It’s been said that Jen Welter helped conquer the “final frontier for women in sports” when she accepted a job as the linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals during the franchise’s 2015 pre-season. This was a move that cemented her legacy as the first-ever female coach in the NFL—and it was with this move that Jen shattered the “glass sideline.”
“If someone would have asked me if I would coach in the NFL, I probably would’ve laughed at them and said, ‘Oh, women don’t coach in the NFL.’ Because they didn’t. There was nobody I could look at on the sidelines and say, ‘I want to be her,’” Jen says.
Jen takes on the job of barrier-breaker seriously, sharing her story to inspire others. This fall, she released her first book, Play Big, where she delivers gutsy advice and lessons in being limitless. And she continues that inspiration on the field. In partnership with the NFL, she launched the GRRRidiron Girls Flag Football Camp and aims to inspire women through her “A Day in the Life” camp, which debuted in 2015 with the Washington Redskins women’s program.
Prior to her time as an author and linebackers coach for the Cardinals, Jen was hired as the first female coach in men’s professional football with the Texas Revolution, a professional indoor football team that’s also the founding member of Champions Indoor Football. And before that, she reached yet another “first” in 2014 when she became the first woman to play running back in a men’s professional football league (again with the Texas Revolution). She’s played more than 14 seasons of professional football and been a part of four National Championships. Naturally, she’s also won two gold medals as a member of Team USA in the IFAF Women’s World Championship. It would seem as though there’s nothing Jen can’t do.
What was your very first job, and what is a memorable lesson you recall from it?
It was babysitting. Through it, I learned the ability to multi-task and the importance of really investing your time in what you’re doing.
I had three kids that I baby-sat and I’ll never forget the first time I went to their house. One of the kids had trapped the house like he was in Home Alone (he kind of looked like the kid too!). He had fishing wire up the stairs. Then the youngest boy trapped himself in the closet and was throwing Sprite cans at me. I had my hands full from day one, but I wasn’t shaken by any of those things. I just kind of laughed about it, then I charmed the one kid out of the closet by making cookies. I just rolled with it. Having fun with it and being willing to laugh at the things that might be construed as difficult taught me a lot—and it stays with me to this day.
What spurred your love of football?
The team I loved was the high school football team. I grew up in Vero Beach, Fla. and the Vero Beach Fighting Indians were larger than life. They were like gladiators and magic to me. I would watch them play and was so enchanted by it. The whole town seemed to shut down on a Friday night and people would go and watch football.
I remember I had friends who were cheerleaders and they would always ask me to join. I’d say, “No,” and then they’d ask me if I had something against cheerleading. I would say, “No, I think you guys are awesome, but I couldn’t imagine turning my back to the game.” I just had these visions that I might drop a cheerleader because I’d be so into the game, which was the coolest part.
Did your passion for playing football develop in college when you were playing rugby?
I had never heard of rugby until I got to college, and then I saw it and I was like, “Oh my gosh! This is the most amazing thing.” It’s like soccer, which was my high school sport. I was captain two years in a row for my soccer team. I was a sweeper. I lovingly said that I wore number 13 because I was bad luck for the other team! So when I saw rugby, I loved that it was two sports I loved combined in one. I had to do it, so I played all four years.
After college, how did you transition to playing football for the Texas Revolution?
It was a long, winding road. I played flag football when I finished. I got recruited in rugby to try out for the under-23 national team, which I thought was going to be the culmination of a lifelong dream: to be able to represent my country. Unfortunately, at the tryouts, I was told that, although I was one of the best ones there, I was too small and they couldn’t take me on the team. I was pretty devastated, but I thought, “Okay, so this is the time you grow up and get a ‘real’ job.”
I ended up getting a “real” job as a headhunter. I later went on to play linebacker in football. Not that different! [She laughs.] But in this job, I was just not happy. I was playing flag football on weekends and teaching aerobics before and after work. The league I was playing in received a call from a team called the Mass Mutiny [a women’s tackle football team] and the general manager asked if any of the girls playing flag could play tackle. The lady who ran the league gave them one name — it was mine.
I went to an open tryout for the Mass Mutiny and I made it. When I made it, the promise I made is that I would follow my football dream as far as it would take me. I would step up to whatever challenge that was. I certainly had no idea at the time how large those challenges would be.
What was your mindset when you faced those large challenges?
You just keep going. I don’t know if you realize how tough they are in the moment, or if you just put your head down and keep working. I know that’s what it was to me. Now I look back and I think to myself, “Whoa, how did you do that?” It seems so mystifying. When you’re in the process of it, it’s just the next step and you just keep working.
As you wrote your new book, do you feel it helped provide that perspective of the journey you’ve gone through so far?
Without a doubt. [She laughs.] That’s the beauty of hindsight. Your vision is a whole lot clearer. I worked with a great writer on the book, Stephanie Krikorian, and she had changed something in the story. I told her, “Oh no, I was certainly not that smart at that time.” We laughed about it and rewrote the story and just said, “If I’d have only known this then,” and “I realize this now many years later …”
Something I talk about all the time now is that it’s okay — and not only okay, but awesome—to be an “and,” not an “or.” You don’t have to minimize yourself to fit into some predetermined box. You don’t have to choose between thinking, “Either I’m on the math team, or I’m an athlete, or I’m this.” You can be all of those wonderful things. But I really struggled with that until I was 30 years old. I was 32 when I had that realization of, “It’s okay to be pretty and an athlete and smart,” and I didn’t have to minimize any aspect of myself anymore to be good in another aspect.
I wish that I could say that I knew that back in high school, but I surely wasn’t that smart! I think to be able to look at your life in a different, bigger-picture perspective, it gives you a whole lot of insight. Hopefully that insight will not keep anyone else from their trials, because we all have them, but hopefully by sharing my story, they won’t run into the same walls I did. Hopefully the bumps I have on my head are not the same ones that other people who read my story will have.
You have your PhD in psychology, so you’re a great one to ask this question to. How big of a part does mental toughness play in the game?
It’s every minute of every day.
For example, I might say something to a room, and everybody hears the exact same message, but it’s interpreted in everyone’s ears slightly differently. One might take it that something was the coldest thing I ever said, one might take it personally, and one might tune it out. To realize to fully reach your players and help them maximize their potential, you’ve got to know them as individuals. Then you start to realize that in recognizing those differences, you can help them become stronger as a whole. What one person needs on one day might be the same thing that somebody else needs the next day.
It also plays into performance. As an athlete, if your performance varies from one day to the next, it’s not a physical loss, unless there was some kind of traumatic incident. The difference from one day to the next is generally mental, so if there’s something that’s keeping a player from performing, and you don’t know them and you can’t relate to them on the same level, then how can you teach them? You have to be able to reach people to teach them.
There’s a section in my book where I interview [former Arizona Cardinals Head Coach] Bruce Arians. I personally think he’s one of the bravest men on the face of the earth to be willing to bet on me, because if something would’ve gone wrong, it could have tarnished his entire football legacy. One of the things Bruce always said to me was, “Can you read their eyes? Can you see the differences in a person and how they respond? And then can you know to react to what they see?” That’s a really powerful concept. He always talks about how he credits his ability to read people’s eyes from his days as a bartender. He learned how to read people from behind a bar, and then that experience served him all the way through the NFL. That’s what you’re talking about when you talk about psychology. It’s the people within the plays. Combining my [psychology] background with my [sports] experience is what made me a unique value proposition.
There’s a lot of debate on work-life balance. Is it real? Is it a sham? What’s your call?
There is no work-life balance. You’re constantly out of balance, but that’s okay, because you want your life to balance out overall.
Realize the people who love you are going to be okay on the days when you have a major project or a major event and you’re gone. It’s not 9-to-5. It might be 5-to-9. You have those concentrated parts of your life where you have to work really hard, but hopefully you find balance because you work really hard, but you have great relationships, too. You have times when you’re “on” at work and you’re still a mom, but you may not be able to be there and go to an event. But later on, when you go to another event, make sure you’re great in that moment.
I do a lot of things, but I don’t get to one day wake up and not be Jen Welter. If I see you on the street and you say, “Oh my gosh, Coach J,” I can’t say, “Sorry, I can’t be her today.” It’s less about balance and more about happiness. And the happiness you can find is when you invest in the time that you’re invested in, and you’re not fractured, but instead you’re truly present. Love the time that you’re working and value the relationships that you’re in.
I would tell people that I love my players and coaches. I still get messages from them, even though I’m no longer with the team. They know I’m always here for them, even if I’m not physically there in Arizona. But, I don’t think it’s about trying to balance and trying to stick to a 9-to-5 job in order to have work-life balance. I think when you work you work hard and you work smart, and when you play, you’re invested in the time—with your kids, friends or the gym, whatever is important to you.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
This is probably my least favorite question on the face of the earth. I say that because when you’re going through a path that has not been taken before, you can’t define it by the terms other people look at. During the biggest moments of my life, if you would have asked me 10 minutes before, I would have told you, “That’s absolutely not possible.” If someone would have asked me if I would coach in the NFL, I probably would’ve laughed at them and said, “Oh, women don’t coach in the NFL.” Because they didn’t. There was nobody I could look at on the sidelines and say, “I want to be her.” It’s still a constantly evolving process with me.
If I were to only evaluate my success or failure by a five-year plan, I would be in trouble. What I tend to do is to commit to myself to move forward in the best ways possible. I have several projects that I’m committed to—and I’m committed to them whether they take five days, five weeks or five years. That is getting this book out and promoting it. I want to see it made into a movie someday. Will that take five years? Probably. I’m working on developing football camps for girls. We’re really close in doing that, but hopefully that will still be going on in five years.
What I’m focused on now is starting, and continuing, to sow the seeds that will affect me in five years. And I promise to keep making progress forward, even if that progress forward is a pivot. There’s power in the pivot. When you find out things you don’t like, then that tells you as much in life as finding the things that you do like. You can’t find the right road if you don’t go down some wrong ones. You still learn along the way and you can’t look at that time spent as any less valuable.
What is the most common question young girls ask you?
It varies so much, especially by age.
I want the younger girls to see that they can be great. They may not have an interest in football, but you feel great when you teach them to throw a ball. It’s that simple and that beautiful. They may not understand the NFL or the significance of it, nor should they. But I want them to look at their experience as fun and that someone invested in them with their time and gave them a great day.
With the older girls, the questions get more into self-confidence and body image. They also ask me if guys are intimidated by me. I will tell them, yes, they are. But I don’t need them. I need one—the right one. And if a guy is intimidated by you and doesn’t support you, then you don’t want him and he doesn’t deserve you. For girls, that’s a big thing. We’re so image conscious, and it’s so easy to get wrapped up in Instagram filters, likes, and views on Snapchat, that we forget there’s a whole world out there that’s not going to be quantified in the terms of social media. You want people to love you for who you are, not what you post. I want to encourage these girls to stand up and stand out and not try to fit into somebody else’s box, but instead, to stand up on top of one. That can be hard for young girls.
And it doesn’t matter what shape you are. That’s one thing I love about football. You can look on the field and see players of different sizes and body types and those things are the things that I find truly special.
If I Could Grab Coffee With Anyone, It Would Be:
My Favorite Quote/Saying Is:
I just came up with one. It goes, “I don’t want to just shatter the glass sidelines. I want to shatter the glass slipper mentality.”
If I Could Tell My 30-Year-Old Self One Thing, It Would Be:
Be nice to yourself. Be your own best friend.
My Favorite Show To Binge-Watch Is:
I Can’t Live Without:
Chocolate, especially chocolate-covered strawberries. It’s fruit and chocolate goodness and just makes everything happy.
My Favorite Way To Unwind Is:
By working out.
I Feel My Best When:
I’m around people and have fun with them.
It’s okay … to be an ‘and,’ not an ‘or.’ You don’t have to minimize yourself to fit into some predetermined box. You don’t have to choose between thinking, ‘Either I’m on the math team, or I’m an athlete, or I’m this.’