The training video opens on a sunny January afternoon with Atlanta Legends defensive lineman T.J. Barnes ready to pounce from the 30-yard line. At 6-foot-7, 364 pounds, Barnes, who is now in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers, is no joke. This isn’t a guy you’d want to get tackled by, a realization that hits you within the first second of viewing the tape. Apart from that, the video has everything you’d expect a training video to have — perfectly coiffed Astroturf; players milling about in the background; rows of empty stands expectantly awaiting the cheering fans who will fill them at game time. Everything looks to be in place, except for one, glaring detail: There’s a woman on the field. And she’s standing directly in front of Barnes.
As a viewer, you hardly have time to react before Barnes squats down, touches the Astroturf, then launches all 364 pounds of himself at the diminutive, 5-foot-2 woman as if she were Tom Brady on the precipice of completing yet another annoying touchdown. A momentary calculus of force based on mass times acceleration makes it seem like she’s microseconds away from pulverization, but to your surprise, she absorbs his pass rush like a tackling dummy. In the same movement, he lifts her above his head and sets her back on the ground, the two of them shouting and grinning like old friends.
The woman is Jen Welter, the only woman to ever have graced the Legends coaching staff and the first female football coach in NFL history. As a former running back who’s played on both women’s and men’s teams, she’s spent years taking much worse hits than Barnes’, honing her craft as one of the most accomplished female football players in the world. “What can I say,” she says, “I bounce well.”
Welter may be tiny, but her personality — and her list of football accolades — are anything but. For more than a decade, she was the “Khalil Mack of women’s tackle football,” winning two gold medals for the U.S. in the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship in 2010 and 2013 and leading her team to the championship twice more. In 2014, she broke into the men’s professional ranks as a running back for the CIF’s Texas Revolution — the first woman to play a non-kicking position — and the following year, she made history again as the first female to earn a prestigious NFL coaching internship, which she took up with the Arizona Cardinals.
Oh, and did I mention she has a PhD in psychology? That’s Dr. Welter, to you.
However, while Welter’s extensive experience and training make her eminently qualified to coach football at the highest level, her gender makes her a statistical improbability. Of the 2,600 coaches currently employed by the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLS and MLB and their minor league affiliates, only six are women. And in the 445 combined years that these five leagues have been around, only 10 women have held a primary coaching position like hers. The numbers are only slightly higher for NCAA men’s teams — according to a recent review of female coaches’ experience working with male athletes, just 2 to 3 percent of coaches are women. In fact, there’s only ever been one female head coach of a professional league: Nancy Lieberman, a basketball legend in her own right who coached her Big3 team to victory in the league’s inaugural championship game last year.
Lieberman and Welter aren’t totally alone in their ascension to high-ranking coaching positions, though. Joining their ranks are a small, but growing handful of pioneering, hyper-qualified women like Dawn Braid (NHL), Becky Hammon (NBA) and Katie Sowers (NFL) — women whose expertise, knowledge and relationships of their respective sports often make them the unequivocal “best man for the job.” And thankfully, as Forbes’ David Berri points out, more and more professional teams are realizing that sometimes, the “best man” isn’t a man at all.
Not that everyone’s on board with that. Some people, like radio host Mike Francesa, consider the thought of women coaching men in the big leagues to be nothing short of insane. “Not everybody is attuned or designed to do every single job,” he said in 2017. “And as we move forward, there’s no saying that everybody has to be able to do every single job. Some are better for some people, that’s all. That’s not being chauvinistic. That’s not being stone-aged. That’s just being reasonable. I’m just looking at this with some modicum of common sense.” Others put their so-called “common sense” more crassly. As one anonymous NBA coach told SB Nation, “You can’t have a hot woman in the NBA. Guys will be trying to fuck her every day.”
Though opinions like these are rare, they’re still indicative of the looming questions skeptical fans and armchair experts seem to have about the gender dynamics that exist between female coaches and male athletes: Can a woman be as good of a coach as a man? Will her players ever respect her? Will her coaching tactics be different, less aggressive? Most importantly, will the growing presence of female coaches dilute the beloved locker room culture that’s given so many men license to act out on account of it being a traditional men’s space where “boys can be boys?” As both Welter and Lieberman can attest, female coaches get these questions all the time.
Of course, it’s easy to see that embedded in questions like these are gender stereotypes that frame women as weak, docile and incapable of leadership and men as unruly, disrespectful and brutish. Likewise, they’re marred by the assumption that women and men are so fundamentally different that they can’t work together in any productive way other than, as the NBA coach quoted above seems to suggest, for the purpose of reproduction.
However, as Welter and Lieberman agree, ideas like these tend to stay off the field, at least in the professional leagues in which they work. And while there are certainly challenges to being the sole woman in a league full of dudes, they’re able to keep stereotyping, harassment and doubt at a minimum as well as simultaneously develop positive, lasting relationships with their players and leading their teams to victory.
The only question is, how?
As Long as They Know Their Shit
Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you Welter is, hands down, one of the best football players in the world, male or female. Yet, she never imagined she’d be coaching a team of men. “I didn’t see coaching as a viable option for me, or any other woman for that matter, because there were no female coaches I could look to and say, ‘I want to be her,’” she explains. “Though I was at the top of my game as a player, it never occurred to me that I could do this.”
It did, however, occur to Wendell Davis, the then-head coach of the Texas Revolution for whom she played. (The CIF is a professional indoor football league.) As the sole woman on the team, he subjected her to an extra dose of scrutiny, watching her as she played with the exact same force, passion and physical exertion as the men. Most impressive to him were the strong relationships she formed with her teammates, none of whom had ever played with a woman before. Despite the fact that her presence was occasionally derisive — one cornerback on her own team once refused to play with her and threatened to “take her out” if she ran his way — she’d earned their respect by relating to them on their level of play and passion. By the end of the season, she says, any one of the guys would have gone to bat for her. “They were proud to play with a girl,” she remembers. “Sometimes, when there’s a minority on a team, all it takes is for one of the guys in the majority to stick up for them, and the whole dynamic shifts.”
Intrigued by the way his team had rallied around Welter, Davis took her aside at the end of the season and grilled her about football. At the end of their conversation, he offered her a coaching job, which Welter rejected on the spot. “Girls don’t coach football,” she says she told him.
“I had no coaching experience,” she adds now, “and they wanted to throw me in with the men? At the time, my first inclination was, ‘I can’t do that.’”
The next day, Davis called her back to tell her two things: One, he didn’t care that she didn’t want to do it — he’d already signed her up; and two, she couldn’t say no. “Otherwise,” he said, “the entire narrative surrounding women’s coaching in men’s professional football will be, ‘We had a girl once, and she quit.’”
That struck her right where it needed to — Welter, by her own admission, is no quitter. She realized that if she didn’t take the job, she’d be upholding the ridiculous gender standard that says women can’t do the same things as men. “I’d already proven that wasn’t true as a woman playing on men’s teams,” she says. “I knew I had to keep pushing forward.” And so, in 2015, she joined Davis on the sidelines as a coach for the linebackers and special teams.
At the time, Welter says Davis wasn’t necessarily trying to start a gender revolution or make any sweeping social statements. What he saw in her was talent, plain and simple. He was impressed by her passion, knowledge of the game and the way she brought the team together. She was an objectively good player, and the fact that she had two X chromosomes didn’t have all that much to do with it. “I didn’t start coaching men because I was a woman,” Welter explains. “I started because Davis believed I could make his players better. And I did.” (The Revolution made it to the championship the same year Welter started, though she’s adamant the improvement wasn’t all her.)
Stories like these seem to be the norm for female coaches operating on Welter’s level — while many of them, including Lieberman, admit it’s impossible to separate their gender from who they are as coaches, it also makes far less of a difference than fans seem to think. “There’s this idea people have that men are buffoons who are impossible to coach and that they’ll never listen to or respect a woman,” says Lieberman. “But that’s just false. Most of these guys have been raised and influenced by strong women their entire lives — mom, grandma, sister, auntie, wife, ex-wife, daughter, teacher, you name it. So it’s not like they can’t take communication from a female.”
To assume they won’t isn’t fair to them, she adds. It doesn’t give them credit for being the professionals or genuine good people they (usually) are. That’s why Lieberman brushes off questions about how she’s able to get the men on her team to respect her. “It’s a misnomer when people say, ‘Guys won’t respect you’ to me, or any other female coach, for that matter,” she says. “Yes, they will.”
And for the most part, they do. Take Barnes, for example. He’s got eight aunts, more girl cousins than he can count and a single mother who worked two or three jobs at a time to put food on the table for him and his two siblings. When you grow up around that many women, says Barnes, it’s hard to ignore their influence. “I was raised by women, so I’ve never been one to think that just because a woman is in a male-dominated area or sport, that she doesn’t know anything,” he explains. “You never know what you’re going to learn from anybody, so I’ve learned to always keep an open mind around things like gender. At the end of the day, that’s never really as important as who they are and how they interact with people. All players want is to do well on the field, and as long as you can help them do that, it doesn’t really matter who you are.”
That, say both Welter and Lieberman, is the real key. If you can improve a player’s performance, what gender you are is irrelevant. That’s not to say female coaches don’t have to face a disproportionately high level of doubt, bias, sexism and discouragement from external entities like fans, parents of male players and the men who make up the institutions responsible for staffing and running professional sports teams, but most of the time, female coaches and male players get along just fine. In fact, apart from a few childish remarks from her time on the Revolution, Welter says she’s never had a negative incident with a player in the NFL or the AAF (the now defunct spring football league that the Atlanta Legends were part of).
At the same time, that doesn’t mean that female coaches want to diminish the gender dynamics at play. “I don’t ever want to dismiss the fact that I’m a woman, and that’s different and special,” says Welter. “But we get too caught up on women versus men, when the actual relationship we should be talking about is coach and player. And as a coach, I don’t coach like a guy or a girl, I just coach like me.”
And just how does she coach? Well, according to Barnes, she works just a little harder and smarter. “Jen really knows her stuff,” he says. “The passion she has for the game automatically sets her apart from most coaches in this country, regardless of their gender. She studies just as much, if not more than the position coach. Working with her was amazing because she just knows a lot more than other people do.” She also yells less and communicates more, but he credits that to her height and doctorate in psychology, not the fact that she’s a woman. “It wouldn’t do me much good to yell at these guys to motivate them,” Welter says. “I’d just be yelling at their belly buttons.”
Instead, she says, she focuses on consistency, authenticity and honesty, three qualities she believes players value above all else. “These guys don’t want you to be fake with them,” she explains. “They want to be the best they can be, so they really value your honest opinion.” However, as Lieberman points out, that’s not so different than a male coach. “Men can be good communicators, too,” she says. “Men can be empathetic. That’s not a woman thing, it’s a person thing.”
So then, if that’s true, and most players don’t particularly care whether they’re being coached by a man or a woman, is it safe to say that women coaches are no different than men?
Well, not entirely.
Beyond X’s and O’s
While female coaches and their male athletes seem to agree that a coach’s gender is far less important than their ability to shape a player’s performance, there are some advantages to being female. For one, as Atlanta Legends defensive end Tavaris Barnes (yes, another Barnes), tells me, it can make it easier for some men to speak up to women when they’re hurt. “It was much easier to tell Jen how I felt, especially when I had an injury with my shoulder,” he says. “She was more understanding about it than I was used to my other coaches being. She was just concerned that I felt okay rather than telling me to ‘act tough’ and rush back onto the field.”
“Because we’re not there to puff up our chests and play tough guy, it’s possible male athletes might be more likely to talk to us,” Welter says. “That’s always going to be an advantage, because in any sport, communication around an injury is particularly tough. As athletes, we’re taught to never admit fear or weakness, because if an opposing team sees it, they’re going to exploit it. So anyone who’s able to have helpful conversations around injuries and points of weakness with players is always going to have a leg up.”
Additionally, despite being seen as “one of the guys,” some female coaches go out of their way to add a level of warmth to their teams that go beyond what most male coaches feel comfortable expressing. Welter, for example, is famous for leaving little notes for her players around the locker room, something that earned her the title of the “Noteworthy Coach.” She does this because for her, the relationships she forms with her players are bigger than football. She wants to know about their lives, who they are and what they stand for. She wants to be someone they can call at any time, for any reason (including for dating advice, which she’s been known to give). “The love and trust has got to be there, because if it’s not — and I know this as a player — they’re not going to listen to you,” she says. “That’s why my relationships with these guys goes so much beyond X’s and O’s. We’re family.”
For the most part, says Barnes, Welter’s players love this about her. For a group of men shaped by the traditional masculinity of professional sports and the roles that come with it, moments of locker room tenderness can be what keeps them motivated and committed when they’re exhausted or discouraged. “Her warmth is definitely appreciated,” says Barnes. “It’s really endearing, and it’s a big reason why I’m still in contact with her to this day. She’s not so wrapped up in the ‘just coaching’ system; she really cares for her players.”
That doesn’t mean she’s turned the locker room into a Hallmark factory, though. As both she and Lieberman assure me, locker room culture is alive and well, despite the feminine influx. When I ask Lieberman what it’s like to lord over such a “masculine” space, she cuts me off before I can even finish with a stern, “It’s not an issue.”
“They don’t care,” she says. “I’ve been in the locker room with my guys naked. It’s okay. You walk in, you walk through, you do your job and you move on. Nobody’s going to ruin the dynamics of the locker room, I promise you that.”
Barnes backs this up. “When Jen first came on, I remember being like, ‘Oh shit, there’s a lady in the locker room!’ Then I thought about it for a literal second, and was like, ‘Oh, that lady is Jen. Whatever.’” At the same time, he wasn’t about to change who he was because she’d entered the hallowed halls of his boys’ club. “I thought about whether I needed to keep things PG because there was a woman about,” he says. “But F that. I always tried to make her feel like she was a part of the team, so we’d joke with her like she was one of the guys. We crack jokes all the time.”
For her part, Welter would crack right back. Humor — even the locker room varietal — was how she humanized herself to her team and got on their level, something she credits as one of the essential pillars of her success as a coach. “A lot of these men speak in humor and sarcasm, so we’d laugh all the time,” she tells me. “If we ever had a problem, we could always laugh and get past it. It helped them see that I wasn’t going to freak out and that we were all on the same team.”
Actually, this is among the reasons Lieberman believes it’s so important to encourage more women to coach men — the nuances of their professional relationships, best viewed at times in which stereotypically masculine spaces like locker rooms and Astroturf pastures are being harmoniously shared by both, help everyone see that the fundamental differences between men and women and what each are capable of aren’t as vast as they’re made out to be. “More women means more qualified coaches, new types of communication and a different, much-needed voice in the locker room,” she says. “These things can be a tremendous help to head coaches, and we’re finally in a place in our country where we’re ready to give women and other minorities the opportunity to do that.”