When you’re the first to begin changing the game, the challenge is to make sure you aren’t the last. That is surely what Jennifer Welter, more popularly known as “Coach Jen,” feels as she continues to write the narrative for women in one of the last frontiers in sports – football. Coach Jen was the first female coach in the NFL (and in Madden), where she teaches her signature defensive strategy to linebackers. Before breaking out into the world of men’s professional football, Welter had a highly decorated fourteen-year career in women’s professional football, winning four National Championships and two gold medals at the International Federation of American Football’s (IFAF) Women’s World Championship. As she joins Rodney Flowers on the show, take inspiration from her amazing story as a player, a coach, a leader, and an inspiration to the people she is working with, and take cues from her insights about leadership and the championship mindset.
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Dominate Your Game: Winning The Last Frontier For Women In Sports With Jennifer “Coach Jen” Welter
I am excited about this show. I’m going to talk to someone who is hitting home for me. You talk about dominating the game. We’re going to talk about dominating the game. We want to talk about changing the game, and then we’re going to talk about how you can do the same thing in your life. This woman right here, that’s dominated about everything that she’s touched in her life. Her name is Dr. Jen Welter, also known as Coach Jen and she’s known for being the best and the first female to coach in the NFL.
She coached the Arizona Cardinals as a linebacker’s coach in 2015. Prior to that, she was a Linebacker’s Coach for the Texas Revolution. Some of you all may not know what that is, but we’re going to get into a talk. We’re going to talk about that a little bit. In 2017, she was the Head Coach for the inaugural Australian Women’s National Team and the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Games. With that, she became the first female Head Coach of a national team. In 2018, she joined the Alliance of American Football as a Defensive Specialist, Assistant Defensive Line Coach.
In 2014, she was the first woman to play running back in men’s professional football league. Prior to joining the world of men’s professional football, she had a highly decorated fourteen-year career in women’s professional football, which included four National Championships and two gold medals as a member of Team USA in 2010 and 2013 International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship. I can go on and on. The list doesn’t stop, but without further ado, Dr. Jen Welter. Welcome.
It is a pleasure to be here. We have a football family we show up for each other. If they don’t play, they don’t know to the extent that it is, but like you’re a part of my football family. You call them and be there.
Thank you. I’m delighted that you and I have football in common, because if you don’t play, you don’t know there’s a camaraderie there. That’s a community. There’s this fellowship, brotherhood, sisterhood, if you will. I’m excited to have you here to have a talk with you. Talk about dominating the game. I’ve got to go over this stuff once again because this is beautiful. A fourteen-year career in women’s professional football, four National Championships, two gold medals as a member of Team USA in 2010 and 2013. You talk about dominating the game. What was it like as a female football player play at that level and accomplish what you’ve accomplished in your career?
For me, I love football as a kid. What made it important to me was it was the first place in the world that somebody told me there was a difference between what girls can do and what boys can do. I don’t understand that. Here’s this game that my whole town shuts down for on a Friday night. These dudes look like superheroes. Pads and helmet and awesome. I was like, “Why don’t I do that?” They’re like, “No. Girls don’t do that.” I was like, “I wasn’t raised like that.” My dad is an Army hero. Two bronze stars and a silver star. It was like, “Be great.” We would go fishing. I caught my first blue marlin at fourteen. You’re on the ride. I’d be like, “You better catch it. Fish doesn’t care if it’s a girl or a boy.” It was surprising to me that this game that we celebrate as Americans were for men only.Football is the final frontier for women in sports. If we can do this, we can do anything. Click To Tweet
I never had a chance to play football until I was 22 years old. I played rugby in college, which at that point, it was the closest I could ever get to football. I had never seen it before, but it was like soccer meets football and you don’t need pads. I was like, “I’m doing this.” I even called our high school football coach, Randy Bethel, who was a big supporter of mine. I was like, “Coach Bethel, I’m going to play rugby.” He was like, “Of course you are.” I ended up playing for BC for all four years. I got recruited to the under 23 national team. At which point I think they figured out how small I am because I did not make the national team.
I got an opportunity to try out for the Mass Mutiny, which was the women’s pro football team that was near me in Boston at that time. They call it a flag league. I was playing in and asked if they had any girls who were playing that they thought would play tackle. Full disclosure, having come from rugby. I don’t think I ever realized that I wasn’t tackling in flag. They were probably like, “Please take her. She does not play by our rules. She should not be playing flag.” I got this opportunity to go for an open tryout. To me, it was like that crush that you always hoped would notice you. All of a sudden, they do. You’re like, “What if he has sweaty palms or he can’t kiss?” What if it’s not as good as I thought? What if I don’t make it? I was close to the love of my life that I got nervous. I remember thinking, “Maybe I shouldn’t go. What if they told me I can’t do this?” I tell that story to everybody who has ever been close to something good. Here I am. It’s the love of my life. It’s the thing I always wanted to do. I have an opportunity right there and I almost didn’t go.
As somebody who went on to do all of those things that you listed in the resume, we all have that moment of insecurity or fear. What I realized was that I could live with not making it. I could live with them telling me I was too small yet, which at 5’2”, maybe 125 pounds. I had heard quite a few times nobody ever slated me as someone they would expect to be one of the best football players in the world one day. It never happened, FYI. I could live with that. I had been living with that. What I couldn’t live with was wondering for the rest of my life what would have happened if I would’ve gone to that trial. When I made the team that day, without a doubt, I knew it was what I was supposed to do with my life. This is where I’m supposed to be in a place that women weren’t supposed to be at all. We were all wrong enough to be right together. I promised myself that I would step up to every challenge the game put in my way.
It wasn’t some big, “I’ll be in the NFL one day,” or “I’ll coach there,” or “I’m going to play for the national team.” That didn’t exist. There was no national team when I started. There weren’t these big places that women could go to football. When it doesn’t exist, when that path isn’t there, you have to make a promise to yourself in how you’re going to approach each day. Literally, for me, it was, “I’m going to step up to every challenge.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into with that promise. Still, the way I look at it to this day, for women in football, it’s so ironic to me at times. It’s American football. It’s our sport. We claim it. We dominate it. No one does it as we do, yet it’s only for half the world. We only embrace it for a statement of our manhood and our masculinity in the United States. Yet there are women who love and play the game. There are women who are sacrificing like I did to be able to step on the field.
People talk about A League of Their Own as a movie to this day. I think it holds no candle. I loved it too, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the women playing football because we were the ones pulling our cars up to the field so we could have lights to practice. We were the ones walking the fields to make sure that there weren’t needles or that big rock or things like glass and stuff that we couldn’t play around. If we couldn’t move it, we would have to put a cone or something on it so that we wouldn’t hurt ourselves beyond the game. That was all of us. It teaches you this mentality of we’re all in this together, we have this belief that if football is the final frontier for women in sports, then if we can do this, can’t we do anything. You do become the outsiders that are so strong for each other that people don’t even understand why we roll the way we do. A lot of that is still happening for women in football.
There’s a second thing that we have in common because I too made that commitment to do something. It was a lifelong commitment, more like a declaration. To get up off the field and walk again was my declaration. When I made that declaration lying in the hospital bed, it was the fear of not making that declaration and what life would look like. It was okay if I failed, if I tried and if I didn’t get there, but I couldn’t live with not trying. That was more debilitating to me than trying and failing because I didn’t know what that would look like.
We need purpose. We are purpose-driven creatures. That’s why we always say in football, “Football, family, and faith.” Those are about playing for something bigger than yourself. I always say in a lot of the things that I’ve done, “If it was just me, if it had no implications for anyone else, would I have done it?” Probably not. Not at certain times. Would I have run into some big giant person and hit them if it didn’t mean I was taking it away from my teammates? Hopefully not because I’d be in jail, but there’s a purpose to it. It’s my job to protect her and to do that because of my team and to sacrifice myself. Us in isolation, as humans, it’s hard. You might slip in on yourself one day or you might skip a day or you might this, but when it impacts someone else or a greater purpose or a challenge or something, then we can be imperfectly perfect. I tell people all the time, “Motivation is not constant.” Let’s be straight up on it. There are some days when you feel like you could run a marathon. There are other days when you might leap tall buildings in a single bound.
There are some days where the best that you have is to shuffle in slippers. You can’t pick your feet up too high because the slippers will get all crunched up underneath your feet. What you didn’t do is nothing. Even if it was a self-care day, even if it was a day where you needed to veg out, that was a day that allowed you the day when you might run a marathon. I think people forget that too often. People are like, “How did you never quit?” I laugh. I say, “There may have been days that I quit like 5 or 6 times.” The next day I was like, “What do I do?” Maybe I’m going to quit doing it that particular way because that was not doing anything for me, but you can’t quit what’s here. You can’t quit yourself. This is a part of who I am. Any of the accolades are a manifestation of being consistent in sticking to the core of who I am. Those days look often different and it sure has evolved, but I can’t quit being me. It’s not like I can look at you one day and be like, “Not today. Maybe tomorrow.”
Not only did you do all of that though as a female football player. Those are awesome success stories, but then you went on to change. You went from dominating the game in the women’s football league to changing the game in the national football league by becoming the first female running back. You helped the Cardinals go to the NFC West Division title and win that title. You also led a national team. What made you want to dominate at that level? I know there was a lot of satisfaction as a female football player and the national titles that you want at that level. This is a whole other league, a whole other level of competition. It’s a male-dominated sport and you’re like, “No, I’m going to go ahead. I’m going to show you who’s going to dominate.” What made you want to take on the NFL?
First of all, I will say I am thankful for a lot of guys who saw something in me before I even saw it in myself. I never thought being a coach was possible. There were no females that coached men’s pro football. There was nobody I could look at and say like, “I want to be her,” or “I could do that.” The first time, the first opportunity I got to coach men came from former Dallas Cowboy Wendell Davis. Wendell saw me with my teammates from the Texas Revolution, the guys I had played with. I literally walked into an event. We’re teammates. We hadn’t seen each other in months. It was offseason. I didn’t even know they were going to be there. The guys picked me up, tossed me around like a football because relative to them, I am one. Wendell asked his defensive coordinator, Devin Wyman, he said, “Who is this girl that all my guys love?” Dev, who knew who I was, was like, “Coach, that’s your running back.” Wendell told me later, he was like, “Jen, I knew everything about you, but I never imagined that the guys were loving you like that. I thought it was more something that they tolerated like, ‘We have this girl on the team.’ when I saw how they were, I was like, ‘This is special.’”
Wendell is a direct guy. Wendell calls me over, introduces himself, sits me down and he starts grilling me about, “What was good with the team? What wasn’t? What did I see? Where could improvements be?” He peppered me on football. I was like, “I don’t even know you. Do you want to go toe to toe? Let’s go.” Full disclosure, I had survived a year every day getting hit by those guys. I didn’t die. I’m good. I’m not doing that again. I thought I could make sure that they were in a better position than they were the following season. There was a lot of stuff that wasn’t right. I was like, “I have nothing to lose. Here you go.” We hit it off. I left. We’re done. The next day he calls me and he says, “All Devin and I could talk about on a car ride home was how you have to coach this football team.”
I said, “I don’t coach football. Girls don’t coach football. I’m not doing that.” Wendell said, “Jen, not a lot of guys are going to give you this opportunity. You’re taking this job.” I said, “No.” I hung up on him. The next day, he called me back and told me about myself. He said, “Do you remember how I told you not a lot of guys were going to give you this opportunity and you were taking this job?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Good. I took it for you. You’re coaching for me. By the way, you can’t quit. Otherwise, the entire narrative surrounding women coaching in men’s professional football will be, ‘We had a girl once and she quit.’” I was like, “This dude right here,” and tapped into that thing that I told you about, which was, “Would we do it if it was us?” Maybe. If it had no implications for other women, would I have set myself in that position? No, but did he have my number? A lot of the time, especially with minorities, if there is nobody that we can look at, there’s an insane amount of pressure because you’re writing the entire narrative. You’re not writing your narrative as Jen Welter, football coach.
You’re now writing the entire narrative for women coaching in men’s pro football. That is a lot of pressure. Once we’re put there, we won’t fail. We may not have seen ourselves there because there was nobody I could look at to set sights on. Once you’re there, you’re like, “I’m not writing a narrative that closes the door.” I’ve always said like, “If you are the first, the responsibility and opportunity is to ensure you are not the last. You may open a door that you are not allowed to walk through because you had to be tough to get there. You may make some enemies, but you cannot be the reason why that door was closed.” It’s like, “We had a girl once. Never again.” For me, it was like, “Okay.” I found that I was good at it. I learned quickly that my PhD in Psychology was probably my best asset. I was good at getting the players to a better level of themselves, especially in arena football. Those guys are making $225 a week. We would practice before we all had to go to their other jobs. You get to impact humanity and the person that is playing these games and to help them with what they’re struggling with. I remember one of my guys, Robert Williams. At that point, I was coaching linebackers.If you are the first, the responsibility is to ensure you are not the last. Click To Tweet
We were like ten little Indians of coaching staff. It sounded cool to coach. For a lot of the guys they realized it wasn’t maybe as glamorous as they thought it would be, we started out with nine and it was like ten little Indians by the end of this season. It was me and Devin, not even Wendell. Even Wendell was gone. It was a tough situation. I remember looking at Robert because my role as linebacker’s coach then went to, “Now you’re doing D-line. You’re writing up the place for everybody.” As people drop off, you pick up more and more because that’s what you do. I looked at Robert one day and I could see it. He was holding himself back from the plays. I looked at him and I was like, I can’t wait until the day that you let yourself be as good as you are.” He looked at me and he’s like, “Coach, what do you mean?” I was like, “I can see that you’re holding back. I need you to let the screws all the way loose or something.” He goes, “Coach Jen, the last time I did that, someone got hurt.” I said, “The way you’re playing, you’re going to get hurt because you’re playing tightened and it’s not good for you.” We would joke. He’d be like, “Screws all the way loose, coach.” That had little to do with X’s and O’s that we might think about being what is the primary goal of a coach. Yet the truth is that every X and O is executed by a real person.
If there is something outside of that field that is pulling you away from the game, you are not going to have your mind in it. That was what I was good at. I still never thought of the NFL, but what happened was when Sarah Thomas was hired as the first full-time female ref in NFL history, a reporter asked Bruce Arians, who was at that time the head coach in the Cardinals, if he could ever see a female coaching in the NFL. BA said, “The second a woman proves that she can make these guys better, she’ll be hired.” I remember I talked to Devin about it and Devin was funny. He was like, “Great. We should call Bruce.” I was like, “I’m going to pick up the phone and be like, ‘Can I coach the Cardinals, sir?’” It’s like, “Can you give me his number? You were in the NFL. Can’t you get his number?” He was like, “I’d love to talk to him. Give me his number.”
I went on the Arizona Cardinals website and I found a number and I called, and I was not an assistant coach necessarily. I was an assistant to the head coach. I called the Cardinals on behalf of my head coach who wanted to talk to their head coach. I ended up talking to Bruce’s assistant and he said, “I think BA would want to take this call.” It was a few days before the draft, which contrary to movie Draft Day, when they try and make it seem like there are these whole other elements of life, like a funeral and all that stuff, that is not true. That does not exist. Before the NFL draft, there was nothing but football. Even if you are something peripheral to football, that comes after the draft. He said, “Give me your coach’s number and I’ll have BA call him after the draft.”
Full disclosure, I thought I was being blown off. I’m proud of myself that I had the guts to call the Cardinals. About two weeks later, I walked into practice and Devin was larger than life, which is hard to be larger than he already is. He’s a big set man who was a D lineman in the NFL. This is not a basketball. A man that big to be that excited at 5:00 in the morning is almost frightening. He said, “I talked to Bruce Arians yesterday for about an hour. In that call, BA was like, ‘Do you think she would do this?’” Devin said, “If she didn’t, I would kill her.” It wasn’t some grand design of thinking I could take this on. It was stepping up and stepping into different opportunities and being coachable enough to trust what I brought to the table. Darryl Drake, unfortunately, we lost him in 2019. He was the receiver’s coach with the Steelers, who passed away. Drake was such a good dude. He was that dude who always knew the game within the game. If he liked you, Drake was going to hook you up with this person needs to know this thing. We’re not talking about this as the job description. We’re talking about this is the man who moves things. On my first day there, I met him. Drake had a Master’s. I’m sure he said, “Do you know what the best thing that you have to offer this team?”
I said, “No, coach.” He said, “It’s your PhD. The fact that you have played this game and you have that ability that is rare. What I need you to do is to trust that aspect of yourself and not bring it to the table.” He told me about he and Brandon Marshall and that taught him how important the mental health and mental aspects of the game of football worked. He was the one who gave me that courage to make sure that I didn’t forget that element of myself. It was a yes leading, but not leading in a way that I think some people miss. You’ll get this as a football guy. This is going to speak clearly to you. I remember people would always ask me, “How did you command the respect of the players in the NFL?” I’d start laughing like, “Command? If I went in there and said, ‘You will listen to me because I am your coach.’ No, you don’t command respect. You earn respect.” My approach was like, “I don’t know what I can give you until I know what you need.” I’m not going to speak first. I’m going to listen. Where I can help you, I’m going to help you. I was the assistant to Larry Foote. He was great. He was like, “It’s you and me. We are in this together.” I had to handle all the big picture. What he liked with me is I was good at techniques and specifics.
While he was broad strokes, I might be leverage and technique. I would make the guys laugh. I’d be like, “If there’s one thing I can do, it teaches you how to play as an undersized person.” I did not pick anybody. I’m going to be particular on some of these little things that a lot of the times slide.” I’m looking for ways that if I was going to speak, it was going to add value and also to make sure that the guys felt taken care of, which at times was the funniest. I remember being in a meeting and a guy was struggling with something and it was not football-related. One of the coaches was like, “Doc, can you handle that?” I was like, “Do you mean like talk to him? Have a conversation? I got that.” It was such a different element that I would tell people it’s something that should be on every staff. It adds value to the X’s and O’s.
That’s an appreciation that I have for that. You talk about football and everything that comes with it, leading teams, building teams, leading teams to championships, having the championship mindset. Those are all things that we face in an organization and business. Even quite frankly, our everyday lives. You talked about holding back because of something that happened in the past. You’re being vulnerable and given out full disclosures, here’s one for you. I believed in playing full out as a football player. The day that I got hurt, I was running at top speed. I was fifteen years old, benching 250. I weighed about 160, running a 45, 40. I was running down the right side of the field at full speed on a kickoff.
I hit this guy. The idea was I wanted to make them fumble, I wanted to make a play. I got hurt and I didn’t get up from that. I found years later during my recovery with certain things in life that required me to go full out mentally and emotionally, there was this hesitation because I was afraid that I was going to get hurt or something was going to happen that I didn’t want to happen. It played me because when I got hurt, that was life-changing. I don’t want to experience anything like that ever again. This is always in the back of your mind. If you do get hurt, if you’re not at top speed, then maybe the impact won’t be great. Something may happen, but it may be not as severe as what happened before.
You are dead on. That happens to all of us. I was part of the Alliance of American Football League. We all went all in. We were on three-year deals. We were supposed to be this. I was moving to Atlanta. It was all of this. One day, it’s gone. Somebody asked me why I wasn’t coaching. I was like, “I might have a little football PTSD.” I was all in all about it. I loved my team. I loved my guys. I still keep in touch with them. I follow them. I’m proud because all of my D linemen played somewhere. I had an opportunity to jump in with a college staff literally right after, and I couldn’t do it. I was like, “I am not ready.” I put this in a way that you’re going to get. Brad Childress was the head coach who hired me to the Atlanta Legends. Interestingly enough, Darryl Drake had introduced me to Chili. He was like, “I think Chili will hire you one day.” That was the dude that Drake was. He’s working magic. Chili and I had a great relationship. He’s such an introspective guy that when he took that job, I was one of the first people he wanted. We would talk at length about building this team. It wasn’t like, “You’re an assistant.” He was like, “No, I need a doc.”
We were talking about putting this team together. I said, “Coach, one of the things that we have to keep firm in our mind is as we’re building this team, every single one of these guys has had their heart broken by football.” They were either in the league and now they’re here or they were a top guy in their college and they thought they were going to the league and they didn’t, or they got injured or whatever the story was. This was not their goal. They’re going to have degrees of that scar tissue on their heart by being here. If we want to get them to a place where they can go full out again, we have to teach them how to fall back in love. That the game that broke their heart isn’t out to get them. It’s not going to hurt them to go all out. It’s not going to be taken away so fast again. I remember Chili said, “Doc, you’re exactly right. I would push back on one thing.” I was like, “What’s that, coach?” He said, “It’s the coaches too.” I was like, “Absolutely.”
I think too many times we forget how much that heartbreak or disappointment hurts us and keeps us from things. As a little kid, we don’t think that way. You could pick up a pot and a spatula and you are a knight with a sword. Anything is possible. We learn through either experience directly or through somebody else that the world isn’t that magical. All of the heartache or pain or trauma, it stops us from that. To be able to fully do things, even that’s not going to be perfect. When we talk about resilience and mental toughness, it’s not the absence of a distracting thought or self-doubt or any of that. It’s the ability to get back to where you need to be quicker. Do you have one bad day or do you have 1,000 bad days? Do you live in that play for three plays forward and then they score a touchdown because you’re still mad about the last penalty? Do you get your head back and then be able to recover? Much of that, we idolize people to the extent that we forget that they’re all struggling. Their struggle may not be quite as small or as visible, but there’s nobody who’s impervious to those doubts.
How do we open up the heart to love again? I think you’re spot on when you talk about we can’t be afraid to love again and not partially love, but love unconditionally to the point that we go full out. Love is a big driver. When you love something, you go to the ends of the earth. How do we open up the heart after being hurt to the point where we feel safe and to love like that again?
First, you have to recognize that you are guarded and that you are hurt. As athletes, we are taught never to admit fear and never to admit weakness. We know that if you show that out on the field, somebody is going to use it against you. We always say like, “In football, we’re warriors. We use our battle gear. We put on a helmet, we put on pads. We don’t even look human anymore. You wouldn’t know if it was a dude or a girl unless I had my pigtails out. We are battle-trained and you are not supposed to let anybody see anything else. The fact is that the person and the player are still connected. You may have to be perfect or as close to it as possible and without feelings as a player.The championship mindset is all about coming up with a common vision and giving people a vested interest in what that looks like. Click To Tweet
The person underneath that helmet has to first realize that there is a difference between what happens on that field and off, which is the identity crisis that a lot of people struggle with. We have to say, “This hurts me.” Why did it hurt you? How do we get you back to that point? It’s like in a relationship and we’ve all dated we’ve all been young once. We all had a crappy relationship. I’m sorry, I don’t care who you are. We’ve all had one. I certainly have. What happens is maybe that person who wasn’t in a great relationship had a particular habit that hurt you. You found out later that when they would hide their phone, they were texting somebody else, for example. You carry that into your next relationship and you see it and you freak out on that person.
You never get the backstory because you never dealt with the fact that you didn’t want to get hurt again. You felt like you got cheated on and now you don’t need that. I won’t get that close. That’s what we all do. We then push off and we have triggers that we don’t even admit exists. We don’t need to let anybody close enough to get to. We have to go against that athlete, invincible marble statue, nothing gets to me to say, “This is where I got hurt. This is where this fear comes. This is how I can walk through that.” If I was in a relationship with you, and I said, “My ex texted people all the time. He’s driving me crazy. He lied to me about it.” This might make me crazy if you do it. You as a partner in helping me get to that point can be like, “That’s not a big deal. You can look at my phone anytime you want.” Guess what’s probably going to happen because you said I could look at your phone? I’m probably not going to look at your phone. If you’re like, “That’s crazy. You might put that on me.” Now you made me think that I have something to worry about. We have to be good partners in all levels of that.
Falling in love again means that we have to recognize where we’re damaged and vulnerable. Hopefully, we find the people who we can trust to bring into that inner circle. What’s hard is if you bring the wrong people into that inner circle, then you get your heart broken even further and you get misjudged. It is about learning who those right people are to help you get over that heartbreak, recognizing that it exists, and then looking at the things that will help you feel good moving forward. For me, for example, I had a lot of people tell me a lot of stuff, “When I get out of the NFL, I’ll do this and I’ll do that.” A lot of people lied because they do. What is the thing that I can’t deal with? It’s somebody saying that they’re going to do something and then not doing it. Don’t lie to me. I don’t deal with that. I will probably be like, “Are you okay?” That’s who they are. I don’t care if you say, “I can’t do this,” or “I’m going to try,” but don’t make a promise that you don’t keep.
That’s something that is important to me and people who know, they deal with me. I will tell you if I’m going to do it. If I say I’m going to do it, probably a meteor shower or something crazy like the Coronavirus is going to hit the Earth before I will not do it. I want the same. Anybody who knows me knows it. If I won’t do it, I’ll be like, “No, I can’t commit right now,” or maybe, but if I say I’m going to do it, I do it. I think that getting to where those sticking points are and pain points are the ways that we start to do it because then in a relationship, if I said to you like, “The one thing that hurts me is if you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it. That’s all I ask.” We build trust. If you do something and you show up or you do what you said you were going to do, then I start to see that this person is somebody that I can count on to show up for me the way I would show up for them.
Let’s talk about leadership and talk about trust, earning that trust and respect for your players as a player yourself, as a female player and a coach in a male-dominated sport. How were you able to earn that level of trust and respect?
There are a couple of things. First and foremost, one of the things I had going for me is that I have played and they could check my game phone. As athletes, we do that. Don’t tell me you can do this. I’m going to check the games though. I knew that guys were open to me when they were like, “Coach Jen, I watched the game. You were a beast off the edge.” I was like, “They’re interested.” There was street cred and that’s important. Also, there was the credibility of having somebody like BA bring me in because he’s a no-nonsense guy. He’s not like, “We’re doing this for media.” If he brought me in, then there’s something to her. A lot of it was listening. I got an interesting comment from Kevin Minter who was one of my linebackers. He was my captain when I was there. He’s one of my favorite people in this world. We’re great friends to this day. We were sitting having a meal with him, his now-wife, Sydne, and a contact of mine that I was trying to introduce him to. I was like, “Kevin would be a great player to have like a spokesperson. He never gets in trouble. I’m trying to help him with some of the business stuff.”
My contact asked him, “What was your biggest fear with Jen when she came in, having a female coach?” Kevin was like, “I don’t know if it was a fear of a female coach, but what I was worried about is that new coach who always feels like they’ve got to like something.” A lot of the time, they’re not saying anything, but it’s like they have to say something to prove that they belong. He was like, “She never did that. It was easy. It was like when she said something, it meant something. She was cool with silence too. I think that is part of it too, is knowing when you can add value. When you add value, they want more. We’re competitors. If something I tell you helps, then you’re going to want more. If I would have tried to yell at them or, “You’ve got to listen to this, you’ve got to do this.” I tried to make sure that I was cognizant of the situation and adding value and then being consistent.
I told all my guys, “I am here to help you, whether it’s football or life. If I can help you, I’m going to help you.” A lot of the times, the trust and the relationship were built on the stuff that was in between the X’s and O’s which then makes it easy to listen to something that I tell you on a football field. That doesn’t mean we’ll always have the perfect game plan. That means they will give me everything that they’ve got and done their best to put me in a position to succeed. I’ll run through a wall for you. If I thought that you were shady or you had to alter this, I might have a half step. You know a half step would get you killed in football. With the guys, I think a lot of the trust was developed on the relational aspects and the fact that I was consistent with everybody. They also knew, “If I can help you, I will. If not, then I’m either going to find the answer or I’m going to tell you that I’m not the one to ask, but we’ll figure it out together.” Being open and consistent and adding the value that you have is important.
I know even when I had the Legends job, I had worked more on the outside defensive end type D-line stuff. I wasn’t as big on the interior from certain plan characters, who’s had little. I remember I was watching a tape and there was a stunt that another team was running and it was killing this team that we were playing. David Dean was one of our experienced D linebackers. I was like, “Dino, come here quick. Did you all run this before in Cincinnati? Do you have anything like this?” He was like, “Yes, coach.” I was like, “How does that work?” We sat there and chopped it up a little bit. That’s been killing him. I wanted to make sure that if I presented it to the defensive staff, that I would do it in the right way. “That’s how you would approach it?” He was like, “Yes.” He had a lot of respect for the fact that I’m like, “You’ve been here. I know what I know, but if you can make me better too, we’re all in this to be great together.” I think that was something that they respected. Be coachable.
What is your perspective on creating a championship mindset?
It becomes first with the big picture and getting everyone to be on the same page with what that is and what that entails so that I don’t need to answer every question. Some of it you could fill in the blanks. “This is where we want to go. This is how we have to get there. Here are the things that we’ll explicitly tell you as coaches.” I’ll use the Dallas Diamonds as an example. I’ve never been a part of a dynasty like that probably before Oregon. We won championships in ‘04, ‘05, ‘06, and ‘08. Don’t ask about ‘07. In the world of women’s football at that time, everyone knew the Diamonds. There was a dramatic difference between us and a lot of the different teams. It was the way we played, but it was the standard we set as players.
We had ownership over it. It didn’t have to be the coaches yelling and threatening people to come to practice. We were like, “This is not what we do.” It was an expectation. We were setting up extra workouts and extra practices because everybody was in line with, “This is what you do to be a champion.” I think it’s coming up with a common vision and goal and then giving people a vested interest in what that looks like. You’re empowering leaders within your team to help make it better. You’re also being open to that conversation. If something’s breaking down or something’s not working, then you, as a coach, have to be willing to take that in and find a solution. It’s because you had something planned out in the beginning, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be right.
Being willing to have those conversations, get people on the same page and all be committed to greatness, and then you break out what that looks like in terms of the resources that you have. Sometimes it’s not as cut and dry as you might think. With the Revolution, when we went to the championship and we lost in the championship, we had two coaches at that time. We had to put a lot of ownership on leaders in our team to help get our team to where it needed to be. Rashad Washington was probably one of our most experienced defensive backs at that point. He got hurt. He essentially became our T-backs coach. We pulled from what that talent was, but everybody was on the same page.Let your game speak louder than the noise, louder than the haters, and louder than the things society would use to break you down. Click To Tweet
Too often, we forget about that. It takes getting your hands dirty. It takes getting to know everybody that you have and what they have to offer. As a coach, you’re trying to recognize what talents people have, put them in a position to succeed and minimize any potential liabilities that they may have. We want to highlight your talents and keep you from maybe getting exposed to some of your weaknesses. That might mean a blitz needs to change or a scheme needs to change or we’re going to do match up stuff along with that. To realize that the team is first. I remember with the Legends, we had a situation where a talented guy came in and we were using them in some blitz packages and some of the guys who had been there were a little upset because his stats were high. We had designed some plays around him. I said, “Now, I want you to think about you’re on the opposite side. Great. The team that watches this game that we had next week, who do you think they’re going to do a game plan to stop?”
He said, “Him.” I said, “Good. You can be open, get some sacks. Be happy that he flashed this week because that should be you shining next week.” He was like, “Coach, I never thought about that.” I was like, “I wanted to put you both on the same side. Stop one. Ultimately what matters is that the quarterback got sacked. I understand you want your numbers, but him shining this week should make you open next week. You’ve been our sack leaders. People have been going to you and try to shut you down. That’s why your numbers are lower.” Having that conversation, he was like, “All right.” You have to have those conversations. You have to be willing to give the feedback and you have to be willing to take it. If I wasn’t willing to hear that from him, I would not have known that he was feeling that way. I would have not had the opportunity to tell him, “We didn’t forget about you. We’re trying to set you up for next week. It’s not always going to be the same nor should it because we want to mess up their game plan. If we’ve got them looking over here, you’ll be able to go right in.” I think too often it gets topped down and a lot of those things that could be easily solved never get solved. That’s when it breaks down.
I love that because having those open channels of communication and that trust and respect allows things down near to get bubbled up to the top. You’ll note because if he never shared that with you, then you would have never known that about him. The fact that you guys have that type of relationship. If you’ve been shouting at him all the time and more of a command, “Do as I say,” type of leadership, which happens a lot in organizations. You can’t build that level of relationship. I’m guessing next week he was shining. That relationship allowed the possibility of him in that position, this opportunity you guys were able to exploit. I appreciate that. I want to thank you for coming on the show. How can people connect with you, Dr. Jen, if they wanted to learn more about you? I know you do some speaking.
My website is simple. It’s JenWelter.com. My name is like a welterweight which I always laugh about. I’m not heavy enough for my own weight class. I’ve been punching above my weight my whole life. On Twitter, @JWelter47, @Welter47 on Instagram. It’s @Welter47 on LinkedIn as well. Dr. Jen Welter on Facebook. I try and be on the stuff like that, especially at this time. I’ll use the example. I had somebody. I was doing something and they were like, “That doesn’t have anything to do with coaching football.” I started laughing. I was like, “You do realize that I was a doctor a lot longer than I coached football, right?” They were like, “I always forget about that doctor thing with you.
We get used to thinking about people in one specific way. Whether you’re a coach or a doctor or whatever, what that has in common is for me, it’s love of people and love of problem-solving. I think that problem-solving in people come down to trust and communication. I’m working with somebody in sports psychology. I was talking to Jameis Winston. He’s a good friend of mine. I love Jameis. He’s been supportive of me since I met him. He was like, “Doc, what would you do if we were working together like from a football perspective?” I said, “I’m not a quarterback. What you would have to do first and foremost for me to be able to help you is teach me to see through your eyes and play a game in your cleats. My job has been to make your life difficult. If you want me to be able to help you, then first I need to be able to understand you.” Too often have people go in that think they know all the answers and don’t even know the questions. If we come down to that and we can get to the core of who we are and what we’re trying to do, whether it’s an individual or a business, then we can make some magic happen. We all have that scar tissue. That’s hard to let people in. We all have it for our own reasons. You have yours. I certainly have mine. In this world, we’re all getting new layers of it too.
Which makes us connected in a sense that that’s something that we all have in common. It levels the playing field here. We’re all out here trying to play this game with scar tissue. We’re all trying to score. There’s no sense of us trying to beat each other up. Let’s pull together. You’re trying to figure it out, like I’m trying to figure it out. We were in this together. Celebrate each other’s strengths, work on each other’s weaknesses, and let’s all get down the field. You have this saying about defense. All-day defense. Tell us a little bit about that since you’ve brought that up.
If they can’t score, they can’t win? That one? I have a few of them. The funny thing that we didn’t talk about was it’s in Madden in 2019. The first time we had a female head coach in Madden.
You have so much to cover up and make this a long show to cover all your stuff.
That was fun because it’s important for both guys to see that a coach could be a male or a female and to see that they could have a place. I love how they did it in Madden because my team in superstar KO mode is shut down. The philosophy is if they can’t score, they can’t win. All of my guys were like, “We know they took that directly from your mouth.” I’m like, “Right.” If you want a team that has a great defense, you’re going to pick shutdowns. That is what I’m known for. This is how I would leave it. I know that’s all about the mentality with you. I say this to a lot of the girls at my camp. When it all comes down to it, it took a long time for me to get to a point where it wasn’t, “She’s a female coach,” or “She’s a female player.” It’s like, “She’s a coach and a baller.” You have the knowledge, you have skill. That’s what we want. We want somebody who’s good. You’re good and might be different. Hopefully, it is. When your game speaks, that’s what we’re talking about. Let your game speak louder than the noise, louder than the haters, louder than the things society would use to break you down whether it’s race or gender.
Let your game speak because when you’re good, we want you. You see that all the time on the football field, which is why it’s the most beautiful sport for me. It is a sport that requires diversity at its core. Football has everything from straight muscle to straight hustle and a whole lot of crazy. I was crazy, but it doesn’t work if ever you looked faint. You need straight muscle, you need straight hustle, and you need people who have a little bit of both. The truth is that football makes that case when you look out on the field. We shouldn’t see anything less when we go into any other situation. I want everybody around me to be better than me at what they’re good at. That’s it. Let what you do well speak for you because I can promise you, whenever I have somebody who tells me that they know everything, I already know they’re lying about something. I don’t know what yet. Now I don’t trust anything that you tell them. You already know that something in this is not true. When you come out and you’re honest and you say, “This is where I’m great. I’m going to knock it out of the park for you.” You say, “I’ll do that.”
I remember one of my coaches wanted me to be a punt returner. I don’t do that. He was like, “You always run the ball, you do this.” I’m like, “I don’t do that.” It was my national team coach. He goes, “Okay.” I said, “I’ll do anything else, but not that.” He goes, “I can put you down on the line on pump block.” “Absolutely. Put me in a gap. I’ll get back there before that girl’s even out of her stance. I don’t return punts.” He was like, “Okay, I liked that.” When we’re honest about those things and our game speaks on what we’re good at, then we can trust and rock hard. It becomes a way to go back to that because your game is always under your control. The work that you put, who you are, how you play, how you present yourself, that is under your control and the right people will gravitate towards you because of it.
Before we go, there are a couple of things I have to get into the show. You talk about being a student of the game within the game, and then you talk about your power stance. To me, that’s the dominating message in all of this. Talk to us through being a student of the game within the game and how to use your power stance.We can't keep playing the game the same way. Otherwise, we’ll be played out. Click To Tweet
Being a student of the game within the game, it’s something that I learned because I was getting my Master’s in Sports Psychology while I was playing. I’d read something, I’d be like, “Is that true? Now I have to try it out.” That can be as simple as putting your head down. If I’m in the game and I got my head down and you’re across the field for me. What do you think?
Something’s going on. You’re not in the game or you’re distracted or defeated.
Especially being undersized, I knew I could never put my head down. Did that mean I was never tired? No, but instead of this, I’d be on the sidelines with maybe with my knee down and my head like this staring at you. Now you’re like, “She’s not even tired. Everybody else is tired, but she’s right there.” I also knew that I’m small, so I never wanted to be on the ground longer than somebody I tackled. I might tackle the biggest person out there and then pop right back up. I put my hand out, I’d be like, “Baby, do you need a hand up? I’m going to be here all day.” I might get to the huddle and literally be like, “You all go home.” He was never going to see it. What that means to me is that there’s so much more that goes into mastering the game than the stats or the plays that you make. It’s the attitude that you take in between them because your competitors are always watching. I developed this international reputation of being this. They said, “She bounces on the field. It’s weird. It’s like the Energizer bunny. She doesn’t stop.” That was because I was using my rest when I needed to.
At the times when I knew you were watching, I was full-on. I wasn’t the one who was in the huddle talking. I’d be like, “I’m taking my rest here.” Getting focused in and then being cognizant of every moment from the time we broke the huddle to the time we went back to the huddle. That is as important and maybe even more so in the message that you send your opponents than anything else. I used to blow kisses at other teams. I was obnoxious but I would wave and be like, “I’ll be back next play. I love you too.” They didn’t know how to handle it because it was so out of the box. That comes a lot with knowing that I wasn’t going to outbid anybody unless they were like ten and I don’t know, ten-year-olds are getting big nowadays.
I could out little and out fast and mess with them that in a lot of those ways, and that’s what made me great. That was the difference between me feeling like everybody was bigger and better than realizing that being low was an advantage. They say low man wins. Try being a low woman. That became my secret weapon because I was small and fast and studied on who I was coming up against and making them look at me as this crazy person. It became part of my advantage. I teach that from the power stance, like what a linebacker means, how you get the quarterback to think about you as opposed to what she’s supposed to do and all of those things. Too often we get focused on the other aspects that we forget how powerful those parts of the game can be.
What I take from that is you knew what your strengths were. It didn’t matter what your size was. You knew what your strength was and you played to those strengths in maybe the most competitive situations. In places where maybe it seemed impossible or insurmountable for you to win, you’re still going to play to that strength. You’re not going to let them see you sweat. You’re not going to let them see you frail and you’re going to play full out. There are many lessons that can be taken from that, especially where we are now. How are you responding to what’s going on in the world? Are you playing to your strengths or are you fearful and uncertain?
This is an unprecedented time. If anybody’s scared or worried, they’re not being honest with their humanity. We’re all best when we have a purpose. You have a great mindset, so you make your voice more accessible to the people who are struggling. That is contributing to fighting against what we’re going up against now. You can see certain things. If you are a medical doctor, you’re going to the hospital. Every single one of us has something that we can do to help other people. It may be grand and it may be a microcosm. It may be picking up your phone and giving somebody warmth. It may be like, “You crossed my mind. I wanted to tell you that you’re amazing.” If that person was having a bad day, you flipped it for them. I moved to LA. I don’t have my furniture, all of that stuff. One of my friends sent me a bonsai tree for a house warming gift. It was the coolest thing because, in a way, I am doing well relative to a lot of people. Yet the fact that she was like, “I wanted you to know that you were loved.” It was like the biggest thing for me. In times when things feel so tough and separate, those little things become moments that you could be somebody who’s a hero every single day. How do you look at it? How do you reinvent yourself?
How do you push yourself to focus on elevating the people that you love and care about? If you could do so, make masks, if you could do this, do this. If you have an extra plate of food, give it to somebody who maybe doesn’t have somebody. Leave it outside their door. All of these things are opportunities to let your humanity shine through. For every one of us, there’s something that we can do. That one thing will give us a purpose that takes the fear out of your mind for a minute. Most people forget this. A beautiful thing is your mind can only truly hold onto one thought at a time. If you are thinking about this, if you are focused on giving love and goodness to someone, you are not at the same time fearful or scared, or “What am I going to do tomorrow?” We very much have the ability to shift that. It doesn’t mean that your mind doesn’t go to shift back. That’s human. You have the ability to bring it back. The more proactive you are, the more creative you are, the more you take that channeled energy and put it into something, the better that you’re going to feel because you’re taking control of the things in your space that you can.
Thank you for coming on the show. This has been wonderful.
I love your heart and spirit and taking the hand that you were dealt. You used your heartbreak to help other people. I used to think that when I was “one of the baddest bees” on the block. I used to think that strength at that time was never letting anybody see beyond that player, that invincible Jen Welter. I realized that true strength is admitting weakness or humanity or insecurity to help make someone else strong because perfect is unapproachable. It’s vapid. It’s a picture. Humanity is most beautiful when it is the emergence of something. I’m not the person that I am because of the easy times. I’m the person that I am because of the times I didn’t know what I was going to do or that I did something that everybody told me I couldn’t. The more we help other people think, strengthen, fortify and push each other, the better we’ll be because the game has changed. We can’t keep playing the game the same way. Otherwise, we’ll be played out.
We have to be game-changers to change the game.
Reshuffle the deck. That’s what this time is telling us. We get fast and busy that most people say, “I don’t have any time.” The world has forced us to take a time out. It means it’s an opportunity to reflect, restructure, and reevaluate ourselves and the people in our lives and how we want to be on a day-to-day basis.
This is the time of the re. You can re everything. You can reevaluate, reframe, refocus. You can revisit. Pick your choice. It’s the reorder. It’s up to you. Last but not least, I feel that it’s not something that we have to do in terms of change. It’s something that we get to do. A lot of times, for a lot of people, you have to think about prison. In prison, you have to do the same thing every day. You wake up, spend time in the cell, go out, eat, you do your recess and then lights out. It’s the same thing over and over. You don’t even have a choice. You can’t change. Here we are living freely but want to stay in a place where we don’t ever change, which is similar to a prison. This is an opportunity to see how free we are because we get to change. We get to do something different. We get to reevaluate, to refocus, to relive, to reorder, to redo. You get to do it. It’s not so much responsibility. It’s a privilege. It’s the lens in which you view what it is that where we are. The thing about it is we can change the lens. You don’t have to view it that way. You don’t have the privilege to look at it differently, to relook at the situation. We could keep going on and on. I tell you it’s beautiful. Jen, thank you for coming on the show.
Anytime. It was a pleasure.
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About Jennifer Welter
Dr. Jen Welter, often referred to simply as “Coach Jen” is best know as the first female to coach in the NFL, when she joined the Arizona Cardinals as an inside linebackers coach in 2015. Prior to that, Coach Jen was the linebackers coach with the Texas Revolution.
In 2017, Welter was the Head Coach of the inaugural Australian Women’s National Team in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Games, and with that she became the first female head coach of a National Team. In 2018, Welter joined the Alliance of American Football as a defensive specialist, assistant defensive line coach.
On the field:
In 2014, Welter became the first woman to play running back in a men’s professional football league. Prior to joining the world of men’s professional football, Welter had a highly decorated 14 year career in women’s professional football which included four National Championships and two gold medals as a member of Team USA in the 2010 and 2013 International Federation of American Football’s (IFAF) Women’s World Championship.
In the game… video games that is.
Coach Jen recently became the first female Coach in Madden. In Superstar KO mode, she is the Head Coach of Shutdown, and her philosophy is all defense all day “they can’t win if they can’t score.” In addition to Madden, Coach Jen has a series of 3 Minecraft worlds inspired by by Grrridiron Girls her football camps for girls; Touchdown Battle, Obstacle Combo, and Football Camp.
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