'How Do I Build Trust and How Do I Do it Quickly?'
The Daily Coach recently caught up with Phoebe Schecter, a former Buffalo Bills coach, to discuss the lessons from her unconventional pathway into football.
The call from Buffalo Bills Coach Sean McDermott came on a weekday afternoon. Phoebe Schecter had gotten the job she coveted.
Over the next two years, she would install an NFL playbook, coach tight ends and perform a variety of other assignments — all while making history as a female coach.
The Daily Coach caught up with Schecter recently to discuss her unconventional pathway into football, strategies to battle imposter syndrome and why she ultimately chose to leave the Bills.
This interview has been condensed and edited for brevity.
Phoebe, thanks for doing this. Tell us a little about your upbringing and some lessons from it.
I grew up in Connecticut. Most of my life lessons are actually through horses, as silly as that might sound. I started riding when I was 4. My mom was British, and I have dual citizenship, and she really wanted me to ride and experience that. I volunteered at a horse rescue when I was young, and that just cemented my interest even more. You think about the responsibility, the dedication to something other than yourself, the basic idea that if you fall off, you have to get back on. Persistence has really been a big part of who I am.
When did you first get involved in football?
That didn't come until several years later. I moved to England 10 years ago this December. I had gotten a job with someone on the Dutch Olympic team for horse riding, but he was based in the UK. It was a seven-day-a-week job from about 7 a.m. to 12 a.m., and I loved it, but I wanted something outside of horses.
I was missing American culture and saw an ad on Facebook looking for players for a team in Manchester and just went for it. When you’re out of your comfort zone, sometimes you’re more willing to take risks, so I went to a tryout and somehow made the team as a player, and that kind of started my journey.
What position did you play?
I started at quarterback because I had an American accent, so they assumed I could throw, but I couldn’t. I started playing for our national team, but we had an actual quarterback come through and I needed to find another position. I already had this affinity with contact and the coach said why don’t you just try linebacker? I did a simple box drill, and the second I did, I said this is for me.
You obviously got into football a little later than most coaches. Take us through your journey from there.
Once I started playing, I totally fell in love with it and knew I wanted to make that my career. I thought, “How do I change who I am to get to where I want to be?” I did my personal strength and conditioning coach qualifications. I was asked by a coaches' association to do a talk on the female athlete regarding strength and conditioning. Two of the coaches who came to my talk were from the University of La Verne. They just said they’d love for me to come out and coach at their preseason camp.
Once I did that, I was totally in love with it. It was like a match was lit underneath me. We had a career forum that the NFL used to host and then something called a women’s world football game. That was a five-day camp for women all over the world, 26 different countries represented, that aligned with the Pro Bowl. Our first one, we had people like Scott Pioli, who was with the Falcons at the time, (Bills Owner) Kim Pegula, (now-Washington Commanders Coach) Ron Rivera, all these amazing humans in the NFL who were really open and honest about what it was like. They made it clear it was a challenge and that it was not for everyone.
How did the opportunity with the Bills come about?
I applied for the BIll Walsh Diversity Fellowship and chose the five teams I'd be interested in going to. I’d basically been turned down for three of them. I hadn’t heard from Buffalo or the Falcons. I’d been in the NFL offices with Scott at the time and got an email from Coach Sean McDermott from Buffalo asking if I could hop on a call.
I went running through the streets of New York trying to get a taxi to have this call. He was just like, “This is Coach McDermott from Buffalo. Are you speaking with anybody else?” I wanted to be transparent and I said, "Yeah, I’m talking with Scott and the Falcons." He goes, “Well, tell Scott thank you, but you’re going to be a Bill now.” I’ll never forget it.
So you get to Buffalo. What was easier than expected and where were you maybe a little in over your head?
My first training camp, I was with defensive backs. One of the coaches asked me, “Do you ever stop smiling?” But I was 100 percent in over my head, like a deer in the headlights. I had only started playing 5-a-side football a few years before. From the practice speed to the terminology to just understanding the rhythm of an NFL camp. But I wanted to have an impact and add value, so I asked what can I do to help in this situation?
They let me attend every single meeting, offense, defense, special teams. I just asked as many questions as possible. I printed out all the coaches’ pictures with their names so when I saw them, it was one less thing for me to think about.
We were away at training and I’d always go to the gym at 5 a.m. because Coach McDermott was in there then. It was just a way to build a rapport and trust. I was talking to the defensive backs coach at the time, and he just asked, "How are we going to find a way for these guys to trust you? They don’t know who you are. They don’t really care. Are you going to help them? That’s the bottom line."
We also made a highlight video of me tackling in football and showed it to the players. I was mortified, but (stars like) Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde were going crazy when they saw it, and it just earned credibility.
It sounds like when you got there, you dealt with a little imposter syndrome, which so many of us face.
I’d say that happened more so when I moved to coaching tight ends the following year. For me, it really came down to understanding the value you bring to an organization. I knew Xs and Os, but not nearly as much as some of these guys. But what did I bring? I brought consistency, positive energy, I brought my interpersonal skills where the guys felt comfortable asking me questions.
It came down to that vulnerability piece. How do I build trust, and how do I do it quickly but in a meaningful way? You can start it as simple as going to the gym with them every day. If someone asks you what time it is or when the next thing is, you give them the right answer. If you don’t know, you go ask someone and find out. You don’t try and lie about it. You have to believe in yourself.
Was there one particular moment you remember started feeling more at ease?
Rob Boras was my coach, and he’d been in the league for ages, but he never had an intern. When I got there, he said, "O.K., you’ve got the rookies. Install the playbook, meet with them every day, do whatever it is you have to do to make sure they’re up to speed."
A lot of times in life, I think we need somebody to apply that pressure, to put us in these uncomfortable situations, to really see what we can do. He obviously believed that I could do this. I needed to believe in myself. Installing the playbook helped my confidence a ton.
Why did you leave the Bills and get out of coaching?
I decided to move back to the UK in 2019. I’d been working on the NFL Academy. The league had its first one in London, and it was something I had been working on before going to Buffalo full time. I felt I could really help these people, giving kids opportunities they’d never get with an education and potentially making it into a college or even pro system.
How did it go when you broke the news to Coach McDermott?
I’ve never felt so sick to my stomach. I thought about it for so long, and I remember going into Coach McDermott's office feeling really upset. I loved who I was working for. But he was so good about it. I remember him saying “This is your opportunity to go and help other people, to travel and see the world at the same time. Take advantage of this moment you have and your age and what you can do." He was so supportive. It was incredible.
Was that first season away from the NFL difficult?
It was very hard. It makes you question some of your decisions, seeing (the games) every week. You’re thinking “Those are my guys.” It definitely challenges your mindset. But I thought I needed to put my energy and focus into something else. In Europe, we had something called the GFL, which was our highest level. I went to a team called the Potsdam Royals and became their defensive coordinator, challenged myself.
I’ve now become a coach developer. I run programs in schools for flag football, teach teachers to help grow the sport. I also work with NFL Flag in the States as one of their female ambassadors. We work with all 32 teams and Nike to create girls-specific leagues and try to get them approved by the states. And then I still play for Great Britain for tackle and for flag on the national team. I’ve also started doing analytics for games, in-game analysis on TV, and I do commentary for radio as well.
You've been a pro coach, but you've also had to coach yourself navigating difficult crossroads. What does self-leadership look like to you?
Self-leadership is being a great example. It’s the ability to still push yourself once the easy way is out and get to the point of being comfortable being uncomfortable.
This little known productivity app is the secret of silicon valley high achievers
You need to create the atomic habits that propel you towards achieving your goals. You need a daily system. Todo apps fail to do this.
Sunsama helps you execute proven methods such as timeboxing by pulling in your emails and calendar events as tasks. It integrates with your tools such as Notion, Asana, Trello, and a lot more. Users call it “the last productivity app you’ll ever need”... and they’re not kidding!