Business Gridiron Grrrl: First Female NFL Coach
By: Dr. Jen Welter • 3 years ago •
I was a player for a long time before I made the switch from the women’s team to the men’s game, playing a season for the Texas Revolution, an indoor football team.
I played with the Revolution for a season and the next year we had a new head coach, Wendell Davis former Dallas Cowboys player. He saw how close I was with all the guys and wondered who this girl was. I was his running back and the first day he saw me, he sat me down and grilled me about football.
The next day called me and said that I had to coach his football team. I promptly turned him down.
The next day he rang and told me that not everyone was going to offer me an opportunity to coach. He pointed out that if I quit, then the narrative would be that there was a girl who once coached football but she quit.
I was the first woman to coach in men’s pro football because Wendell saw something in me before I even saw it myself. I didn’t know what to think at first. I started coaching and while some of the guys adopted quickly, others took a little longer.
In the end, they were all really receptive and we ended up with the best record in franchise history for the Revolution. I’m still close to all of the guys, even today.
When I played with the Revolution, I had already had some experience helping out on the defence, even though I was on the offence.
There is a transition process in coaching when you go from knowing what you need to do, to bringing someone else in and showing them what you see. You go from being a doer, to being the coach with the ultimate goal of helping people find the best version of themselves.
The Revolution season ended with us making it to the finals. Though we didn’t win, the guys were extremely supportive and still are.
In 2014, there was a press conference when the NFL announced the retirement of the first full-time female referee and someone asked if they would ever see a female, coaching in the NFL. He said, “Absolutely and the second a woman proves you can improve the guys, then she’ll be hired”.
So, I called the Cardinals on behalf of myself and eventually found my way to Bruce Arian’s assistant and left a message on behalf of my coach.
I said to say that Devon Lyman had called and that there was already a woman coaching in men’s professional football, even though it was not the NFL.
About two weeks later, Bruce called back and talk to Devon and eventually invited me to come meet with him. He was the catalyst for hiring the first female coach in the NFL. To me that makes Bruce one of the coolest men on the face of the planet.
We couldn’t afford to go to NFL games and for a girl whose nearest approach to the sideline was the nosebleed section, it was a shock to suddenly be going to an NFL training camp.
My first interaction with the Arizona team was pretty fantastic. The guys were very open and excited. Theis reaction was a credit to Bruce and how he set the situation up. He actually talked to his players first and the leaders on the team first and they were all excited to be a part of history.
The guys were better than I could have imagined. They would joke and say things like “Coach, will you have a movie one day?”. Of course, we got to know each other, working, training, all with a lot of laughing.
I’ve told a lot of people that it didn’t matter if I was the best coach in the world; if they didn’t want to listen, they didn’t have to and yet they didn’t just tolerate me they embraced me.
It really spoke to the calibre of the men on the team and in the sport as a whole.
I remember talking to my players and he’s looking down on me because he is so tall. He looked at me and said “Yes Maam”, then suddenly realised what he had said. He corrected himself and said “So sorry Coach”. I told him that I would never punish him for having a good upbringing.
There was a lot of curiosity from people outside the team about how I was coaching. We knew the world was watching but we would just laugh and go about our business.
Internally there was no negative comments about me being the first female coach and you can’t control what people think externally. We just ignored outside opinions. It was actually unreal how well it went.
While there was just myself and the head coach at the revolution, in Arizona there was a full coaching staff, so things were quite different.
I was able to be much more focused on your individual group, but when it comes to dealing with the players, my approach was still the same.
If I can help you, on or off the field, I will. That never changes.
The other difference when coaching NFL is the time that you have with your players. In Arena, you only have a few hours with your players a day, but with the NFL, you are practically living together. Even more than 24/7, you’re living together, eating together, doing everything together. That allows more personal interactions and opportunity for relationships to develop.
I’ve been asked about my education and I use it every minute of every day. Psychology and specifically, sports psychology, is an additional understanding of what makes an athlete great. There are factors beyond the Xs and Os and how people absorb feedback.
Each person learns differently. These are real people going through the exercises and this is where my education comes into play.
Giving them every tool possible to be successful, which is much more than just fundamental techniques. It is about developing yourself as a player.
When the season with the Cardinals ended, we started talking about going over to Australia. Anthony Stone, who was my defensive coordinator in 2010, talked to me about the opportunity to go to Australia and help develop the women’s national team. Coach Stone had heard about the opportunity while I was at Arizona. We started looking at the players and came to Australia for the first time in 2015, running a 6-day camp on the Gold Coast.
The challenge in Australia was getting access to resources. Many of the women were teaching themselves how to play but they had a fire in the belly and it was the ultimate extension of what we originally promised to the game. It was a tremendous opportunity and I developed relationships that I will have for the rest of my life.
Gridiron Grrrl’s Top Tips
|1||Balance the person in the player. Coaching is not a one size fits all solution.To be great at the reach of players which means knowing them.|
|2||Look for innovative ways to engage your players.Everyone learns differently and when they trust and believe that you have their best interests at heart, they will play harder for you.|
|3||Be 100 % authentic. Don’t try to be something that you are not.Work to your own strengths and incorporate other techniques but try to make them your own.|
In 2016, we came back and did an extended camp and then met up again in Canada a few days before the competition started.
It was pretty awesome to be able to travel to Australia become an ambassador to the game of football to the world.
With many new challenges on the horizon and my first book out soon, I can only imagine what the future has in store.
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