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An excerpt from the book Against the Grain

Photo: Courtesy of Weinstein Books

Excerpted from AGAINST THE GRAIN: A Coach's Wisdom on Character, Faith, Family, and Love. Copyright © 2014 by Bill Courtney with Michael Arkush. Published by arrangement with Weinstein Books.

There is, however, one possession that can never be taken away as long as you will not allow it to be taken, and that is your word.

When you think of your word in that way, it seems awfully precious, doesn't it?

It sure is, which is why it disturbs me so deeply to watch people throw it away as if it was yesterday's newspaper, rendered obsolete by more late-breaking events. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your word is never out of fashion unless you, and only you, decide that it is.

Then why do we throw it away? Why don't we retain the one object we can control, in a world where events spiral so unpredictably out of control?

The answer is simple: because in our culture we have been taught that there is often no price to pay for breaking our word. In many cases, there is actually a distinct advantage.

What's the harm? someone might ask. As long as nobody gets hurt, it's not as if there's any great loss, right?

Wrong. Every time you fail to live up to a commitment, you lose a piece of your soul that you may never get back. You may still own a mansion or a Mercedes. You could even be, as they say, a "pillar of the community." But with each new deception you will be much less than who you were before.

You will also likely damage, if not destroy, the relationships that matter most, both at home and the workplace. After all, making a commitment, as I define it, is simply doing what you say you're going to do. Each time you break your word, you chip away at the bond you have with the people you cherish. If, for example, you promise your child that you're going to be at his baseball game or attend his school play and then don't show up, each commitment you make after that will be met with increased skepticism. Likewise, why would your boss believe he can depend on you when you've breached his trust over and over by failing to follow through? What else besides total frustration would you expect from your spouse when he or she begins to recognize that your word and your bond aren't the same?

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I could only focus on the kids I supervised, hoping they'd learn from the example of the coaching staff that they, too, could achieve their dreams. We can stage marches and rallies until the end of time, and they surely have their place in a free society, but the real key to resolving the most severe problems in the inner city -- teen-pregnancy, drugs, gangs, unemployment -- is much more fundamental: teach kids the importance of having their own dreams and how to chase them, however grand or modest they might be. If they had a dream, and realized that reaching it would give them a chance at a life so much more fulfilling than those they saw daily, they'd be motivated to pursue it and respect themselves more along the way.

"If that looks bad to you," I would say in practice whenever an addict drove by, "you need to understand that it isn't your destiny. Figure out something you want to do and go after it."

To find their destiny, I suggested the kids examine people ten to fifteen years older and decide if that was the life they could envision for themselves. Whatever it was, I made sure they understood from the start that any worthy dream wouldn't be realized in a hurry. If anything, expecting too much too soon is likely to create impediments that delay or even doom the dream for good.

The best way to increase the chance of success is to break down one large dream into a series of small steps -- each, in a sense, its own dream.

I used this approach quite a bit at Manassas. I made it clear that if the players didn't reach their ultimate goal, it didn't mean they had failed; failure would only occur if they didn't try at all. Reaching each smaller goal was to be celebrated as a significant triumph, and no goal was too minute. That was how they developed enough confidence to keep advancing, although each step was more difficult than the one before.

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Too often, bosses don't serve their employees, and coaches don't serve their players. Most sadly of all, parents don't serve their kids, and the kids suffer the consequences for years. Almost always, the reason for the neglect in each of these areas is a lack of confidence.

For example, as a coach, if you do not believe in your abilities or in your relationship with the players, you may end up being a my-way-or-the highway type, and I have seen more than my share of those at the high school level. They shout and order everyone around, but when they don't get their way, they penalize the kids by having them do a hundred pushups or run laps around the field. Sooner or later, the young men under their wing will fall in line -- he's the coach and they want to play football, right? -- but they won't share the coach's dreams, or trust for a second that he has their best interests at heart. That's because he doesn't.

Then when the team, is trailing by two scores with five minutes to play and the coach needs them to give everything they have, the will won't be there. The coach hasn't serve them, so why should they serve him? They don't care about his dreams, just as he doesn't care about theirs.

That doesn't mean I let my players walk all over me, as I'm sure they would attest. I had only three rules, but I insisted that they be followed with no excuses. I was never hesitant to suspend a player if he broke them and I didn't care how many victories it might have cost me. Victories were the last thing on my mind. The players knew, though, that when I disciplined them it was for their own good and the team's good, and not just a demonstration of my authority.

To purchase a copy of Against the Grain, go here.

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