PODCAST Talent Without Limits: Exploring sports and business with Pioneering NFL coach, and Athlete, Dr. Jen Welter
For the past 20 years, MitchelLake has worked with game changers, innovators, and leaders who have been on extraordinary journeys from diverse and sometimes challenging backgrounds. These are their stories that focus on ignoring convention to create their own pathways as improbable as those may have seemed to the rest of the world. Join hosts, Managing Partner Jon Tanner; Partner Michael Datta; and Advisor Patrick Blute as we explore Talent Without Limits.
Michael Datta: Welcome to the first Talent Without Limits podcast. I’m your host Michael Datta, with my amazing co-host Patrick Blute. It was so important to us, as this is our very first (TWL) podcast that we bring to you someone extra special as a guest. Well, I think we’ve definitely achieved that for sure. Dr. Jen Welter is incredibly passionate, driven, and so successful in all that she’s achieved as the first female coach in the NFL. Jen became an assistant linebackers coach with The Arizona Cardinals in 2018. Coach Jen is a pioneering female role model in sports. She founded Grrrridiron Girls flag football camps for girls, and as a women’s football player, Coach Jen won 2 gold medals with Team USA, 4 world championships, and 8 all-star selections before entering the men’s game. During her playing career, Dr. Jen Welter earned her PhD in Psychology, as well as a Master’s in Sport Psychology. Jen’s also very lovingly known as Coach Jen. So, please join me in welcoming Coach Jen. Jen, how are you today?
Dr. Jen Welter: I’m fantastic. I’m chilling here in sunny LA, and I have my boss with me. For you guys who don’t know that this is one of my cheat codes. I work for myself, but I often tell people I have to ask my boss, and that’s my dog. Let’s ask my boss. You know she lets me know that she wants another bone. And that means I better work harder.
Michael Datta: Perfect. You know, Jen, this particular podcast is about Re, and when I talk about Re, it’s about how we as people, or people like yourself, I should say, get out there and just have shown so much amazing energy and activity and tenacity. And so, it’s a bit like saying, well, how have you re-energized yourself to keep going and re-positioned yourself?
Dr. Jen Welter: Yeah, you know, for me, I think a lot of that goes to being a female athlete, as opposed to kind of the setup to be a male athlete. Male athletes, you have this, or at least thankfully, we’re diversifying them now, but at one point, it was like you had an end game, right? You are going to play in the NFL. And that was the big old goal. Now, do offshoot and all these things, sure. But if you do that, you’re going to make millions of dollars, and at least you can have that big dream. As a female athlete, we were never positioned to be able to afford to just be singularly focused. We always had to hustle, right? Like, I played football for $1 a game, you better get really creative, sweetheart, because there is no just like, this is the end game. And so, it was always a hustle to figure out how I could be a unique value proposition to the sport, right?
Dr. Jen Welter: How I could take maybe the practical on-the-field experience of being one of the best in the world and combine it with something else to then add value or have a unique perspective, or see things from a different perspective. And with that, that’s part of why I got my master’s and then Ph.D. while playing football. And so, I think I’ve always looked at things as just how do we solve the problem, what do we need to do, and let’s get our hands in and get dirty. I also never wanted to be Al Bundy, right? For those who don’t know him, married with children. I didn’t want to grow up talking about my life as if it was in the rearview mirror. No matter what I’ve done, I don’t want to be ‘done’. I want that to have been a great chapter and a place that brought me perspective and hopefully positioned me to be able to have increased influence and insight.
Patrick Blute: Fantastic. And that’s incredible that you navigated both that love of sport and that education journey at the same time. How did you balance that at the time?
Dr. Jen Welter: First of all, there is no such thing as work-life balance. Let’s just be really honest. There are times of singular focus, and I think that the way that you do it is that you’re really present in what you’re doing. So, when I’m on the football field, I’m not thinking about school. When I’m on the football field, I am thinking about the play that I need to make in the moment. When I am reading or studying, I’m obviously a little ADHD, so I would put in some of the, I like to say, slowest treadmill miles ever recorded because to be able to read some of the really boring stuff- this is a cheat code, everybody- you can do it where you are recording really slow miles, but it’s enough stimulation that you don’t start running to do something else. You’re on a moving object, so you’re kind of stuck, right? And then you have to read for that.
Dr. Jen Welter: And so, I always just try to not lock myself into say, I’m going to read this for eight hours. No. Allow yourself to flip gears when you need to. But when you do, be really focused. And then realize that, for me, work and play are very much the same and they’re very integrated. I’m a heart and passion person. I played the game of football with my best friends and would sacrifice because I love them and I love to compete. But when I was competing, I was also with some of the people that I love. And so, it doesn’t feel like work the same way, because you’re surrounded by these epic people. And you’ll love this, obviously, Michael. I know you have a wine company. You can have a wine test with me, just so you know. building a team and have a wine test. Okay. First of all, you can’t whine too much. You must drink wine, not whine.
Dr. Jen Welter: But at the end of an epically long day, which like event days are really long day, camp days are really long days, at the end of maybe a 12 to 16-hour day, are we going to cheers and decompress and talk about our successes for the day together or do I need to have wine to forget that I worked with you for that 12 to 16-hour day?
Patrick Blute: Yeah. So, how do you think about that? Because you have so many firsts: the first female running backs assigned to a men’s professional team, the first female coach in the league, and the Madden video game. So, you’re a pioneer of firsts. Are you thinking about those things at the moment or are those like rearview mirror moments? How do you navigate that?
Dr. Jen Welter: I think what I tell people is, and I’ve thought about this quite a lot, believe it or not, because having my Master’s in Sports Psychology and Ph.D. in Psychology, they teach you about goal setting. It’s very, very important. “We’re going to set a big goal, and then we’re going to break it down into small digestible parts so that we can create career momentum. And you stack those one on top of the other.” And I realized as I was teaching somebody this one day, I’m a big, fat liar. I’m actually lying. Because when you’re first, you don’t have the ability to look big and break it down because you’re so stuck in the mud. So, how do you progress? What I used to say is, I promised myself, and I still do, is that I’ll step up to every challenge that the game puts in my way. And that means you’re like, “Uh okay.”
Dr. Jen Welter: I was outspoken my whole career playing women’s, and people be like, “Oh, you’ve done all this stuff in football. What are you trying to do? Play like men?” I’m like, “Shush! I am 5’2 130 pounds.” I would never play pro football against men. I’m not crazy.” And then all of the sudden, I’m in a situation where they want to use me as a publicity stunt. They want me to go through a day of training camp with their guys, and I was like, “That is insulting.” It’s an insult to every one of those guys, and it’s an insult to me. I just won my second gold medal. If you want to do anything with me, I have to do everything that guys do step-by-step, hit-to-hit, or nothing at all. And the words came out of my mouth, and I was like, “Oh, dear God, I might have just gotten myself killed.”
Dr. Jen Welter: But there’s a way and a philosophy that it’s about stepping up to challenges, even though I may not have foreseen them. And then the flip side of that is, so hopefully, as you’re stepping up into challenges, have people who can say, “Hey, this might be a good next challenge,” or “This would be a good extension.” I think that’s where I look at it now, we’ve talked about this quite a bit, it’s I wish I’d had more of that. I wish I didn’t always have to take all of the branches directly to the face. And at this point in my life, what I’m trying to do is, have more strategic alliances so that experts can say, “Hey, you know what? We can do this, and we can do it really well. And having you involved, Jen will allow us to use our expertise and your notoriety, and then we can get right to it.”
Michael Datta: What I love about it is this exactly what Jen and I have been talking about is her strategy, re-energizing her new strategy and focus into the business world of what she’s going to be doing over the next 5 to 10 years. And the projects that she’s involved in currently, but then also, the projects that we’re working on together as a group, it’s very exciting. And as you can hear with Jen’s passion, her background, and what she does now, it’s constant energy — focused, driven, tenacious energy, and that’s what I love about it. I mean, it’s 7:30 a.m. here on the Sunshine Coast in Australia, and I’m pumped. I’ve done my gym workout now. That’s it, Jen; thank you. My mental workout is done. [laughter]
Dr. Jen Welter: But I love energy. That’s where I get energized. Like when we have those conversations, what do you think about this or we’re working on this, or do you have experience with this? And it’s like human puzzles or business puzzles that we can then say, “Okay, well, you’re really good at this, but wait. Have you thought about this?” Or “I’ve done this. Is there synergy? Is there an extension?” And that’s where things get really fun to me. And I think for any of us, when you’re looking at, like you said, re-invigorating, rethinking, rebrand, whatever it is, that doesn’t just come from sitting by yourself and just being like, “Let me think.” Oh god, your mind will get so loud and so, “Oh, gosh. I should have done this.” You’ll review all your bad plays, your bad tape, and your mind by itself can be a very cool captain. We don’t want to be stuck there.
Dr. Jen Welter: It’s very easy to be stuck in the past if all you’re thinking is what you’ve done or where you’ve been because I’m an expert in me. You’re damn right. I know myself better than most people. I know the things that nobody has seen. I know the face plans that, thankfully, social media was not around when I played rugby. But anyway, it’s very good.
Michael Datta: We have to dig up the video reel. Dig up that video reel.
Dr. Jen Welter: I mean, but if you think about it, it’s no wonder we get stuck when we’re in isolation mode because there’s not somebody to pull the threads of. Have you thought about this or what if we tried that, or do you know so and so. So, you need to kind of reconnect, disconnect, and shift the Rubik’s cubes up and let other people help you do that. And that’s where I’m trying to get better. And I will be honest, earlier in my career, one of the hardest things and I think the only place that really scares me is ‘only’. I’ve been first so many times, and I had nobody to talk to because that meant that first inherently means only. Entrepreneurs say this a lot — it’s lonely at the top, all of those things. Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Dr. Jen Welter: Yes, it is. Because it’s hard if you’re there by yourself, and you don’t have someone to bounce ideas off, somebody to help guide you with decision making. And thankfully, I think I’ve been relatively good, but there are points when I could have been so much better if other people were helping me maximize. And I think that’s where I am trying to push myself to get out of the athlete mentality of never admitting fear, never admitting weakness. I can be the toughest one I have been. I’ve been the baddest B on the block for years and years, but that also means that nobody sees it when you cry your makeup off. Nobody’s there to be like, “Hey, can we fix that up real quick,” or to step on the toilet paper of your shoe when you’re leaving because there’s no one behind you, right?
And a lot of the times, ‘first and only’ also means that the people that you would hope were the closest to you are actually your closest competitors, and I’ve learned that too many times the hard way. People that I have actually gone out of my way to help, people that I’ve laid myself, my name, and my reputation on the line for didn’t reciprocate that. And that’s when you got to leave your comfort zone a bit of the people who you assume would always be there and sometimes get some outside expertise that isn’t competition, it’s actually complimentary. And that’s where I found my tricks worked for me because people are like, “Well, I didn’t know that you knew about that,” or they just think of me as a football coach. And that inherently is limiting because I don’t think I’m like any of the football coaches, you know, frankly.
Patrick Blute: Yeah, and you’re not. But that’s your superpower, and that’s so inspiring because I never thought about that with competition, not just being the inspiring force of the game or the experience or that motivation, but it’s almost like something you say in your book as well, Play Big: Lessons in Being Limitless from the First Woman to Coach in the NFL. You talk about not letting others put a ceiling on your dreams. How do you do that? How do you keep that in mind in a space where there’s so much of a co-opetition mindset?
Dr. Jen Welter: You know, I think, and we all do this, we’ve all had these moments. Pain is tough, and for anyone who has ever been hurt, let down, or failed, there is scar tissue that we develop over our heart. Once you have your heart broken after your first love, it’s a little harder to fall again. Once you had your first business fail, it’s a little harder to jump again. Once you’ve lost money on your first investment, it’s a lot harder to cut that cheque. So, when we go, and we’re looking for advice from the people who love us the most, I think it’s very natural for them to want to spare us from that pain of your heart, the scar tissue of loss, the scar tissue of heartbreak, the scar tissue of investments not paid forward.
Dr. Jen Welter: So, what do they say? “Oh, I had this one time; it was terrible.” “Oh, you can’t do that because …” And they instinctively go to that, I want to protect you and hold you in my arms and keep you from all harm. But the truth is that sometimes holding somebody so tight in your arms, yes, it’ll keep them from falling, but it also keeps them from flying. So, we have to be very careful, and this is going to sound harsh, who we let in on our fledgling dreams or ideas or that spark of hope. Carolyn Miller, a friend of mine, taught me this, the first person who you give an idea to has the biggest impact on whether it sticks or whether you abandon it.
So, when somebody’s telling you something, and I hope whether you’re a parent or a friend or a lover or a business partner, you remember this because I really try to do this and I tried only to tell people things early, who think about things like this. For some people, you need some fortification first. My parents still don’t understand what I do. They love me to death but they’re like, “No, does she do that?” I can’t bring these firsts to them, and they’re very supportive, but they’re like, “Is that a thing?” It’s just not their world. So, the first person, if you’re somebody’s early idea person, say, “Tell me more.” Instead of yes or no, tell me more. Or, “Have you thought about this?” Or, “What if we try this?”
And instead of saying it’s a yes, or no opening door, closing the door, making that decision for them, find ways that it could be sticky. Find ways, be interested, be a little kid, be the person who used to literally take out a sword and it was a spoon, and I’m going to fight the dragon. I can kind of put it on my head, and it’s a helmet. Like, don’t say you can’t or I have this one time. Or you could say I had something similar, and you know it worked? Or have you talked to so and so because they’re really good at this? Extend the thought. If it’s not meant to be, that thought may not take hold by that conversation. But what you don’t want to do is be the person who closed that door, and then guess what they see that same idea hit big years later, and you’re so and so never believed in.
Again, I mentioned my mom and dad, and I’m really close to them, and I love them. I’m not going to put them in a position where they’re asked to stretch in a way that’s not best for them. My dad’s a chiropractor. I want to ask him about anything: chiropractic, medical billing, these things. He raced cars, and do all these things. My mom’s an artist, I need her to come to fix my place right now. But what I don’t need is to go to, for example, my mom and dad and say, “I have this great NFT idea.” It doesn’t matter if it’s the best freaking idea in the world or if it’s the next unicorn. That’s not their area of expertise. So, why am I going to put my fledgling brilliance in their hands? I need to find someone who can help me extend that idea, meaning that they have some kind of foundation or expertise or know who to tap. But don’t bring people to the space where the only thing they can say is, “I don’t get it,” because that’s valid too. Not getting it is valid.
Be the person who helps to extend and brainstorm with people. And then, guess what? After the idea starts to get legs, then you can get a little bit more critical, then we can say, “I’ve got to fine-tune.” Funny enough, one of my kid’s books is called The Resilience. It is an ant-based adventure. It’s brilliant, and that’s one of the characters.
Michael Datta: I love it.
Dr. Jen Welter: But when I wrote it, I literally binge-wrote all night. And I was so raw that I sent it, and I’m all excited. I sent it to my partner. And she’s a creative director. She’s meant to cut people’s heart out with a spoon and give it right to the bird, and she’s really good at it. But she started to do something, and I was so tired. You know, when you’re so tired that you’ve got tears behind your eyes. They don’t even have to say anything but are just tired. And she started to say something, and I was like, “I’m going to stop you right here.” This is that fine line between brilliance and insanity. I don’t yet know on which side it falls. But I can’t shoot this right now. If it sucks, just tell me I’m pretty.
I couldn’t do it. I was too tired. I was too excited. I knew there was something, and yes, there were going to have to be paragraphs that sounded good at 4 o’clock in the morning. But when you read it out loud, you’re like, “I did think that was a good idea.” But you kind of got to come to some of that on your own time when you’re not raw, you’re not emotional, and you’re not attached. I do that with my writing like I’ll write something and be like it’s freaking brilliant, then I’ll go back, and I’m like, “That is not actually a sentence,” or “That really doesn’t rhyme,” or whatever it is. But it’s really important to have that circle and also have that communication to know, like, “Hey, we’re brainstorming right now. I’m really excited. I’m really tired. I’m this.” And then expand the idea and allow them to grow. And then you can mess with them. We all edit books. Like, think of it, instead of killing it on page one, right before you get to introduce the character, let’s introduce the characters, let’s see what the tentacles are, let’s be really expansive, and then let’s go back with the razor, right and be like, “Gosh, now it went from kind of a cool beginning to something that’s really powerful.”
Patrick Blute: What keeps you energized? What’s inspiring you lately?
Dr. Jen Welter: I’m really trying to see how I can continue to innovate and look at things differently and lead from the front knowing that people are doing a really good job of building up and developing some of those other areas and opportunities for women in the game. Always reinvigorates me our Grrridiron Girls, which is my nonprofit, and we do football camps for girls. We’ve done 51 camps across the country now.
Michael Datta: Yeah, it’s absolutely amazing.
Dr. Jen Welter: And seeing their faces and the impact that defying those stereotypes can have on them, that’s my kind of safe place. Because the adulting sucks, right? It’s probably why I like kids’ books, too. Adulting sucks. This last couple of years, if it’s taught us nothing else, it really is that adulting sucks and that adults do things that you just kind of go, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming.” And yet kids are what they are, right? Like, they’re cranky, they’re going to tell you they’re cranky. If they don’t like you, they’ll make faces at you. They love you, you can change their world. And so, you can be such a pivotal person in that. And they don’t care about the next person who’s doing something similar. They care about you and that pure energy that you put into them. And I think I know that that’s why I started it five years ago.
Patrick Blute: Incredible.
Michael Datta: You know, Pat, I follow all of Jen’s social media platforms, all the different accounts, and she’s such an open book, and it comes with the good and the bad, and the ugly, all those people out there, right? But you should see her face on her posts when she’s with those kids. It’s incredible like the Grrridiron girls post that you do. And then the other day, I was watching one of those awesome camps you did, and the girls were actually getting up saying so. What do you think of Dr. Jen? “Oh, my god!” The little girls were just … It was awesome, right?
Dr. Jen Welter: They got Nicole Hall, who put this all together. She is a fierce advocate. She literally told them, she’s like, “I don’t actually think that you want to even consider having the girls on anything but the same team.” Like, she was not having it, right? And what we wanted to do was we worked with that LA’s Best Foundation, and they brought in almost 200 girls from different areas of LA to get, for a lot of them, their first football experience. And then the ones that you are talking about were some of the top flag players around the country who have come to and through my programs. And I always tell them like, “I want to be there for you because I didn’t have that person. But I’m going to need you to be there for these girls so that they have what I didn’t. And why I’m so passionate about you is because they’ll reinvigorate you.”
So, we ended up with, I think, about seven or more of these girls who were playing at some age or another. We had Amaya, who’s 13, and her parents brought her from Phoenix. She plays on a boys’ tackle team. She’s a quarterback and plays on a 17U girls’ team. We had Kilolo. She calls me auntie, she adopted me at a tryout, and she was like, “You’re the best auntie around.” She literally was like, “I’m going to call you auntie, and maybe we’ll get closed.”
Patrick Blute: Maybe on your team.
Dr. Jen Welter: And then her eldest sister Yaya was there, and her mom Crystal was like, “Of course, I’m going to bring them. My daughter would rather be with you than a nanny.” And to be able to see these girls, we have Marley, who just got over ACL but she’s also on the US National Team, and then two sisters, they call themselves football twins, because they are, they just moved to the States from Hawaii because there weren’t opportunities for them to play there. And they moved to Vegas. So, I helped them get with the team in Vegas. And then we had Elle, who’s playing college now, and she wants to coach football. So, we were able to take them and put them in the role model position for some of the younger girls. And they coach right alongside current players from USC, which was important to me.
So, you had current players for USC and then these girls. And several of the girls were like, “Yeah, I got to go to a place like this. “Like, “I want to go to school in a place like this.” And to me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s permission to dream bigger, to defy some of those limits that have been put on you or the way that you saw yourself. You know, I went to school in Vero Beach, Sebastian River High School. I was one of two kids in my class who went out of States college. And I would tell people like, “I’m not going to be here. I just want you to know everybody in Vero Beach is in 13th grade.” A lot of people stay there. It’s beautiful. And I was like, “I just want you to know I’m not going to be here.” I would even tell guys that. And this is legit. My two best friends from seventh-grade one got married at 16 and the other 18. And I literally would be like, “Yeah, so that’s on me. I won’t be here. Like, we can go on a date or something, but it’s not going to be … Sorry.”
Patrick Blute: But what’s incredible about your focus, your tenacity, your re-energizing every single one of those students, not only your own journey, and thank you for being a champion and a first; it’s going to be amazing to watch every single thing that these students accomplished because you invested in them and you put that energy that they’re carrying with them today. So, thank you so much for sharing your words.
Dr. Jen Welter: Those girls, to see girls who, like in Miami, we partner with Uncle Luke a lot down there in Liberty City. And you have girls who were playing in high school. Florida was the first state to actually have varsity girls’ high school football. And I remember being with them, and they’re like, “Well, football can’t take me anywhere.” And at that time, it couldn’t, right? It wasn’t a collegiate sport yet, but it is now. And I remember telling them that you have to know that people like me are fighting for you. Like, I’m here because I know you deserve better, and I’m not going to stop. And to see some of them in college now, playing college flag football, I’ll look at them, and I’m like, “I talk to them in that.” And they’re like, “You did.” And I’m like, “See?” Now, it’s you who has to carry that torch forward and realize that it’s not just about showing up and checking the box. Now you have the opportunity to be an ambassador of the sport and to help pull it through to the next generation, where they’re even closer in terms of opportunity and equity.
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About the speaker
Dr. Jen Welter
First Female Coach in the NFL
Dr. Jen Welter is known for her experience as the first female coach in the NFL. Jen became an assistant linebackers coach with The Arizona Cardinals in 2018. Coach Jen is a pioneering female role model in sports. She founded Grrrridiron Girls flag football camps for girls, and as a women’s football player, Coach Jen won 2 gold medals with Team USA, 4 world championships, and 8 all-star selections before entering the men’s game. During her playing career, Dr. Jen Welter earned her PhD in Psychology, as well as a Master’s in Sport Psychology.
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