In 25 years, as the head coach of the University of Oklahoma Women’s basketball team, Sherri Coale’s number speak for themselves. She led her program to three Final Fours, won six big 12 regular season championships and four Big 12 tournament championships. She also had 19 straight NCAA tournament appearances and made nine Sweet 16 appearances.
Now, she embarks on a completely different journey as a published author. In Rooted to Rise, Sherri Coale shares the indelible truth she’s learned from the people she’s crossed paths with in her life. Today, she joins us on Author Hour to speak about her journey. I’m your host Meghan McCracken.
All righty. Sherri, thank you so much for being with me today on Author Hour.
Sherri Coale: Thank you so much for having me, it’s an honor to be here.
Meghan McCracken: So first off I want to ask you, what brought you to the idea of becoming an author? What inspired you to begin this journey to write and publish a book?
Sherri Coale: Oh, the journey’s been a lifelong one. I was the little [one] who grew up checking out Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from the public library. I mean, little kid, like you know, seventh grade. Crazy stuff like that. I love to read, I always was just enamored with the power of words that are strung together to make sentences, and I’ve just been a lifelong reader and a writer.
I was an English teacher before I was a college basketball coach. I was a high school English teacher while I was coaching high school basketball, and so taught writing and of course was involved with a lot of grading writing, among other things, and then went on to my big life as a college basketball coach and sort of pushed writing to the side, but it was never too far away.
I would journal some but I didn’t have a great opportunity to actually polish things and shine them up and do anything with them. It was just, writing has long been for me a way of understanding the world and things that happened within it. So it’s always been there. I guess, the short answer to your question is it’s always been there sort of bubbling and I always knew that I didn’t want to coach forever.
As much as I loved it and it was a dream job, I didn’t want to do it forever. I knew that there were lots of other things I wanted to do and one of those things was to try to write in such a way that made people think and feel and share it with the world. So since I stepped away from coaching basketball, that’s what I’ve been focusing on.
From Big 12 Conference to Book Shelves
Meghan McCracken: So coming to the journey of writing a book as someone who — you’ve read a lot of other people’s writing, you’ve done a lot of like you said, you created a lot of papers in that realm, was here anything that surprised you in the actual process of creating a book and of getting your stories down on paper? Was there anything that you thought was going to be easy that ended up being hard and vice versa?
Sherri Coale: That’s a great question. Of course, there were surprises for sure and the most difficult part was not the actual writing of it. It was how it all fits together and then the process of moving it out into the world, that’s where the curve was really sharp for me and it’s been super fun. I’ve learned so much about the book’s cover and the way that connects to the content and about marketing and layout, and there were just so many things that I literally knew nothing about at the outset.
So it’s been a journey and it’s made me more attentive to lots of those things, and the books that I pull off the shelf, why do I do it and what do I hope to get, and what caught my attention? That’s been really interesting, to kind of follow those thought patterns that I didn’t pay all that much attention to before.
Meghan McCracken: Amazing. The thing that strikes me so much about your author journey in particular is, you’re coming to it from a career that is so rooted in helping other people become the very best version of themselves. You’ve been a high-level, university-level, women’s basketball coach. You’ve been in NCAA tournaments, you’ve been in Big 12 championships, Big 12 tournaments, and I’m wondering how that long career — it’s really rooted in helping others rise and the title of your book even, Rooted to Rise — I’m wondering how that was applied when you started to sitting down to tell your own stories? How did all of that experience feed into the telling of your own story?
Sherri Coale: Well, I think that the type of writing I do is observational and I had this amazing breeding ground to observe from throughout my career. I mean, the best part of coaching is without a doubt, the people you run into along the way, and coaching is so fantastic because it’s such a vulnerable space and you really get to know other people, and you get to see all sorts of situations and dilemmas and celebrations and tragedies, and there are all sorts of things that you go through together with this ever-changing cycle of people.
There are stories everywhere. I mean, everywhere and so this first book that I’ve written, Rooted to Rise, is a collection of some of those stories, certainly not anywhere close to all of them but it’s just some of the ones that I pulled out and tried to put down on paper as best I could and you know, the great thing about a coaching journey and jotting down those stories that happen along the way is they just become cemented into your heart and your mind, and they really do keep living on and affecting how you live and what you share with other people.
Hopefully, then by sharing this book, that experience gets replicated over and over and over again as people share those and they remind them, hopefully, of their own people, you know? Because the stories in my book are very much my people and they’re very personal, but everybody has people. And hopefully, when the readers read about mine, they’ll think about theirs.
Meghan McCracken: Is there a story from the book that you think is particularly near and dear to you? I know it’s kind of like picking a favorite child, it’s a little hard but because your book is a little more off the beaten path, it’s a collection of stories that structurally, it’s a little different from a lot of other nonfiction books in this realm. Is there a favorite story that you have or one that you really hope, “Okay readers, if you skip all the rest of them, I really want you to believe this one”?
Sherri Coale: Again, a tough question, and I did feel like you were asking me to tell you which is my favorite child and who is the favorite player I ever coached, and what’s the biggest win you ever have. You know, those quantitative things that really can’t be measured in that way, but probably the story that ignited this whole journey was the first story, and I published it in my blog. I started to blog when I decided that I wanted to write a book and to try to get some writing published and get in a rhythm of sitting down every day and you know, putting butt in the chair and writing, and so the blog helped me do that.
The first story that I published there in the blog was called “The Arm of His Chair” and it’s about my father and his struggle with dementia in the final few years of his life, and that one is, it’s probably the anchor and there are some stories about people passing. There’s definitely a string of grief throughout the book but grief in a positive way, in terms of all the good stuff that comes before a loss and all the good stuff that keeps hanging around after it because of what that person left in you when they leave this world.
So the story about my dad is, it’s really raw and real and again, was written to help me process. Once I got the vein open, it just poured out onto the page and it was just my way of dealing with and navigating the very difficult times that surround the loss of a loved one.
Meghan McCracken: I hear from authors a lot that when they work on more memoir-focused content, where you are diving deep into your own thoughts, your own feelings, your own memories, that it can really kick up a lot of dirt from the bottom of the ocean floor. I’m wondering if their process of writing this deeply personal content, was there anything else that got picked off for you? Was there any additional emotional journey that were surrounded the writing of this, looking at these stories?
Sherri Coale: You know, I think what it did for me was figure out how to repurpose things. You go through things and you have this feeling, sometimes it’s grief, sometimes it’s elation, if you’re winning the championship. Sometimes it’s disappointment, if your best player gets hurt. Sometimes it’s enlightening through the actions of a teacher.
There are all these things but whatever that episode is that occurs, that is the central piece of the story. Going back to that moment and reliving it as you write about it, and then repurposing it to have a positive impact going forward, whatever it is, and that repurposing I think, more than anything, to the point of your question, what that has done for me is a sort of lasered in every experience that I have.
It’s like, you know the eye doctor and they slide those lenses in front of your eyes, you know? And they say, “Is it better now or better now? How is it now, how is it now?” They switch them out. It’s like, I got the right lenses on there and so I’m able to look at things that are happening and think about how purposeful this will be down the road in a lot of situations, and that’s been really cool to have that lens to look through.
Meghan McCracken: What are some of the main themes you would say that thread throughout all of the stories in your book? Can you pick out a few of the major themes that developed as your own?
Sherri Coale: Well, I mentioned grief and there is some of that because the first section of the book talks about family and they’re all gone from this earthly life, and so there’s a little bit of that. There’s a string of awareness that is woven through it in that if you pay attention, things look different and how often we don’t truly pay attention.
There’s definitely a string of connections that’s woven through it in terms of players and teams and journeys that we went on together, and I think that connection applies. There’s at least two stories about children who we built relationships with through children’s hospitals that were going through cancer battles and the impact that those kids had because of their connection with myself and with our players on the team as we went on down our collective journeys.
We’re trying to win basketball games, they’re trying to beat cancer. Two wildly different things and yet, a connection in the middle of that that you know, you’re throwing your heart and soul in the ring, whatever it is, so connections play a big role in that. I just think friendship and valuing relationships with other people, recognizing people for traits that they have that are unique and extraordinary in their own way, that’s a piece of it too.
I think it’s for parents and teachers and coaches and all kinds of different people because I think there’s the universal themes that draw those people together.
Meghan McCracken: I totally agree. I think the connection theme throughout comes through so clearly and especially because you’re writing throughout the book, there’s a poetic quality to the imagery that you use. You use these themes of “rooting” and especially in the introduction, this beautiful imagery of the redwoods along the coast of California and I’m wondering how those images came to you?
It’s not common for a first-time author to have such a deep rooting in imagery and more poetic language. Did that come to you naturally, were you inspired by other writing? How did that come to you?
Sherri Coale: Yeah again, another great question, and the way it all got sewn together was super cool and fun. I’m going to tell this quick little story because it applies to your question. When I put all of my stories together — and they’re really personal essays but — when you stick all these stories together, I was trying to figure out how to link them and I had a title that I liked, but when I started working with the folks at Scribe and we went through at title.
They asked a question, “Are you committed to the title, do you love the title?” and I said, “That’s a great question because I really, really like it but I don’t think I love it. It’s made me itch from the time I stuck it on there like it’s just almost right but it’s not quite” and they said, “All right, let’s do a little title workshop.”
So I had a lovely woman, Amy Hendrickson, I believe, there’s two Amy’s, I don’t want to get the name wrong but I think that’s her name. We went through a title workshop together and it was a crazy, almost grueling, but yet exhilarating process, a little bit like getting a basketball team ready.
Exhilarating but grueling at the same time and she had just asked me a lot of questions about various stories and we kept going back to this idea of connection and really being tied together and I said to her one day, “You know, a story that I use when I speak all the time, like I used to with my teams, when I go talk to donors or people in the community, I would often talk about the building of our team is like a redwood tree because its roots don’t go down and attach to the very core of the earth, they instead reach out and wrap around each other and in essence, those trees hold each other up and that’s what teams do.”
And Amy was just like, “That’s it. It’s something to do with the tree and maybe you specifically, a redwood tree.” So we just went down this journey of playing with words and arranging them one way and then the other and developing what that title would look like, and I went to bed that night, woke up the next morning, went straight to my computer and wrote the introduction to the book and I knew exactly what the thread was that would weave it all together then, the theme of the redwood tree and the sections just landed on me.
It all just happened immediately. I just literally went to bed, woke up and [sat] down at the computer and put the sections in the order. The stories were written but I tied them altogether through the metaphor that day and Amy was so instrumental in that process of digging down to exactly what it is. That’s the thing I love so much about writing is words have such shades and nuances.
Getting exactly the right ones and making that itch go away that I had with the title that almost fit but didn’t, that’s the business of it and that’s when it can be I think most impactful. I think that’s when it hits the hardest and the clearest is when you find that exact appropriate way to attach it together, whether it be through a word or phrase. So that’s a really long-winded answer to your question but that was an incredible process to be a part of.
Honing the Craft of Writing
Meghan McCracken: I love the way that you described the feeling of everything just falling into place once you had to write, you’d scratch that itch and you had exactly the right connector. As a writer myself, I know that feeling so well. It’s like you’ve got a lot of discorded notes and then suddenly everything harmonizes and the whole structure just comes together. It makes me wonder also again, back to your background, which I am just so interested in.
Your career as a coach and how it’s related to your new career as an author, I imagine that it’s really similar in coaching a team that you’re forming these connected relationships and it is really the relationships of these people that enable the game to harmonize, enable the place to work. How much do you think that that experience in really deep relationship building with members of teams for 25 years? Do you think that that was a big piece of the connective theming of the book?
Sherri Coale: Yeah, I think that it was. I think there’s kind of two different things here that makes me think of two different paths and one being that, that as I mentioned earlier, it was just this beautiful breeding ground for all of these colorful stories and this opportunity for me to run smack into some incredible human beings, whether they’d be players on my team, people on my staff, donors, mentors just the people that the profession ran me into was such a blessing.
So there’s just this never-ending stream of stories that can come from that when you have all of these rich relationships, so that part on the one road if you will. The other thing that’s on the other side is that the craft of writing, the actual craft of it regardless of what you’re creating, if it is a more common non-fiction — I call them how-to’s books — or if it is a fiction book or if it’s a true memoir, whatever type of writing you’re doing, the craft and what’s required from the craft is so eerily similar to what’s required of a high-level athlete.
I think that that’s probably extrapolated across the spectrum for high achievers, for people who are trying to do things at a really elite level and it starts with you get up every day and you put your butt in the chair and some days, what you write is just trash. I mean, you get up after two hours and go, “That is literally horrible”, delete and you’re done and the same thing happens as an athlete.
You go to the gym some days and you can’t get the ball to go in the basket and you spend two hours and you’re like, What did I do besides practice a really bad habit? apparently because nothing went well but it is the going back every day and priming the pump and priming the pump and priming the pump and always being present with the work that ultimately lends itself to the results that you want and to get lost in that process.
You know, when I am writing and that’s flowing as we talked about just a second ago and everything is working and it is making sense, you’re like, “I’m in. I got in the vein. This is a good one, I’m in” you’re going, you feel like you haven’t done anything. When you get up you’re just like, “I can’t believe I sat there for three hours. That was incredible.” You know, you’re in the zone. The same thing happens as a basketball player.
There is days you go to the gym and you’re just in there working for two hours by yourself, you leave and you’re like, “Oh my gosh, that was incredible. I can’t believe I was there for two hours. It felt like two minutes.” The juice it gives you because you’re in a place where your heart sings, and so those two different aspects of the journey are both so related to what I did for 25 years.
Meghan McCracken: I love how you talk about the importance of practice. So often I hear from people that you know, they’ll be talking about an artist or writer, a musician or someone in a creative profession and they almost see it as, “Well, they just have talent” and what they’re not seeing is all of the hours of work and discipline and practice and when people think of sorts, I think they naturally understand, “Oh, they must have practiced a lot.”
Clearly, they’re talented but there is so much practice that goes in. With writing, so much of the same discipline and practice and just you have to sit down every day and you have to do it. How did you approach the actual sitting down and doing the work, which does require discipline and consistency just like sports?
Sherri Coale: Yeah, I think for me it was identifying the period of time where it flows best, where I think best. I’m much better in the morning. I know some people are late-night writers, that is not me, too much is going on and it is too noisy in my head to find that spot typically late at night. So it is early mornings for me. I love the outdoors and I’ve got a spot in my backyard where I go at the cabana and I write.
I call it my office and there’s just a spot, there’s a chair I prefer and I think surroundings do matter. I think you kind of set yourself up for success when you have a place that you’re comfortable, where you have what you need. You know, one of the things many writers do are morning pages, you know, where you write almost stream of consciousness and you just write and it’s crazy how the surface you’re writing on matters.
The pen you’re using matters when you do that. If you are not comfortable, if it’s awkward, if it doesn’t work well, you are not as productive and so I think preparing your surroundings is really, really important to be able to access what you want to access for creativity. But you are so right that people will say, “Oh, well that’s easy for you” and you’re like, “Really? Not really.” Sometimes there’s a whole lot of sweat involved.
It is hard to explain to someone who is not in a creative situation how much work, like grueling grinding work, goes into it. I’ve read like Ann Pachett is one of my favorites, Anna Quindlen is one of my favorites. I actually have a blog that is titled “The Three Ann’s” because Ann Patchett, Anna Quindlen and Anne Lamott are probably my Mt. Rushmore of writers, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, she talks about how hard it is and how awful it is.
How she hates, she actually uses the word hate, “I hate it some days” but you love where it takes you eventually, and so I think that’s an essential thing for a lot of people to understand about whatever it is they do. There’s parts of anything that is worthwhile that are really, really hard. I have two children, and raising children is very, very hard but it is also incredible. So there is always that side of it and the idea is just to keep pushing.
Meghan McCracken: I love that. What it always strikes me is when they say something like you said, “Oh that’s easy for you” what’s always going through my head is, “You have no idea how worn out the backspace key is on my keyboard” and how much just gets deleted, deleted, deleted, how much writing the world never sees.
When you turned in your manuscript to begin working on editing, was there any emotional moment for you of, “Well, I have really created this baby and I poured a lot of myself into this and my time and my sweat” and all of these emotions, what did it feel like to turn it over to begin to work with an editor and begin to start down the road toward publishing the book and sharing it with the world?
Sherri Coale: Well, what it felt like immediately was when I was running around in my front yard without any clothes on, that’s what it felt like. I mean, it’s just, you know and then for me it was stages like you share it with an editor, and alright, you’re naked. You see me now, okay, getting okay with that and then as it gets closer to the book actually launching, it feels a little bit like you’re going to be running down the freeway in Los Angeles naked where the world can see you.
It is a very hard to describe thing, writing is so personal. Now, it doesn’t matter, my story is very personal but it doesn’t really matter. You can be writing about leadership and it’s personal, and that sounds like something that’s not but it is or it can be writing about anything that’s instructive. When you are putting words around the thing, you are a part of the words that are going on the page, so it is personal.
I would argue that’s personal regardless of what you are writing about and so that part of it, there is a little anxiety with that. There is a little bit of apprehension, a whole lot of excitement but it is hard to explain if you haven’t done it. I thought I could predict how it would feel and if I tried to write it down, I wouldn’t have been accurate. It is something that you kind of got to go through to experience and that’s been fun. It’s been fun but again, there is a little bit of anxiety there.
Meghan McCracken: Definitely. Any time you are sharing this incredibly personal piece of yourself with anyone else and let alone strangers who are professionals and telling you whether or not, “Hey, this is good” or bad or “This is publishable” or not, there is always that moment of, “Did I really write a book or am I fooling myself here?” I love that. So how are you feeling heading toward your official book launch?
The book is going to be published and out in the world, you’ll be a published author. How is that feeling for you?
Sherri Coale: It’s rewarding. That is probably the best word I can attach to it and I know that’s not a very unique or specific word but it’s the culmination of a lot of things that I’ve loved. It is sort of like everything gets to converse in this first one. I could have written a lot of different books and I have a lot of different books in my head and hopefully will get those down on paper at some point too.
But this one was like the convergence of all the pieces of my world, and that is to be able to have that and hold it in my hand is a really surreal thing and then to be able to share it with those people who I write about in the book. It was funny, I shared everyone’s story with them or with the family member if someone had passed, just their story for obviously, I wanted them to feel good about it before it went out into the world and for them to approve my telling of it.
That was important to me but I have some stories about players and almost to a person, they would pick the thing of like, “Really, did you have to say I was vertically challenged? Couldn’t you have left that line out?” and it was just so funny to watch them interact with the material, and a former college professor and to share that with him, that part of it just really surreal and special.
Then the other piece is just that I hope that when people read it, it makes them think and feel and to pause for a second and think that maybe something that you do in the world can give somebody that, a moment to think and feel. It is pretty special and so it is a good space. It is a good space to be in right now.
Meghan McCracken: I love that. Well, thank you so much Sherri for joining me here today and I want to make sure that everyone knows that besides checking out the book, where can they find you? Where is your blog, where can they look you up and get to know you?
Sherri Coale: Sherricoale.com is my website. Funny story there, when I got ready to put a website together, the gal who is helping me said, “All right, what do you want it to be called?” and I started throwing out these different names and she was like, “No, your name needs to be on it,” and I was like, “What? That’s so narcissistic. I am not naming my website with my name.” She goes, “How will people find you?” and I was like, “Oh, that’s a good idea.”
So it’s just my name, it is easy to find, sherricoale.com and I have a weekly blog and the subscription is free, you get a newsletter in addition once a month if you subscribe to it. I’ve been putting my butt in the chair for a year in some change, so there are close to 70 blogs there now and there’s information about me, my background and the coaching piece and all of that and also [a] contact space where I do public speaking and there’s an opportunity there to contact me for that as well. Then obviously, information about the book specific about where you can find it and when it’s released and what local bookstores are carrying it, et cetera.
Meghan McCracken: Incredible. Thank you so much for being with me. The book is called, Rooted to Rise, and you can find it on Amazon and most digital platforms. Congratulations Sherri and thanks so much for being here.
Sherri Coale: Thank you, Meghan, it’s been an honor.