April 01, 2021

Jen Welter — First Female Coach in the NFL

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #32

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Jen Welter, the first female coach in the NFL and two-time IFAF gold medalist. Coach Jen is best known for being the first woman to coach in a men’s professional football league. In 2015, she became the linebackers and special teams coach for The Texas Revolution. And a year before that, Coach Jen was signed by the Revolution as a running back, which made her the second female player on a men’s professional football team, and the first female running back. In 2015, Coach Jen was also hired by the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to be a defensive coach — making her the first female coach in the NFL. 

Following the NFL, Coach Jen became the Head Coach of the First Australian Women’s National Team. In July 2017, she wrote her first book Play Big, Lessons in Living Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL at the same time.  In 2018, Coach Jen really honed in on the importance of being a female role model in the sports world. She founded Grrrridiron Girls flag football camps for girls before returning to men’s professional football joining the coaching staff of the Atlanta Legends as a defensive specialist. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Coach Jen and 1Huddle’s CEO and founder Sam Caucci talked about what was going through her head as she was breaking through barriers, why being a truly successful coach all comes down to communication, and how Coach Jen has got to where she is today.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the top insights Jen Welter shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “As the first, that also means the only. Not everybody wants to see your face, because it’s the face of change.”
  • “I’ve had people say to me “stay in your lane,” and I think: well what is my lane exactly?” Because you don’t have anyone else like me.
  • “We need to find better ways to engage our people in a way that is not only just a financial reward, but also a feel-good reward so that you’re tapping into people’s passions and their hopes and their dreams. The better we know the people we’re working with, the better able we are to help them get to their next level of self.”
  • “We have much different journeys to where we are now than we used to. It’s not so linear, I think we’ve become more multiple in our exposures in the world and our talents.”
  • “If what you’re doing is so significant that it disrupts somebody’s sleep pattern, then you better keep going and you better double up.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: The best place to start would be by sharing a little bit about your journey to kick us off. 

Jen: I didn’t necessarily know I’d be a doctor. Definitely not a doctor of psychology. What happened was this 5’2 female who heard a lot of what she couldn’t, wouldn’t, and shouldn’t do in this world actually started with the dream of playing pro tennis and was told I was too small for that. I really learned from that. The impact that people have on us and the things they say and how we let them come into our head space and our heart space. I often say that the coach might’ve been right. I’d never be strong enough to play pro tennis, so I played pro football instead. In that sport, I found a place where I could be magic at 5’2. On the football field, I felt 6’10 and wanted to understand how I could bring that out in other people. That’s why, while I was playing football, my life looked like work by day, play football by night, and go to school by very late night so that I could take the practical experience that I had playing women’s football and marry it with theoretical knowledge to be a unique value proposition to the sport of football. The sport of football has been probably the biggest part of the last 20 years of my life. I played 14 years of women’s tackle football and got to play on the first and second US national team and win gold medals with the best woman in the world, then play with some of the best guys in the world as the first female running back in men’s pro football. From that experience, I had Wendell Davis, former Dallas Cowboy, believe I could coach football and he made me a coach. From the revolution, I went to the Arizona Cardinals becoming the first woman to hold a coaching position in the national football league. Just believe that there’s that passion that drives us to do crazy things and, as I like to say, step up to whatever challenges the game puts in your way. 

Sam: Coach: that’s a ton of firsts, right? What’s it like to be first?

Jen: Lonely and divisive. As the first, that also means the only and sometimes it means that not everybody wants to see that. Not everybody wants to see that evolution. Not everybody wants to see your face, because it becomes the face of change. I actually had somebody tell me one time that mine was the face of nightmares, because it was the face of change. I remember kind of thinking about that and I was like, “well, I don’t think it’s that bad of face.” But then what I realized is that if what you’re doing is so significant that it disrupts somebody’s sleep pattern, then you better keep going and you better just double up. The higher you go the more challenges you see, it’s not like it gets easier. The opposition gets stronger. Even after being in the NFL and looking to publish my first book, it got turned down by everyone and their answer was “women in football doesn’t sell.” I was like “well, I’m pretty sure I was first, so how many times have you tried?” And yet, because it hadn’t been done before and because they hadn’t seen it before, they didn’t believe it would work. And then when you’re the one who proves that it works, that means that somebody else is going to come in and have a much easier time. They may or may not like the fact that you did it before them. I wrote an article the other day and said, sometimes I wish I was third. I say third, because the first is the one who is controversial by nature, who is the disruptor. Second is often compared to and in the shadow of the first. I think that by the time you’re third, you could actually just focus on being good.

Sam: For people out there that maybe go to school full time and work full time, there’s a difference for those types of workers who get to learn as they apply it, then folks who just go to school and then years later might actually start employing what they’re learning into their craft. You were in the field and learning about a topic which is so relevant to who you are. 

Jen: I felt like I was getting cheat codes and I would try them out in my gang. So, perception and body language and the way people evaluate you. How can I win in between. The whistles, not just after the snap. How could I win between plays? How could I create a persona of someone who was invincible? What effects did how fast I got off the ground have? How could I really get into their heads? At 5’2, I wasn’t out begging anybody. I really had to come up with a different persona. How could I make reps active as opposed to passive and get the most out of those times when I wasn’t on the field but was involved in the game and could make them as real as possible for visualization? Knowing that your mind can only hold one thought at a time and learning about getting back to being present right and learning how to really focus on the moment so that I could get into the zone. As I would learn things, I would actively take them to my game and see what I could do with them and see if it works; see the effect it had on other people. I was really kind of messing with people. I studied coach athlete relationships. That was a big one for me: learning how to give feedback, team building, and motivation, all of those things. You just look at the game. I think with many more levels than just “I’m going to show up and play.” You look at the different ways that you can impact performance. I think about coaching and feedback and feelings and relationships in terms of athletes and coaches, but also players as well. 

Sam: Any insights for leaders today on what is the challenge today about coaching that has changed?

Jen: There’s more data, there’s more competition. There’s almost overwhelming information at times. People have different communication patterns and expectations too. I think it’s really important to know that the old style of autocratic leadership or dictatorship just really doesn’t work for young people today. Coaching is not one size fits all, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be loud and boisterous. It can actually be EQ-driven, and you can put the people at the head of the equation. You also find that people want to know a lot more why rather than just what, particularly women. It really is important that trust and love are at the foundation of your relationship. It’s not just: you will do this because… No; I don’t have to do anything. Why do I want to do it? Show me how you can make me better, not only as a player, but also as a person. I tell people all the time: I don’t care what business you’re in, your best asset is your people because it doesn’t work without them. We need to find better ways to engage our people in a way that is not only just a financial reward, but also a feel-good reward so that you’re tapping into people’s passions and their hopes and their dreams. You can’t coach somebody if you don’t know them as effectively as you could; if you don’t know what really matters to that person. We, as leaders, whether it’s in business or in coaching, it’s really important to take the time to listen and be coachable and slow down and realize that the better we know the people we’re working with, the better able we are to help them get to their next level of self.

Sam: That stuff is hard, even more today with managing over Zoom. How do you do it? 

Jen: You take the time. You tell people “we don’t have to have backgrounds today, and you put your camera away.” If you’ve got a pet, bring them to the screen. If you’ve got a kid who is homeschooling, have them come by and say hi. Can you walk me around your house and FaceTime what’s going on in your world? Let me into your life. Let’s be better people and less buttoned up than we normally are because you really do need to invest in the relationship. The truth is as a leader, when you notice that somebody is not doing well, and you’re like, “hey, are you alright? That’s not like you.” They may or may not tell you, but they will really appreciate the fact that you noticed the difference. I’ve had a lot of players that were like: this is a time where more than anything, our humanity has to lead. You think about an office that used to be 9-5; well, 9-5 may be actually an abysmal time for some of your employees right now because it might be homeschooling. They may have a lot of things to juggle. One of the first things you want to dig into and say is, “how are you doing with all of this? Do these meeting times work, or do we need to adjust your schedule?” If it’s not work that you need to do during 9-5 is it maybe something that works a little better if we shift things? Just asking, how are you managing this? And taking a moment and doing something outside of the box. I know my illustrator for my kid’s book series, we were on a Zoom meeting and she’s in Chicago and she had just moved apartments and she was bundled up as if she was outside. I was like, are you all right? And she’s like, “oh my gosh, it’s so freezing in my room.” I just got on Amazon Prime right then and ordered her a little mini heater. It wasn’t expensive. It was maybe $70, but just think about what that meant for me to say: okay, that’s taken care of, here you go. We can’t have you shivering. That doesn’t work for me. She was blown away and she’ll think of that every time she turns on that heater. That’s just good human stuff. That’s good teamwork stuff, but we have to pay attention enough to be able to problem-solve. That means we have to take the time to really get to know our people and what they’re going through so we know what we can do to help.

Sam: I’m glad you brought up your children’s book series. I have a four-year-old daughter, and I grabbed a few off Amazon. It made me wonder how do you go from writing a book on playing big to a series of children’s books? 

Jen: Because people needed help — the world was going crazy. All of a sudden we’re in a global pandemic. I was listening to all of my friends do some really serious adulting right there. I have a friend who is globally sourcing PPE. I have friends who are nurses. I have people who were sewing masks and none of those things were in my wheelhouse of “I can really help.” As I heard these big-time people describing the big-time adult things that they were doing, the image I could not get out of my head was my niece and nephew pulling at somebody’s sleeves saying, “I don’t understand. Why are we doing this? What about me? Why am I wearing a mask? Why are you sanitizing my hands eight times a day? I’m not a dirty kid. I’m not a bad kid. Why can I not see my friends? Why can I not hug people?” These are tough conversations that there were not tools to help kids understand. There were no tools to help parents and educators have these conversations in a way that would help the kids understand emotionally. Being a coach, what do we do? We break things down, we make them simple. Off the cuff, I started voice texting what became one of the first books to my friend, Brooke Foley. The first problem she brought up was that her kids were bouncing off walls and I was like, “oh, well, I’ve taught kids forever. We could do animal-based exercises.” I start rhyming this poem into voice texts as I’m driving across the country. She’s like: Jen, this is really good. I own a branding agency, and this is really good, and by the way I’m the wrong person to casually run ideas by, because everybody wants to run ideas by me since I own a branding agency and I can be not so nice sometimes. So if I say it’s good, that means it’s really freaking good. Her and I went down the path of creating this kids book series. We have four books out so far. We have a number of other ones that have been written and we’re working on the illustrations. I tell her illustrator, she needs to step up to my level because I’ve already written these books and she needs to catch up. Of course, it takes way longer to illustrate them than it does to write them; I have to keep her humble. It’s just been a fun process, and for me it was a place where I could escape into a world of craters and rhymes. I could get on a Zoom call with my niece and nephew who I was missing dearly and give them a voice in a book. My nephew Jasper was struggling in school a little bit, and I watched him read the whole book because he was so proud that he had a part in it. Those are just special things that we can do sometimes to make the world a better place for kids. Kids, they want to be a proactive, positive part of the solution, so why not give them ownership and understanding of what was going on and help them feel good about it? Or we could at least help minimize the trauma that the experience was causing them.

Sam: I think it’s great. What advice do you have for male business leaders who are trying to make their workplace more equitable, more inclusive, trying to give more access? What type of advice do you have for male leaders? And then what type of advice do you have for young female workers who are rising and fit into the industry today not just in sports, but elsewhere. What type of advice do you have for them to continue to break through walls? 

Jen: So for the women and the men it’s kind of two elements of the same story: guys are socialized as kids to project bigger. They’ve been given permission to dream widely or wildly, to be bigger than they are and also to celebrate their victories. Think about any end zone dance you’ve ever seen. Girls are not socialized the same way. Girls will often over-check the boxes of qualification before they will put themselves in for a promotion. They are also not taught that it’s okay to celebrate the I. You will find they actually ‘we’ themselves to death. Look what we did. I find I do it too, because I want to edify everybody. If the guys are trained to think that the people who think like me and are going to succeed, that means they’re going to listen for the I and be more likely to promote the I. Think about it as beauty being in the eye of the beholder. They’re going to behold that this person is more like them and more likely to see them as somebody who is upwardly mobile. What we have to do is teach women: number one, that it’s okay to learn certain things on the job. It is okay to say, “you know what? I can do that. Even if I haven’t done that.” It’s okay to say, “look what I did with my team.” You can say it that way, but that’s different from saying, look at what we did, where somebody can’t necessarily identify what it is that you did within that team structure. For the guys, it’s important to look and know that bias. Women will tend to not put themselves into positions like that. Not because of capability, but because of perception or because of imposter syndrome. Guys can be really good allies by saying, “hey, you should put in for this position,” or, “hey, I want you to run point on this project” or, “hey, have you thought about this? If you took maybe just this course in this, or if you expanded what you were doing to this right here, you’d be a lock for this and I’ll help you do it.” Don’t just say, you should do that. That’s actually a pet peeve of mine when guys are like “you should do that.” Instead say “I got you and we can figure it out,” or “you just need to talk to this person.” If you know the cheat codes, then help somebody! Because for women, especially in environments where they are a rarity like I’ve been, you don’t have the same fluidity of networking. Sometimes the guy is like, it’s really important that you not only see that somebody can do it, but take a vested interest. Recognize talent where it lies and where you can actually proactively build into it and don’t be afraid to say it. My first coaching job, I tell this story all the time: Wendell Davis told me you have to coach my football team because he recognized talent in me. He didn’t see it as a woman. He saw it as a football person who could help and he said, “you have to coach my football team.” I said “no, women don’t do that, I can’t do that.” He said “not a lot of guys are going to give you this opportunity. You’re taking this job.” In fact though, I tried to turn it down. He took the job on my behalf and told me about it. I am so thankful because I’d lovingly say that Wendell drop kicked me into success and saw something in me before I even saw it in myself. So for the guys out there, don’t be afraid to see that in someone before she sees it in herself and then encourage her to see it in herself as well. 

Sam: From coaching to playing to now as an author with multiple books out, what is your hope for the future of work?

Jen: I hope it becomes more fluid and more interconnected. I think we have much different journeys to where we are now than we used to and it’s not so linear. I think we’ve become more multiple in our exposures in the world and our talents. I know that for me I’ve had people in situations say “just stay in your lane” and I think: “what is my lane exactly? Because you don’t have anybody else like me.” If you have me on a team and you only want me to X’s and O’s, I can do that. But I also have a PhD in psychology. If you have somebody who’s struggling, not in the X’s and O’s, but in his life, don’t you want me to help? Because ultimately I can’t ignore that, and I can get him back to his playbook by helping him with the life stuff faster than you’ll be able to just run him out of whatever he’s upset about. I think we have to re-examine what talents people have and what’s valuable and how we allow them to interact with organizations and teams. Because I think we’re leaving a lot of the beauty that a lot of people have by not recognizing them as a whole, but just in parts. 

Topics discussed: Coaching, leadership, inclusion, empowerment, DEI, sports, women leaders

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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