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This is what I hope you learn from a female football coach

To: My players on the Oberlin football team

From: Coach Alex Hanna (As told to Lauren Brill)

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To my players on the Oberlin football team,

I am probably your first female football coach. The idea of a woman running drills is new for a lot of people – not just you.

Recently, Coach Swingle, our running backs coach, and I went to a recruiting camp in Michigan. When we walked in, Coach Swingle started getting funny looks because he was with me. One coach came up to him, shook his hand and introduced himself. I was standing right there, but he didn’t look in my direction. It was like I didn’t exist.

So, I interjected and said, “Hey! I am Coach Hanna. It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name again?”

He reached out his hand and looked back over to Coach Swingle, as he said, “So what is she, your assistant or something?”

My hand tightened up around his knuckles as Coach Swingle looked him in the eye and firmly said, “No, not at all.”

I knew I had Coach Swingle’s support, as I said, “I’m the director of football operations as well as the corners coach.”

When he realized I was serious, the coach chuckled, rolled his eyes and walked away.

I share this story with you because if I can get you to understand the significance of this moment, I know I can help you grow as football players and people.

Growing up, my dad was a Browns fan. Neither my younger sister nor older sister seemed interested in watching games with him. So, I threw on an orange and brown shirt and sat beside him. Right away, I wanted to have a deeper understanding of the game.

Alex previously worked with Mentor High Schools football team.

My dad didn’t know the sport’s intricacies, so I started asking questions to my friends who played football. I was drawn by the idea that a detail as small as a needle can control an entire game’s outcome – just the position of an elbow can translate into huge plays.  

First, I went to Florida Atlantic University, where I got involved with the equipment room and working with a position before transferring to the University of Delaware. That’s where I decided I wanted to be a coach. Taking notice of my interest, the defensive line coach at Delaware, Levern Belin, sat in a classroom with me and some of his players to go over film. He never shied away from teaching me as much as I wanted to learn. Safeties coach, Tommy McEntire, brought me into his group as more than just an equipment manager.  Also, he talked me through the path of a coaching career. It was at Delaware that I realized that there are people out there who will not only help me but also give me a chance.

I was drawn by the idea that a detail as small as a needle can control an entire game’s outcome – just the position of an elbow can translate into huge plays. 

However, the realization that being a woman in football wasn’t going to be easy came in waves.  In the beginning, I was told that a good spot for me would be in a dress, helping out with recruiting, as opposed to being on the sideline calling plays.

The next wave came with being assigned to assistant work, all the stuff that they didn’t want to do, but thought they could easily teach someone who never played.

Once I got the chance to be out on the field, I battled how I looked and how I was perceived. Players commented on my appearance.

They said, “Did you dress up nicely for me?”

Or “Why are you wearing makeup?”

Coach Hanna says she immediately was drawn to football.

A player on an opposing team once said to me, “Hey girl! Turn back around here so I can smack that.”

When I told people I was a football coach, many thought I was a trainer.

Others would encourage me to pursue journalism, telling me, “You’ve got a great face and  personality for TV.”

I even received comments like,” You’re going to find yourself a great husband.”

My first boyfriend heard that players were talking about me in the locker room. He told me I had to choose: him or football. I couldn’t believe people wanted me to give up my passion simply because other people couldn’t respect or visualize a woman in a male-dominated sport.

Quitting wasn’t an option for me. There is no other job I could ever do with this much passion. Whether I’m pulling an all-nighter or working 20-hour days for two weeks straight, I love every single second that I am coaching football.

I coached at the high school level and with the Cleveland Browns youth programs before Coach Opgenorth saw my love for the sport and hired me here at Oberlin. He believes in me. Coach Mayden, our safeties coach, has helped me learn and develop an understanding of the secondaries.

If self-doubt creeps in before I go into a meeting, he’ll tell me, “You got this.”

And the second we get out, he will say, “You killed it.”

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While my fellow coaches’ support may seem minor, I learned at that recruiting camp with Coach Swingle that, like football, the smallest detail can have a massive impact.

See, after Coach Swingle let that other coach know I was certainly not his assistant, we started to intermingle with recruits. Coach Swingle and I had a line of student-athletes waiting to talk to us.

One of the coaches from the same team as the coach who dismissed me walked by and said, “Wow, you sure know a lot of people out here.”

I turned around, looked him in the eye and said, “It’s super easy for my recruits to identify the female with the long hair as opposed to trying to figure out which one of you white dudes is tweeting at him on Twitter.”

This man started cracking up and said, “You are dead right about that.”

I knew I earned people’s respect.

At the end of the camp, the initial coach who shook my hand told me, “You did a great job out here and I can’t wait to see you next year.”

Coach Hanna says football is her passion.

When Coach Swingle initially made it clear that he had my back, it gave me even more confidence to hold my ground.

You may not be used to a woman on the sidelines, but I will not change who I am or tone down my femininity because I am working in a sport known for “masculinity.”

Some days, I am going to come to practice in makeup. Other days, I’ll be without it. I may wear leggings to a meeting or shorts to training camp. For some games, I might polish my nails or have my hair done. At an event, I might dress to the nines, in heels and a skirt. When I go to the beach with my family, I don’t like tan lines, so I wear a bikini.  

How I dress doesn’t change why I am here, what I have to offer you or how I expect you to treat me.

There should be no whispers in the locker room, no chuckles on the sideline and certainly no derogatory comments anywhere. And if you hear someone else disrespect me, I expect you to correct them.

It may only take a sentence, a few words, or even just a look to make a difference.  But by always standing up for not only me but also for each other, we will empower ourselves to play and perform with confidence. And even more importantly, by fighting for what is right, we will teach ourselves to live with courage.

That’s how we not only make ourselves a great football team, but it’s how we become people who will help create a better world.   

I can’t wait to get out there, 

Coach Alex Hanna
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2 thoughts on “This is what I hope you learn from a female football coach

  1. Excellent read of her overcoming obstacles that are NOT impossible in the coaching ranks of a football program. As she and others continue to break down the unnecessary barriers that exist in a men’s locker room this will lead to hopefully normalcy on the sidelines of a football game for women to excel in this profession. In society within a family there are many examples of young men not wanting to disappoint their moms, grandmas, aunts, etc. They push themselves or allow themselves to be motivated by these important women in their lives so in reality aren’t they life coaches? The answer is yes and women’s ability to coach men doesn’t have boundaries like a football field. When it comes to women coaching men, there is no out of bounds.

    Congratulations Coach Hanna! Achieve your dreams!

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