Cheryl Jean-Paul – Head Coach, Trinity Western University Women’s Basketball (U SPORTS)
By Dashawn Stephens, PRSVRE
Humble beginnings are all Cheryl Jean-Paul can recall in her early days of playing basketball. The Trinity Western Head Coach first discovered her passion for the sport as a child while shooting hoops in her driveway. She would spend hours working on her shot as she fell in love with the idea of perfecting a game that was gradually growing onto her. Jean-Paul was a multi-sport athlete in her teens, as she played basketball, volleyball and competed in track and field. However, she committed to the sport of basketball because she knew she could reach her fullest potential. In addition, the sport brought out a work ethic in her that demanded greatness as it was fuelled by genuine passion.
“Self motivation was the key, I remember having to drive half an hour to play against other guys…so much of what we did, we had to do for ourselves. We didn’t have the fancy gyms, the private trainers, all we had was the passion”
Jean-Paul’s love for basketball brought her to the University of Manitoba where she played for the Bisons for five years, while pursuing a Bachelors Degree in Science.
In her third season at the University of Manitoba, Jean-Paul began coaching basketball at a local highschool. Coaching not only helped her discover her voice, it also helped Jean-Paul realize that she possessed an encyclopedia of experiences that she was eager to pass on to the next generation of athletes.
With her sights set on coaching, Jean-Paul would transition into an assistant coaching role for the Women’s Basketball team at Manitoba immediately after concluding her playing career. Jean-Paul would serve as an Assistant Coach for two seasons before being named the Head Coach at Red River College (CCAA) in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Jean-Paul’s tenure at RRC was a huge stepping stone in her coaching career, as she credits the experience with helping her “place a stamp” on her coaching ideologies. Jean-Paul’s tenure at RRC was highlighted by coaching the Rebels to a Manitoba Colleges Conference (MCC) Championship in 2009.
In 2010, Jean-Paul would move on to the next chapter of her coaching career, as she became the Head Coach of Women’s Basketball at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia.
Upon her arrival, the Spartans had accumulated a record of 62-198 from 2000 to 2009. Accepting the job at TWU meant that Jean-Paul was faced with the task of having to rebuild a program that held a long-standing culture that lacked success.
“The hardest part of rebuilding is getting people to buy into what you’re building…we had to change the culture…culture is the body of the iceberg where your program is developed, your record may not change for 2-3 years, but you’re building the foundation”
At a program where head coaches had historically stayed for only 2-3 seasons, Jean-Paul knew that rebuilding the Trinity Western Spartans would be a longterm commitment. The Spartans went from going 3-21 in their first season with Jean-Paul, to going 16-4 in their seventh season.
Now entering her eleventh season at TWU, Cheryl Jean-Paul has built the Spartans into a competitive powerhouse within the Canada West Conference. In her ten seasons, the Spartans have accumulated 103 wins and have made 4 playoff appearances. Jean-Paul has written a decade-long chapter in Spartans history that overshadows the decades that have preceded her.
“The most exciting thing was knowing we had done it the right way, we didn’t cut corners. We recruited the right type of athletes, great people, and emphasized who we were becoming off the court”
Off The Court Culture
As much as Cheryl Jean-Paul looks forward to building a winning culture on the court, she seeks to also build a culture of character growth with her athletes off the court. She seeks to help her athletes use their post-secondary opportunities to truly discover their passions and aspirations while they are still getting an education.
“As coaches, how do we create [a] scene for our athletes to discover certain things and gain perspective before they graduate?”
As a school that is an “arm of the Church”, Trinity Western University is an institution that aims to create positive and goal-oriented leaders. Jean-Paul takes pride in this mission, and ensures that she provides opportunities for her athletes to grow as leaders during their university experience.
“The sport takes up 95% of your time when you’re in highschool, but your sport shouldn’t take up 95% of your time when you’re [in university]…If you walk in when you’re 18 years-old and leave the same person when you’re 23, I don’t care if you’ve won 5 national championships, that program has failed you”
Jean-Paul is use to being a culture changer as her success at RRC and TWU are well documented. However, she is also recognized as a barrier breaker. Becoming the head coach at TWU in 2010 made Chery Jean-Paul one of the first Black Female head coaches in U SPORTS basketball history. Jean-Paul has always viewed her job beyond the realms of just coaching, as she has always looked to pave the way for Black Females within the industry.
“When you are the only women or only person of colour, you get use to thinking you represent an entire group right now, and how you perform will affect everyone that comes after you”
With most of her basketball life playing out in Western Canada, Jean-Paul sites representation as one of the biggest issues facing the Western Canadian basketball community.
“That’s where I see the systemic racism. Often times if you don’t know anyone or no one knows you, when do you get your opportunity? We see [only] what we know, if someone doesn’t look like us or grow up the [same] way we’ve grown up, we get uncomfortable, and so I’ve challenged people to leave their comfort zone”
Jean-Paul wants to see the sport of basketball in Western Canada became more inclusive as she has uncovered a systemic resistance to give opportunities to athletes and coaches of colour. She feels that one of the key factors in changing representation is making the sport of basketball more affordable for young athletes. As someone who only had to rely on highschool basketball as her path to a scholarship, Jean-Paul has noticed that the rise of club basketball has created financial stress for the young athletes of today and their parents.
“The challenge is that basketball has become an expensive sport to play, and that is a challenge in itself. Now if you can’t pay thousands of dollars to play on club teams it’s hard to become known. Its become about socioeconomics, thats where the systemic racism is…I think the first thing we have to do is make sure the sport stays accessible to athletes at all levels, which means we have to re-evaluate the pathway”
Taking Action in the West
With the likely cancellation of collegiate basketball in the 2020-21 calendar year, Jean-Paul welcomes the hiatus as she see’s it as an opportunity for all institutions to re-evaluate their equity and inclusion practices. With the temporary pause of meetings, practices and ultimately competition, Jean-Paul feels the Canadian sports community has “no excuses” in addressing its systemic flaws.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of changes on court, but also off court because we can look and realize we aren’t doing things the right way…The time for mourning is over. We have the opportunity to pursue things we’ve never pursued before”
Jean-Paul is currently the President of Women’s Basketball in the Canada West Conference and looks forward to leading the quest for change. With the recent creation of the Black, Biracial and Indigenous (BBI) Task Force in Ontario University Athletics (OUA), Jean-Paul is excited to work with her fellow coaches and executives to create an initiative that addresses the systemic issues within the conference. However, before action can be taken, Jean-Paul hopes that there is discussion to identify the voices that need to be amplified.
”One of the things with Canada West would be understanding what the emphasis would be for a task force that we put together…In can-west we have 17 teams and 4 provinces, we need representation from every province and to make sure the northern schools have a voice”
Cheryl Jean-Paul knows that coaches and executives will play a huge role in spearheading the quest for racial equity in Canadian collegiate sports. However, she firmly believes that collegiate athletes can also play a significant role. Jean-Paul wants collegiate athletes to understand the power and influence that their platforms have on younger athletes. She thinks it’s time for the collegiate athletes of today to start taking steps towards becoming the leaders of tomorrow.
“University athletes are role models whether they believe it or not. The things they say, what they post on social media is so important…12 year olds will look up to you, especially as a person of colour and so those athletes need to understand the impact they have on the next generation”
With over 15 years of coaching experience and success at the highschool, collegiate, provincial and national levels, Cheryl Jean-Paul is well recognized as a Trailblazer within not just the Canadian basketball community, but within the entire Canadian coaching community. Her basketball journey has been nothing short of remarkable as she has been able to innovate the cultures of many basketball programs. Success on the court has always been a goal for Jean-Paul, however success in establishing racial equity in sports is at the top of her list.
For the achievements that define her decorated career, as well as her future impacts within the Canadian collegiate landscape, Cheryl Jean-Paul is indeed a Trailblazer in Canadian Heritage and a Leader through Sport.