"Don't let anything stand in your way" - Liz Nicholl

Published 8 March 2015

Today (8 March) marks International Women’s Day and UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl has been discussing her career to date in sport.

What does sport mean to you?

Sport is an incredibly important part of my life; it has helped me develop a strong drive to succeed and confidence in my skills, decision making, teamwork and leadership.

I grew up with a love of sport and a very competitive instinct; in a family of seven children, each one of us wanted to be better than the one before, and being number six I had quite a few to aim to be better than! In primary school, I wanted to show the boys I was better at football and cricket than they were. My first passion was trying to be the best I could be through sport and competition. This early experience gave me the basic skills that enabled me to play netball at World Championship level.

I always wanted to work in sport but academic studies led me to do a Chemistry degree. This science training combined with a love of netball led me to become CEO of England Netball and eventually to a dream job working with a dream team at UK Sport.

What has been your favourite women's sporting moment over the past five years and why?

London 2012, our home Games, was a watershed moment for sportswomen representing the UK on the world stage.

So many fantastic moments, but one I think was just an amazingly inspiring story was the gold medal won by Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins; what courage, what perseverance Katherine showed, what lessons in life you can learn from a woman like that – an absolutely stunning role model. It proves that with a world class attitude anything is possible - do whatever you put your mind to and don’t let anything stand in your way.

What are you wanting to achieve or most looking forward to in the world of sport in 2015?

This moment in time feels very different for the Women in Sport agenda. There has never been such support from a political level and in my position at UK Sport I feel a real responsibility for making a difference.

There is a gap and an opportunity in coaching. Only about 15% of coaches in high performance sport in the UK are women, compared with 41% of athletes, and that just signals untapped potential and an opportunity to get a more diverse coaching workforce supporting our athletes.

Through our National Lottery funded events programme we are bringing a vast array of major sporting competitions to the UK in 2015. Each of these events will help prepare and qualify our athletes for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016, and provide a fantastic opportunity to showcase our female athletes and their achievements.

What barriers have you encountered in the world of sport and how have you overcome them?

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 roles and so I was fortunate to able to focus on the opportunities as opposed to the barriers.

I also benefited from interaction with some experienced women who encouraged me. I was extremely lucky to meet the now Baroness Sue Campbell while at university. She was my netball coach when I captained British Universities in the early 70s and in 2002 became Chair of UK Sport for 10 of the 16 years I have worked here. Sue is an excellent role model and a courageous leader. I learnt from Sue that it is important to find time to care about each individual team member, not just the job they do for you but who they are, to encourage and support young talent.

There are now more role models and more signs of change than ever before. It’s fantastic to see so many female CEOs in leading positions in British sport, including three of the four home country sports councils, and at UK Anti-Doping, the Sport and Recreation Alliance and the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

It is a very special time and every one of us, as individuals and in our professional roles can make a difference. Let’s keep raising the profile of women in sport, to get more women active and more women succeeding and leading.

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