Nicky Pearson originally from Fulham in the UK, moved to Canada in 1980 at only 15 years old. She joined a local women’s soccer?team and played competitively until a knee injury saw her change sports to BMX. ?This change of sports lead her to become the?Technical Officer at the Ontario Cycling Association and became her first paid job in sports -?she?even became Canada’s only female BMX track builder!
After a few years in the Cycling World, soccer called her back and Nicky went on to work for the Ontario Soccer Association in the role of Manager of??Match Officials Development. ?Working hard to raise standards of referring and aiming to increase the number of female referees in the sport, Nicky shares her story and her thoughts about the state of soccer in Canada.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself; you mentioned you are originally from England, how did you end up in Canada?
Wow, where do I start? Firstly I have to say that I could not do what I do, or have done what I have done, without the amazing support network that surrounds me, at home and at work.? My husband (Dean) of 28 years has supported me every step of the way, as have our 2 sons (Kyle 23 and Brady 21); & my family and our crazy amazing circle of friends.? Still don’t think my mum quite understands what I do – but she proudly tells her friends “she does something important in soccer”.
This career journey would have been impossible without support – and without having built some strong relationships with others in the field. I have the most dedicated Referee Development Committee and staff that makes my job so enjoyable and tolerable on those hectic days.? I have two of the most amazing mentors – one male and one female (you should never, ever underestimate the value of mentors). When I go to bed on a Sunday night I am thinking ‘YES!? It?s almost Monday” – I love Monday mornings, as you never know what the week is going to bring.
My mum swears I was born with a soccer ball between my legs . . I am the middle of three girls born in Fulham, London a couple of miles between Craven Cottage (Fulham FC) and Stamford Bridge (Chelsea). Mum still to this day cannot figure out why I am so sports crazy. My dad wasn’t, and she certainly isn?t.? I would ask for a football boots for Christmas and birthdays, but mum was a single parent and could not afford these things so I played in plimsolls or trainers, and dirtied and ruined so many pairs. Mum had a thing about clean shoes, so used to make me whiten them with the old whitening paste even the laces, they got so stiff and so gross and it only lasted a day!
I loved playing footie with the boys up at Normand Park and the Rec in Fulham, and at Sir John Lillie Primary School. I would sneak out at lunchtime from Fulham Gilliatt Secondary School to play even bunked off school to play (sorry mum!) and then would fib to my mum and say my shoes got dirty taking the shortcut home and would get told to whiten them again!
Upon my arrival to Canada in 1980 I got to buy my first pair of real new boots ? Adidas Mundials, I felt like I had won the lottery. I was 15 yrs old and finally could ‘lace ?em up’.? Amazing how you remember the small things (and I left them dirty after playing because I could as mum had not paid for them). I just so wanted to play organized women?s football and was ecstatic to learn of tryouts for a competitive team. I was picked up by the Streetsville Ladies and was the youngest player on the team. At school I got fed up that Peel Secondary School Board only had a boys soccer league, so started a movement to get a female league and was successful in 1982. So now I got to play at school, and after school – I was in footie heaven!? I even refereed soccer when I was 16 just to get more time on the pitch, but really hated the abuse, and preferred playing so quit partway through my first season.
I also played on the school soccer, volleyball and basketball teams, played hockey for fun, officiated high school sports, helped managed the boys teams, got involved in school council and was a school prefect. Slight change from the naughty, disobedient & disruptive student I had become in 4th and 5th form at Fulham Gilliatt. My report cards always said “Nicky could do so much better if she would just apply herself” I did want to apply myself – on the pitch!
After graduating high school I continued to play competitive soccer until bad knees came along, I am sure they were a result of playing for years in trainers instead of boots on clay and asphalt.? For my final 3 competitive seasons I was goalie with the Milton Ladies Team.In 1995 I hung up my football boots, took a year off to heal, and then along came BMX racing and the next chapter in my sporting life . . . . .?
Can you tell us about your current role with the Ontario Soccer Association? As the Manager of the Match Officials Development, what are your overall aims and what is involved day to day?
I?am the manager of a department of 3 staff, and a committee of 5. I am currently the only female in my role in Canada. I manage a program that has 10,500 referees and sit on a committee made up of all the provinces.? Our mandate is to make each referee the best they want to be – they could forever want to referee local games, or aim for FIFA – we strive to provide them with the resources required, and the support network that is so important for them to reach their own officiating goals.
Canada is still considered a ‘hockey country’, but soccer is the number one team participation sport, and we are undergoing huge changes with our Long Term Player Development, and our newly created Long Term Officials Development programs. These changes are the biggest seen in over 3 decades, and with change comes fear from those that have been around for a while, and can be quite a political hot potato, we make sure to spend time out in the community meeting with referees, administrators and coaches helping them understand the program, and the changes we are implementing and by doing this we are creating a strong network of support and leadership. Keep in mind that Ontario is vast (1,076,395 km? compared to England at 130,395 km?), so we cover a lot of ground in a year.
In the department we manage annual registration, new referee clinics, fitness tests, assignments, assessments and evaluations, mentors and referee coaches, and are proud to have increased our retention rate by over 3% in 3 years. This is important as in Canada we were losing over? 50% of our referees each year. Year end surveys tell us that the top 4 reasons (in order) are lack of games, lack of support, abuse by parents and coaches or they just dont enjoy the pressure/role.
My overall aim is to provide each official with the tools and resources to be the best they can be, to provide a clear and concise career path, and to know that we have given them every opportunity to reach their personal goals. I want to create the same respect level for soccer referees that rugby referees receive – when a 6 foot 8 inch, 320 pound player towers over a 5’4″ 150lb. rugby referee, and says ‘yes sir’ it shows where we need to be in soccer.
Am I right in saying before your involvement with soccer you were a Technical Officer at the Ontario Cycling Association? What was involved with this role and how did you go from cycling into soccer?
Yes you are. At the tender age of 40 I got my first full time job in sport after volunteering for decades as Technical Coordinator, BMX Racing for the Ontario Cycling Association. My eldest son Kyle started racing in 1996 at age 5 after my husband showed him photos of when he used to race in the 70’s and 80’s. Kyle showed real talent and was eventually riding for Team Canada at International events by the time he was 15.? But I was not one to just sit around and watch, and being a Leo I had to get involved, so I started officiating at the local level. I was also president, vice president and registrar at our local race track. 5 years into it I was the first female National BMX Official in Canada and was travelling the country officiating at national and international events. I guess my passion started to show as I was voted onto the Ontario Cycling Association Board of Directors as VP BMX Racing in 2003, and 2 years later was hired full time.
Not many of my soccer people know, but I was also the only female certified BMX Race Track Builder in Canada (trained in all sorts of heavy equipment – man, they are fun to drive!) and have built, or assisted in, the build of tracks across Canada including the World Championships Track in Victoria, BC.
But for all I ever did for BMX Racing in Canada, including creating national unity in a severely disjointed program, I believe that my legacy will be that I started a program called Riders Ready BMX, that was for youth with Autism, Tourettes and/or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.? Came up with the idea after watching a friends autistic son struggle in a team sport, applied for some provincial funding and launched it with great success. I have since left the program in the hands of some very capable leaders, and am proud to say that we have put over 500 youth through the program and utilized over 1000 volunteers.? We have given these wonderful children an outlet for their energy and enthusiasm, in a safe environment where they don?t have to worry about ‘letting the team down’, as in BMX racing, you are your own team.
So how did I get to The Ontario Soccer Association from BMX racing?? The commute to the Cycling office was starting to get to me (2.5 hours each way in city traffic) and I saw the job posting for a Technical Co-Ordinator, Referee Development at The Ontario Soccer Association, I applied, and was fortunate enough to get down to the final 2 candidates. Unfortunately, I was not selected – I was told I was ‘over qualified’. I was gutted not to get the job. 6 months later a position came up for Manager, Referee Development and I really hesitated to apply as the requirements were much more than I had. I have no college or university education, but I have experience and passion, and I just get sports and love soccer ? and I find that my sometimes whacky personality fits well with males and females, so the thought of being a female in a male dominated environment did not phase me (I had done it for years in BMX). I decided to apply for the Managers position and when I contacted the OSA I was told that the previous manager (who had interviewed me for the Coordinators job) told staff that if I applied for the managers job, to make sure I got an interview – I guess I had left a good impression. So after a long round of interviews, and after 5 years at Cycling I was back to my first love, and what I consider my roots – football!
What is the current situation like within Canadian soccer for female referees?
Currently we are at about 23% of our referee pool being female. 10 years ago we were at 12%. I credit the Women In Soccer Empowering Referee (WISER) program that was created in 2010 with helping to increase these numbers, and some really forward thinking male leaders that embraced the opportunity to help the female program. They mentor, support and attend a large number of events each year, they scout and find up and coming females. They ‘found’ 10-15 females a few years ago that were ready to hang up their whistles, and now have a few of them on the path to the Provincial level!
My observations tell me that females tend to support and work well with the other females, and I believe that is also part of the success. In my opinion, it is not as cutthroat and a case of proving who is better, but rather a combined effort to work together and achieve more. The same in education and learning settings females are more apt to speak up, voice opinions and answer questions when in a room full of females.
We are very lucky to have a number of strong female role models in our province, one of them being Carol Anne Chenard. She is a FIFA referee and refereed the final of the U20 Womens World Cup, and has been selected to officiate at the 2015 Womens World Cup in Canada.? She consistently gives back to the referee community – spending weekends with us educating, supporting and assisting up and coming officials. This is so important to our development program, as role models have such value – she empowers our officials, both male and female.
We still have to fight the ‘you are fast-tracking her because she is female’ accusations on a regular basis, but I do not believe in shortcuts for anyone. I believe the best will rise to the top, and each must reach the same standards – male or female. Is there a strong support network for females? Yes, because of WISER and of the other great leaders that believe in the program.
As females, we need to know that we can be leaders, show strength and confidence, and at times if needed, be aggressive and passionate. There is nothing wrong with being committed to your own personal self development. Build a strong network of like minded people, create strong relationships, have a group you can trust and talk confidentially to, put your hand up when other projects come along – the more you know, the more of an asset you become.
As this years Women’s Soccer World Cup is being hosted in Canada, we would love to know your thoughts on which teams will perform well. If you had to bet on one team to lift the trophy, who would that be and why?
Oh this may get me in trouble at work! Would I love Canada to win it at home? – yes for sure.Would i love England to win? – yes, as I still bleed a little red, white and blue. But I am cheering for Carol Anne Chenard, our Female FIFA official and her Canadian crew. If the USA or Canada makes the 1/4 finals, the odds are she will go no further in the competition as she is from the same federation as both countries (CONCACAF) – so quite selfishly, I am predicting that USA and Canada will not get past 1/4s! My prediction is Germany Gold.
Oh boy, I hope that doesnt get me fired