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Liz Nicholl

Liz Nicholl
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Name: Liz Nicholl
Sport: Various
Role: CEO
Organisation: UK Sport
Nationality: British
Date: Dec 2014

Liz joined UK Sport in 1999 and was involved with the development of sport in the UK as she had an integral part of the performance development through the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Olympic Games.  Just 10 years later, Liz became CEO of UK Sport and now focusses on three key objectives including: World Class  Success, Major Events bidding and hosting and International Relations and Development.

The FCN have been lucky enough to catch up with Liz and ask her thoughts about the situatuion of female coaches in Britain.

My father was my inspiration. He was a primary school-teacher who coached the school cricket and football teams. I have six brothers and sisters and I grew up running around with them in the local park, throwing, catching, hitting and kicking every size of any ball available, and always wanting to prove I was better than my brothers. When I went to grammar school, the skills I had learnt transferred easily to netball.

As young schoolgirl growing up in Barry, South Wales, I was inevitably in awe of Barry John, Gareth Edwards and Lynn Davies, who were all superstars. The achievement by a sportswoman that I hugely admired was the outstanding Olympic gold medal performance of Mary Peters, but it was the members of the Welsh netball squad, who lived in ‘touching distance’ and featured in the local paper, that made me think from an early age that I could do that too.

I always wanted to work in sport and, having qualified with a BSc Chemistry from Nottingham University, knew that I needed a sport related qualification to add credibility to my CV. The MSc in Recreation Management at Loughborough did that for me. My first job was leading women’s inter-university sport and my second was as CEO of England Netball. In both those roles I was able to develop and practice my leadership skills in a safe and supportive environment. I had the opportunity to work alongside other CEOs of sporting organisations and felt like their equal. Over time, I took on other responsibilities, even though I may have felt outside of my comfort zone, and became Vice Chair of two multi-sport organisations, the Central Council of Physical Recreation and Commonwealth Games England.

Looking back on my career I was extremely lucky to meet the now Baroness Sue Campbell at an early stage. She was my coach when I captained British Universities all those years ago and was subsequently Chair of UK Sport for 10 of the 15 years I have worked here. Sue is an excellent role model and a courageous leader who always finds time to support and encourage young talent to put themselves forward.

As CEO, my leadership responsibilities focus on accountability for the National Lottery and Exchequer investment of around c£125m per annum which supports UK Sport’s key objectives of World Class Success and Major Event bidding and hosting. My top priority is the responsibility to invest in and support the development of the high performance system and to support Olympic and Paralympic sports and athletes to achieve medal success at World, Olympic and Paralympic level. In this context, London 2012 was a uniquely significant and successful event for UK Sport and the nation, with Great Britain winning 65 Olympic and 120 Paralympic medals. The ambition is now to build on these exceptional results, create a stronger and more sustainable performance system and be the first nation to win more medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games immediately after hosting a home Games.

I have held positions at national level in sport for over 30 years, and when I started out the industry was male dominated and the voice of women in sport was rarely heard.

My breakthrough came as a young CEO of England Netball in the 1980s; my national leadership role placed me in an environment where I was able to see that I was just as good as the majority of individuals in similar, significant roles.

Over the years I have seen some progress but it’s been slow. The need for diversity in leadership is now much more widely accepted in business. Change is happening in sport but it is slower and held back by tradition.

At a government level, Ministers are more outspoken on equality matters and more people are listening. This national profile and debate is ensuring that the momentum is increasing but there is still a long way to go.

There are now more role models and more signs of change. Baroness Sue Campbell was Chair of UK Sport for over 10 years and now across UK Sport and the England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland sports councils, four or the five CEOs are women.

When I look across the cohort of CEOs and Chairs of National Federations of sport, there are a relatively small number of women but we are seeing a shift at Board level. There is an expectation placed on funded sports by UK Sport and Sport England that all sport Boards should be made up of at least 25% women by 2017. Currently over 90% of the sports we fund have women Board members and the UK Sport Board is made up of 40% women. Better balanced and more diverse Boards will have a broader perspective and will make better decisions.

Female coaches have a unique set of skills to offer both male and female athletes and it’s critical that we ensure there are the roles available to them. We have an equal number of female and male athletes within our Olympic and Paralympic sports, yet the number of high performance female coaches is disappointingly low. In many ways this represents an opportunity that we have to unlock that potential, particularly of our female athlete population, to attract more females into our coaching system. This will in turn provide more role models for young aspiring female coaches of the future. Programmes like our Athlete to Coach Scheme, which has five women on the current intake, including former taekwondo world champion Sarah Stevenson, are enabling that to happen.

At UK Sport’s World Class Performance Conference, attended by leaders, coaches and support staff from the high performance community, I hosted a forum on the challenges facing women in sport. I was delighted to see so many people attend and the genuine enthusiasm prompted by the debate was truly inspiring. We are now exploring how can build on this momentum to ensure women are better represented across the high performance community. While we do need to help create more opportunities within the system, we also need to be proactive about shining a light on the many great examples that we already have, such as British Athletics Paralympic Head Coach Paula Dunn and England Netball Head Coach Anna Mayes. Positive role models are absolutely vital in order that we inspire the next generation and we will be using our communication channels to raise awareness.

When I first set out to become Chief Executive of UK Sport, I was unsuccessful, but I didn’t give up and I didn’t lose confidence in my abilities. I came back more determined and more prepared, better able to take on the role and make a success of it. I gained confidence from colleagues and I now say to others ‘Don’t hold yourself back. If someone you respect thinks you can do it, you can!’ You might not have everything go your way all the time, but your resilience and perseverance will be worth it.

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