Jen Welter never really had role models. The first female head coach in the NFL paved her own way and is setting an example for those who will come after her, but being the first in anything comes with a unique set of challenges and pressures.
The University of Texas’ Center for Sports Leadership & Innovated hosted Welter on November 7, 2017, and she spoke candidly to the gathered students and members of the public about her journey.
Here are the top takeaways from Welter’s #iLEAD presentation.
1. Be 100 percent authentic.
This one is not actually a direct quote from Welter, but a piece of advice that was given to her by Terry Glenn, a former NFL player and close friend of Welter’s, as she prepared to start her assistant coaching position with the Arizona Cardinals.
“If you are exactly the same way with those guys every day in training camp, they will absolutely love you,” he said. “But if you’re fake in any way, they will sense it and they will eat you alive.”
Welter took this to heart, and never tried to be exactly the same coach as her boss Bruce Arians or her fellow assistants or coaches she had had as an athlete. She was simply herself.
“I couldn’t look at somebody else and say, I’m going to coach the way she did,” Welter explained. “The [male coaches] were a lot different from me–I could take some maybe some elements out of what they were doing, but I knew I kind of had to find my own voice.”
2. What makes you different is what makes you special.
Welter highlighted the fact that a football team needs diversity in order to be successful.
“It doesn’t work if everybody looks the same,” Welter said. “It doesn’t work if everybody has the same skills and abilities. I don’t care who you are, it could be JJ Watt 11 times over, I could still find a way to beat you, and he’s obviously one of the best in the game. I need diversity in order to succeed as a football coach.”
Learning that lesson as it applies to football helped Welter see how it remains true in the larger world.
3. It’s not about being the first. It’s about not being the last.
“The one thing I never wanted was to be the first and then the last,” Welter said.
During her time with the Cardinals, Welter knew that her performance not only impacted her future career, but the careers of countless women who might come after her.
“If one thing small or large would have gone wrong, they would have had everything they needed, every reason in the world, to close that door tighter than it had ever been closed before.”
4. Although women should support women, sometimes support from men will be required.
With absolutely zero women coaching in the NFL, Welter would never have gotten the chance to appear on the Cardinals’ sideline without head coach Bruce Arians giving her the opportunity.
“Women are all about supporting women. Well, that’s great, but when there are no women in the room, it requires a man to open the door for you,” Welter said. “My biggest advocates have been men, not women. Because there were no women. Maybe they would have done it, maybe they wouldn’t have, but they didn’t have the opportunity to. So it had to be men.”
5. You have to have something to fight for, not just something to oppose.
Welter admitted that it can be easy to adopt a me-against-the-world mentality when you’re doing something that upsets a lot of people or challenges their ideas of what is normal and acceptable. But you have to know what you’re fighting for in order to fuel your fire.
“When I went and played on the men’s team, I was willing to do it at my own personal risk for all of the women that I had played with for so long who had been fighting the exact same battles that I had,” Welter said. “Women who had been staying in the worst hotels and playing for a dollar a game and having to pay to represent the United States of America. All of those struggles and every one of my sisters in the trenches were what motivated me to do that. If you’re fighting against everyone, why would you do it?”