The NFL runs multiple campaigns throughout the season, including “Crucial Catch: Intercept Cancer,” “Salute to Service,” and “My Cause, My Cleats” to name a few. In Week 3 of the 2023 season, the Detroit Lions are running a unique initiative of their own, recognizing “Women in Football”, where they will be focusing on a few of the impactful women within their organization and in the community.
“There are few things I am more passionate about than Women in Football,” said Lions principal owner Sheila Hamp in a press release. “My mother, my sisters, and I are thrilled that our organization will be the first team to honor the contributions that women have, and are continuing to make, to the game of football on every level. It’s an honor to stand alongside these women not only on this gameday, but every day.”
We at Pride of Detroit had the privilege to participate in the Lions' recognition of “Women in Football” and we were extremely fortunate to be able to have an exclusive sit down with one of the most fascinating people within the organization: Jill Costanza, the Lions director of sports science and assistant strength and conditioning coach.
“Sometimes sports science is about, ‘Ok, we need to pull back, we’re doing too much. We’re concerned about injuries.’ (But) you know the philosophy here. It’s grit. It’s ‘we’re gonna kick you in your teeth.’ It’s great. When it’s time to go (to work), it’s time to go. So, when Sunday comes, we’ve got the best physiological chance to kick your ass.”~ Jill Costanza
Learn the technology side
Jill Costanza grew up in Houston, Texas with a dream of working in women’s sports. She got a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston in sports marketing, taking a job out of college as a physical education teacher and high school basketball coach. During her summer months, Costanza would coach basketball camps at the University of Texas and Texas A&M, establishing contacts and building relationships.
During her basketball coaching tenure, Constanza noticed an unfortunate injury pattern amongst her players: they had an “ACL injury epidemic going on.”
Constanza’s intellectual curiosity sent her searching for answers. Through her connections at the universities, she was introduced to strength and conditioning programs. She would wake up at the crack of dawn—well before her job at the high school began—to volunteer her time as a sports performance coach at the University of Houston.
“I would head to the University of Houston at like 4:30 in the morning for 5:00 workouts and assist (the strength and conditioning coach) with volleyball,” Constanza explained. “And then I worked with men’s football in the summer, to kind of see if strength and conditioning was the route I wanted to go. And just fell in love with it.”
Costanza enrolled at the University of Miami (FL)—because they “had a program specific to strength and conditioning and athlete performance as opposed to generalized Exercise Physiology”—and obtained a master’s degree in kinesiology and exercise science.
After graduation, it was back to the University of Texas for Costanza, accepting a position as an athletic performance coach. From there, she got her first real test of how strength and conditioning work across departments.
“I played the role of a dual strength and conditioning coach, plus sports science,” Costanza explained. “We put the GPS trackers on the players for practice, doing force plate assessments, utilizing different technologies to kind of get a look at the athlete. That was my first exposure to ‘sports science.’”
While at Texas, Costanza found a mentor: Sandy Abney, who is the current assistant head coach for athletic performance, women’s swimming, and rowing at the University. Abney gave Costanza some key advice that was critical to help her take the next step in her career.
“She told me,” Constanza recalled, “‘Jill, especially as a female in the strength and conditioning profession, if you really want to break through that ceiling [...] learn the technology side.’”
Being able to “leverage technology” allowed Costanza to access and process new sources of information and began her path into the sports science realm.
Costanza would next take a position with the Army at their Wellness Center, where she focused even further on utilizing technology and data when working with soldiers. Then she shifted to working with the Air Force and its Special Warfare Program. And that is where she met their head of their strength and conditioning program: Mike Clark, who is currently the Lions' director of sports performance.
Clark and Costanza were working hand-in-hand at the time, “doing some really cool stuff with data and technology.” And when Lions coach Dan Campbell called on his former college strength and conditioning coach to head up the program in Detroit, Clark accepted the position and recommended Costanza—and her comprehensive resume—for the director of sports science and assistant strength and conditioning coach role.
“From my perspective, (sports science) is utilizing scientific principles, and then applying them to sports with the use of technology and data to make objective decisions.” ~ Jill Costanza
Hub of the wheel
A self-described “science nerd,” Costanza is quick to point out that at her core, she is still more a coach than a data analyst, which allows her personality to mesh perfectly with the rest of the staff.
Entering her third year with the Lions organization, Costanza has built the program from the ground up, with a conscious mindfulness towards remembering that there is still a human component to sports, and not just points on a data sheet.
Costanza notes that there are typically three kinds of coaching philosophies when it comes to sports science. Those that utilize the data as straight facts and don’t stray from what the numbers tell them. Another is the “old school” coaches who insist the data is unnecessary because they’ve always done things a certain way. The third is a staff that has a more open-minded conceptual approach and lands somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.
While Campbell is very much old school in a lot of ways, he also leans on data as a source of information, weighing all options when making decisions and setting plans.
“Oh, it’s a great mix,” Costanza said of the Lions approach. “I’m fortunate enough to be in all of our coaching meetings, to talk to coach Campbell. He’ll ask me questions, and my opinions, and he gets it. He really understands that balance of stress and recovery.”
For Costanza, sports science is a tool for identifying player performance and each player's performance levels are determined by a litany of things, including their past history, the position they play, and more.
What makes Costanza so perfect for this role is that with her diverse educational background and years of coaching experience, she sees and understands the data from a unique lens.
“From my perspective, (sports science) is utilizing scientific principles, and then applying them to sports with the use of technology and data to make objective decisions,” Costanza explained. “Because you may not know why an athlete is producing the numbers that they are, but then that’s kind of where the strength and conditioning, and the background in exercise science comes into play. It’s like, ‘Ok, well, knowing what I know (about what) this metric signifies, how can we fix it? What type of interventions can we do?’”
Not only does Costanza work every day to try to intervene before potential injuries occur, but she is also a critical component in helping players recover from long-term injuries.
She routinely makes recommendations to the different staff working with players during rehabilitation; providing training tips, identifying metrics where players will typically struggle following specific injuries, and incorporating her own exercises to help with the process.
Regardless of whether it is during rehabilitation or a regular day of practice, performance tools, such as GPS trackers, send hundreds of data points to Costanza’s system and it’s part of her job to sift through the relevant information and identify potential problem “flags” that pop up if a player is being over or under-stressed. Once she gathers her pertinent information, she then shifts to distributing it to the proper channels.
When I first met Costanza in 2021, she described her job as the hub of a wheel of information. As she collects data, she then delivers it like the spokes of a wheel to all the different departments and allows the overall wheel to keep turning at its highest level of efficiency.
Some of the recipients of Costanza’s information include Josh Schuler (head strength and conditioning coach), Katherine Hopkins (director of performance nutrition), Brett Fisher (director of player health and performance), Mike Sundeen (head athletic trainer), coaches via daily meetings, and more.
When the different departments get their information from Costanza, they may alter their treatment or interactions with players based on the information provided. Whether it’s a veteran rest day from practice, a change in diet or nutrition, or even how practice is scheduled for the entire team, Costanza’s information helps guide others in the organization to help them make better decisions. All with a common goal of helping players reach their peak performance on game day.
“She’s just as part of the family as anyone else in here,” Lions defensive back Will Harris told Pride of Detroit. “Definitely a great resource and I’m glad she’s in our building. She could be in anyone else’s building, for sure. I’m glad she’s with us.”
“A lot of people love her because she’s always going to give somebody a nickname, but she makes it more than just work. She’s real personable about everything. We love Jill.” ~ Kalif Raymond, wide receiver
Women in Football
There are currently only a handful of full-time female coaches in the NFL—nine or 10, depending on which reports you research—making Costanza part of a truly select group of individuals. But as Costanza noted in our interview, it’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the significance of being part of a select group while she’s currently experiencing it.
“When you’re in it, you don’t recognize how big it is,” Costanza reflected. “Outside looking in, people are like ‘Oh, you’re only one of a handful of women coaching in the NFL.’ But when I’m in it, and coaching the guys, or I’m with the coaching staff, it feels like I’m meant to be here. It’s hard for me to (fully appreciate) the significance of it—I just feel part of the team.”
That’s why the Lions organization making the effort to launch the “Women in Football” initiative is such a tremendous recognition campaign. It allows individuals—even the ones at the center of it—to take a moment and appreciate the significance of how things are evolving for the better. While this initiative is currently unique to the Lions, they hope it catches on throughout the league.
“I think it’s great to shed light on women in the organization,” Costanza said. “Women bring a different perspective, certainly different personalities, leadership, creativity. I’m interested in different presence, so, I think it’s great. Especially to be the team that’s headlining that initiative. Especially with a female owner. Hopefully, it does open eyes and open doors for others to become part of the NFL.”
Even though we have recently seen positive signs of inclusion in the NFL, in a lot of ways, the league remains an old boys network, and there are still those who have a stigma against women and their roles in sports. As a woman working in sports, Constanza has had to overcome obstacles throughout her career, including fighting back against the stereotype that she was just a diversity hire.
“I can guarantee you, that myself and the other female coaches in the league, we earned it,” Costanza said. “We sacrifice. I can speak from personal experience, that when my male counterparts at the end of the day get to go home and relax, I’m reading books, listening to podcasts, doing continuing education courses—it doesn’t stop, it can’t stop. Because I do have that extra kind of chip on my shoulder, and I am battling people’s—even unconscious—ideas of men versus women.”
Costanza’s work ethic is part of what has helped her get to where she is and she hopes it will lead to even bigger roles in the future, including positions in leadership.
“I’ve decided to work that much harder and stay ready because you never know when you’re going to be called upon,” Costanza explained. “And you know, especially as a female, you get one chance. If you’re not prepared, you’re in trouble. [...] I would love to see more women in leadership roles. Not just as assistant coaches. I would love to have my boss’s (Mike Clark) role at some point and be a director of player performance. Just being able to see (women) continue to climb that ladder. Like MJ (Maral Javadifar) with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She came in as an assistant SC (strength and conditioning) coach and also as a physical therapist. And now she’s director of rehabilitation/performance coach. Again, being able to step into that leadership role—I love to see it.”
As more women join the league and progress within the sport, the more football will evolve as well. New opportunities and larger roles lead to more exposure amongst a younger population of females, and in turn, can create pathways for fresh and creative minds.
“I try to think back on the fact that my dream job was never to be in the NFL,” Costanza explained. “It was to be, (a) strength coach of UConn women’s basketball or US women’s national soccer team. It was because I didn’t grow up seeing women in these roles. So, you only think what’s possible based on what you see, what you know. I grew up playing sports, so (working in) female sports, thinking that that was my limitation—until I got this opportunity. And hopefully, this is for girls to see that it’s possible. That (the) mentality is different for them. That this is a possibility, and they can dream bigger than what they even realize. So, I am glad that we are highlighting the women that work for our organization because there will be a lot of girls, a lot of little girls at a game, and hopefully, it inspires them.”