Spotting Coaching Potential

Does greater diversity and community representation in the people delivering movement and physical activity encourage more people to get active?

Activity leaders need specific skills, and they extend beyond the ability to share the techniques of their sport or activity. Over the years, we’ve recognised that the attitude of people coaching is as valuable as sporting experience. Techniques can be taught, but activity leaders need innate qualities to make everyone feel welcome in their sessions.

Project 500: Engaging Women in Sports Leadership Roles

Project 500 was an initiative aimed at bridging the gender gap in coaching and attracting more women leaders into the physical activity and sports scene. As Leap’s Community Champion, Portia was inspired to create the MK Women’s Walking Group in 2021. The goal was to encourage women without a coaching or sports background to join the group. Then those with leadership potential could be offered the opportunity to step up into coaching roles.

Portia has been actively nurturing individuals to become volunteer walk leaders. How has she identified the right individuals for the role? And, what does it take to upskill those leaders and maintain groups?

Introducing MK Women’s Walking Group

Affordability and accessibility are two barriers which prevent people from getting active.

In a bid to reach those often excluded from opportunities to boost their health, Portia set up a walking group in Milton Keynes. Free to attend and based in priority communities, this group attracted interest.

Milton Keynes is rich in green spaces and off-road walking routes, so was there a need for a group? In community discussions, Portia found that many women don’t feel safe heading out on their own. She is also well aware of the social aspect of meeting others. This is as important for health as getting moving. This walking group is a safe place for women to be active and share what they are going through. Its success hinges on women supporting women.

Walk & Talk: Recovery from Lockdown

Lockdown had a huge impact on the majority of women who attended the walks. Some faced isolation, whilst others felt trapped trying to home-school, entertain and feed their children 24/7. The women have shared their challenges with grief, alcohol dependency and recovery from life-threatening illnesses.

The backs of a group of women in winter walking gear, walking along a path with sheep in the backgroundAnxiety and depression were hitting the roof and there was no outlet for all the emotions. Lives felt out of control and with social isolation it was hard to build resilience. In addition, several have said that the lack of activity meant they were overweight and didn’t feel good about themselves.

It took considerable courage for many women to come out of their houses, meet up with strangers and get out for a walk. However, the Women’s Walking Group allowed them to break out of their isolation. They could do something for themselves and escape the usual routine. As faces became familiar and encouraged by regular conversations with Portia, it became a safe space and a trusting environment is built.

The women started to feel able to open up and share life experiences. Collectively, they formed a support network and coping strategies. The impact of a simple walk group is recognised in terms of improvements to their physical, mental and emotional well-being.

“I first joined a walk when I retired last August. They’ve given me a daily routine and a reason to get up and out each day. My fellow walkers have become my new colleagues and friends. My fitness is better than it’s been since Covid and it is a safe space to meet and talk.” – Trish, Walker


The number of attendees has continued to grow. In response, walks are now scheduled on most days of the week. This has extended the activity into different communities across the city and at different times, so more people can fit a regular walk into their weekly routine. People are coming to sessions after the school run, at lunchtime and more recently in the evening.

Recruiting Walk Leaders

Portia couldn’t achieve this growth single-handedly. She needed to recruit volunteers to become walk leaders. It made sense to consider women from the group, who had already shown commitment by turning up each week.

None of the walkers were coaches and few considered themselves as sporty or active individuals. Many have life experiences which impact their confidence. For this reason, they weren’t people who would put themselves forward as a walk leader.

Portia was very particular in her selection. Not only did potential volunteers need to be reliable, but they also had to understand the values that make the group work.

Consistent – turning up, on time and in all weathers, so someone is there if people come along

Welcoming – personable and willing to talk to everyone in the group to build a sense of belonging

Non-judgemental – ensuring the group is inclusive to women of all ages, cultures & ability levels

Supportive – good at listening, as many issues are raised on walks, and encouraging participation

When Portia initially asked women if they would like to be trained as walk leaders, several declined. However, seeing their potential, she didn’t give up that easily! With her power of persuasion, Portia convinced them that they could do it.

The walk leader journey typically starts by joining Friday walks with Portia, who allows them to gradually transition into taking on the lead walker role.

Portia also arranges training sessions with The Parks Trust, to cover Safeguarding, First Aid and Codes of Practice. This training is funded by Leap and is an important part of the process that Portia has developed to empower the volunteers. In addition, she runs induction sessions on boundaries and guidelines that are reinforced in every group. These are fundamental for ensuring that everyone feels safe and welcome.

Moving Forward One Step at a Time

So what impact has the opportunity to lead a group had on the women?

For a start, it is a confidence boost when someone sees your potential and provides the support to help you move forward. Nerves are normal, but biting the bullet and going in for it can reap rewards.

“I couldn’t be prouder to be a leader. There is such an array of women from all backgrounds. The group has also helped me with my personal goals. My fitness has improved and my mind is calm and my head is clear.” – Nicky, Walk Leader

“This role has boosted my confidence and improved my well-being” – Julie, Volunteer Walk Leader

“I joined my first walk last year and since then, I’ve become a leader. I love meeting new members and making them feel welcome. It’s had a really positive impact on my life.” – Maria, Walk Leader


One of the volunteers joined the group in the early days. At that point, her anxiety was at an all-time high. She rarely left the house and it took all her courage to come along. It’s been a 4-year journey to now having the confidence to be a walk leader.

“I joined Portia’s walking group at the start and it kickstarted the possibility of walking to gain independence and confidence. I’ve gone from not being able to go out to get the shopping alone, to getting on a plane and flying to Dublin.”


There have been many other stories like this. With women taking one brave step to participate it becomes so much more than a fitness group.

The benefits include:

  • Getting out in the fresh air and learning to notice and appreciate the local areas
  • Having an activity in the weekly calendar for themselves
  • Replacing loneliness and isolation with connection and friendship
  • Building resilience to cope with other demands in life
  • Gaining confidence in abilities and a sense of achievement

Taking on a leadership role has helped women to gain confidence. It is also true that these local, familiar and non-typical sports leaders make the group more accessible to others. However, it isn’t easy to sustain engagement. Portia has to be on hand to provide the volunteers with reassurance, support and encouragement.

What Does it Take to Support Those Taking on a Coaching Role?

The successful recruitment and retention of a diverse range of walk leaders has only been possible because of Portia’s commitment. Selecting the right people and equipping them with appropriate training, kit and resources is just the first step.

“To keep the momentum going, you have to invest time, energy and love into each individual. I care about my walk leaders and want them to shine, but this requires constant input. To make it work, I have to understand the motivations and challenges of my leaders. Then, I need to feed them the right encouragement, at the right time, to maintain their confidence.

22 women walkers smiling at the camera in a Milton Keynes parkThis is more than a job; you have to be willing to go over and above. The leaders rely on me and know I am there to respond to texts or calls when they need me. Each day I encourage ideas, appreciate what leaders are doing and keep them energised. On the tough days, when everyone’s confidence dips, I have to dig deep and turn things around.

I know that people talk about self-sustaining groups. However, attracting a diverse range of people into sports leadership roles requires ongoing support. Ideally, there would also be an established funding partner and community collaboration.

I’m staggered by the life experiences that my walkers and leaders have endured. I’m also touched when I hear what a difference it has made to them since joining the walking group. This local, community activity attracts people that would otherwise be inactive and lonely. The benefits are huge, yet what we’ve achieved is only possible if you have someone managing the groups.” – Portia Simond


Portia’s role is part-funded by Leap and partly voluntary. When we hear the difference she’s made to women across Milton Keynes, we know that the Women’s Walking group has provided excellent value for money. However, this has only been possible because of her dedication to the project.

Portia’s comments highlight the need for long-term thinking for sports funding. To achieve health targets and reach priority communities, we can’t simply set something up and then hand it over. It needs an invested person to provide support and keep driving the project forward.

A Walking Legacy

At the end of 2023, Dame Ann Limb DBE, High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Mayoress, Mandy Legg, joined walks to find out more about the group. It is hoped that their awareness will help to promote sessions to more women.

The group is unique and has developed a system that works, with trained leaders who follow a good practice code. More volunteers have come forward and those with shared values are being recruited and trained. They can choose the day, time and location for their walks, so more areas of the city will be covered in the coming year.

Portia is exploring options for the groups to expand to more than just walking. Recent developments include the introduction of cognitive and breathing exercises at the end of walks. These techniques can help those impacted by anxiety, dementia, bereavement, menopause and other health issues. Other leaders are including them in their walks too.

In addition, Portia is pushing for all volunteers to have access to additional skill-building training, including Mental Health First Aid. She is also exploring the option of group therapy for people who need it. She wants to inspire women to feel equipped and motivated to look after themselves and others in their lives. There is an opportunity to make a significant change to lives across Milton Keynes.

Equally, Portia has wanted to provide an MK men’s walking group for some time. A male volunteer has now been recruited to help move this forward in 2024. Visit the MK Women’s Walking Group Facebook Page to find out more and get involved!