Revolutionizing Athlete Development, Shona Eichorn CEO of NIAS
Thank you very much for having me. I’ve very privileged to be with you all.
So Shona, you recently were visiting the US and I met you actually at a Golden State Warriors game. Maybe for the listeners here. Can you give us some insight the purpose of the trip which brought you back here?
Absolutely. Well, Alan, I’ve been working in the area of sport and education for many, many years now. And having grown up on the east coast of Australia and an area some people may be familiar with, near Byron Bay, where Chris Hemsworth comes from. And participated in sport and volunteering sport for many years as you’ve my family, and I had fantastic role models in my parents who were contributors across many organizations in our community in a very much a sport mad regional area.
I then undertook obviously participated in sport myself, but not to an exceptionally high level. However, I knew that there was an opportunity, and there was a gap in the market. I actually then went to study sports management in Brisbane, and had the opportunity to apply for to work as this first CEO of the Northern inland Academy of sport. And in New South Wales. There are 11 regional academies of sport. Two of which are government organizations, and nine are independent.
I joined the northern land Academy of sport back in 1980, the first time and then went off to do other things in education and in sport, and having family etc. But this year, in coming back to the normal inland Academy of sport as a CEO in 2021, this this particular year, we have as a group of CEOs have the opportunity to, to consider what is best practice, and really look at how we can revolutionize what we’re doing in New South Wales.
In terms of talented athlete development, and providing opportunities for young talented, both athletes between the ages of 13 to 18, but also for coaches and officials. So in sport, we really have been looking at how we can do things better with our processes and our people. And the platforms that we use to deliver these programs. We considered, they’re looking at best practice. So there was an opportunity, which we followed through.
And contexts of many of the other CEOs, we went to the West Coast of the United States, San Francisco, Sacramento, LA and then Hawaii, and looked at best practice in not only colleges, but professional organizations, together with academies. So we visited places like Cal in San Francisco, like the Golden State Warriors Academy. Obviously, we went to a game and we’re very fortunate to have met you and your family there at the in the hospitality area in an extraordinary location.
We were very fortunate to be given a tour of that facility and talk with the recruitment manager there about how the Golden State Warriors do things, and how we could perhaps partner with not only the Golden State Warriors, but other organizations such as the colleges and smaller organizations who are very similar to us in providing opportunities for these talented athletes. So for example, best practice in the colleges we saw at Sacramento was amazing. There are a number of Australian connections there.
We also met other connections in St. Mary’s College, the girls there in San Francisco. In LA, we went to USC, and then the University of Hawaii in obviously Honolulu and Chaminade University. What we undertook was visitations in each of those areas and then met many of the staff involved. And as I keep saying, we’re looking to to the United States, and looked at best practice in sports management, and how we can, as I said, partner with these organizations to provide greater opportunities for our talented athletes.
We’ve been working in the area of talent, sport development for many, many years, and there’s a greater focus now than ever before having a home Olympics in 2032 does give us a greater focus and a greater purpose. So each of the CEOs, there are five of us there in the United States, talking to a whole range of people to help facilitate these opportunities moving forward.
I’d be very interested in your, your perspective of differences within the USA system and the Australian system for sports.
Certainly, and there are many similarities and differences. In both countries, I say there’s obviously sport as a medium where people have a lot of passion, in terms of the sports they participate in, and, and certainly support. But certainly the system in Australia is very much grassroots development from the bottom up. And this is just my personal perspective, it’s not necessarily shared by the greater number of people, it’s around the system in Australia is based on volunteerism.
So the mum and dad who support their child getting involved in sport and who, who then might think, oh, I want to make a career out of this. There’s opportunities for them moving forward in that area. But there’s a lot of focus on mass participation in sport. So community participation is very much across the board. And I see that is not necessarily as similar to the United States, it differs in that in the US, we saw, there’s a very linear approach to the development of the talent of the athlete.
Whereby you know, your athlete from school, they progressed from there to college, and then from there, potentially to professional. In Australia, we have a great community support system, alongside a terrific school support system, but often they’re at odds in terms of, they’re providing the opportunity for the same athlete. But the same athlete can be then in so many different teams and gets quite torn between what opportunity where is the pathway, whereas in the United States, there’s a very clear pathway for talented athletes.
We have lots of organizations here in Australia trying to do a similar thing. And often they can be and this is not necessarily a negative, but it can often be in isolation. So what we’re wanting to do is to work better together in order to provide that greater opportunity for that talented athlete, and so they don’t burn out. So they continue in this sport, long term and hopefully have great outcomes at the end, whether it is at the Olympic level, or whether it is at a local or regional level.
And certainly the organizations I’m involved with in the regional academies of sport, are one step above participation level, we provide pathways and performance for these talented athletes in the third, enter eighth in your age group are poor across a wide variety of sports. The sports some you may be familiar with many you won’t be familiar with. I’m not sure how many would be familiar with netball, for example, the largest participant sport, particularly for females, although we’ve had an increase in numbers of males participating there.
So those opportunities were wanting to grow and get better at doing
How many kids are in the program?
Across New South Wales in the regional academies Sport system, which is an independent system, I might say we’ve whilst we are supported by the Office of Sport, to a certain extent, which is state government funding. In each across the 11 regional academies, we will identify or have athletes attend selection trials. Around 8000 athletes would attend those trials. And we would then identify two and a half 1000 Potentially across the 11 regional academies of the sport.
This weekend, I’ve actually read recently returned from a place called Wagga Wagga where we hosted the academy games and that’s that was games across eight different sports, including cycling, triathlon, hockey, netball, basketball, volleyball, golf. They’re the sort of variety of sports I’m referring to. So we had about 1500 athletes participate in those particular sports, but on any given day, we would have in the vicinity over two and a half to 3000, in our programs on an annual basis. So these are athletes from many different areas across the state.
Some might be from very rural and remote areas, some might be from areas in Western Sydney, but in particular, the challenges. And equally like in the US in those remote areas, you have a same geographic area, as we do, you just have a greater population, you have 300 million, we have 30 million. To draw from that. In both countries, we have very passionate people about what they do and how they do it, and how to improve.
So, you know, we’re using the adage here, if you’re standing still in sport, you’re actually going back with so we’re reaching out to countries like the US, the UK, there are some New Zealand as well, just to see how we can assist these athletes and their communities and families to get better at what they do. I guess our adage is developing potential on and off the field. And it’s around providing that next opportunity.
As I said, the athletes for example, in my personal Academy northern inland, some of them come from remote areas where they’re traveling to in three hours one way just to attend a training session. So we’re looking to help them, try and defray those challenges so that they can succeed long term. The other difference I saw in the US compared to Australia is there was greater philanthropic support for programs and facilities, particularly you think about the Golden State Warriors Chase center, oh my goodness, the $2 billion project, that wonderful facility that is there.
But then it’s supported by contributions to the programs within the Golden State Warriors and their recruitment. And so I saw a difference. Or we as the collective of CEOs saw a difference in how organizations in the US actually identify the talent, nurture their talent and support their talent long term.
And so what we’re looking to do is emulate that provide a culture of support and for those athletes, and the coaches and the officials to see long term because, as you would know, Elon sport is a microcosm, really, and a reflection of society generally, and the attributes that you receive from participating in sport with you for life. So we are trying to instill that in this next generation of athlete and community leader.
I’m aware that you travel 100 kilometers, four times a week to get to your office.
But I have to say that COVID One thing has provided us is the opportunity to to do things remotely. So I have been fortunate to be able to work remotely and use technology when it works, to the great extent. But yes, I do travel. I haven’t hit a kangaroo yet. Touchwood. But I do travel one way there to Tamworth from my home in Armadale, which is a university town.
Yes, so travel one way there one way back, and I love doing it, it’s thinking time, but it’s also just a very small thing that I can do compared to some of the parents in our region who do travel that quite extensively in order to provide opportunity for these athletes.
What is your your personal mantra? Do you is it you know, making things happen and making a difference? What is what is it that you’re you want to be known for in life?
Thank you, Alan, I’ve often reflected on that and what might be something that would be said at my, you know, a funeral, potentially and, and that would be making a difference certainly. And using that analogy, we have an expression in Australia having a go. And I certainly have been renowned for that in my life and just giving everything the best I possibly can. And certainly making a difference and being able to provide opportunities for these young athletes and help them get to the next level is what I’ve personally be very proud to do.
My other philosophy in life is always to give back. I have been very fortunate to have lots of opportunities in my lifetime and many have been actually through a wonderful international organization called rotary I was an exchange student in Sweden many years ago, I came to North Carolina in 2009, in the 90s. Anyway, as a group study Exchange team member, and now I’ve actually joined and become a Rotarian myself, because I understand that, you know, communities need volunteers.
And the more volunteers the better COVID has certainly shown that a lot of people are taking a step back from volunteerism. And I think we need to step up, in order to provide these opportunities. And with our volunteers, our organization here in Australia, would be really struggling. Because we certainly don’t pay our coaches like you do in the United States. So we are trying to then show and demonstrate to these yet this next generation, the important importance of having a go the importance of putting yourself forward.
And then giving back to community. Where I see the greatest reward for me is to seeing young adults achieve who’ve been through our programs are alumni of that we have many alumni, right across the world who have come through our programs as whether a 15 year old or an 18 year old, they’re now succeeding in life, whether in business or whether on the sports field, we have many on scholarships in the United States, various colleges, some have come back to then in our country, to be selected in state and national teams.
And for me, that’s the sense of pride and accomplishment of those athletes is gives me great purpose and of course, pride. But my other reward is seeing these athletes who potentially don’t make it to that next level, give back to their communities who might be running voluntary community organizations such as their local netball, cricket rugby hockey organization. And so we have actually had an impact and influence that positively that next generation that to me is surely rewarding.
Shona, it’s very impressive, the your mission and the way that you’re striving to make an impact in the lives of others. If a person wants to get involved with your programs, first of all, how can they get involved? And where would they where would they reach out to you or the organization?
Well, the regional academies of sport collective across New South Wales are certainly supported not only through the Office of Sport, which is a state government funding initiative, but we are actually supported by a number of commercial partners. And so we do have a variety of sponsors. With our programs, clubs, New South Wales is one that is right across every Academy. In individual academies, we do also have our own regional sponsors, but contributions also come from the athletes themselves and their families.
But if people were certainly wanting to get involved, they just need to contact me and, and we can look at a partnership, established establishment long term or short term, however people would like to get involved. As I mentioned, philanthropic investment is probably in its infancy in Australian sport. And we’d like to really foster that. And we’re trying to do that through our alumni program, but also look to reach out to people who might have a similar interest in providing opportunities for talented young athletes in their communities.
So if anyone was interested, all they need to do is just make contact.
Curtesy of Alan Olsen’s