Charli Turner Thorne is known as the winningest coach in Arizona State Women’s Basketball history with a total of 380 victories in 19 seasons. This year she was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year, for the second time I should add.
“Everybody on our team is going to lead. I want every woman to leave this program as an amazing, strong, caring leader that’s going to make difference in her communities, society or world.” Charli Turner Thorne
Charli is a legend in the world of women’s college basketball. She is beginning her 20th season at ASU, having recorded the 400th victory of her career just last year. Pretty impressive!
Her Sun Devils team made it to the post season 16 of the last 17 years. They went to the NCAA Tournament for five consecutive appearances. I was happy to welcome this amazing leader and coach to The Women’s Eye Radio Show…
EYE: Are you tired of hearing all those phenomenal statistics?
CHARLI: Well, I don’t really hear them that often. All you think about when you hear that is all the people you’ve been working with. It wasn’t just me. There are amazing young women, staff, etc. It’s been a fun journey.
EYE: In your wildest dreams did you ever imagine that you would have that kind of success?
CHARLI: No, I don’t really think that way. I just think I’ve been blessed. You can have a lot of accolades, and then, if you can’t quite get it done, you’ll be looking for another job.
I am so blessed to be at Arizona State for as long as I have and have the support of the administration and leadership with amazing young women. You know this is all I’ve ever done, professionally. I’ve just been able to mentor and coach, and it’s been really fun.
Actually, I think more in terms of significance, rather than success, in my ability to impact people. Sports is a great platform for impact. Our players use it with their social media.
We tell them that if they are going to be on media, inspire people. Say something positive. You have this small window in your life that people actually care what you think.
EYE: You have a really great background. You played at Stanford and received your undergraduate degree in psychology, which is perfect for what you are doing. You also have a Masters in Education from the University of Washington, again very apropros. Did you always know you wanted to be a coach?
CHARLI: My plan was actually to be a sports psychologist. I was maybe going to get my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and go that route. Then, I had the opportunity to be a graduate assistant coach at the University of Washington and get my Masters.
That was a wonderful opportunity to test the waters. I asked myself, do I want academia or do I want to coach? I was coaching before I could drive. I grew up playing in the Parks League in the San Fernando Valley, California. They had this little basketball team and they had two girls on it.
Nobody wanted to coach it; none of the volunteer coaches wanted that team because it had two girls on it. And they said, “Hey, Charli, you want to coach this team?“ I think I was 14. It was great. I remember waiting for parents to pick us all up.
I coached camps in college. I loved it. When I had my experience at the University of Washington, that was amazing. We were a top ten team; we outdrew the men there. It was just amazing!
EYE: What makes it amazing for you?
CHARLI: I love the game. I really enjoy teaching the game. That’s a gift. There’s a little bit of women’s intuition; being in tune with people; being able to push the right buttons and motivate.
The fun thing with coaching is I started it because I loved the game. Now 28 years later, I can honestly say I have really grown in my purpose in terms of why I coach.
I say we really need more women leaders. We are going to grow these women as leaders. We are going to help them gain perspective and grow their purpose. We want them to enjoy their college experience, but we really want to help these women, in whatever industry they pick, be amazing.
EYE: You stepped away in 2011-12 year at the top of your game, taking a sabbatical. What prompted you to make that decision? I know you stunned a lot of people.
CHARLI: In coaching, you work every day. If you truly want to be successful – the way I do it, the way I’m available to my players – I wake up and think about them. I go through every player and try to figure out how I am going to help her.
I am managing about 100 relationships a day. That doesn’t go away. It’s kind of crazy, keeps me really really busy. The time to reflect, the time to get better professionally, just wasn’t there the way I needed it.
Then there was the personal side. I was great at telling everybody about work-life balance. I didn’t have it. I didn’t know what it really was. I wasn’t the wife I wanted to be and I wasn’t the mom I wanted to be. Something had to give.
I wanted a true sabbatical, some time to myself and I wanted some time to grow as a professional.
EYE: We spoke about the parallels between what I did leaving my news anchor job and your sabbatical. I remember people saying when I made the announcement, “Wow. That must have been a difficult decision.” Actually, I thought that was probably the easiest decision I’ve ever made. That meant I was doing the right thing. Did you feel that way?
CHARLI: I did feel that way. I felt an instant clarity in my head and mind once I made the decision. Then I had a pit in my stomach because of the team I was leaving.
We commit to each other in athletics. It’s family. It goes way beyond the court. The way we do it at ASU is that these are relationships for life. That was gut-wrenching.
EYE: What was the reaction from the team at that time?
CHARLI: We all cried. I will say it was an amazing group. They were really happy for me, genuinely. There was no anger. There were no “How could you do this to me?”
EYE: You are a wife and a mom to three boys. How old are they now?
CHARLI: Conor is 17, Liam, 15, and Quinn, 12.
EYE: How did they react? When I told my then 11-year-old son, he said “Wait, does that mean you get to see all my baseball games? Then he said, Yesss!”
CHARLI: I had never been home when my kids got home from school. That first day when I was home it was like,”Hey, oh, do you want a snack? What do I now? Do you have homework?”
Four years before, my son Liam would say that I spent more time with the sisters than I did with them. And, that was a reality check. I said, “Yes. God put me here to do more than to just raise you. I’m here for you. Tell me what you need.” That was my response at the moment.
We made a bucket list. We had never had Thanksgiving at home. I had always been traveling. We never had a vacation in July because that was a huge recruiting time.
Getting to be at all of their “stuff” was great. It had always been a constant juggling and looking for those windows of opportunities.
EYE: Little things like driving my son to school became big things. Was that the same for you?
CHARLI: If you are a stay-at-home mom, first of all I salute you! God bless you! My husband stayed home for five years after we had our third son. Sometimes he had so much on his plate. When I was in some hotel in some city, I wished I could be driving them around.
Driving somewhere with them is sometimes how you get to know them, connect, and have those conversations. I treasure that time now and constantly plan for those times. I know they’ll be gone before we know it.
EYE: In addition to family time that year, what were the biggest things that you learned for yourself that helped you when you came back?
CHARLI: When my kids started school in August, I was right back working on being the best teacher I could be. I worked on mentoring and really studying leadership.
In our society today we put kids in organized sports when they are 3 years old. They are just not developing the leadership skills like the way I did. In my day I was the coach, the official, and we organized our own games. Now, everything is done for them.
There are phenomenal athletes that don’t have the same leadership skills. I knew that but I didn’t think I was being impactful in developing leaders. I returned with this model of horizontal leadership.
Everybody on our team is going to lead. I want every woman to leave this program as an amazing, strong, caring leader that’s going to make difference in her communities, society or world. The only way to do that is not to talk about it but to give them leadership challenges.
EYE: What are the keys to that? How do you do that?
CHARLI: It may be as simple as, “Hey, Sally is feeling homesick this week. Maybe you’d like to get some yogurt with her, just talk to her, listen and help her out.”
Then at the end of the week I follow up and would call “you” and find out how it went. You might say you forgot and then I would say, “Well, let’s talk about that.” If you said “It went great. She opened up, She’s good, just needed to talk about it.” I would ask if you were able to help her and offer some follow up skills. It’s really simple.
EYE: So when they graduate, whatever they choose to do, they have those skills to be an effective leader.
CHARLI: That’s our goal.
EYE: How much does energy impact what you do? How do you lead your team?
CHARLI: Energy is everything. We talk about energy management daily. There is a great book about energy management, Power of Full Engagement by James Loehr and Tony Schwartz. I’ve been working with energy psychology, trying to help our young women.
The number one complaint among student athletes across the country in all sports is low energy. If you ask kids, they really care about how they spend their money; they really care about how they use their time; but they tend to waste a lot of energy.
They give energy to things they really don’t need to. We really educate our women on how to energize themselves as well as about their mental and emotional energy. Positive energy is important.
EYE: For young girls who are listening, what is your one piece of advice for them moving forward, whether they want to go and play basketball or coach, or whatever?
CHARLI: Believing in themselves. It starts from there. It’s not easy. If you are willing to work, then you can have what you want.
EYE: Great advice, Coach! Charli is on Twitter with some really inspirational thoughts at: @ASUCoachCharli. Wishing you continued success! Thank you so much! You can click here for season tickets to Sun Devil Women’s Basketball games!
Basketball Photos: Sun Devil Athletics
TWE Radio Photos: P. Burke