Jen Welter talks to TIME about her coaching philosophy, the challenges ahead, and the league's latest controversy+ READ ARTICLE
The Arizona Cardinals introduced Jen Welter this week as a preseason and training camp coaching intern for the team’s inside linebackers, making her what is believed to be the first woman to hold any kind of coaching position in the NFL. Welter is used to breaking barriers: In 2014, she became the first woman to play a contact position in a professional men’s game, when she suited up at running back for the Texas Revolution, a team that plays in the Champions Indoor Football League.
Welter, 37, played 14 seasons in the Women’s Football Alliance, won two gold medals with the American team at the International Federation of American Football’s Women’s World Championship. She was linebackers and special teams coach for the Revolution last season.
TIME spoke to Welter on Tuesday from the Cardinals practice facility.
It’s 2015. The NFL has been around for a long, long time. What took so long for there to be a female coach?
How many times have we heard that the final frontier of women in sports is football? It really has been that gladiator sport, that last bastion of women don’t go there. It is a game where people believe that you have to be big and tough and strong and to have played the game and been in the trenches. And the truth is that women haven’t been playing football nearly as long as men. And the history of women in football is relatively short. So it’s understandable that it would take time.
But now we’re getting into the days when I had the longevity, because the sport was around enough, to have played for 14 years. You start to say, “Hey, wait a minute. These girls aren’t going anywhere.” And it took that credibility of guys seeing you be in the game for that long, and being dedicated and realizing that you do know it, you do love it, and you’re not just around it for the wrong reason. To start to put women in positions where they could contribute to football. And I think that that’s the blessing. It’s not going to change overnight. But it takes a history.
Given that football, as you say, has that gladiator, macho culture, and is the ‘last bastion of women don’t go there,’ why do you think NFL players will listen to you?
It’s not about what I think. It’s that I’ve been in this situation before. I have coached guys before. It wasn’t that I went in day one and tried to change them in football. I was there, I was consistent, I added to their game when I could. I took a lot of time to get to know what the needs of the players were. And once I saw the needs of the players, I would step in and help them. Some of the moments were more on the sports psychology side to be honest. Telling him how to be that ‘it’ player, or if you did this after the play, you know that message it would send. It’s just getting one or two of those guys to listen and buy in. Then when somebody sees that happening and they get better, oh my goodness it gets to be really competitive. Everybody wants that.
We had a joke—it wasn’t a joke, it was a very known secret I guess, on the defense that caught on was ‘Coach Jen’s Notes.’ I started with the linebackers but as the season went on I ended up working with the d-line and linebackers. And the guys were like, ‘hey, don’t you have notes for us?’ And I said, ‘you want my notes?’ They said, ‘yeah coach’. And I feel like, and I say this very jokingly, but it was serious cause at first it was almost like they didn’t want anybody to know they were getting notes from me.
And yet by the end of the season I had players who were leaders on my team, when a new guy came in, they’d be like, ‘listen, you need to give your email to coach Jen. She does the game breakdowns, her notes are the best, and you need to look at them.’ And it became an expectation. But it takes those leaders to really buy in.
I’m patient. I’m not going to jump up in anybody’s face and make them try and listen to me. As a player I would have respected that. So I think having that background as a player and knowing what I would look for and how to be respected, I think that that’s what these guys will respond to. At least I hope so.
Is your goal to be NFL head coach?
If that is the direction is where God puts me on this path, that’s what I will do. I lovingly say that I believe God put blinders on my life in terms of what I could accomplish and be capable of, because if I would have looked up and said to somebody, “I was going to do this,” they would have told me I was crazy. As soon as I started playing football, I knew it was my destiny. I couldn’t ever picture it.
As somebody who has a doctorate in psychology, people hire me all the time to talk about goal setting and breaking things down step by step. I couldn’t see this goal to have it. I just had to literally put my head down and trust the path, and do the right things everyday to be successful. And trust that process. And so if in doing this, that’s the path I’m meant to be on, then that’s exactly where I’ll go. But I can’t see that yet.
What do you anticipate being the toughest part of the job?
The toughest part, I think, is really guys knowing how they can act around me. Yesterday somebody said, “Come on gentlemen, let’s go.” And they were like, “Oh my gosh Jen, we’re so sorry.” And I said, “Just say guys it works for everybody.”
I’m used to rolling with the punches. I’ve been around guys in professional football for two years now. I’ve had friends in it forever. But it takes times for guys to see that and know it. And I laugh a lot. I smile a lot. I love those moments. I know they’re challenges to most people and they’re scary, but to me those are the priceless moments. I think it was a big turning point for the guys when I played. We were with the running backs and the coach was like, “Hey running backs, do you have your balls?” And one of the linebackers said, “Yeah, all but Jen.” And I looked at him and I said, “That’s okay, baby, when I need ’em I’ll get yours from your wife’s purse.” And just that moment of not being offended, of rolling with the punches and laughing, it opened up so many. Because they realized that they didn’t have to not be guys around me.
I don’t want to change who they are. I don’t want them to be like, “Oh my gosh coach, blah blah blah.” My guys would get protective at times. If I walked into a conversation they’d say, “Earmuffs, coach.’ I’d be like, “Okay.” And we would joke about it. On the outside, dealing with those issues is a horrible challenge and we don’t know how people are going to do it. Or deal with it. But when you do it, and you get through those moments and you share that laughter, those are the things that truly bond your team and are priceless. Those are the moments you love and you cherish and you laugh about years and years later.
Now that you’re in the NFL, I have to ask: what do you think about this Tom Brady ruling?
You can’t ask me about Tom Brady and want me to say anything about him other than I think he’s an absolute phenomenal player. … And he’s such a humble, good guy that loves the game of football. I hate to see anything tarnish that reputation. I can’t speak to a ruling like that. And I think that there are so many things in football that need to be fixed, that we’re spending, and pardon the pun, but I really am tired of hearing about Tom Brady’s balls. I’d rather move on.
It is kind of serendipitous though or funny or God’s irony that the same day we announce a woman coach in the NFL, we can’t get off Tom Brady’s balls.
Do you think it’s unfortunate that it kind of overshadowed you?
It’s those things that happen years later. Hopefully people will forget about Tom Brady’s balls long before they’ll forget that a girl is coaching in the NFL.
What got you into coaching football in first place?
It was actually former Dallas Cowboy (and first-year Texas Revolution head coach) Wendell Davis who approached me initially about coaching. We met and sat down and had a conversation. He knew I had played for the team the year before. He was just trying to get an understanding of the team, asking me a lot of questions about how things were and what was good, what was bad. As we started talking he started grilling me about football ins and outs, Xs and Os. Like, “What, am I being tested right now? All right. If you’re going to put me on the spot right now, I’ll step up.” And we really got into some great football talk.
Two days later he said, “You know Jen, in the car ride when we left”—and he was with his defensive coordinator at the time—he said, “all we could talk about was how we needed you to coach our football team. How she’d be fantastic.” And I told him, “No. Oh no.” And he was like, “Well, why?” And I said, “I still might play and I might do this.” He said, “Jen, I’m going to be perfectly honest with you. You’re not going to get this opportunity from another guy. So you need to just step up and take it. There’s never been a girl who’s coached before and you’re the right one so do it.” And Wendell just has this way about him. I did turn him down on that phone call but on the next one, he broke me down and I said yes. He really twisted my arm, but he was right. And I’m very thankful for that.
What do apply from your psychology doctorate into coaching?
Everything. My masters is in sports psychology. My doctorate, though it’s in general psychology, we focused entirely in sports. I took everything I learned, cause I was playing, I took everything I learned in psychology and looked for an application to sports and to athletes in general. And I think the biggest thing that most people don’t realize is that athletes are humans too. We see them as players, but we tend to be very bad at looking past the helmet and seeing the people. And a lot of the challenges I saw with my players last season were less about the Xs and Os, and more about life. And I hope, as a coach, that I can help these guys be better men, not just better football players. That’s the goal.
San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Becky Hammon just won a summer league championship. You’re the NFL’s first female coach. The U.S. women’s soccer team captivated the nation, Serena Williams is going for a Grand Slam. Do you think women and sports are having a huge moment, and if so, what long-term can come out of it?
I think the difference with women’s sports now is that people are finally paying attention. Women have been talented athletes and very powerful in sports for a very long time. But they haven’t had the support around them. You know, my first Super Bowl check [Welter refers to the titles she won in the Women’s Football Alliance as Super Bowls] was for 12 dollars. I had to fundraise $3,000 to represent my country as a pioneer as a woman in football. And we thought when we won gold medals we were changing the world for women’s football. We got back and no one even knew what we did.
It takes the support. It’s not just the talent. The talent has been there, there have been amazing women in sports for so long. Unfortunately no one knew they existed. And what’s changing now is that people are getting excited about women in sports. And they realize that for our girls to grow up, and grow up into very strong, successful women, they need to see positive role models. Not just Instagram pictures.
This interview has been edited and condensed.