Since the release of her book last month, “Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless From the First Woman to Coach in the NFL,” Dr. Jen Welter has once again been in the media spotlight for her remarkable accomplishments as both a football player and an NFL coach. While she is a wonderful role model for young girls and women wanting to emulate her, Welter’s coaching goes beyond the Xs and Os of game play. She believes in actually talking to someone and getting to know him or her as a person.
In a world that often expects an either/or response to a hot button issue from its heroes and sheroes, Welter brings a gentle but powerful reminder that those people society has placed on a pedestal are still just people who have good days and bad days … just like everyone else. This includes professional football players in the NFL. While she is definitely an advocate for women in sports, her personal philosophy is that everyone has a place to shine.
With a doctorate in psychology, she’s treated her male teammates as well as the men she’s coached with empathy as fellow human beings, not just as men. As a player herself, that’s how she would want to be treated. To use her terminology, she’s played down in their cleats and understands that positive movement forward in football as well as in life isn’t simply a woman versus man proposition.
As the person who broke the barrier in an all-male professional sport, Welter has approached the men on her journey as allies rather than foes. While she enthusiastically accepts her status as a female role model, her personal battle was to play the game she’s loved since she was a child, not specifically to be a warrior for women’s causes. In a recent interview with Glamour she has highlighted that fact:
… if there are no women in the room and the door is locked, it takes a guy to unlock the door for you and let you in. I think we have to get better at working together in that regard, as opposed to always feeling like we need to crash the door down. You don’t need to bring out the ax; sometimes you can just knock. And sometimes guys will open the door for you, but for so many women who felt like they had to fight so hard, we forget that they may be allies. Men have taught me that because I couldn’t have done it any other way.
There are, according to Welter some terrific women players who would qualify to move forward in pro football; the problem she sees is the lack of personal connections women have within the league. The positive result of all her recent publicity is that she has a number of opportunities to work with new partners. For example, in partnership with the NFL Alumni, Welter is hosting a 12-city tour of youth football camps for girls around the country where the girls will get coaching from both powerful women football players as well as retired NFL players. By passing along her experience and connections, Welter is moving the game she loves into a more diverse and inclusionary sport where other girls and women who also love the game can have an equal footing with the men.
More than just a coach, Welter is really a “people whisperer.” By talking with people to understand rather than to judge them, by treating athletes as people rather than performers, she’s leading us away from hero worship and a divisive we/they mentality, instead moving us all into a place where acceptance and diversity level the playing field so everyone, in her words, “has a place to shine.”
By Connie Wardman
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