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Jen Welter: Huddling for a Q & A with the NFL’s first female coach

Watching pint-sized youngsters playing at private academies in Florida can give one the feeling of looking through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. Is anyone too young to play tennis?

It appears not.

Apparently, though, you can be too small to have a big future in the game.

A rising tennis hopeful in Vero Beach, Fla., Jen Welter’s dreams of joining the WTA Tour were blunted when her coach told her she just didn’t fit the mould. Too tiny.

Jen Welter looks on during a press conference where she was named an intern coach.

More than two decades later, after playing collegiate rugby at Boston College, competing for Team USA in the women’s world rugby championship and becoming the first woman to play a contact position in men’s professional football with the Texas Revolution of the Indoor League, the 5-2, 130-pound Welter broke a stereotype last year as the first female coach in the National Football League.

Equipped with 14 years of pro football playing and coaching experience and a doctorate in psychology, she spent a six-week internship with the Arizona Cardinals, coaching the team’s inside linebackers — the position she plays.

The 38-year-old Welter was at Andy Livingston Park in downtown Vancouver Thursday at the invitation of NFL Canada as part of the league’s Play 60 initiative. The campaign encourages kids to be active for 60 minutes a day to reverse the trend of childhood obesity.

Q: We see women coaching men at the professional level, in the NBA in particular (Becky Hammon is a full-time coach with the San Antonio Spurs). You have an extensive background in rugby and football. But were the Cardinal players receptive to being coached by a woman?

A: It doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female, it’s what you can bring to the table. My experience in football and my doctorate in psychology helped. Players want to be better. And they’ll buy into what you’re saying if you can help them do so. There was a genuine excitement. The guys realized we were making history. I give a lot of credit to (head coach) Bruce Arians and the whole Cardinals organization.

Q: Are the doors opening for more women coaches in the NFL?

A: Well, the Buffalo Bills added Kathryn Smith this year (the NFL’s first full-time female coach, in charge of special teams quality control). So, they’re already taking those steps. The WNBA is a big factor. The NBA has had the advantage of having a feeder system like the WNBA, a sister organization, for a long time. Becky Hammon essentially grew up in San Antonio as a player and Pops (coach Gregg Popovich) knew her and saw something in her. That’s all it really takes. As the NFL sees more qualified women coming up through the game, it will be the same story.

Q: How did you get involved with Play 60 and NFL Canada?

A: Tammy Johnson (manager of marketing events for NFL Canada) met me at the first NFL Women’s Summit last year in San Francisco (Annika Sorenstam, Serena Williams and Billie Jean King spoke at the same conference during Super Bowl week). We struck up a friendship. She thought it would work really well if I came up to Canada.

Q: North American society seems to be more accepting of female athleticism — and females coaching men, in your case. But girls continue to drop out of sports at six times the rate of boys. How do you change that?

A: Sports is a great way for everybody to build confidence, whether you’re a boy or a girl. The truth is, a lot of girls do drop out of sports at puberty. One of the reasons is they lack confidence and a feeling of belonging. That’s why we need more female role models. I believe it’s really important for girls to see people like me and the lessons in life that sports brings.

Q: Flag football has been growing in popularity with high-school girls for years, in some ways countering the belief that football is a male-only preserve. Is it easier to get girls more involved in football than when you started out?

A: It’s completely different. There was nothing like this (Play 60) when I was a girl. That’s why I’m so passionate about being out here with these kids now. We have almost as many girls as boys playing flag. There wasn’t an opportunity like this when I was a little girl. Giving them something I didn’t experience as a child, it’s a great gift to give them.

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