestic abuse.

Some nights you escape to the roof of your house for a few minutes of peace. You even sleep in the family car to avoid the turmoil.


The abuse takes its toll. Your parents divorce. The family home is foreclosed. Your older brothers have moved away and are now on their own. You and your mother are forced to bounce between motels, your grandmother’s small apartment and charitable friends for lodging.


Resilience Can Be Learned and Mastered

“A lot of kids would’ve gone the other way and not dealt with it,” Dabo’s mother, Carol McIntosh, said in this 2016 article about her son. “Dabo was a very positive person, always saw the good and thought he could make it work. He was no different then than he is now. He kept me laughing and motivated me, even in my darkest days.”

An optimistic outlook doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It also doesn’t take away the heartache we face during life’s disappointments. However, optimism is a skill that can be developed and honed.

Minda Zetlin, columnist and American Society of Journalists and Authors Board Member, discusses four excellent tips on developing an optimistic mindset.

The first point is my favorite—reframe your mental energy from the problem itself to solving the problem. Doing even one thing to improve a situation moves you from passive participant to active player.

Practicing optimism, even if it doesn’t come naturally, builds resilience. In turn, resilience helps us overcome life’s twists and turns, even when our understanding is foggy from the emotion of the moment.

Swinney seems to have mastered this at a young age: Be positive. See the good. Become a creative problem solver. Keep laughing. Stay motivated.

The Obstacle Is the Way

“You just do what you’ve got to do,” Swinney said. “When you’re in the middle of situations in your life, you just make the best of it. That’s kind of how I’ve always lived my life. That’s, to me, what true peace and happiness is all about.”

It is tempting to point to external circumstances when we suffer setbacks. We can let a broken relationship, a disappointing health diagnosis or other misfortune deal a death blow to our plans and dreams.

Yet Swinney personifies the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi ya oki”.

Translation: “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.”

Our challenges pave the way for our triumphs. They mold us into the people we become. We only succumb to them when we give up, when we quit.

While there are certain times we should thoughtfully and intelligently quit (see Seth Godin’s, “The Dip”), we often raise the white flag too soon. Don’t do it. Stand up that eighth time.

Nana korobi ya oki.

Who’s On Your Team?

A piece of wisdom that has stuck with me for years: “We become the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”

It’s a spin on another old saying, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.”

Despite the disappointment of Swinney’s early years, there was still tremendous love in his life. He had a core group of people who supported and encouraged him. His mother was one of the strongest.

“When you go back and talk about those things, it churns up so many memories because it was hard and our hearts were so broken. But those were some of the happiest times of my life because we were together, we were safe and we were peaceful,” McIntosh said. “We didn’t have much, but we had everything we needed: We were together.”

Having the right people on your life “team” will make or break you.

The energy vampires? Cut bait—immediately. The authentic supporters, encouragers, friends and advocates? Seek them out and cherish them.

Do the key people in your life love, support and encourage you? Even better, do they admonish you in love if you get off track?

From what I know of him, Swinney would be the first to tell you he didn’t achieve his success alone. There were mentors, friends and family who all played a part, and still play a part, in his story.

It’s a story that deserves to be shared and modeled because the world needs more Dabo Swinneys.

For more on Dabo Swinney’s formative years and life story, check this out.

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