Day 5 – Women in the Lead

Over a six month period between October 2015 and March 2016, , funded by Sport England, which explored innovative ways to recruit, develop and retain women different backgrounds in coaching, activation and leadership. Each day this week in honour of our birthday we will be presenting some of the findings to you!

Women in the Lead

Leader, mentor, role model…the small-scale nature of the early projects and their different approaches means that these roles are often interchangeable. Some projects have sourced women who are already established as exercise leaders to kick-start new groups in target areas, and then to nurture the emerging leaders from those groups. Others have identified women with the desire to lead and then offered them mentoring and support to access the qualifications they need to set up their own activity groups.

What makes a good leader?

‘The main thing is that they are very personable, enthusiastic and encouraging,’ says Jane Gardiner of Greater Manchester Sports Partnership, which has recruited mentors from a variety of sports backgrounds. ‘They’re the kind of people who’ll spend time chatting and getting to know the women before and after the sessions, rather than just delivering the activity.’

Lucy Brown, of South Yorkshire Sport, adds: ‘We’ve asked participants what they think makes a good leader, and they say things like confidence, being able to talk to people easily, being organised and on time. Nothing really comes out about being good at sport; it’s more about traits.’

In South Yorkshire, this has been a notable factor in their success. Women living in an area are likely to be more in tune with what others in the neighbourhood want. One of the areas the project wanted to access was a tight-knit former mining community. ‘The way things work there is by word of mouth,’ says Lucy. ‘If it’s not recommended by a friend, they’re not going to turn up, so we needed to make sure our mentors were drawn from that community.’

‘It’s very important to find someone who can connect with these women,’ says Natalia Marshall of Leicester-Shire & Rutland Sport. ‘We have a run activator who started off doing school gate runs, got the running bug, lost loads of weight…she has a real personal experience that they can relate to.’

But they’re also not too far removed from the women they are working with. Lucy points to one successful Muslim woman working with the Yorkshire project, who runs her own coaching business providing activities aimed at the Muslim community, and is also a mum. ‘With black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, especially, it’s about giving them someone like them who they can engage with.’

The south-east’s regional project is thinking more in terms of ‘coaching buddies’ than mentors. Leap, the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes partnership, has created a buddy card for use at networking events. Participants go round and chat to people, and then fill in the card when they find someone they connect with.

Some projects have demonstrated the importance of listening when it comes to mentoring. Natalia says: ‘One of the best things about the project has been the one-to-one sessions I’ve spent with the women, finding out about them and listening to their stories. They’ve loved this and you can see them blossoming in front of you. I’ve spent a huge amount of time listening. It’s very intensive but also very rewarding.’

Jayne Wilson of the Lancashire Sport Partnership emphasises the importance of using open questions: What’s going well/not so well for you? What can we do to help you? How do you want to develop your skills in the future? Where do you see yourself in 12 months’ time?

‘It’s about getting them to reflect on their experience rather than just going through the motions,’ she says. Many participants are drawn from women’s support groups and have experienced issues such as domestic violence, so for the prospective leaders it’s a case of building confidence by giving them roles such as greeting the women coming in, introducing them to other people in the group, and ringing women who haven’t turned up to sessions to check everything is okay.

It’s also important to use the right questioning techniques to build confidence and autonomy in the groups, says Lucy: ‘Sometimes mentors have had to say, “I need to lead a walk next week but I’m not sure where to go”, and the women start to come up with their own ideas and suggestions. It helps them realise that they do have the ability to run things themselves.’ Some of the projects are now looking into taking things a step further and organising some motivational questioning sessions for mentors and leaders.

Finally, social media can be an excellent source of support, such as a closed Facebook page where participants can post questions and ask for advice.