Guest Post · inclusiveness · training

A morning with Mara Yamauchi – Part Two – Ways to engage more women in sport (Guest post)

woman running

I recently attended a Project 500 Networking Day for female sports coaches called: Women in Sport – The next steps.

(Project 500 is an initiative to address the imbalance of female to male coaches in England – you can read more below, or on their website).

A major highlight of the event was the opportunity to hear a presentation by guest speaker Mara Yamauchi about her experiences as a female athlete, and her more recent move into coaching – you can read about it here.

For the second half of her presentation, Mara answered questions, and facilitated a discussion on issues relating to local women’s participation in sport – and “what works” to minimise any such barriers and increase engagement.

Just for clarity, these were personal views and experiences shared by the attendees (all local female sports coaches and volunteers) and do not represent in any way the views of Project 500; or Coaching Hampshire and Active Surrey who organised the event.

Competition and self-esteem

One issue that came up was that of women marathon runners not having other women to train with, and becoming demoralised if they trained with men and couldn’t keep up. A potential solution to this is to use a “garland” running course, so that mixed ability runners can complete the number of loops they wish to in their own time, while still training alongside others for companionship.

We also talked about how some (although by no means all) women dislike competition, and can benefit more from process goals, as opposed to outcome goals. These might include consistency of training, posture, recovery periods and so on.

Technology – help or hindrance?

We also talked about technology, as a mixed blessing. Mara expressed concerns that she sees a lot of runners get over-fixated on their GPS watches and other devices, and believe that they are the key to better performance. Whereas in fact, in Mara’s view, nothing beats good old-fashioned hard training 🙂

Mara also made the point that monitoring your speed and distance are not the be-all and end-all in training. In fact, things like using different terrains, and a mix of speed and recovery can be very effective training methods.

Another crucial skill is learning to be aware of and judge your own effort, and know how it feels to be at different intensities. As one participant explained it, At 50% you can still get your words out. At 90% you can’t!

For all these reasons, Mara sometimes just advises her athletes to leave their watches and other gadgets at home. We agreed that it was ironic that running is such a simple sport in itself – but people have become so very hung-up on their kit and technology these days.

Technology and gender . . . ?

Technology looks set to increase in importance. It’s very visible in the new UK Government’s Sports Strategy: Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation, as an area to take forward:

Wearable technology which encourages people to be more physically active through quantifying their activity or competition and websites that enable simpler access to facilities have already transformed how people engage in sport and physical activity.

The increasing use of technology is one of the strongest examples of how meeting the needs and the demands of consumers can drive up levels of activity. Apps like MapMyRun and Strava and wearable technology like Fitbit and Jawbone have made participants in sport far more aware of what activity they have done, and introduced competition with both other people and themselves, for those that derive motivation that way. The ability of these apps and devices to capture data and encourage increased levels of activity will define the world of sport and physical activity in the coming decade (page 25)

But quite a few of us challenged this unquestioning championing of technology, as we believe it doesn’t necessarily appeal to all women. One woman said that she knew a coach who taught by Skype – and was finding it to be very popular with men, but had no female take-up at all.

Although we acknowledged the definite benefits of technology – for example allowing you to avoid a flooded road and find another path, there was also some discussion about how men seem to enjoy using technology in sport more, whereas for the women we coach (and ourselves too) the social side seems to be more important.

Obviously it’s undesirable to generalise too much. Plenty of women enjoy fitness technology – see for example Sarah Millin’s recent post on the excitement of upgrading to the Microsoft Band. But the general experience and view of all the coaches present seemed to be that women tend to be less keen on using sports technology.

We also discussed the pressures that technology can place on women and girls to feel that they need to look good while training or competing, especially since nowadays with social media use, photos of anyone and everyone appear on social media. When in fact, your appearance is probably the last thing you want to be worrying about during sporting activity.

We agreed that as noted above, technology is a mixed blessing, and has definitely done a lot of good to engage people who wouldn’t otherwise train. We need to try hard to get the most out of it, and do our best to stop it impacting negatively on our athletes.

Women from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds

Several of the coaches present spoke about the ways they supported local women from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds to participate in sport. Obviously coming from an ethnic minority is not a barrier in itself; and many women from these groups engage easily in sport. The focus of our discussion was on supporting women from specific local communities within our area, where barriers to participation in sports do appear to exist for some women.

One prominent issue was women fearing to be seen out and about engaging in sport, either by other members of their community, or just in general. For some women, engaging in sport in public would be seen as shameful. One (cycling) coach said that she overcomes this by taking students out in large groups, and separating men and women into two groups, especially in the first instance while participants get used to doing sport.

Another issue that several coaches often came across was women wearing unsuitable clothing for sport, including “floaty” national dress and flip-flops. There was agreement that this needed to be gently challenged for safety reasons. If the women could not wear other clothes, there were various safety options available such as removing long, flowing scarves, and tying dresses. Some women were uncomfortable removing their scarves to wear a helmet, and leaving it on could create risks, if not done safely.

One coach added that she felt it important to dress in a relatively modest way herself, so as not to make the women from minority ethnic and cultural backgrounds feel uncomfortable.

Some of the coaches also said that women from these groups sometimes started out quite overweight, and with low levels of fitness, due to their lack of previous exercise.

As a general point (going beyond ethnicity or culture), it was agreed to be important not to take on too many adult beginners at once, and to ensure that there were enough experienced participants to support them.

The support of men

It was agreed that when women came from cultures which discouraged them from participating in sports clubs, the support and influence of men could be enormous (either positively or negatively).

We then moved on to talking about women’s participation in general, and the number of women who can appear to be fearful and unconfident in a sports setting. One participant queried as to whether some of the Project 500 marketing should in fact be aimed at men, to enlist their support for the programme goals.

All in all, it was a great experience to meet with local female sports leaders and discuss these issues as a like-minded group . . .


About Project 500: Project 500 started life in 2013 as an exciting initiative in the South East of England, to help address the imbalance of female to male coaches by recruiting, developing, deploying and retaining 500 female coaches.

Research from sports coach UK shows that just 30% of sports coaches are female and of newly qualified coaches each year, only 17% are women.

The initial two-year pilot was really successful, and recruited and retained over 530 female coaches across a variety of sports.

In celebration of this – and with an eye to the future – Coaching Hampshire and Active Surrey held a women-only networking day on 13 March 2016, which I attended on behalf of my dojo. This discussion was part of the day’ programme.


Kai Morgan is a martial arts blogger. You can read more of her stories and articles at, or follow her Facebook page at:

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