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Project 500: What a difference a year makes

By CJ Lee, Sport Hampshire and IOW, Coaching Development Manager

It's been almost a year to the day since seven County Sport Partnerships in the South East, with support from sports coach UK, embarked on a bold new programme to engage more women in coaching.  With the sound of 2012 still ringing in our ears and a renewed focus from Sport England on inclusion, we launched Project 500 on International Women's Day in 2013. Our project aims were relatively simple: (1) increase the number of active female coaches (2) by doing so increase the number of females accessing high-quality coaching (3) create an ethos of self-improvement through learning and mentoring and (4) create local and national networks for like-minded female coaches to share ideas, practice and experiences.  We aimed to do this by removing some of the barriers, perceived or otherwise, that prevent women from taking on these much needed leadership roles in sport.

The Research

We began by doing some homework, which highlighted the significant under-representation of women in coaching at every level.  Whilst women make up 50% of participants in sport, only 1 in 3 of our nation’s 1.2 million coaches are women.  Even more startling is that of those only 37% hold qualifications.  When talking to women about the barriers they face, the usual suspects account for a degree of this disparity.  Women are more likely to take on domestic roles within the family, thereby giving them less time to commit to coaching.  Many sports are still perceived as 'male-dominated' with women being perceived as less experienced or knowledgeable.  These two factors could be described as systemic contributors to the status-quo, but our experience over the past year suggests that 'confidence' is actually one of the biggest barriers faced by our potential female workforce.

More than a bank

Whilst it is easy enough to increase resources through things like scholarships, its far more difficult to influence mind-set, beliefs and confidence.  Since April last year Project 500 has supported well over 250 women through scholarships to the tune of nearly £20k, leading to an increased number of qualified coaches.  Some of these are taking their first steps into coaching, whilst others are making strides upwards along the coaching pathway.  However, where the programme has been most effective is in having conversations through 1:1 mentoring,; sub-regional network events and women-only CPD.  These interventions have allowed us to create meaningful strategies to support and guide women onto and up the coaching pathway.

More Women-Better Coaches

Motivations differ greatly with some of our coaching mentors - women like dance entrepreneur  Shalini Bhalla and former England Netball International, Tamsin Greenway- wanting to give back after long careers in their chosen sport; whilst others have been inspired through recreational programmes like Back to Netball, Handball’s #TheBoxThatRocks and Run England.

Rita Hollington, a running coach from Oxford, is one such person who has come into coaching following a latent competitive career in running.  At 68, Rita is a shining example of how physical activity can be a elixir for good physical and mental wellbeing.  I was fortunate enough to meet Rita who explained "I'm probably a little 'long in the tooth' to be doing this, but hopefully a lot of younger female runners will be inspired to become coaches - wish I had got involved years ago!  Quite a high percentage of new runners in the amateur side of the sport are women, so I think more women coaches as role models would be fantastic encouragement!"

In Kent, where we held the first of three regional Project 500 workshops, the programme has really taken off, with more than 40 women supported through scholarships, mentoring sessions and coach education workshops.  Following some targeted work with the RFU, fourteen women attended a sports coach UK 'First Steps into Coaching' workshop and are now set to complete their Level 1 Coaching qualification.  In Athletics five women were supported with scholarships and mentoring to make the jump from Leaders in Running Fitness to becoming Coaches in Running Fitness.

Case Study Snap Shots

Windsor Netball Club

Project 500 Sportivate project to create a Junior section to the developing new club in Windsor. Three Project 500 coaches are being up skilled as part of this development, 2 UKCC Level 2 coaches and 1 UKCC Level 1 coach. Coaches also attended MOS workshops to ensure they were in a position to deliver once the sessions started. A successful block of Sportivate activity has now been delivered with 23 retained participants now forming a Junior section for the club. Coaches continue to engage with the CSP through Project 500 and have been invited along to the BB&O Forum in March.

Portia Simmond

Portia Simmond, a mum of two from Milton Keynes. After the birth of her second child, she had severe Post Natal Depression and quickly became a recluse, feeling uncomfortable to go out and socialise with others. Once the PND was officially diagnosed, Portia started a programme of treatment that included medication that only seemed to make matters worse. After further appointments with her GP, it was suggested that she tried exercising and running was top of the list. The effects were almost instant. Due to her growing love for running, Portia soon decided to become a run leader and help others to benefit from being active and taking up social running. She has since helped hundreds of new people get into running and be more physically active. Portia now wants to help other women in the position she was once in to get out of their situation and start living their life again. Portia explains – "Joining DL Redway Runners was the best thing that ever happened to me. It was the start to a new confident me. I was not alone anymore. Someone in the club would always run with me. Being a Run leader has given me a completely new feeling of self belief and confidence and I'm now progressing with a coaching qualification with a view to helping other mothers like me." Portia is a Project 500 member and will be gaining valuable support through Bucks & Miltern Keynes CSP to access a coaching bursary. She will also have the opportunity to access all of the other great benefits on offer through the programme to help her realise her dream of helping other women who are suffering as she once was.

From Competence to Confidence

Teaching confidence is tough, but its clear that providing targeted support through networking and mentoring can be the difference between someone wanting to coach and actually taking the steps to make it happen.  Since we started the project we've met some immensely inspiring women, some of whom are coaching at the top of their respective sports and others who are just beginning their journey.  We've secured the endorsement of seven governing bodies (The FA, The RFU, Exercise Movement & Dance Partnership, England Netball, England Handball, The ECB and ETTA) all of whom believe that recruiting, developing and deploying more female coaches is key to creating a more diverse and fit for purpose workforce. 

We continue to work with other organisations like the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation and Women’s Sport Network to promote the need for more women taking-up and being given the chance the compete for leadership roles in sport.

In every instance, whilst their aspirations and motivations may differ, the women we have met all believed in the power of having a passionate, motivated and competent coach being key to supporting athletes and participants at every level.

One year on we know we've only created a small ripple, but that ripple is already changing the way women across the country think about the role they can play in shaping the next generation of coaches and athletes.  We look forward to another year with renewed enthusiasm and optimism that even small projects like ours have the potential to empower local people and realise meaningful and measurable change.


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