A conversation with Dr. Jen Welter, author of PLAY BIG: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL
“Winning can be the outcome of a competition, but it can also be the opportunity to compete against the odds. Being a professional is about the attitude you have and the value you assign yourself, not the value someone else assigns you. When you define your own metrics of success, then you truly define your power and how you are going to live your life.”
You were a football player before you were a coach. How did you start playing?
My first love was tennis; I wanted to go pro. But I’m only 5-foot-2, and my tennis coach told me I was too small ever to be at the top of the game. So I quit. I let him convince me that I couldn’t do it. In college, I found rugby. I’d loved football all my life, but never thought I could be allowed to play. Rugby was the next best thing, and I was pretty good. After college, I started playing flag football on the weekends and I got a call to try out for the Mass Mutiny women’s team. For a moment my fear of being too small almost stopped me, but I vowed not to let that happen again. I left my corporate job and fancy apartment to train full-time for the team.
You write that your first paycheck for playing professional football was for $12 – in a season where you won the championship. How can that be?
Female professional football players don’t make any money. Theoretically, there’s a profit-sharing agreement with the owners of the team, but there aren’t any profits, even when you’re the best in the league. In fact, women have to pay to play. My team and I all had day jobs to pay our bills, and then we would practice after work, shining our cars’ headlights on the field at the local park so we could see what we were doing. On the weekends we held car washes to raise money for uniforms or travel costs for away games. We did it for the sheer love of the game, and it taught me an important lesson: Play Priceless. That applies to any field. Remember that winning and success are not absolute terms. Winning can be the outcome of a competition, but it can also be the opportunity to compete against the odds. Being a professional is about the attitude you have and the value you assign yourself, not the value someone else assigns you. When you define your own metrics of success, then you truly define your power and how you are going to live your life.
Did you aspire to play in the NFL?
Heck, no – I’m not crazy! I’m 5’2” and 130 pounds. I never intended to play football with men. But after winning four championships with the Dallas Diamonds, the team folded due to lack of funds. I got a call from The Texas Revolution, asking me to come to the first day of tryouts…and only the first day of tryouts. I was kind of offended. I thought it was a PR stunt. So I said, “No, if you want me to try out, I’ll do it – but you have to let me go through the whole process.” They agreed on the condition that I change my position from linebacker to running back—they said I’d get run over if I played linebacker. I was more scared to change positions than I was to take hits from the guys. But I knew I had to seize the opportunity.
As a coach, you were giving orders to guys who weighed three times as much as you and were nearly twice as tall. How did you get them to listen to you?
I didn’t “get them” to do anything—but I was very fortunate to be able to earn the players’ respect. Supervet Lorenzo Alexander (with Buffalo as of this writing) set the tone early on. When one of the players asked him for a second opinion, he backed me up all the way. I did have to work to develop a relationship with the players, just like any coach—except, of course, it wasn’t quite like any coach. I had to show them that I wasn’t going to be put off by cursing or fart jokes, for example. It helped for them to see that I respected them as people, as well as players. I think that was an advantage I had over some of the other coaches. I could “read their eyes,” as Coach Arians used to say.
You write in the book about things that the business world could learn from football. Can you give some examples?
Appreciating diversity is a big one. A team relies on each player completing an individual job in order for plays to be successful. If all the players on a team were built the same way and had the same talents, we would get killed. Football just doesn’t work if all eleven people are identical, or if the coaches treat every player alike. Football is also good at rewarding talent—coaches have great metrics to evaluate performance, so it’s easy to decide who gets what opportunities. (Until recently, this was truer for players than coaches!) Finally, a good coach knows how to read someone’s eyes. A good boss does, too. People are motivated by different factors, and they need different kinds of coaching to excel. Reading the eyes is about knowing what your team member needs and trying to give them that, on or off the field.
At the start of the 2017 season, there were eight women working in the NFL. What do you make of it?
I’m thrilled for them, of course. There’s a long way to go before women have a fair chance to compete for the role of coach in the NFL, but it’s amazing the progress that’s been made in just two seasons, since I took the field at training camp in 2015. Meanwhile, I’ll keep holding training camps to ensure that young women are in a position to seize the opportunities that are waiting for them—or create their own opportunities, like I did, if need be.